Willy constantly stresses appearance in Death of a Salesman. How do his values compare with those praised by American society in general? Do you feel Miller is commenting on the American value system as a whole? Why or why not?
The historical context of Death of a Salesman takes place during post World War II. This is a time from which the United States came out as a strong world power. As a result of the growing financial success of the country, in came new commodities that made Americans more connected such as radio and TV, media, and magazines. This was the time to "show off" about "doing well" and succeeding in the achievement of the American dream: in acquiring the material possessions that are staples of those who "made it".
Miller translates this wish to appear successful in what Willy Loman calls "being well-liked". What this entails is that society was becoming more sophisticated through the expansion of never-before seen technologies, gadgets and ideals of success. As a result, you had to also show a heightened level of sophistication by making your physical facade as appealing as the facade that became the life of the new, middle class Americans.
Miller demonstrates the reality of Willy's society in Willy's need to "keep up" with his neighbors, in how the earlier days of Willy's marriage he belonged to the generation of manicured lawns, pretty homes, big cars, and big spending. Yet, Miller also suggests how a dangerous trend of credit-dependence came with the territory; Willy was a victim of this dependence, as it is demonstrated in Act II, where Linda reminds Willy the payments that they owe for the refrigerator, and for the house. It is the never ending cycle where Willy basically "chases his own tail" in the quest of succeeding or appearing to succeed.
Therefore, Miller's purpose in creating a character such as Willy is to expose the reality of life of the average American caught between appearance and reality in society. Exactly how much can the audience empathize with Willy is entirely up to the audience. In this case, Miller remains ambiguous.