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Lawrence Rosinger (essay date winter 1987)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 594

SOURCE: Rosinger, Lawrence. “Miller's Death of a Salesman.Explicator 45, no. 2 (winter 1987): 55-6.

[In the following essay, Rosinger discusses the allusions to classical drama and mythology in Death of a Salesman.]

In commenting on Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller has stated emphatically that modern tragedies need not be bound by Aristotelian principles, especially since the tragedies of our time can revolve about an ordinary person, a Willy Loman, rather than one of high status.1 It is therefore interesting to note that the vocabulary of Death of a Salesman in several instances suggests an older type of drama.

For example, Miller imparts to the salesman's world an element of earlier tragedy when Willy, speaking of his deceased boss, asserts: “That man was a prince, he was a masterful man” (133).2 The word “prince” (with its ironic hint of royalty) is again stressed in the restaurant scene, when Willy goes to the washroom and Biff says to Miss Forsythe: “you've just seen a prince walk by. A fine, troubled prince. A hardworking, unappreciated prince” (204).

Miller also includes several allusions to classical mythology. In the opening stage direction, he describes Linda as “[m]ost often jovial” and Willy as having a “mercurial nature” (my emphasis) (131). These unspoken references to gods are supplemented by a passage in which Willy, imagining that Happy and Biff are still in their high school years, declares: “You're both built like Adonises” (146). Again, when recalling Biff's football glory, Willy describes him in these terms: “Like a young god. Hercules—something like that” (171).

A link between Miller and Aristotle appears when Charley goes into Willy's house because he hears Willy shouting. Miller's stage direction declares of Charley at this point: “In all he says … there is pity, and, now, trepidation” (152). This seems to be an application of Aristotle's view that “A perfect tragedy … should … imitate actions which excite pity and fear. …”3 What Miller is telling us here is that Charley is reacting to Willy's situation as one properly reacts to tragedy. The effect is to encourage the audience, in the theater or the study, to do likewise.

It is possible, of course, that the presence of all these items is sheer coincidence, but I do not think so. Their implication is that Willy, “A small man [who] can be just as exhausted as a great man” (163), is in the line of an ancient dramatic tradition.4 Perhaps, too, there is a quality of ironic humor. One can imagine Miller as amused by classical references in a salesman's story. Yet the words have been chosen with care. A real Willy might actually use “Adonises” or “Hercules” in the sentences assigned to him, just as he and Biff might call someone a “prince.” On the other hand, Miller, with appropriate discrimination, confines literary words, such as “jovial,” “mercurial,” and “trepidation” to the stage directions, i.e., to the area in which the author speaks directly to the actor or reader.


  1. Arthur Miller, introduction, Arthur Miller's Collected Plays (New York: Viking, 1957), pp. 31-32.

  2. Parenthetical numbers refer to the text of Death of a Salesman in Miller's Collected Plays (see note 1).

  3. From Aristotle's Poetics, translated by S. H. Butcher, in The Reader's Encyclopedia of World Drama, ed. John Gassner and Edward Quinn (New York: Crowell, 1969), p. 942:1.

  4. The play, on one occasion, also echoes Shakespearean comedy. When Willy says to Happy, “The world is an oyster, but you don't crack it open on a mattress!” (152), Miller is recalling Pistol's assertion in The Merry Wives of Windsor (II.ii.2-3) that “the world's mine oyster, which I with sword will open.”


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Death of a Salesman Arthur Miller

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Arthur Miller

American playwright, essayist, novelist, screenwriter, short story writer, nonfiction writer, travel writer, children's writer, and autobiographer.

The following entry presents criticism on Miller's play Death of a Salesman (1949) through 2002. For further information on his life and complete works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 2, 6, 10, and 26.

With its first production in 1949, Death of a Salesman firmly established Miller's reputation as one of the premiere American playwrights. Structured as a modern tragedy, the play depicts the last twenty-four hours in the life of Willy Loman, a sixty-three-year-old traveling salesman, who for thirty-six years has sold his wares all over New England. Miller utilizes Loman's disillusionment with his life and career as a means to measure the enormous gap between the American Dream's promise of eventual success and the devastating reality of one's concrete failure. Both a critical and popular success, Death of a Salesman has received a Tony Award, a New York Drama Critics Circle Award, and a Pulitzer Prize as well as being adapted for film and television on several occasions. Death of a Salesman is widely recognized as Miller's masterpiece and is frequently listed along side Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire and Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night as one of the canonical works of American drama.

Plot and Major Characters

Death of a Salesman opens with Willy Loman returning to his wife, Linda, at their home in Brooklyn, New York, after an unsuccessful sales trip. The play's structure subverts the traditional linear narrative by intermingling Willy's internal monologues and past recollections with the present action of the plot. After he arrives in Brooklyn, Willy is soon visited by his two grown sons, Biff and Happy (Hap). The eldest son, Biff, a former high school football star, has travelled the country holding a series of aimless jobs. Hap works in a dead-end job at a New York department store and spends most of his time chasing women and drinking. Willy is extremely critical of his sons' lack of direction and, in turn, Biff and Hap regard him as ineffectual and worry that he is becoming senile in his old age. After talking to Linda about Biff's failure to find a career, Willy recalls his son's success as a football star and is soon reminded of his own marital infidelities with a woman he met on the road. Willy eventually shifts focus to criticizing Hap's spending habits and becomes upset. His neighbor Charlie calms him down and the two men play a game of cards. After Charlie leaves, Willy reminisces about his brother Ben, who left for Africa to mine diamonds and became a great financial success. When Linda finds Willy ranting alone about the past, he leaves the house to take a walk. Concerned about his father's erratic behavior, Biff confronts his mother who accuses him of neglecting his father. When Hap joins the conversation, Linda accuses them both of being ungrateful and of turning their backs on their father. She then reveals that Willy has tried to kill himself on several occasions. When Willy returns, Hap tells him that Biff is going to approach his old boss, Bill Oliver, for a loan to open a sporting-goods store. Although Biff is against the idea, he goes along with the deception to make his father happy.

The next day, Willy finds that he has been fired from his sales job after thirty-six years of service. Upset and on his way to Charlie's office to ask for a job, Willy runs into Charlie's son, Ben, who was a classmate of Biff's. Ben reveals that Biff was irrevocably changed by a surprise visit to Willy during his senior year in high school. Ben comments that, after his abrupt return, Biff became uninterested in college and lost his motivation to better himself. Meanwhile, Biff meets Hap at a restaurant to inform him that he was unable to get the loan from Bill Oliver. However, Biff does admit that he has come to the realization that he has to change his life. When Willy arrives at the restaurant, Biff attempts to tell him the truth about their deception and his failed meeting. Willy leaves his sons and has a flashback to the fateful sales trip when Biff's surprise visit revealed Willy's adulterous affair. Later, back at the family home, Biff confronts Willy about his suicide attempts and informs his father that he will leave in the morning, planning never to return. At that moment, Willy decides to commit suicide, convinced that the settlement on his life insurance policy will provide Biff with the wealth he needs to start a new life. The play concludes with Willy's funeral as the assembled characters reflect on Willy's life and legacy.

Major Themes

Critics have maintained that much of the enduring universal appeal of Death of a Salesman lies in its central theme of the failure of the American Dream. Willy's commitment to false social values—consumerism, ambition, social stature—keeps him from acknowledging the value of human experience—the comforts of personal relationships, family and friends, and love. When Willy realizes that his true value lies in being a good father, he chooses to sacrifice himself in order to give his sons the material wealth he has always desired. In a broader sense, some commentators perceive the play as an indictment of American capitalism and a rejection of materialist values. Competition and responsibility are also prominent themes in Death of a Salesman. For example, Willy's tendency to evade responsibility for his behavior and his penchant for blaming others has been passed onto his sons and, as a result, all three men exhibit a poor work ethic and lack of integrity. Willy's inability to discern between reality and fantasy is another recurring motif, particularly as seen through the subjective reality of the play's structure. Miller creates an environment in Death of a Salesman where the real time of the play and the internal workings of Willy's mind are brought together. This refusal to separate subjective and objective truths is further reflected in Willy's inability to see his sons for who they really are, which becomes major source of conflict in the play.

Critical Reception

Although Death of a Salesman is widely regarded as one of the greatest American plays of the twentieth century, there has been some critical debate over Miller's assertion that the play is, in fact, a modern tragedy. Some reviewers have argued that the work cannot be considered a tragedy in the traditional sense because Willy does not fit the Aristotelian definition of a tragic hero. Others have countered, asserting that Willy attains tragic dimensions by virtue of his intense passion to surpass his earthly limitations. In support of this claim, Robert A. Martin has commented that, “Is there more to the idea of tragedy than transcends the struggle between father and son for forgiveness and dignity?” In addition to these questions of classification, Death of a Salesman has also attracted critical notice for its sophisticated critique of the role of capitalism in American society. Commentators have noted that Willy's failure to understand and achieve the American Dream strongly resonates with modern audiences, contributing significantly to its enduring popularity. Death of a Salesman has remained critically and commercially popular since its first performance—a fiftieth-anniversary production in 1999 won a Tony Award for Best Play Revival.

Leah Hadomi (essay date June 1988)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8178

SOURCE: Hadomi, Leah. “Fantasy and Reality: Dramatic Rhythm in Death of a Salesman.Modern Drama 31, no. 2 (June 1988): 157-74.

[In the following essay, Hadomi provides a stylistic analysis of Death of a Salesman through the examination of “the ways in which the rhythmic organization of the play is managed in respect of three structural elements in the play: characterization, symbolic clusters, and the plot.”]

The subtitle of Death of a Salesman, “Certain Private Conversations in Two Acts and a Requiem,”1 as well as the title originally considered by the playwright, The Inside of His Head, already point to the play's thematic essence and major formal characteristic. Thematically, Miller's drama deals with the tension between the private inner world of the protagonist and external reality. Its principal structural characteristic consists of the integration of dramatic realism and expressionism.2

The conflicting inner selves that make up Willy Loman's many-sided persona represent his experience of the outer world refracted through the distorting medium of his fantasies. As the action of the play progresses, the connections between Willy's inner world and external reality—which are tenuous enough to begin with—grow increasingly unstable and volatile until he is driven to kill himself, the ultimate act of self-deception in his struggle to impose his fantasies upon a reality that consistently thwarts his ambitions and will.

The shifts in Willy Loman's mind between his dreams and actuality, on the level of his personal existence, and between fantasy and realism on the level of dramatic presentation, are conveyed in structural terms by the patterns in which the play's formal elements unfold to establish the dramatic rhythm of the work. In the analysis of Miller's play that follows, I take my cue from the conceptions of dramatic rhythm as set out by Paul M. Levitt and Kathleen George.3 In my own consideration of the work, I shall examine the ways in which the rhythmic organization of the play is managed in respect of three structural elements in the play; characterization, symbolic clusters, and the plot.


Not only is Willy Loman the chief character of the play but it is primarily from his psychological perspective that the play's dramatic action derives its meaning. The actual events enacted in his presence become the trigger for Willy's recollections and fantasies which constitute the play's imaginary sequences. The significance of each of the play's episodes, as well as the structure of the plot as a whole, depends on the rhythmic alternations between actuality and the protagonist's mental responses to them. His ideal self-image and the reality of his actual behavior and circumstances are the poles of both his inner existence and his dramatic interactions with the other characters of the play. The personalities of each of the dramatis personae are connected specifically with a particular feature of Willy's inner self, with a particular stance he has adopted toward his environment, or with one of the values in which he has educated his sons. Thus the conduct of the play's other characters is in great measure both the effect of his illusory perception of external reality and the cause of his deepening submersion in the world of his fantasies. When reality becomes too painful, Willy retreats into a dream world consisting of his roseate recollections of the past and of fantasies in which he fulfills the aspirations the attainment of which has eluded him in life. Although his memories are based on actual events, these are falsified in his mind by wishful thinking about how they ought to have turned out. Hence in Willy's mind, reality as it is immediately experienced by him merges in his consciousness with his recollection of distant events to form a seamless continuum of past and present time.

The set in Arthur Miller's play furnishes, in the words of Edward Murray, “a flexible medium in which to enact the process of Willy Loman's way of mind.”4 The block of apartment houses and the Loman home provide the static elements of the set. The element of change is furnished by the shifts of the location of action from one part of the stage to another. Its role in Miller's work evokes an instance of Kathleen George's dictum that the polyscenic stage functions according to the same principles as do the other manifestations of dramatic rhythm in pointing to the stable and changing features of the plot.

However, the interplay between fantasy and reality in Willy Loman's mind enacted on stage represents only one aspect of the dramatization of the inner tensions of the protagonist. Willy is torn between his need, on the one hand, to give expression to his innermost longings by establishing a direct and harmonious connection with nature, and by manual labor; on the other, he wishes to maintain his place in society by creating a facade of emulous and combative self-assertiveness, which he tries to reconcile with his obsessive and desperate need to be admired and loved by others. Together these contrary tendencies account for the conflicts both in the ideal conception of himself and in the way he conceives of others, in relation to the idealized image of his own personality. Moreover, Willy's ideal self-image is as fragmented as his real personality. Rather than consisting of a single coherent self, it is compacted of a number of contradictory selves, each of which might alone have formed the core of an integrated personality relatively free of tension, but which together make up an unstable persona that ultimately costs the protagonist his life.

Willy Loman spends much of his time on stage in an ongoing inner dialogue with a number of characters. Some, like Willy's sons and his friend, Charley, belong to the immediate and concrete reality which is being dramatized. Three other figures emerge from Willy's recollection of the past and animate his inner world: his father, his older brother Ben, and old Dave Singleman. All three figures owe their presentation and description in the play to Willy's imagination, whose creation they essentially are. The characters that live through Willy's imagination are both the fruit and inspiration of this inner existence; and, by virtue of Willy Loman's function as the protagonist from whose perspective much of the play's action is seen, these characters furnish the focus of the clash of fantasy and reality in both Willy himself and the other dramatis personae of the play.

In Willy's consciousness each of the three men from the past has assumed the status of a personal hero and exemplar whom he aspires to emulate. And together they may make up the ideal end of the continuum between ideality and actuality along which Willy's fluctuations between fantasy and reality take place. Each in his own right also furnishes Willy with a separate “ego ideal” that occupies a distinct place on a descending scale of proximity to the real world.

Connected with Willy's past is the memory of his father, who never assumes substantial form in Willy's mind but nevertheless powerfully informs his fantasy, primarily through his imagined conversations with Ben. Thus, Willy's father, the least accessible and most dimly remembered of the protagonist's exemplars, functions as his “absolute” ego ideal. His brother, Ben, against whose adventurous life and grand mercantile enterprises in far-off places Willy measures his own inadequacy and petty destiny, is his “desiderative” ego ideal. And last, Dave Singleman, the quintessence of the successful salesman and Willy's inspiration and model for feasible achievement, serves the protagonist as his “attainable” ego ideal.

Of these three ideal figures, Willy's father is the most remote from actuality and belongs to the very earliest and vaguest childhood recollections. Though not one of the dramatis personae, and spoken of only twice in the course of the play—during Ben's first “visitation” in Act One (pp. 156-57), and then briefly by Willy in Howard's office in Act Two (p. 180)—his spirit dogs Willy and is repeatedly referred to on an auditory level by the sound of flute music, which is first heard as a sort of signature tune when the curtain goes up on the play, and is heard last when the curtain falls on the “Requiem.” Hearing his father playing the flute is nearly the only sensory memory Willy has of him—that and his father's “big beard.” What we know of the picture in Willy's mind of the man we learn from the description he receives from Ben's apparition. And what emerges from Ben's account is a part-mythic, part-allegorical figure. The image of him drawn by Ben is an emblematic composite of the classic types that are representative of America's heroic age: Willy's father is at once the untamed natural man and the westward-bound pioneer; the artisan, the great inventor, and the successful entrepreneur.

Willy's brother Ben represents an ideal which is closer to reality, that of worldly success, though on a scale so exalted as to be utterly beyond Willy's reach. To Willy's mind Ben is the personification of the great American virtues of self-reliance and initiative by which an enterprising man may attain untold wealth; and it is through Ben that Willy tries to maintain personal connection with the myth of the individual's triumphant march from rags to riches.

In Willy's consciousness Ben mediates between the domains of the ideal and the real. The aura of legend is nearly as strong in his brother as it is in his father. He, too, is a journeyer and adventurer. But what animates him in his rangings appears to be less a hankering for the open road and the “grand outdoors” than the idea of the fortune to be made there. Sentiment plays no part in the tough maxims he tosses out in accounting for his success. Nor does he let family feeling cloud his purpose or divert him from his quest for riches, as is evident from the ease with which he abandons his search for his father to pursue diamond wealth in Africa; or, again, in the offhand manner he receives the news of his mother's death. Even Willy gets short shrift from his older brother. Nevertheless it is Ben's qualities of toughness, unscrupulousness, and implacability in the pursuit of gain that Willy wishes for himself and wants his boys to acquire.

Of Willy Loman's three personal heroes it is Dave Singleman who stands in the most immediate relation to the actuality of Willy's life. Neither the ideal pattern of natural manhood personified by Willy's father, nor the incarnation of freebooting enterprise embodied by his brother, Singleman represents success that is potentially attainable. In Singleman the concept of success is cut down to Willy's size, reduced to an idea more nearly within his scope—that of getting ahead by being “well liked.” Success as exemplified in Dave Singleman serves, as well, to sustain in Willy the feeling that, though wanting in the daring and toughness that is his father's legacy to Ben, he too possesses an essential prerequisite for material achievement, and one that he can pass on to his own sons. So, poised in Howard's office between the phantoms of his dead brother and of Biff in his teens, Willy proclaims in an access of confidence: “It's who you know and the smile on your face! It's contacts, Ben, contacts!” (p. 184).

Willy is not content merely to admire these men. He also internalizes their qualities and the ideas they represent, diminishing and trivializing them in the process. Thus the ideas of being in close touch with nature and taking to the open road that are inspired by Willy's memory of his father are diminished in his own life to puttering about in the back yard of his suburban Brooklyn home and making his routine rounds as a traveling salesman; the idea of venturesome private enterprise for high stakes represented by his brother depreciates to drumming merchandise for a commission; and even the example of Singleman's being “remembered and loved and helped by so many different people” (p. 180), over which Willy rhapsodizes to Howard Wagner, is degraded in his own aspirations to the condition of being merely popular and well-liked.

Three of the characters among the principal dramatis personae of the play, Biff, Happy and Charley, function in the real world as analogous to the ideal types in Willy's consciousness. Though none of them is a complete substantiation of Willy's ego ideals, there is in each character a dominant trait that identifies him with either Willy's father, or Ben, or Dave Singleman, and that determines Willy's relationship to him.

Biff most closely resembles his grandfather in rejecting the constraints imposed by the middle-class routines of holding down a job and making a living, and in his preference for the life of a drifter out West, working as a hired farm-hand in the outdoors. He has a strong touch of the artist and dreamer in his temperament. He is also the most complex character of the three, the most at odds with himself. In this he closely resembles Willy. Like his father, Biff is torn between rural nostalgia and his need for solid achievement, and is tormented by the knowledge of personal failure. “I've always made a point of not wasting my life,” he tells Happy, and then confesses to him, “and everytime I come back here I know that all I've done is to waste my life” (p. 139).

Happy corresponds to Ben, if only in a meager and debased way. He shares his uncle's unscrupulousness and amorality, but has little of his singleness of purpose; and what he has of the last he dedicates to cuckolding his superiors at work and to the pursuit of women in general, activities that make up the only field in which he excels, as Linda recognizes when she sums him up as a “philandering bum” (p. 163). He resembles Ben, too, in the shallowness of his filial emotions. The trite praise he bestows on Linda—“What a woman! They broke the mold when they made her” (p. 169)—is on its own vulgar level as perfunctory and unfeeling as Ben's more elegantly phrased endorsement, “Fine specimen of a lady, Mother” (p. 155). However, some of his traits remind us of Willy, such as his bluster and nursing of injured pride, his insecurity about making good, as well as his philandering.

Charley is Dave Singleman brought down to earth. He has none of Singleman's flamboyance that Willy so rapturously remembers from his younger days. Rather, he is successful salesmanship domesticated. Singleman worked out of a hotel room. Charley maintains an office with a secretary and an accountant. He is stolid but honest and decent, and though not loved like Singleman, he is respected. And, by Willy's own startled admission toward the end, he is Willy Loman's only friend. He is also Willy's perfect foil, a man at peace with what he is and his place in the world.5

Excepting Charley, the principal characters of Death of a Salesman share the same condition of being torn between the conflicting claims of ideality and actuality; and in this capacity the interrelations among them serve to extend and reinforce the rhythmic articulation of the play on a variety of formal levels. Among the consequences of the inner conflicts and contradictions of Willy Loman and his sons is their uncertainty and confusion concerning their own identities, a circumstance of which each shows himself to be aware at some point in the play. So Biff reveals to his mother, “I just can't take hold, Mom. I can't take hold of some kind of a life” (p. 161); Happy tells Biff, “I don't know what the hell I'm workin' for … And still, goddamit, I'm lonely” (p. 139); and Willy confesses to Ben, “I still feel—kind of temporary about myself” (p. 159).6

Willy Loman's attitude to the real characters of the play is determined by their relation to the corresponding ideal types in his mind. None of the real characters is an unalloyed embodiment of these exemplars, who have all been debased to varying degrees in their corporeal counterparts. So, for example, Willy's most complex and ambivalent relationship is with Biff, who is associated most closely with Willy's absolute ego ideal.7 It is of his older son that Willy had always expected the most, and it is Biff's failure to live up to his expectations that grieves him the most. By comparison his relationship with Happy, of whom he expects much less, is straightforward and indifferent. Willy's relationship with Charley, too, is determined by Charley's proximity to the ideal and his own distance therefrom. Because Charley comes closest of anyone Willy knows to the attainable ideal he has set himself but failed to achieve, he treats him with a mixture of respect and envy. The last prevents Willy from accepting Charley's offer of a job, because doing so would be tantamount to an admission of failure, a reason never stated explicitly by Willy but of which Charley is aware, as we learn during Willy's visit to Charley's office in the second act (p. 192):

What're you, jealous of me?
I can't work for you, that's all, don't ask me why.
(Angered, takes out more bills) You been jealous of me all your life, you damned fool! Here, pay your insurance.

By taking money from Charley, instead, in the guise of a loan, Willy is able both to retain his self-esteem and to cling to his self-delusions. In a rare moment of candor Willy privately admits to Charley's virtues and superiority to himself (“a man of few words, and they respect him” [p. 149]), but for the most part he seeks to establish his own pre-eminence by belittling and hectoring him in petty ways, reminding Charley of his ignorance and inadequacy in ordinary matters: domestic repairs, diet, clothing, sports, cards, and so on.

To sum up, therefore, the function of all of the principal characters of the play (apart from Linda) is determined by the operations of Willy's consciousness, suspended between reality and dreams. The measure of their moral significance to Willy is contingent on the degree to which they have taken root in the ideal realm of his consciousness; and the extent to which they have done so is in inverse relation to their actual presence in the dramatic sequences that take place in current time and space. Thus, Willy's father, the absolute ideal figure of the play, assumes the status of a recognizable personality only through the account of him received from the shade of his deceased brother in a scene that unfolds entirely in the mind of the protagonist. Otherwise, he is mentioned only once in the real action of the play, when Willy offhandedly refers to him as a prelude to his pathetic boast to Howard, “We've got quite a little streak of self-reliance in our family” (p. 180). The name of Ben, too, is barely brought up—and then only in passing—in the real dialogue of the play; and it is only in the fantasizing episodes that he takes on palpable shape as a character in the play. And, finally, Dave Singleman, who serves Willy as a tangible, if illusory, example of success potentially within his grasp, comes alive in a present dramatic sequence of the play, even if only through the agency of words rather than action. Significantly, the short eulogy of him that Willy provides, and through which Singleman assumes dramatic life, comes at the moment that Willy is about to be fired and thereby deprived of the last vestige of his hope for the attainable success represented by Singleman.

The dramatic rhythm within and between the characters also finds expression in their attitudes to the opposite sex. Family relations and the role of women function as important compositional elements in the rhythm of the play. When connected to dramatic figures, functioning as Willy's ego-ideals, the women figures are either mentioned briefly or are meaningfully absent. Willy remembers sitting in his mother's lap; Ben remembers his mother as a “Fine specimen of a lady” (p. 155). Ben's wife bore him the legendary number of seven sons, and the third male ideal figure is named “Dave Singleman”. The remoteness and idealization of the women figures is paralleled by an abrupt attitude towards the women in the reality of the play—even in the indication of Howard's attitude towards his wife as revealed in the short incident of the tape recorder.

Willy and his sons have an inner conflict in which they fluctuate between loyalty to the mother-woman figure and an attraction to women as sexual objects. Loyalty to the first is linked to stability and integrity in family and social life, whereas the desire for the second represents disintegration of the individual and his role in society. The tension between these two views is seen in Willy, Biff, and Happy but is motivated uniquely in each of them. Willy's affair with the woman in Boston is partly a result of his loneliness but largely a way of boosting his ego. Motivated by a constant craving to be “well liked,” he is happy to be “picked” by her. Happy's aggressive promiscuity is one overt aspect of his latent “jungle” life-style. He recognizes that his repeated, almost compulsive affairs with women related to higher executives at his work are an aspect of his “overdeveloped sense of competition” (p. 141). Biff, on the other hand, seems mostly to be pushed to feminine company by his father and brother, who see this as part of his being an admired star. In all three of them sexual attraction is depicted as morally deteriorating and contrary to their relationship to Linda as an idealized wife-mother figure: “They broke the mold when they made her” (p. 169). This inner contradiction is revealed differently in Willy's attitude towards her mending stockings, as an expression of his guilt feelings; in Happy's constant assurance that he longs for a meaningful relation with “Somebody with character; with resistance! Like Mom, y'know?” (p. 140); and in Biff's strong clinging to his mother, expressed as “I don't want my pal looking old” (p. 161) and opposed to his being “too rough with the girls” (p. 151).

The rhythm of the sequence of the two episodes focusing on sexual relations (the Boston woman, and the restaurant scene where the boys pick up two women) is also a formal means serving a thematic idea. The significance of the “Boston woman” is foreshadowed in Act I but only receives full dramatic revelation in the “Restaurant scene” in Act II, when it is reconstructed orally and visually in such a way as to show its significance in the wider context of Willy and Biff's relationship and their recognition of what is true and what is false in their lives. So, whereas in the Boston scene it is the son who fails in social competition by flunking his test in mathematics, in the restaurant scene both father and son appear equally defeated in the economic and social struggle; and while in the Boston episode Biff, appalled by Willy's infidelity, realizes that his talkative, pretentious father is ineffectual (p. 207) and calls him a “phony little fake” (p. 208), in the restaurant scene Biff confesses to his father the pretensions and illusions of his own life too. Thus, sexual infidelity is related to the thematic focus of the play: the conflict between fantasy and reality.

The dramatic rhythm of Death of a Salesman, as made manifest in the development of character, takes place through a complex interplay between the function of dramatis personae and their interplay with the three levels of Willy's consciousness: first, on the level of ideality; second on the level of Willy's fantasies and dreams; and last, on the level of his perception of concrete reality. It is from these three levels of consciousness that the protagonist's three ego ideals—the absolute, the desiderative, and the attainable—emerge. Taken as a whole, Willy's three levels of consciousness dramatize his attitude to himself, to the “other” and to social reality.


The stage itself is a central element of the symbolic system of Miller's play. On the polyscenic set of Death of a Salesman, the dialectic processes taking place in the protagonist's mind are accompanied by shifts of location from one part of the stage to another.8 Additionally, the set combines the elements of stage presentation with those of literary imagery that form symbolic clusters operating within the play's continuum of shifting consciousness between fantasy and reality. The dramatic presentation on stage is thus signalled, punctuated, and reinforced by recurrent visual and auditory effects. So, for example, the visual effects of foliage and trees, and the sound of the flute or of soft music, underscore Willy's rural longings; whereas pulsating music and loud sounds accompany Willy's erotic and savage “jungle” moods.9

A number of verbal references of symbolic significance recur throughout the text of Miller's play. These echo and enhance the play's rhythmic design. The significance that attaches itself to them derives from the associations they arouse in the protagonist's consciousness, where they are resolved into two principal symbolic clusters, connected with divergent attitudes that dominate Willy's imaginative life. The first cluster is connected with Willy's deep attachment to nature and nostalgia for the countryside, feelings whose ultimate point of origin is to be traced back to Willy's father. The major references that are included in this cluster are to trees, seeds, and “travel” in its broadest sense. The second cluster is associated with commerce and enterprise of the kind that is personified for Willy by his brother, Ben. The chief symbolic references of this cluster are to “jungle,” Ben's watch, and diamonds.

An evident pattern emerges in the way in which the references to trees, wood, branches and leaves bind the domains of fantasy and reality in the play. They are clearly relevant to the ideal figure of Willy's father (a maker of flutes, a musical instrument of wood whose pastoral associations are immediate and altogether obvious), and to Willy's brother Ben (in whose vast tracts of Alaskan timberland Willy almost had a share).

Trees and leaves are the dominant stage effect when Willy's mind turns inward and toward the past, to a time when his longings for a rural existence were more nearly satisfied. As he casts his mind back to a time when his home stood in what was still a landscape setting, the large elm trees that had once grown on his property form an important part of his recollections. In the dramatic present, the elms are gone and all that remains of the rural Brooklyn he had known is his back yard, which by the play's end is the setting of Willy's last effort to reassert control over events by planning a garden in futile defiance of urban encroachment.

For Willy, being truly happy means working with tools—“all I'd need would be a little lumber and some peace of mind” (p. 151), he says, hoping for a better future. Trees are involved in his fantasies of Ben's success in the jungle and in the “timberland in Alaska” (p. 183). Trees color the imagery of Willy's expressions of his inner desperation and need for help, “the woods are burning” (pp. 152, 199). Trees and leaves are thereby involved rhythmically in the linguistic constructs of the play as well as in the visual setting of the stage: the memory of a hammock between the “big trees” (p. 143), of seeds in the garden, of working on the wood ceiling, and the lighting effect of the stage being “covered with leaves” (p. 142; see also pp. 151, 200). On the textual level, as well as on the stage, they become signs in the theatrical system indicating the rhythm between fantasy and reality.

Willy's enthusiasm for the outdoors and the countryside is also connected in his mind with the idea of travel and journeying. The idea of travel is inseparable from the images he has of the ideal figures from his past: that of his father driving his wagon and team of horses across the Western states; of Ben globetrotting between continents; and of Dave Singleman traveling in the smoker of the New York, New Haven and Hartford line. His own life, too, is inseparable from travel, and the maintenance of the family car is one of his major concerns. His car is essential to him for his livelihood, and it is also the instrument by which he chooses to bring an end to his life. It is the first thematically significant object to appear in the dramatic text of the play, when it is mentioned in a context that foreshadows the manner of Willy's death (p. 132).

The reference to nature is carried over to the second cluster of images bearing on the theme of commerce and enterprise, but appears now in the menacing guise of the “jungle,” poles apart from the idyllic associations aroused by the cluster of rural symbols. Its explicit connection with the theme of enterprise and commerce, as well as its association with the attendant idea of aggressive and unscrupulous competition, is fully developed in the presence of all the principal dramatis personae in the scene of Ben's first apparition (pp. 154-60). The specific verbal context in which the reference first occurs is twice repeated almost verbatim by Ben (“… when I was seventeen I walked into the jungle, and when I was twenty-one I walked out. And by God I was rich”: pp. 157, 159-160). On the first occasion that Ben speaks these words he does so at Willy's urging for the benefit of the boys. When he repeats them for the second time, it is at his departure and they are uttered for Willy's ears alone. What happens between the two utterances brings out the thematic significance of the passage as referring to the rule of the jungle that governs the sort of enterprise that Ben represents. And the event that drives this particular moral home is the sparring match between Ben and Biff, in which Ben departs from the rules of fair play and delivers himself of the precept, “Never fight fair with a stranger, boy. You'll never get out of the jungle that way” (p. 158).

By the time Ben's shade departs, Willy seems to have taken Ben's point, when he chimes in with great enthusiasm, “That's just the spirit I want to imbue them with! To walk into the jungle! I was right!” (p. 160). But the truth is that Willy was wrong. Ben's lesson is not about going into jungles, but coming out of them, alive and prosperous.

The “watch” and “diamond” references are associated through Ben with the “jungle” reference. Their connection with one another, and their symbolic bearing on commerce, become obvious once their association with the ideas of time and wealth is established, and we recall that these last are proverbially equated in the businessman's adage that time is money.

The watch and diamond references are merged, too, by a specific object in the play: the “watch fob with a diamond in it” that Ben had given to Willy, and Willy had in turn pawned a dozen years earlier to finance Biff's radio correspondence course (p. 160). Thus time and money, the two cherished commodities of business, are in Loman hands turned to loss rather than profit.

Death of a Salesman is rich in ironies on every level. This overall effect is immediately felt in the organization of the stage and the development of the characters, and evolves out of the conflict between dream and actuality that is the theme of Miller's play. In the case of the play's symbols, much of their ironic significance depends on the reversals of their evident or anticipated meaning when they are transposed from the mental domain of the protagonist's dreams and fantasies to objective reality, where events are determined by impersonal forces operating independently of his wishes and will.


On the level of plot, the rhythm of Death of a Salesman operates not only temporally, by a progression of dramatic action in causal sequence, but perhaps even to a greater extent spatially, as a consequence of the proximate and, at times, nearly simultaneous juxtaposition of real and imagined episodes that are presented on stage in order to be compared. The pattern that emerges from this juxtaposition is that of an alternative of what “is” and what “ought to be,” between the reality of Willy Loman's situations in the past and present, and what he would have preferred them to have been. And to redress his grievances, the protagonist casts about in his memory for persons and events in order to weave agreeable fantasies around them that are surrogate fulfillments of his failed aspirations.

The dramatic progressions of Willy's shifts between dreams and reality are plotted structurally in terms of a rhythmic development whose general design spans the two acts of the play and whose principles can be discerned in the play's major subdivisions. These last, though not explicitly marked out scenes in the text of the play, are the effective equivalent of scenes, since they form identifiable “dramatic segments,” as defined by Bernard Beckerman. According to Beckerman, the “substance” of such dramatic units consists of the action that takes place in them; between such activity-defined segments there are what he calls “linkages,” by which each segment is tied to the one immediately preceding and following it.10 In Miller's play, the substance of the acts, as well as the “scenes,” consists of the particular dream or reality (and sometimes both) that is being enacted along the temporal vector that marks the path of Willy's career on stage. The linkages between these major units and their subdivisions are the creation of their spatial juxtaposition, on the basis of which the dramatic units are compared. Thus Willy's inner and outer worlds are enacted in scenes that are immediately juxtaposed, sometimes to the point of actually overlapping, and that mirror one another in a pattern of recurrence or reversal. The effect of all this is a spatio-temporal sequence that unfolds as an ironic interplay between fantasy and reality.

Willy Loman's attitude toward the external world can be classified according to the degree in which they approach reality: fantasy, in which the protagonist concentrates on fulfilling unrealized wishes concerning the past and the future; anticipation, in which he prepares to cope with eventualities in the real world; and action, by which he attempts to come to grips with immediate, objective reality. As the plotting of the play progresses, Willy's fantasies gradually assert their sway over his anticipatory and active moods. This occurs in response to his frustration and failure to reinstate his control over his circumstances in the real world. Ultimately his fantasizing comes to dominate his conduct so completely that in his mind suicide becomes an achievement to be equated with success. His conflicts with himself and with the external world are dramatically manipulated on a variety of formal levels within which the rhythms of the plot are developed.

The rhythms of the plot of Miller's play may be analyzed in terms of plot units, as has been schematically set out at the end of this paper. The larger sweep of the dramatic progression is evident in each of the play's acts, in both of which the phases of exposition, complication, crisis, and resolution can be clearly discerned. Taken successively, the two acts follow the same pattern of alternation between fantasy and reality which is characteristic of the overall rhythmic organization of the plot. The first act is dominated by dreams and fantasies; these emerge in the second act under anticipatory and active guises, there to collide with objective reality and shatter. This general progression of dramatic events is supported by ironic juxtapositions that resolve themselves into a broader rhythm of tension and release.

The play starts out in the first act at a late point of attack, in medias res, with Willy attempting still to come to terms with reality but chiefly absorbed in recollections of the past. The exposition of the Loman family's past is principally accomplished through the dramatic presentation of the protagonist's fantasies. The exciting force that sets the action of the play into motion is the arrival of Biff, whose homecoming is the occasion for the arousal of Willy's guilt feelings and the onset of his deepening sense of personal failure and his growing realization of defeat. The interplay between the dramatic action of the real characters in the play and that of the episodes of the past which take place in Willy's imagination have the function of setting out and defining the complications in Willy's attitude towards himself and his environment. The enactment of events that take place within Willy's mind tends to suspend the dramatic action of the play until nearly the end of the first act, when the plot begins to gather momentum after the confrontation between the Loman parents and their sons.

The first act can be divided into six “scenes,” whose rhythmic pattern is established by the principle of juxtaposition of the protagonist's dramatic present with his inner world. The last comprises a number of distinct attitudes of mind that fall into five general categories which have been defined for dramatis personae by Keir Elam, and called “subworlds” by him.11 According to Elam, there are five possible categories of subworld: the epistemic, or the world of a dramatic character's knowledge; the doxastic, or the worlds of his beliefs; the boulomaeic, or the worlds of his hopes, wishes, and fears; the oneiric, or the worlds of his dreams, day-dreams, and fantasies; and the deontic, or the worlds of his “commands” (defined by Elam as “the states of affairs that he orders to be brought about”).12

Willy Loman's boulomaeic and oneiric subworlds are expressed dramatically by means of “screen memories” of his inner world.13 The scenes dramatizing Willy's inner world are juxtaposed with those in which his epistemic, doxastic, and deontic subworlds are enacted.

Between the first and the second acts, the relationships among Willy Loman's subworlds are altered in three principal respects. One such change is quantitative, and has to do with the relative amount of the text in each of the two acts that is devoted to dramatizations of the protagonist's fantasy world as opposed to the world of the “real” action of the play. Fully three-quarters of the text of the first act is given over to Willy's fantasy world—or, more specifically, to the enactment of his doxastic, boulomaeic, and oneiric subworlds. By contrast, a mere eighth of the second act consists of action taking place in the mind of the protagonist, whereas the overwhelming bulk of the same act is devoted to the presentation of Willy's deontic and epistemic subworlds, as he attempts to cope with his actual circumstances.

Another alteration of relationships may be observed in the rhythm of the shifts between the protagonist's inner world and actuality. These shifts in dramatic realm serve as the basis for my proposed division of the two acts of Miller's play into scenes, as set out at the end of this paper. Accordingly, the first act may be subdivided into six scenes, and the second act into twelve. The doubling of the number of scenes in the second half of the play is a function of the accelerated tempo of the protagonist's shifts of perspective, and the mounting disequilibrium in Willy's inner existence as well as the progressive weakening of his ability to distinguish between fantasy and reality.

And finally, as the action of the play progresses from the first to the second act, an alteration takes place in the direction of the shift between the protagonist's imaginary world and reality. In the first act the direction of change is from fantasy to reality; in the second act the direction is reversed.

From the outset of the first act, it is Willy's fantasy subworlds that dominate (i.e., his doxastic, boulomaeic, and oneiric subworlds), and the dramatic action consists largely of the enactment of memories that embody the protagonist's wishes and yearnings. By the end of the act, however, Willy's deontic subworlds takes over, as he and his sons resolve to reassert themselves in the real world by undertaking practical courses of action—Willy by his decision to talk to Howard about improving his situation at work, Happy and Biff by their plan to ask Bill Oliver for a loan to start their own business. In the second act a reversal of direction takes place in which anticipation of change of fortune, and resolution to act, give way to fantasy. The direction of shift from reality to fantasy may be observed in the progression of the scenes of the second act, a synopsis of which I shall now undertake in terms of changing dramatic subworlds.

The dominant subworld in scenes 1 and 2 of the second act is deontic. In the first—the breakfast scene—Willy's plans of action in his own and his sons' behalf are revealed in his conversation with Linda. The deontic note struck in the first scene is sustained in the second, taking place in Howard's office, where Willy comes to practical grips with his situation by confronting his employer. Scene 3 dramatizes the effect on Willy of his defeat at the hands of Howard, which causes him to retreat into his boulomaeic and oneiric subworlds through his recollections of his family life in the past and his conversations with Ben; these memories subsume the protagonist's most profound desires and fantasies. In scene 4, set in Charley's office, the dominant mood is epistemic, as Willy obtains a clearer understanding of his real circumstances through his encounter with Charley and his son, Bernard. This consciousness deepens in scenes 5-7, the setting of which is Frank's Chop House. There, fresh from his humiliation and defeat, Willy is made to endure the revelation of the failure of his sons. The consequence is Willy's withdrawal into his fantasy subworlds, as he passes successively through deontic, boulomaeic, and oneiric states of mind. The progression of the enactment of Willy's consciousness is interrupted by scene 8, which is exceptional among the scenes of the second act, being entirely given over to a confrontation between Linda and her sons. However the theme is resumed in scenes 9-12, all of which take place in different parts of the Loman home, the setting of Willy's final withdrawal into his private world. In these closing scenes of the play Willy is torn between his comprehension of his actual situation (specifically in regard to his relationship with his sons and Linda, as presented in scene 10) and his retreat into his fantasy subworlds (scenes 9 and 10).

Stated in the most general terms, therefore, in the second act of Miller's play the direction of movement of the rhythmic shifts of the protagonist's consciousness through the various subworlds is from the deontic to the doxastic and boulomaeic, by way of epistemic. There is additionally an ironic undercurrent to the overt pattern of the shifts in the protagonist's mental attitudes. To the very end Willy persists in regarding his wishes and fantasies as representing attainable goals in the real world. Thus when he takes his life he does so in the belief that his action will obtain the money from his life-insurance policy for Biff (Willy's “diamond” for his son), and that the crowd of mourners that his funeral will attract will vindicate his apparent failure in life. These hopes are treated by him as though they are deontic, but in the Requiem at the end of the play they are shown up to be doxastic and boulomaeic.

The focus of the unifying rhythm of Death of a Salesman is the theme of the loss of control by the protagonist over the world in which he lives. The various elements that go to make up Miller's play are dramatically presented primarily from inside the protagonist's consciousness, whose shifting perspectives establish the rhythmic progression of the work. Moreover the progression of the play's dramatic rhythm ironically reveals the static nature of the subject to which this essentially dynamic principle is being applied. The variety and mobility taking place between dream and reality—the fixed poles of Willy's shifts of consciousness—are exposed as being equally illusory and meaningless; so that these fundamentally antithetical realms converge to become identical. As the rhythm of the play's dramatic progression unfolds, it reveals Willy's dream (or nightmare, rather) to be the protagonist's single and abiding reality.


Dramatic progression Scene W's Mental realm Locale of action Characters on Stage Protagonist's subworld
Exposition 1 (pp. 131-36) (a) Loman home W, Linda (epistemic-doxastic)
2 (pp. 136-42) Loman home Biff, Happy
3 (pp. 142-51) W(f) Loman home W, Biff, Happy, Linda, Charley (doxastic-oneiric)
4 (pp. 152-54) W(a) Loman home W, Happy, Charley (boulomaeic)
5 (pp. 154-60) W(f) Loman home W, Ben, Biff, Happy, Linda (oneiric-boulomaeic)
Resolution 6 (pp. 160-72) W(a) Loman home W, Linda Biff, Happy (boulomaeic-deontic)


Dramatic progression Scene W's Mental realm Locale of action Characters on Stage Protagonist's subworld
Exposition 1 (pp. 173-76) W(a) Loman home W, Linda, Biff (deontic)
2 (pp. 177-83) W(a) Howard's Office W, Howard (deontic)
3 (pp. 183-86) W(f) Howard's Office W, Ben, Linda, Bernard, Charley, Woman (boulomaeic-oneiric)
4 (pp. 187-93) W(a) Charley's Office W, Jenny, Bernard, Charley (epistemic)
5 (pp. 193-200) W(a) Frank's Chop House Happy, Stanley, girls, Biff, W (epistemic-deontic)
Crisis 6 (pp. 200-208) W(f) Frank's Chop House W, Bernard, Woman, Biff (boulomaeic-deontic)
7 (p. 209) W(a) Frank's Chop House W, Stanley (boulomaeic)
8 (pp. 210-12) Loman home Linda, Biff, Happy
9 (pp. 212-13) W(f) Loman home W, Ben (oneiric-boulomaeic)
Resolution 10 (pp. 213-18) W(a) Loman home Biff, Happy, Linda, W (epistemic-boulomaeic)
11 (pp. 218-19) W(f) Loman home W, Ben (oneiric-boulomaeic)
12 (p. 220) W(a) (deontic)

Note: W = Willy: (a) = actuality, and (f) = fantasy


  1. All references to Death of a Salesman in this paper are from Arthur Miller's Collected Plays, Volume I (New York, 1965), pp. 129-222.

  2. See Helen Wickham Koon's Introduction to Twentieth Century Interpretations of Death of a Salesman, (Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1983), p. 13.

  3. Paul M. Levitt, A Structural Approach to the Analysis of Drama (The Hague and Paris, 1971); Kathleen George Rhythm in Drama (Pittsburgh, 1980). Levitt regards rhythm in theater to be the creation of two “change producing elements” which he identifies as “recurrence” and “reversal”: recurrences take place in such features as the relationships between characters, and in the repetition of phrases, words, symbols, and motifs; reversals are the result of abrupt changes in the circumstances and situations of the plot; Kathleen George, in her summary of critical opinion concerning rhythm in drama, observes that dramatic rhythm resides essentially in the “alternation between opposites, generally producing a pattern of tension and relaxation” connected with the content of a play and felt by the audience on the level of expectations and their fulfillments; see her Introduction, Rhythm in Drama, pp. 13-16, esp. p. 9.

  4. Arthur Miller: Dramatist (New York, 1967), p. 23.

  5. In considering the difference between Charley and Willy, Arthur Miller has observed that, unlike Willy Loman, “Charley is not a fanatic … he has learned to live without that frenzy, that ecstasy of spirit which Willy chases to his end”; Miller, Introduction, Collected Plays, p. 37.

  6. Elizabeth Ann Bettenhausen regards Biff and Happy to be extensions of two different aspects of Willy: “In a sense the two sons simply continue the two sides of Willy: Biff, seeing the fragility and even the illusion of the vicarious identity which depends on being well liked in the business world, chooses to accept the challenge of a different destiny. Happy, on the other hand, is captivated by the challenge of the dream and bound to the possibility of success”; “Forgiving the Idiot in the House: Existential Anxiety in Plays by Arthur Miller and its Implications for Christian Ethics,” unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, the University of Iowa, 1972, p. 121.

  7. Cf. Sheila Huftel, Arthur Miller: The Burning Glass (New York, 1965), p. 108, where she observes that Biff “lives heroic in Willy's mind.”

  8. About the rhythmic function of the polyscenic stage, see Rhythm in Drama, p. 133. Concerning its role in Miller's play, see: Edward Murray, op. cit., and Dennis Welland, Arthur Miller (Edinburgh and London, 1961), p. 63.

  9. Cf. Helen Marie McMahon, “Arthur Miller's Common Man: The Problem of the Realistic and the Mythic,” unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Purdue University, 1972, pp. 42-45; Enoch Brater, “Miller's Realism and Death of a Salesman,” in Arthur Miller, ed. R. A. Martin (New York, 1982), pp. 115-26, and esp. 118-122; Brian Parker, “Point of View in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman,” in Twentieth Century Interpretations, pp. 41-55.

  10. Bernard Beckerman, Dynamics of Drama: Theory and Method (New York, 1970), p. 42. On the “triggers” to the linkages between the scenes of Miller's play, see Franklin Bascom Ashley, “The Theme of Guilt and Responsibility in the Plays of Arthur Miller,” unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, the University of South Carolina, 1970.

  11. Keir Elam, The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama (London, 1980), esp. p. 114: “When characters or spectators hypothesize a state of affairs in WD [i.e., the dramatic world] whether it proves true or false, one can talk of the subworlds projected on to it.”

  12. Ibid., p. 115.

  13. “Screen memories” are visual recollections taking a “cinematic” form. See, Otto Fenishel, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis (New York, 1945), pp. 145, 149, 327, 341, 529.

Principal Works

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The Pussycat and the Expert Plumber Who was a Man (radio play) 1941

The Man Who Had All the Luck (play) 1944

Situation Normal (nonfiction) 1944

Focus (novel) 1945

Grandpa and the Statue (radio play) 1945

All My Sons (play) 1947

The Story of Gus (radio play) 1947

Death of a Salesman: Certain Private Conversations in Two Acts and a Requiem (play) 1949

An Enemy of the People [adaptor; from the play by Henrik Ibsen] (play) 1950

The Crucible (play) 1953

*A Memory of Two Mondays (play) 1955

*A View from the Bridge (play) 1955; revised two-act version, 1956

Arthur Miller's Collected Plays, Volume One (plays) 1957; republished as Plays: One, 1988

The Misfits (screenplay) 1961

Jane's Blanket [illustrations by Al Parker] (juvenilia) 1963

After the Fall (play) 1964

Incident at Vichy (play) 1964

I Don't Need You Any More (short stories) 1967

The Price (play) 1968

In Russia [with Inge Morath] (travel writing) 1969

The Creation of the World and Other Business (play) 1972; revised as Up from Paradise, 1974

The Archbishop's Ceiling (play) 1977

The Theater Essays of Arthur Miller [edited by Robert A. Martin] (essays) 1978

Chinese Encounters [with Inge Morath] (travel writing) 1979

The American Clock [adaptor; from the nonfiction work Hard Times by Studs Terkel] (play) 1980

2 by A.M. (plays) 1982

Salesman in Beijing [photographs by Inge Morath] (diary) 1984

§Danger, Memory!: Two Plays (plays) 1986

Conversations with Arthur Miller [edited by Matthew C. Roudané] (interviews) 1987

Timebends: A Life (autobiography) 1987

Everybody Wins (screenplay) 1990

The Last Yankee (play) 1991; revised two-act version, 1993

The Ride Down Mt. Morgan (play) 1991

Homely Girl: A Life (novella) 1992; also published as Plain Girl: A Life, 1995

Broken Glass (play) 1994

Homely Girl: A Life, and Other Stories (novella and short stories) 1995

The Crucible (screenplay) 1996

Mr. Peters' Connections (play) 1998

Echoes Down the Corridor: Collected Essays, 1944-2000 [edited by Steven R. Centola] (essays) 2000

On Politics and the Art of Acting (essays) 2001

Resurrection Blues (play) 2002

*These two works were first performed together in a single production.

†Includes All My Sons,Death of a Salesman,The Crucible, and A View from the Bridge.

‡This work consists of two one-act plays: Elegy for a Lady and Some Kind of Love Story.

§This work consists of two one-act plays: I Can't Remember Anything and Clara.

Granger Babcock (essay date fall 1992)

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SOURCE: Babcock, Granger. “‘What's the Secret?’: Willy Loman as Desiring Machine.” American Drama 2, no. 1 (fall 1992): 59-83.

[In the following essay, Babcock examines how Death of a Salesman presents Willy Loman as a product of capitalist society, noting that the “system of value that the play represents permits no true relationship between men; it permits only isolation through competition.”]

Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman (1949) conveys its critique of American capital in a more complex and subtle manner than critics have thus far recognized. Most criticism of the play, as Sheila Huftel points out, is “governed by the need … to know and understand Willy Loman” (103). Unfortunately, much of the energy expended to understand Willy has been too narrowly focused on analyzing the individuated character traits of the protagonist and the attendant issue of tragic stature. The play, in fact, suggests just the opposite—that Willy is not autonomous, self-generated, or self-made (even in “failure”), but that he is completely other to himself; he is more puppet than person, more machine than man, and as such he announces the death, or disappearance, of the subject, the death of the tragic hero, and the birth of “the desiring machine.”

Most critics recognize that Arthur Miller intends Willy Loman as a victim of “society.” But Willy's construction as a victim is interpreted within the parameters of a self-generated individual and is used as the main reason conservative critics deny Salesman tragic status. As a victim, the argument runs, Willy has no understanding of his situation; he is, in the words of Dan Vogel, “too commonplace and limited” (91). Unlike Oedipus, Hamlet, or Lear, Willy is incapable of self-knowledge and is, therefore, not tragic but pathetic: “he cannot summon the intelligence and strength to scrutinize his situation and come to some understanding of it” (Jacobson 247). Even liberal critics like Thomas Adler and Ruby Cohn, who are generally sympathetic towards Willy, tend to judge his character harshly; in their estimation, he is either a “victim of himself and his choices,” or he “has achieved neither popularity nor success as a salesman, and has failed as a gardener, carpenter, and father” (Adler 102; Cohn 44). Willy's problem (or part of his problem), then, according to these critics, is that he accepts his fate; he does not possess the vision, volition, capacity, strength, knowledge, or pluck to fight against the cultural forces that shape his life.

The underlying assumption of these arguments is that Willy can change his life—with a little hard work, perhaps—but that he will not. Behind these judgments is a model: the national subject, or what I will call the masculine unconscious. This model can also be described as the autonomous, active male subject that determines and makes itself, as well as the liberal subject, the rugged individual, or the exceptional American. Whatever linguistic sign the masculine unconscious uses to communicate itself, it is wholly other to the subject, and it is given to the subject by the publicity apparatus of capital. Miller calls this other the “law of success”:

The confusion of some critics viewing Death of a Salesman … is that they do not see that Willy Loman has broken a law without whose protection life is insupportable, if not incomprehensible to him and to many others; it is a law which says a failure in society and in business has no right to live. Unlike the law against incest, the law of success is not administered by statute or church, but it is very nearly as powerful in its grip upon men.

(Collected Plays 35; hereafter referred to as CP)

In Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947), Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno identify the “law of success” as an effect of the “technological rationale” which dominates the cultural and economic institutions of modern industrial nations:

Through the countless agencies of mass production and its culture the conventionalized modes of behavior are impressed upon the individual as the only natural, respectable, and rational ones. He defines himself as a thing, as a static element, as success or failure.


That is, under what Horkheimer and Adorno call late capitalism, individual behavior is reduced to a series of “protocols” or stereotypical responses found on the job, on the radio, in the movies, and in the then-emerging television industry. For Adorno, these standardized models of behavior signaled the end of the liberal subject, since “motivation in the old, liberal sense” was being appropriated and “systematically controlled and absorbed by social mechanisms which are directed from above” (“Freudian Theory” 136). In other words, the subject's desire for success (e.g., for material wealth, to “get ahead”), which the subject believes is self-generated, is, in fact, his identification with the rationale of the apparatus, which has programmed individual consumption as spontaneous thought or reason or the assertion of individual will.

Viewed in light of Horkheimer and Adorno's discovery, the operations of Willy Loman's mind reflect this change in subjectivity. Specifically, Willy assumes that his desire is spontaneous, when in fact, as Miller suggests in Timebends (1987), it has been “hammered into its strange shape by society, the business life Willy had lived and believed in” (182). Willy's desire does not make him autonomous; it makes him “common” since that desire is what motivates all the men in the play and indeed most men in our culture. In constructing Willy, Miller exposes the liberal subject as a fiction, as part of a structure of value that is an effect of the economy. To dismiss Willy as “pathetic” because he does not have the strength of character to understand his situation or because he has made the wrong choices is to recode the play according to the protocols of the apparatus (i.e., a man is either a success or he is a failure). Willy chooses nothing; he merely follows a blueprint. Like a machine, he operates according to plan. The publicity apparatus tells Willy that if he works hard like Edison, that if he perseveres like Goodrich, that, if he is “well-liked” like Dave Singleman, then he will rise like Charley and become rich and powerful like J. P. Morgan. The blueprint also tells Willy that if he does not become “a success,” that if he does not become like a Gene Tunney or a Red Grange, then he is a failure—and that this is his fault. Willy's question to Ben and to Bernard—“What's the secret?”—is therefore by design. Willy cannot see that there is no secret—that success or status is largely determined by extrinsic factors.

Conservative critics do not recognize Willy as an effect of the economy because the critical field in which they operate does not permit this. For them, he is a problem, not a cultural symptom. Critics from the left, such as Raymond Williams, Michael Spindler, and John Orr, while they see Willy as a symptom of capitalist culture, have focused more on Willy's objectification than on his relationship to the apparatus that produced him. Williams, for instance, argues that “Willy Loman is a man who from selling things has passed to selling himself, and has become, in effect, a commodity which like other commodities will at a certain point be discarded by the laws of the economy” (104). While Williams's argument concerning Willy is certainly accurate, given Willy's desire to “make an appearance in the business world” (CP 146), I would like to suggest a different way to read Willy, which is more in keeping with the model of subjectivity theorized by Horkheimer and Adorno in Dialectic of Enlightenment, and which, I believe, more fully represents the rationalization of consciousness brought about by the symbolic apparatus of late capitalism.

In their book Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1983), Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari problematize previous models of subjectivity by eliminating the opposition around which the subject is constructed: “There is no such thing as either man or nature now, only a process that produces the one within the other and couples the machines together. Producing-machines, desiring-machines … the self and the non-self, outside and inside, no longer have any meaning whatsoever” (2). According to Deleuze and Guattari, the cognitive subject no longer exists since the subject-object split on which its identity is based has collapsed. The boundary between subject and object collapses, they argue, under the weight of the publicity apparatus of late capitalist cultures, which colonizes the subject from without by pouring its narratives inward. They replace the cognitive model with a quasi-cybernetic model, the desiring machine. The desiring machine runs on information from the outside; its goals, writes Jean-François Lyotard, are “programmed into it” and therefore it cannot “correct in the course of its functioning” (16). The man/machine is programmed to fit the body of capital, to adjust to the demands of efficiency of the larger system. Deleuze and Guattari stress that the identity produced by the system is “a producing/product identity” (7). That is, the machine produces, or in Willy's case reproduces, not only biologically but also ideologically, for the system at the same time that it is produced or constructed by the system.

A more effective way to interpret Deleuze and Guattari's “producing/product identity,” especially when we consider Willy Loman and the other men in Salesman, is to see it as a producing/consuming identity. The male subject desires to reproduce itself (pass itself on) at the same time it desires to consume success narratives, cheese, Chevrolets, Studebakers, aspirin, women, refrigerators, etc. The male subject reproduces itself by having children and acting as a model for those children. Willy, for instance, wants his sons to learn the law of success embodied by his brother Ben: “… when I walked into the jungle, I was seventeen. When I walked out I was twenty-one. And, by God, I was rich” (CP 159-60). The male subject consumes by buying products. Listen to Happy:

… suppose I get to be merchandise manager? He's a good friend of mine, and he just built a terrific estate on Long Island. And he lived there about two months and sold it, and now he's building another one. He can't enjoy it once it's finished. And I know that's just what I would do. I don't know what the hell I'm workin' for.

(CP 139)

Or listen to Howard Wagner talk about his wire recorder: “I tell you … I'm gonna take my camera, and my bandsaw, and all my hobbies, and out they go. This is the most fascinating relaxation I've ever found” (CP 178). Willy's desire has also been programmed; just listen to Linda tell us why he bought a Hastings refrigerator: “They got the biggest ads of any of them!” (CP 148).

The three passages suggest that Miller is aware that (re)production and consumption are programmed. Desire is mediated by an other, by the publicity apparatus of capital. The “subject” merely occupies a circuit or an outlet, or, to use Lyotard's word, a “post,” through which messages or units of information pass (15). Willy (or Happy or Howard Wagner) is reduced to the function of a receptacle/transmitter; information travels through him and in him. In this process, memory (the site of the other) becomes a depository for and a transmitter of the masterprograms or “masternarratives” of the system in which the desiring machine operates. The machine's program can thus be viewed as a metanarrative that is used to reinscribe or recode reality into a pattern that the larger system finds acceptable. The metanarrative acts like the unconscious because it is wholly other to the subject and because it works through the subject to structure social life. This operation is seen in Happy's description of the merchandise manager's mindless consumption, in his building of houses which he soon deserts only to build new houses; his desire spins metonymically out of control, seeking difference or fulfillment in what is essentially the same. Neither man understands why he buys things or why he works, yet they both buy and work without question. Presumably they work to “get ahead,” to “accomplish something,” but in reality they are, like Willy, programmed for the body of capital; it doesn't matter if they get ahead, if they succeed, or even if they become “number-one man.” What does matter, however, is that everybody desire to work so that everybody can afford to consume. Desire, to use Sartre's term, has been “massified.”

At this point, we turn our attention to Willy Loman and explore how the dreams of capital have programmed his “life.” Throughout the play, Willy consumes and then reproduces models and axioms that are part of the masculine unconscious:

Be liked and you will never want.

(CP 146)

A man oughta come in with a few words.

(CP 149)

I gotta overcome it. I know I gotta overcome it. I'm not dressing to advantage, maybe.

(CP 149)

Everybody likes a kidder, but nobody lends him money.

(CP 168)

But remember, start big and you'll end up big.

(CP 168)

Start off with a couple of your good stories to lighten things up. It's not what you say, it's how you say it—because personality always wins the day.

(CP 169)

These axioms (and the model they represent) appear in the text as isolated linguistic events, as the recitations of a lone idiolect, but they are in fact “splinters” or units (traces) of the metanarrative of national subject that speak through the subject. Willy consumes these bits of information just as he consumes aspirins and cheese. Their presence indicates that Willy's subjectivity has been “interpellated” by the ideological apparatus.1 Another indication of Willy's interpellation are his numerous contradictory statements. Early in the play, for instance, Willy calls Biff a “lazy bum” because Biff does not have a steady job. Three lines later, however, after Linda tells Willy that Biff is “lost,” Willy replies incredulously, “Biff Loman is lost. In the greatest country in the world a young man with such—personal attractiveness, gets lost. There's one thing about Biff—he's not lazy” (CP 134). Willy then reminds Linda that “Certain men just don't get started till later in life. Like Thomas Edison, I think. Or B. F. Goodrich” (CP 135).

In this instance, the masterprogram operates to allegorize the experience of the “subject” by making the subject part of the national narrative of progress; the process is therefore synecdochical (e pluribus unum). The process reveals itself as a fusion or syndesis of narratives, modes of masculinity from different historical periods, that cover over the reality of the present and mystify history. This fusion is first discovered in the practices of late nineteenth-century advertising, where the consumer ideology is bound together with eighteenth- and nineteenth-century conceptions of masculinity. The adjusted or emergent narrative is deposited on the hegemonic narrative, which in turn lends the newer representation its legitimacy or authority.

However, the crucial thing to note about the masterprogram is the way in which Miller suggests it operates through Willy to reinscribe his family history as part of the success narrative of the national subject. Willy desires to be the same as his father or his brother Ben; he desires to be other than he is, to inhabit earlier periods of capital through an other's body, which is essentialized or universal. By banishing differance, Willy hopes to construct a stable subjectivity. He no longer wishes to feel “temporary” (CP 159) about himself. He no longer wants to be part of the body of capital, which is always (magically) transforming itself, adjusting itself, expanding itself—like the neighborhood in which he lives. The desire to be successful, then, is the desire to connect himself to a transcendental masculinity that erases the reality of his present social position. This erasure is achieved, however, at a cost. The subject is restored to fullness by transforming extrinsic social factors into personal failure. Willy performs this function to empower himself, to restore the independence of the subject, which has been irretrievably lost. In the process, however, he learns to misrecognize himself (and Brooklyn). At the same time, Willy also learns to marginalize other masculinities, the alternative men he might represent, in favor of the dominant models advocated by the culture industry (i.e. Edison, Goodrich, etc.).

As C. W. E. Bigsby notes, “Willy Loman's life is rooted in America's past” (184). More precisely, his identity is rooted in models from two different periods of American capital, which are conflated in his mind. Willy's father represents the unfettered and unalienated labor of mercantile capital. His brother Ben represents the accumulative processes of monopoly capital. Both figures are mythic; that is, both figures embody an heroic past that is disseminated by the symbolic practices of capital and reproduced in individual men. Together, Miller suggests, they represent the (his)tory (not an history) of the (white) race in America. Or, as Irving Jacobson suggests,

What Willy Loman wants, and what success means in Death of a Salesman, is intimately related to his own, and the playwright's, sense of the family. Family dreams extend backward in time to interpret the past, reach forward in time to project images of the future, and pressure reality in the present to conform to memory [ideology] and imagination.


The flute “melody” that marks the beginning and the ending of the play, and which is heard periodically throughout, is the emblem or signature of Willy's lost father. According to the stage directions, “It is small and fine, telling of grass and trees and the horizon” (CP 130). It is, as numerous critics point out, the aural symbol of his “pioneer virtues” (Parker 33). It is the sound of the unalienated commodity, which later returns (transformed) as the mass-produced “golden” pen that Biff steals. It is the sound of the past in the present, the still active residual model which operates to marginalize the present. It represents the desire for opportunity and mobility associated with westward expansion. Willy's father, as Ben tells him, was a small entrepreneur whose life was determined by the structures of a mercantile economy:

Father was a very great and very wild-hearted man. We would start in Boston, and he'd toss the whole family into the wagon, and then he'd drive the whole team right across the country; through Ohio, and Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, and all the Western states.

(CP 157)

Willy's father was a “great inventor” who would “stop in the towns and sell the flutes he'd made on the way” (CP 157). “With one gadget,” Ben tells Willy, “he made more in a week than a man like you could make in a lifetime” (CP 157).

Ben's last statement seems unlikely, and its hyperbole marks a confusion in Willy's mind produced, or mediated, by the other's desire. Willy desires to be like his father because his father is like other successful men, other “great” inventors; his father is a model citizen—he has amassed a fortune. His father is like America's first model citizen, Ben Franklin, who “invented” electricity and the lightning rod. His father is like Thomas A. Edison and B. F. Goodrich, both rich and famous because of their inventions. Nevertheless, given the mercantile economy in which Miller locates Willy's father, it is unlikely that he could have produced a “gadget” that earned him more in a week than Willy earns in his lifetime. This type of event was more common (but still relatively isolated) in the period of capital Ben represents (monopoly capital) when “great” inventors like Edison and Goodrich did earn more money in a week (by producing technology for an emergent industrial economy) than a salesman could earn in thirty-five years. The figure of Willy's father exists simultaneously in Willy's “mind” with the figures of Edison and Goodrich. The simultaneity of the Franklin-Edison-Goodrich-father Loman narrative produces a fusion of the individual stories, which erases the specific history of the individual figures by marginalizing their differences; this fusion, again, is produced by the publicity apparatus of capital. Through the other, that is, Willy plugs himself into the success narrative as he rereads his family history.

A more elaborate example of this type of conflation is found when we examine Ben Loman. On one level, Miller uses the figure of Ben to link the formation of the national subject to the founding of the Republic—that is, Miller clearly chooses the name Ben to remind his readers of Ben Franklin's paradigmatic American masculinity. Ben's continual repetition of the rags to riches story—“Why, boys, when I walked into the jungle, I was seventeen. When I walked out I was twenty-one. And, by God, I was rich” (CP 157)—is a deliberate echo of Franklin's Autobiography, in which Franklin tells his readers that he walked into Philadelphia with the clothes on his back and within a few years became rich and famous. Notably, Miller conflates the Franklin myth with another version of masculinity from a later stage of American capital, not to differentiate the two, but to suggest that they are both operative, and that the latter version is just a rearticulation of the former. The phrase “acres of diamonds,” which Ben continually uses, alludes to a series of lectures and books written by the evangelist Russell Conwell in the 1890s “to spread the gospel of material wealth” (Innes 64-5; Porter 24-7). Conwell's writings, which included The Safe and Sure Way to Amass a Fortune and Be a Benefactor and Achieve Greatness, were typical of the “success cult” that dominated American magazine and popular book culture around the turn of the century (Greene 111).

The assumptions about masculinity at the core of Franklin's Autobiography are present in Conwell's writings as well. Both writers construct masculinity in very ahistoric ways by insisting that “success” is the result of personal agency or character. Miller uses Ben's speech, which Willy is remembering, to illustrate that language has a history. The traces of Franklin's and Conwell's stories survive as moments of the past in the present, and because they have been decontextualized by the operations of the publicity apparatus, they exist only as ideology within memory (i.e. devoid of their cultural context, they become part of the same moment, the typology of American maleness—not products of specific historical periods and circumstances). These representations do, however, bear the mark of their history and, as such, their difference can only be recognized when their history is restored. The conflation of Franklin and Conwell in Ben's speech is recognized when we try to account for the fact that Ben Loman and Russell Conwell inhabit an America radically different from Franklin's. Ben's ascendancy to what Willy calls “success incarnate” (CP 152) takes place in the late 1880s, a period marked by intense imperial expansion and expropriation of native labor and resources. As what Ruby Cohn calls a “ruthless adventurer” (41), Ben represents the accumulative processes of monopoly capital (roughly 1880 to 1910).

Further, the mode of masculinity that Ben represents is radically out of place in the America of the late 1940s (as is Willy's father's “pioneer” masculinity). Willy's desire to be like Ben and like his father manifests itself as a nostalgia that seals him off from the present. As a result, Willy cannot recognize “reality,” and he therefore engages in the success fantasy given to him by the other. In addition, Miller also suggests that the nostalgia for previous models or paradigms is constituted by their ability to provide ready-made (read: reductive) interpretations of the world; this operation, however, as Hayden White suggests, is disabling (and therefore destructive) because it prevents individuals and societies from imaginatively confronting the problems of the present (39).

One result of Willy's interpellation is that he cannot see Brooklyn as it is—that is, he is not satisfied with seeing it the way it is; he desires to see it as other, as the old west or the frontier. As he tells Ben, “It's Brooklyn, I know, but we hunt too” (CP 158). Willy's desire to see Brooklyn as other is also a symptom of the machine in crisis. The flute melody that represents the fiction of infinite space and unfettered masculine autonomy of the frontier (i.e., the mobility that most Americans expect and desire) is an ideological formation directly at odds with Willy's “reality.” Willy can see the “towering, angular shapes” that surround his house “on all sides” (CP 130), and he is aware the changes in his neighborhood:

The way they box us in here. Bricks and windows, windows and bricks. … The street is lined with cars. There's not a breath of fresh air in the neighborhood. The grass don't grow anymore, you can't raise a carrot in the backyard. They should've had a law against apartment houses. Remember those two beautiful elm trees out there? When I and Biff hung the swing between them. … They should've arrested the builder for cutting those down. They massacred the neighborhood. …

(CP 134-35)

Yet the cultural processes that allow the “they” to box him in, to massacre the neighborhood, go unrecognized because his models program him for “oversight.” In other words, his knowledge of the world is produced by models that act to exclude or screen out disruptive bits of information. Willy's knowledge of his world represents a desire for older modes that reduce his understanding of his social position.

His models also prevent him from seeing the history of his present (ultimately they push his vision inward, which leads to annihilation). His question to Linda that concludes the diatribe about the neighborhood—“How can they whip cheese?”—outlines the contour or boundary of his knowledge about the operations of capital; this question marks the limits of his awareness, outside (or inside) of which he cannot see or transgress. The question represents his limit as a subject. The salesman, ironically, does not understand how products are made. They appear to him, as they sometimes did to Marx, “as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own” (165). Willy's seemingly trivial question reveals how effective the publicity apparatus (with its fetishization of consumption) is in marginalizing the effects of technological change. As William T. Brucher points out, Willy's “unexpected, marvellingly innocent question about whipping cheese reveals an ambivalence toward technology livelier and more interesting … than a simple dichotomy between farm and factory, past and present” (83-4). Willy's “marvellingly innocent question” reveals a complete ignorance of the cultural processes that affect his life, that cause him to lose his job. Willy's life is, in fact, a denial of the transformative powers of capital. Any recognition of change is subverted by the transcendent (fetishized) models that he worships, which do not record or reflect any change. Celebrity—the lives of B. F. Goodrich and Thomas A. Edison and Dave Singleman—has replaced history. The consumption of technological “progress,” as Willy's broken cars, refrigerators, fanbelts, and leaky shower and roof attest, has replaced “real” social relations.

A second result of Willy's interpellation is that he “embues” his sons with the values of the other, what he calls “the spirit of the jungle.” These values are mediated through the figure of Ben Loman. “There was the only man I ever met who knew the answers,” says Willy (CP 155). “There was a man started with the clothes on his back and ended up with diamond mines” (CP 152). How does Ben achieve this goal? According to Willy, “The man knew what he wanted and went out and got it. Walked into the jungle, and comes out, the age of twenty one, and he's rich!” (CP 152). And this triumph is just what Willy wants for his boys; when Ben comes to visit, Willy brags to him that “That's just the spirit I want to embue them with! To walk into the jungle!” (CP 160). He's bringing them up to be “rugged, well-liked, all-around” (CP 157). Ben, of course, approves: “Outstanding, manly chaps!” (CP 159). Willy's desire is therefore reproduced through and in Biff and Happy; because of Willy's pedagogy, they become carriers of the program. Willy wants them, as Ben advises him, to “Screw on your fists and … fight for a fortune …” (CP 183). He doesn't want them to be “worms,” like Bernard (CP 151). But as Brian Parker points out, the aggressive practices Ben represents while “admirable in combatting raw nature [become] immoral when turned against one's fellow man” (33).

I suggest above that Ben's aggressiveness represents a brutality that Miller equates with American imperialism. Another way to read Ben's aggressiveness—this time, within the boundaries of the nation—is as competition. Historically, as C. Wright Mills notes, “for men in the era of classical liberalism, competition was never merely an impersonal mechanism regulating the economy of capitalism, or only a guarantee of political freedom. Competition was a means of producing free individuals, a testing field for heroes; in its terms men lived the legend of the self-reliant individual” (11). Whether or not what Mills argues is historically representative, it is safe to assume that in a decentralized economy (an economy without the hierarchy of industrialized structures), individual competition through labor was a way for many to create mobility and wealth. However, as the economy became more centralized and hierarchical, competition, as Willy says, became “maddening” because it did not yield the same results (imagined or otherwise) as it did for men of Willy's father's and Ben's generations.

In Willy's time, in fact, competition has become warlike. After returning from a selling trip, for instance, Willy tells his family he “Knocked 'em cold in Providence, slaughtered 'em in Boston” (CP 146). Willy's gift to his sons on his return from this same trip is a punching bag with “Gene Tunney's signature on it.” “[I]t's the finest thing for the timing,” he tells his apprentices (CP 144). Elsewhere, Willy describes business as “murderous” (CP 159). When Biff goes to ask Bill Oliver for a loan, Willy's advice is “Knock him dead, boy” (CP 170). The violence of Willy's language echoes the ruthlessness of his model, Ben—the same man who attacks Biff: “Never fight fair with a stranger, boy. You'll never get out of the jungle that way” (CP 158). Willy's desire to emulate Ben's power thus leads him to bring “the spirit of the jungle” into his home, where it reveals itself as what Sartre calls “counter-finality.” His positive intention of providing his boys with a model for success results in the negative legitimation of theft and fantasy.

Miller problematizes Willy's pedagogy by suggesting that even sanctioned expressions of masculinity involve theft. In the scene which follows Ben's fight with Biff, for example, Willy has his sons start to rebuild the front steps because Willy doesn't want Ben to think he is just a salesman; he wants to show Ben that Brooklyn is not Brooklyn (“we hunt too” [CP 158]); he wants to show Ben what kind of stock his sons come from: “Why, Biff can fell any one of these trees in no time!” (CP 158). Instead of providing the materials to rebuild the front stoop, however, Willy directs his sons to “Go right over where they're building the apartment house and get some sand” (CP 158). Charley warns Willy that “if they steal any more from that building the watchman'll put the cops on them” (CP 158). Willy responds, addressing Ben, “You shoulda seen the lumber they brought home last week. At least a dozen six-by-tens worth all kinds of money” (CP 158). This, of course, is a parody of Ben's logging operations in Alaska, but it also suggests that the individualism that the success ideology sanctions legitimates theft, just as that ideology legitimates the expropriation of foreign land and mineral resources. This is made even clearer in the following lines, when Willy excuses his sons' behavior because, as he says, “I got a couple of fearless characters there” (CP 158). Charley counters: “Willy, the jails are full of fearless characters” (CP 158), and Ben responds, “And the stock exchange, friend!” (CP 158). Again, these lines suggest that Miller recognizes that even legitimized expressions of masculine behavior, practices and beliefs that the American publicity apparatus valorizes, involve theft.

A further example of Miller transforming the success ideology into theft is found in the scene where Biff “borrows” a football from his high school locker room so that he can practice with a “regulation ball” (CP 144). Willy, predictably, laughs with Biff at the theft and rewards the action by saying, “Coach'll probably congratulate you on your initiative!” (CP 144). Initiative, even in Franklin's day, is one of the key elements of masculine autonomy, and here Miller insists that initiative is a form of theft. Later in the same scene, Biff tells his father, “This Saturday, Pop, this Saturday—just for you, I'm going to break through for a touchdown” (CP 145). Happy then reminds Biff that he is “supposed to pass” (CP 145). Biff ignores Happy's warning and says, “I'm taking one play for Pop (CP 145; italics mine). This taking is a pattern that will eventually take over Biff's life, for as Biff tells Willy at the end of the play, “I stole a suit in Kansas City and I was in jail. … I stole myself out of every good job since high school!” (CP 216). More important for Miller, however, is that this one moment of taking represents a typical moment in the dominant version of American masculinity. Biff's “theft” of the play is another instance of his initiative, another example drawn from the headlines which celebrate individual achievement. For a moment in Willy's mind, Biff is like Red Grange or Gene Tunney. As he tells Charley, “When this game is over … you'll be laughing out the other side of your face. They'll be calling him another Red Grange. Twenty-five thousand a year” (CP 186). What is lost in Biff's taking, however, is the team. Biff's initiative, and his desire to place himself above the goal of the team, jeopardizes the collective goal of the team—to win the City Championship.

Miller addresses the counter-finality of fantasy in the climax of the play, which is organized around Biff's trip to Bill Oliver's office where he plans to ask Oliver to stake him in a new business venture, “The Loman Brothers,” a line of sporting goods. This fiction has been created as a way to deflect Willy's fury at learning that Biff plans to “[s]crew the business world!” and return to the West, because in the West he can do as he pleases. That is, he can swim in the middle of the day and, working as a carpenter, he can whistle on the job; he also tells Happy that “we don't belong in this nuthouse of a city! We belong mixing cement on some open plan … “(CP 166). At the same time, Biff expresses his hatred of the business world because “They've laughed at Dad for years … “(CP 166). Willy responds in a characteristic manner: “Go to Filene's, go to the Hub, go to Slattery's, Boston. Call out the name Willy Loman and see what happens!” (CP 166). At this point, to quell Willy's anger, optimistic Happy starts the familiar story (“He's going to see Bill Oliver, Pop” [CP 167])—that quickly develops into a success fantasy before the fact: Happy's “feasible idea” is to borrow money from Bill Oliver to start a line of sporting goods (CP 167). Of course, Happy's idea is neither feasible nor sensible; it is in fact absurd that Biff believes he can borrow ten thousand dollars from a man he has not seen in fifteen years and from whom he stole merchandise.

At the end of the second act, however, Happy's pipe dream comes apart as Biff begins to insist on the truth; Biff tells Willy that he “was never a salesman for Bill Oliver,” that he was a shipping clerk. Willy insists that Biff was a salesman for Oliver, and when Biff tries to correct Willy by asking him to “hold on to the facts,” Willy says he's not interested in the facts (CP 198-99). What he is interested in is another story, and Willy and Happy begin to work to reimpose the success fantasy they have constructed at the end of the first act, but the fantasy is interrupted by Biff's announcing that he has stolen Bill Oliver's fountain pen.

The final confrontation occurs two scenes later when Biff tells Willy “you're going to hear the truth—what you are and what I am” (CP 216). Biff rejects Willy's “phony dream” because

I ran down eleven flights with a pen in my hand today. And suddenly I stopped. … I saw the things that I love in this world. The work and the food and time to sit and smoke. And I looked at the pen and said to myself, what the hell am I grabbing this for? Why am I trying to become what I don't want to be? What am I doing in an office, making a contemptuous, begging fool of myself, when all I want is out there, waiting for me the minute I say I know who I am!

(CP 217)

This is an assertion of Biff's desire against Willy's desire and the fantasy that Willy's desire constructs. Because Biff recognizes that his father's dream is false, that his father has been positioned by the law of success to believe in the autonomous male, he is in a position to resist (at least partially) the ideology. Biff does not believe in the version of universal citizenship that Willy believes in. Biff recognizes that he is “a dime a dozen” (CP 217), that he will never be B. F. Goodrich or Thomas Edison or Red Grange or J. P. Morgan or Gene Tunney. He attempts to resist the ideology of the success narrative because he doesn't want to be other; he doesn't want to be number one: “I am not a leader of men, Willy, and neither are you. … I'm a dollar an hour, Willy. … A buck an hour” (CP 217). Willy, a believer to the bitter end, insists that he is exceptional: “I am Willy Loman, and you are Biff Loman” (CP 217). At this point there is a complete repudiation of the success fantasy: Biff screams, “Pop, I'm nothing! I'm nothing, Pop” (CP 217), and he begins to hug his father and cry.

Commenting on this scene, Miller writes that Biff embodies “an opposing system which … is in a race for Willy's faith, and it is the system of love which is the opposite of the law of success” (CP 36). However, Miller claims that “by the time Willy can perceive [Biff's] love, it can serve only as an ironic comment upon the life he sacrificed for power and for success and its tokens” (CP 36). Biff rejects the law that makes men compete with each other and steal from each other in order for them to be successful. Instead, through his characterization of Bernard, Charley, and, (at the end of the play) Biff, Miller seems to offer the possibility of a system where men love each other and try to help one another, rather than exploit one another. His solution to the problem of individualism is moral rather than revolutionary, for as he points out, the “most decent man” in the play “is a capitalist (Charley) whose aims are not different from Willy Loman's” (CP 37). The difference between Willy and Charley “is that Charley is not a fanatic”: “he has learned how to live without that frenzy, that ecstasy of spirit which Willy chases to the end” (CP 37). Likewise, “Bernard … works hard, attends to his studies, and attains a worthwhile objective” (CP 37). Miller also notes that these people all come from the same social class (CP 37), yet Charley and Bernard do not succumb to the frenzy because, in Miller's view, they manage to resist the law of success and can act like decent men. What makes their resistance possible? Miller offers no specific answer. The play suggests that some men are able to do this while others are not; it offers hope, but no specific program: “What theory lies behind this double view? None whatever. It is simply that I knew and know that I feel better when my work is reflecting a balance of the truth as it exists” (CP 37).

Nevertheless, because the play is organized around the consciousness of Willy Loman, the play does not reflect the balance that Miller seems to have intended. Because Willy is such a strong presence, he pushes Bernard and Charley to the margins of the play. Willy's is the dominant voice, and it is through this voice that Miller maps the discourse of national identity as it interpellates the “low man.” Through this process, Miller attempts to construct a counter discourse by exposing the contradictions within the dominant understanding of the social world. The power of the dominant discourse lies in the ability of its codes and protocols to regulate understanding of the social world; they allow individuals to interpret their experience only in previously elaborated paradigms. In Salesman, Miller shows how these codes and protocols are reproduced through memory as they are recirculated and repeated in the texts and representations of the publicity apparatus. The epilogue of the play also suggests that we are free of these representations only in death. When Linda says “We're free. … We're free” (CP 222), Miller is not just ironically commenting on the paid-up mortgage; he is also suggesting that Willy is free from the law of success only in death.

D. L. Hoeveler suggests that Linda's lines are ironic for another reason. Reading the drama as a “psychomachia,” Hoeveler stresses that the Requiem functions as a final comment on Willy's dream: “All the characters who had previously functioned as parts of Willy's dream or nightmare are now supposedly free of him. … But each of the characters continues to embody the values that Willy demanded of them” (80). These “parts,” however, to revise Hoeveler, not only embody the values that Willy demands of them, but also they embody the values of the dominant mode of production and the cultural apparatus which reproduces that mode by reproducing its values. Willy is a part of the body of capital, just as are Happy, Biff, Charley, Bernard, Howard Wagner, and Linda; and as Mark Poster writes, the capitalist mode of production forces human beings not only to become “things … in appearance,” but also “They undergo … a profound interior alteration” (53). They become desiring machines, or as Sartre stresses in Critique of Dialectical Reason, they become other to themselves. They embody the values of the Other (the publicity apparatus) that programs them to see others as rivals. The irony of this operation, as Sartre points out, is that in attempting to be different (in attempting to be number-one, to earn the most money, to conquer the world) everyone's desire is the same. Desire, therefore, organizes individuals so that it can isolate them. Sartre calls this formation serial, or unified, alterity.

Ultimately, all the men in the play labor in alterity programmed by the other (or others) as parts of the machine of capital. Their desire and their isolations are expressions of the larger machine. Their “prefabricated being” (being as other-than-itself) is fixated on consumption by the publicity apparatus of capital (Sartre 227). The system of value that the play represents permits no true relationship between men; it permits only isolation through competition. The dissatisfaction of the desiring machine can therefore only express itself through nostalgia, an eternal return to previous models and their (pre)determining goals. The consequence of this interpellation is that solidarity is nullified by the desire of the other, thereby ensuring that men will continue to be exploited by their desire. As Deleuze and Guattari point out, “Desire can never be deceived. … It happens that one desires against one's own interests: capitalism profits from this …” (257). In the end, then, “attention must be … paid” (CP 162) to Willy Loman not because he is somehow exceptional (by being an aberration) but because his repression is paradigmatic. Willy has not, as Michael Spindler points out, “seized upon the notion of success as a substitute for genuine identity” (206). Willy, again, seizes nothing; his gods are given to him. Attention must be given to such a man by readers of Salesman who would fetishize masculine autonomy, since Miller powerfully suggests that masculine desire is an instrument used by the publicity apparatus of American capital to organize and to regulate social relations and the economy.


  1. In the work of Louis Althusser (162-70) interpellation denotes the process by which human subjects come to recognize themselves as such by identifying themselves with the subjects referred to by an impersonal “apparatus” of ideological statements: For instance, as the free and the brave in the phrase “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

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Adorno, Theodor. “Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda.” The Essential Frankfurt School Reader. Ed. Andrew Arato and Eike Gebhardt. New York: Continuum, 1985. 118-37.

Althusser, Louis. Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. Trans. Ben Brewster. London: NLB, 1971.

Bigsby, C. W. E. A Critical Introduction to Twentieth-Century American Drama, Vol. 2: Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Edward Albee. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1984.

Brucher, Richard T. “Willy Loman and The Soul of the New Machine: Technology and the Common Man.” Journal of American Studies 17 (1983): 325-36.

Cohn, Ruby. “The Articulate Victims of Arthur Miller.” Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1988. 39-46.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1983.

Green, Theodore P. America's Heroes: The Changing Models of Success in American Magazines. New York: Oxford UP, 1970.

Hoeveler, D. L. “Death of a Salesman as Psychomachia.” Arthur Miller's “Death of a Salesman.” Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1988. 77-82.

Horkheimer, Max and Theodor Adorno. Dialectic of Enlightenment. 1947. London: Allen Lane, 1973.

Huftel, Sheila. Arthur Miller: The Burning Glass. New York: The Citadel Press, 1965.

Innes, Christopher. “The Salesman on the Stage: A Study in the Social Influence of Drama.” Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1988. 59-75.

Jacobson, Irving. “Family Dreams in Death of a Salesman.American Literature 47 (1975): 247-58.

Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1984.

Marx, Karl. Capital, vol. 1. New York: Vintage, 1977.

Miller, Arthur. Arthur Miller's Collected Plays. New York: Viking, 1957.

———. Timebends: A Life. New York: Grove Press, 1987.

Mills, C. Wright. White Collar: The American Middle Classes. New York: Oxford UP, 1951.

Orr, John. Tragic Drama and Modern Society: Studies in the Social and Literary Theory of Drama from 1870 to the Present. London: Macmillan, 1981.

Parker, Brian. “Point of View in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman.Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1988. 25-38.

Porter, Thomas. “‘Acres of Diamonds’: Death of a Salesman.Critical Essays on Arthur Miller. Ed. James J. Martine. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1979. 24-43.

Poster, Mark. Sartre's Marxism. London: Pluto, 1979.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Critique of Dialectical Reason. London: New Left Books, 1976.

Spindler, Michael. American Literature and Social Change: William Dean Howells to Arthur Miller. London: Macmillan, 1983.

Vogel, Dan. The Three Masks of American Tragedy. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1974.

White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1978.

Williams, Raymond. Modern Tragedy. London: Verso, 1979.

Steven R. Centola (essay date September 1993)

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SOURCE: Centola, Steven R. “Family Values in Death of a Salesman.CLA Journal 37, no. 1 (September 1993): 29-41.

[In the following essay, Centola characterizes Death of a Salesman as a modern tragedy, drawing focus to how Willy Loman's core values of family and self exert an indelible force on his relationship with his son Biff.]

Studies of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman invariably discuss Willy Loman's self-delusion and moral confusion in relation to Miller's indictment of the competitive, capitalistic society that is responsible for dehumanizing the individual and transforming the once promising agrarian American dream into an urban nightmare.1 While Miller clearly uses Willy's collapse to attack the false values of a venal American society, the play ultimately captures the audience's attention not because of its blistering attack on social injustice but because of its powerful portrayal of a timeless human dilemma. Simply put, Miller's play tells the story of a man who, on the verge of death, wants desperately to justify his life. As he struggles to fit the jagged pieces of his broken life together, Willy Loman discovers that to assuage his guilt, he must face the consequences of past choices and question the values inherent in the life he has constructed for himself and his family. Willy's painful struggle “to evaluate himself justly”2 is finally what grips the play's audiences around the world, for everyone, not just people who are culturally or ideologically predisposed to embrace the American dream, can understand the anguish that derives from “being torn away from our chosen image of what and who we are in this world” (“Tragedy” [“Tragedy and the Common Man”] 5).

One can appreciate the intensity of Willy's struggle only after isolating the things that Willy values and after understanding how the complex interrelationship of opposed loyalties and ideals in Willy's mind motivates every facet of his speech and behavior in the play. By identifying and analyzing Willy Loman's values, we can uncover the intrinsic nature of Willy and Biff's conflict. Discussion of Willy's values specifically clarifies questions pertaining to Willy's infidelity and singular effort both to seek and escape from conscious recognition of the role he played in Biff's failure. Moreover, discussion of Willy's values helps us understand why Willy feels compelled to commit suicide. Ultimately, an analysis of Willy's values even helps to explain why Death of a Salesman is a tragedy, for in Willy Loman's drama of frustration, anguish, and alienation, we see a human struggle that is rooted in metaphysical as well as social and psychological concerns.

Throughout the play, Willy exhibits several important personality traits. Thoroughly convinced that “the man who makes an appearance in the business world, the man who creates personal interest, is the man who gets ahead,”3 Willy is ever conscious of his appearance before others. Quite literally, Willy is probably obsessed with personal appearance because, in his mind, he was convinced himself that since he is destined for success, he must constantly dress the part. However, such fastidiousness also betrays his insecurity, something which often surfaces in his contradictory statements and emotional outbursts—these, of course, being a constant embarrassment for his family as well as a painful reminder to Willy of his ridiculous appearance before others. Beneath the surface optimism, therefore, lurk his frustration and keen sense of failure. That is why he can be spry, amusing, and cheerful one moment and then suddenly become quarrelsome, insulting, and sullen the next. Through Willy's incongruous behavior, Miller makes us sharply aware of the subterranean tensions dividing Willy.

Perhaps just as important as this, though, is the realization that with all of his seemingly absurd antics, and with his humor, quick intelligence, and warmth, Willy becomes likable, if not well liked. Even if we disagree with his actions, we still understand his anguish, share his suffering, and even come to admire him for his relentless pursuit of his impossible dream. With Miller, we come to see Willy as “extraordinary in one sense at least—he is driven to commit what to him is a consummate act of love through which he can hand down his selfhood, his identity. Perversely, perhaps, this has a certain noble claim if only in his having totally believed, and dreamed himself to death.”4

Willy's quirky speech rhythms, his spontaneous utterance of success-formula platitudes, and his incessant contradictions flesh out his character and reveal his complex and troubled state of mind. More importantly, though, the poverty of his language exposes the conflict in his values that gives rise to all of his troubles in the play. The disparity between the hollowness of Willy's words and the passion with which he utters them underscore the tremendous variance between his deep feelings about and inadequate understanding of fatherhood, salesmanship, and success in one's personal life as well as in the business world in American society. For example, when Willy recites one of his stock phrases—such as “personality always wins the day” (Salesman 151)—he is expressing a long-held belief that has taken on the sanctity of a religious doctrine for him. The source of such success formulas may very well be books by Dale Carnegie and Russell Conwell—writers who popularized myths of the self-made man in the early twentieth century.5 But without attributing such views to any particular influence, we can see that, in Willy's mind, such maxims are weighted with great authority; to him they represent nothing short of magical formulas for instant success. Like so many others in his society, he fails to see the banality in such clichés and is actually using bromidic language to bolster his own faltering self-confidence. By passionately repeating hackneyed phrases, Willy simultaneously tries to assure himself that he has made the right choices and has not wasted his life while he also prevents himself from questioning his conduct and its effect on his relations with others. Ironically, though, his speech says much more to anyone carefully listening.

Without knowing it, Willy cries out for help and denounces the life-lie that has destroyed his family. Even while yearning for success, Willy wants more than material prosperity; he wants to retrieve the love and respect of his family and the self-esteem which he has lost. Yet he goes about striving to achieve these goals in the wrong way because he has deceived himself into thinking that the values of the family he cherishes are inextricably linked with the values of the business world in which he works. He confuses the two and futilely tries to transfer one value system to the other's domain, creating nothing but chaos for himself and pain or embarrassment for everyone around him.

Willy's confusion has much to do with his own feelings of inadequacy as a father. His stubborn denial of these feelings, coupled with his misguided effort to measure his self-worth by the expression of love he thinks he can purchase in his family, only serves to aggravate his condition. Willy unwittingly hastens his own destruction by clinging fiercely to values that perpetually enforce his withdrawal from reality.

This problem is particularly evident in the way Willy approaches the profession of salesmanship. Instead of approaching his profession in the manner of one who understands the demands of the business world, Willy instead convinces himself that his success or failure in business has significance only in that it affects others'—particularly his family's—perception of him. He does not seek wealth for any value it has in itself; financial prosperity is simply the visible sign that he is a good provider for his family.

The confluence of the personal and the professional in Willy's mind is evident as Willy tells Howard Wagner about a time when a salesman could earn a living and appreciate the importance of “respect,” “comradeship,” “gratitude,” “friendship,” and “personality” (Salesman 180-81)—terms that are repeatedly used by various members of the Loman family. Also significant is the fact that when explaining to his boss how he was introduced to the career of salesmanship, Willy does not use his brother's language or refer to the kinds of survival techniques which Ben undoubtedly would have employed to make his fortune in the jungle. Willy's speech to Howard suggests that Willy chooses to be a salesman because he wants to sell himself, more than any specific product, to others—a point underscored by the obvious omission in the play of any reference to the specific products that Willy carries around in his valises.

The value that Willy attaches to his role as a father is evident throughout the play in numerous passages that reveal his obsession with this image. Soon after the play begins, Willy's concern over his duty to “accomplish something” (Salesman 133) is evident. Thinking about the many years which he has spent driving from New York City to New England to sell his products, Willy ruefully wonders why he has worked “a lifetime to pay off [his] house … and there's nobody to live in it” (Salesman 133). Obviously, Willy feels as though he has invested all of his life in his family and is not getting the kind of return he always expected. This feeling of futility makes him wonder whether he has failed as a father and impels him to explore his past—a psychological journey made effective theatrically by Miller's expressionistic use of lighting, music, and violation of wall-line boundaries. In almost every scene from his past, Willy's dialogue either comments on his role in his sons' development or shows his need to win Ben's approval of how he is rearing Biff and Happy. In scenes where he is congratulating Biff on his initiative for borrowing a regulation football to practice with (Salesman 144), or encouraging the boys to steal sand from the apartment house so that he can rebuild the front stoop (Salesman 158), or advising his sons to be well liked and make a good appearance in order to get ahead in the world (Salesman 146), Willy is unknowingly instilling values in his sons that will have a definite impact on their future development. He also does the same when he counsels Biff to “watch [his] schooling” (Salesman 142), tells his sons “Never leave a job till you're finished” (Salesman 143), or sentimentally praises America as “full of beautiful towns and fine, upstanding people” (Salesman 145). Even in scenes where he is troubled by Biff's stealing, failure of math, and renunciation of his love and authority after discovering his infidelity in Boston, Willy is probing only that part of his past that in some way calls into question his effectiveness as a father.

A look at the memory scenes also helps to explain why Willy values his family more than anything else in his life. Abandoned at an early age by his father, Willy has tried all his life to compensate for this painful loss. When Willy also suffers the sudden disappearance of his older brother, he nearly completely loses his self-confidence and a sense of his own identity as a male. His insecurity about his identity and role as a father is evident in the memory scene where he confesses to Ben that he feels “kind of temporary” (Salesman 159) about himself and seeks his brother's assurance that he is doing a good job of bringing up his sons:

Ben, my boys—can't we talk? They'd go into the jaws of hell for me, see, but I—
William, you're being first-rate with your boys. Outstanding, manly chaps!
(hanging onto his words) Oh, Ben, that's good to hear! Because sometimes I'm afraid that I'm not teaching them the right kind of—Ben, how should I teach them?

(Salesman 159)

However, although Willy idolizes Ben and treasures his advice and opinions, Willy rarely does what Ben suggests and never imitates his pattern of behavior. In fact, until the end of Act II, when Ben appears entirely as a figment of Willy's imagination in a scene that has nothing to do with any remembered episode from his past, Willy implicitly rejects Ben's lifestyle and approach to business. There can be no doubt that in Willy's mind Ben's image stands for “success incarnate” (Salesman 152). Likewise, enshrined in Willy's memory, Ben's cryptic words magically ring “with a certain vicious audacity: William, when I walked into the jungle, I was seventeen. When I walked out I was twenty-one. And, by God, I was rich!” (Salesman 160). And there is always the tone of remorse in Willy's voice whenever he mentions Ben, for he associates his brother with his own missed opportunity: the Alaska deal which Willy turns down and with it the chance to make a fortune.

Clearly, then, Ben embodies more than just the image of success in Willy's mind; he also represents the road not taken. In other words, he is, in many ways, Willy's alter ego. Ben is the other self which Willy could have become had he chosen to live by a different code of ethics. Therefore, his presence in Willy's mind gives us insight into Willy's character by letting us see not only what Willy values but also what kinds of choices he has made in his life as a result of those values. For while Ben is undoubtedly the embodiment of one kind of American dream to Willy, so too is Dave Singleman representative of another kind—and that is part of Willy's confusion: both men symbolize the American dream, yet in his mind they represent value systems that are diametrically opposed to each other. The memory scenes are important in bringing out this contrast and showing what Willy's perception of Ben reflects about Willy's own conflicting values.

In every memory scene in which Ben appears, his viewpoint is always contrasted with the perspective of another character. This counterbalancing occurs because, while Ben has had a significant impact on Willy's past that continues to remain alive in the present in his imagination, Ben's influence on Willy has actually been no stronger than that which has been exerted upon him by people like Linda and Dave Singleman—the latter actually having the strongest effect, possibly because he exists in Willy's mind only as an idealized image.

The characters' contrasting views, in essence, externalize warring factions within Willy's fractured psyche. Each character represents a different aspect of Willy's personality: Linda most often takes the part of his conscience; Charley generally expresses the voice of reason; and Ben seems to personify Willy's drive toward self-assertion and personal fulfillment. These forces compete against each other, struggling for dominance, but although one might temporarily gain an advantage over the others, no one maintains control indefinitely. All remain active in Willy, leaving him divided, disturbed, and confused.

Linda and Charley are the most conspicuous contrasts to Ben in the memory scenes. They represent that side of Willy that has deliberately chosen not to follow in his brother's footsteps. Yet their views are not remembered as being superior to Ben's, for the image of Ben remains shrouded in mystery and splendor in Willy's memory and serves as a reminder not only of lost opportunity but also of the possibility of transforming dreams into reality. Ben's apparition haunts Willy and prods him to question his choices in life. However, since Willy both wants answers and dreads finding them, tension, not resolution, prevails in these scenes.

Such tension is evident, for example, in the scene where Charley and Ben disagree over Willy's handling of the boys' stealing:

Listen, if they steal any more from that building the watchman'll put the cops on them!
(to Willy) Don't let Biff … (Ben laughs lustily.)
You shoulda seen the lumber they brought home last week. At least a dozen six-by-tens worth all kinds a money.
Listen, if that watchman—
I gave them hell, understand. But I got a couple of fearless characters there.
Willy, the jails are full of fearless characters.
(clapping Willy on the back, with a laugh at Charley) And the stock exchange, friend!

(Salesman 158)

Tension is also clearly present when Ben suddenly trips Biff while they are sparring and consequently receives a cold, disapproving stare from Linda (Salesman 158). Linda's opposition is even more apparent as she diminishes Ben's influence over Willy during their conversation about the Alaska deal; by reminding Willy of the successful Dave Singleman, she rekindles within him his love of the profession that he associates with family values and the unlimited possibilities inherent within the American dream (Salesman 183-84). Ironically, Linda could actually be said to have hurt Willy by upholding his illusions. Nevertheless, she is instrumental in helping him reject Ben's business ethics, even though Willy does not recognize the value inherent in his choice and foolishly torments himself only with the memory of missed opportunity.

Unlike Willy, Ben functions comfortably in the modern business world. His life history provides confirmation of Howard Wagner's pronouncement that “business is business” (Salesman 180), and like Charley, he is a realist who has no illusions about what it takes to be a success. He is a survivor who undoubtedly made a fortune in the jungle through the kinds of ruthless acts which he performs in his sparring session with Biff. He suggests as much when he warns Biff: “Never fight fair with a stranger, boy. You'll never get out of the jungle that way” (Salesman 158). Ben's drive for self-fulfillment is undoubtedly predicated upon his denial of any responsibility for others and his repudiation of the values which Willy cherishes and associates with his romanticized view of family life and the past.

In dramatic contrast to the image of this ruthless capitalist stands the idealized figure of Dave Singleman. In Willy's mind, the image of Dave Singleman reflects Willy's unfaltering conviction that personal salvation can be linked with success, that business transactions can be made by people who respect and admire each other. Willy practically worships this legendary salesman who, at the age of eighty-four, “drummed merchandise in thirty-one states” by picking up a phone in his hotel room and calling buyers who remembered and loved him (Salesman 180). The legend of Dave Singleman so strongly impresses Willy that he decides that success results from “who you know and the smile on your face! It's contacts … being liked” (Salesman 184) that guarantee a profitable business. Willy clings to the illusion that he can become another Dave Singleman—in itself an impossible task since no one can become another person, a fact underscored by the name Singleman, which obviously calls attention to the individual's uniqueness—even though Willy knows he lives in an era when business is “all cut and dried, and there's no chance for bringing friendship to bear—or personality” (Salesman 180-81). He fails to see the folly of his dream and ends up passing on not only his dream but also his confusion to Biff and Happy.

Their dilemma not only mirrors Willy's identity crisis but also indicts him for his ineptitude as a father. Moreover, seeing his failure reflected in the lives of his sons further intensifies Willy's guilt and hastens his decline.

Both sons are “lost” and “confused” (Salesman 136). They have inherited their father's powerful dreams but have no true understanding of how to attain them. Biff is more troubled than Happy because he is more conscious of this problem. Biff knows that he does not belong in the business world but still feels obligated to build his future there since that is what his father expects of him. He would prefer to work on a farm, performing manual labor, but he has learned from Willy not to respect such work. In Willy's mind, physical labor is tainted with the suggestion of something demeaning. When Biff suggests that they work as carpenters, Willy reproachfully shouts: “Even your grandfather was better than a carpenter. … Go back to the West! Be a carpenter, a cowboy, enjoy yourself!” (Salesman 166). With gibes like this in mind, Biff never feels completely satisfied working as a farmhand and tortures himself with guilt over his failure to satisfy Willy's demand that he do something extraordinary with his life.

In the harrowing climactic scene, however, Biff puts an end to his self-deception and tries to force his family to face the truth about him and themselves. He shatters the illusion of his magnificence by firmly telling Willy: “I'm not bringing home any prizes any more, and you're going to stop waiting for me to bring them home!” (Salesman 217). Knowing that his days of glory are past and that his dreams have nothing to do with Willy's vision of success for him, Biff embraces his life and stops living a lie. At the play's end, Biff confidently asserts: “I know who I am …” (Salesman 222). However, while he manages to succeed in his own quest for certitude, he fails to prevent Willy's self-destruction.

Willy commits suicide because he “cannot settle for half but must pursue his dream of himself to the end.”6 He convinces himself that only his death can restore his prominence in his family's eyes and retrieve for him his lost sense of honor. Perhaps without ever being fully conscious of his motives, Willy feels that his sacrifice will purge him of his guilt and make him worthy of Biff's love. When he realizes that he never lost Biff's love, Willy decides that he must die immediately so that he can preserve that love and not jeopardize it with further altercations. In his desperation to perform one extraordinary feat for his son so that he can once and for all verify his greatness and confirm his chosen image of himself in Biff's eyes, Willy turns to what he knows best: selling. He literally fixes a cash value on his life and, in killing himself, tries to complete his biggest sale. Willy thinks that by bequeathing Biff twenty thousand dollars, he will provide conclusive proof of his immutable essence as a good father, a goal that has obsessed him even since the day Biff discovered Willy's infidelity in Boston.

When Biff finds Willy with Miss Francis, Biff is horrified to see the face behind the mask that Willy wears. This sudden revelation of the naked soul in all its weakness and imperfection is more than Biff can bear because he has been trained to elude reality and substitute lies for truth. Beneath Biff's scornful gaze, Willy becomes nothing more than a “liar,” a “phony little fake” (Salesman 208). Such condemnation leaves Willy feeling disgraced and alienated, so he retreats into the sanctuary of the past in a frantic effort to recapture there what is irretrievably lost in the present: his innocence and chosen identity. He opts for self-deception as a way of maintaining his distorted image of himself—a costly decision that eventually causes his psychological disorientation and death. He goes to his grave, as Biff puts it, without ever knowing “who he was” (Salesman 221).

However, Biff is only partially right when he says: Willy “had the wrong dreams. All, all, wrong …” (Salesman 221). Willy does deny a valuable part of his existence—his aptitude for manual labor—and spends most of his life mistakenly believing that values associated with the family open the door to success in the business world. He also transfers his confusion to his sons. Yet, in spite of his failings, Willy must ultimately be appreciated for valuing so highly the family and his role as a father. Even though he has misconceptions about this role, his inspiring pursuit of his forever elusive identity as the perfect father makes him a tragic figure. That is why Miller writes: “There is a nobility … in Willy's struggle. Maybe it comes from his refusal ever to relent, to give up” (Beijing [Salesman in Beijing] 27). Against all odds, Willy Loman demands that his life have “meaning and significance and honor” (Beijing 49).

Of course, in many ways, Willy ultimately fails to fulfill his dream. The Requiem clearly shows that he is not immortalized in death. His funeral is certainly not like the grand one he had imagined, and he still remains misunderstood by his family. But death does not defeat Willy Loman. The Requiem proves that his memory will continue to live on in those who truly mattered to him while he was alive. He might not have won their respect, but he is definitely loved—and perhaps that is all that Willy ever really hoped to achieve. Miller says that what Willy wanted “was to excel, to win out over anonymity and meaninglessness, to love and be loved, and above all, perhaps, to count.7 After considering the importance of family values to Willy Loman, we are decidedly more inclined to say that he does, indeed, count—and we can perhaps better understand why his struggle and death make Miller's drama a tragedy of lasting and universal significance.


  1. See, for example, Henry Popkin, “Arthur Miller: The Strange Encounter,” Sewanee Review 68 (Winter 1960): 48-54; Barry Edward Gross, “Peddler and Pioneer in Death of a Salesman,Modern Drama 7 (February 1965): 405-10; Thomas E. Porter, Myth and Modern American Drama (Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1969) 127-52; Ronald Hayman, Arthur Miller (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1972); Christopher Bigsby, A Critical Introduction to Twentieth-Century American Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1984) II, 135-248; and Kay Stanton, “Women and the American Dream of Death of a Salesman,Feminist Rereadings of Modern American Drama, ed. June Schlueter (Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 1989) 67-102.

  2. Arthur Miller, “Tragedy and the Common Man,” The Theater Essays of Arthur Miller, ed. Robert A. Martin (New York: Penguin Books, 1978) 4. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text as “Tragedy.”

  3. Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman,Arthur Miller's Collected Plays (New York: Viking, 1957) I. 146. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text as Salesman.

  4. Arthur Miller, Salesman in Beijing (New York: Viking, 1984) 190. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text as Beijing.

  5. See Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1936); and Russell H. Conwell, Acres of Diamonds (New York: Harper, 1905). Discussion of these texts and other works which popularized the success myth can be found in Porter, pp. 127-52.

  6. Arthur Miller, Introd., Arthur Miller's Collected Plays I, 34.

  7. Arthur Miller, Timebends: A Life (New York: Grove, 1987) 184.

Further Reading

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Lahr, John. “Fugitive Mind.” New Yorker 75, no. 2 (8 March 1999): 93.

Lahr commends the fiftieth-anniversary production of Death of a Salesman, noting that “Miller's reading of the nation's collective unconscious is so accurate that the flaws in this somewhat overpraised production hardly matter.”

Meador, Roy. “The Elegy for Willy Loman Lives On.” Biblio 4, no. 3 (March 1999): 16-17.

Meader argues that Miller's portrayal of capitalist disillusionment in Death of a Salesman has become a prominent part of American social consciousness.

Miller, Arthur, and Colby H. Kullman. “Death of a Salesman at Fifty: An Interview with Arthur Miller.” Michigan Quarterly Review 37, no. 4 (fall 1998): 624-34.

Miller discusses different productions of Death of a Salesman and reflects on the play on the fiftieth anniversary of its first production.

Monet, Cristina. “Smiles and Shoeshines.” Spectator 283, no. 8923 (14 August 1999): 38.

Monet compares the fiftieth-anniversary production of Death of a Salesman to recent revivals of Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh.

Murphy, Brenda. Miller: “Death of a Salesman.” Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995, 246 p.

Murphy constructs a critical history of Death of a Salesman, discussing early drafts of the script, the play's impact on the American theatre community, and foreign performances of the play.

Rose, Lloyd. Review of Death of a Salesman, by Arthur Miller. Atlantic 253 (April 1984): 130-32.

Rose praises a staging of Death of a Salesman staring actor Dustin Hoffman as Willy Loman, lauding the production for its “tremendous, inspired intelligence.”

Thompson, Terry W. “The Ironic Hercules Reference in Death of a Salesman.English Language Notes 40, no. 4 (June 2003): 73-7.

Thompson examines the irony behind Willy Loman's allusions to Greek mythology in Death of a Salesman.

Weales, Gerald, editor. Arthur Miller: “Death of a Salesman”—Text and Criticism. New York: Viking Press, 1967, 426 p.

Weales presents the full text of Death of a Salesman along with critical essays, commentary by Miller, and reviews of the play's first performance.

Additional coverage of Miller's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers; American Writers: The Classics, Vol. 1; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 15; Authors in the News, Vol. 1; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1941-1968; Contemporary American Dramatists; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4R; Contemporary Authors Bibliographical Series, Vol. 3; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 2, 30, 54, 76; Contemporary Dramatists, Ed. 5; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 2, 6, 10, 15, 26, 47, 78; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 7, 266; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Dramatists and Most-studied Authors; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Drama Criticism, Vol. 1; Drama for Students, Vols. 1, 3; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Literature and Its Times, Vols. 1, 4; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; Twayne's United States Authors; World Literature Criticism; and Writers for Young Adults Supplement, Vol. 1.

John S. Shockley (essay date summer 1994)

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SOURCE: Shockley, John S. “Death of a Salesman and American Leadership: Life Imitates Art.” Journal of American Culture 17, no. 2 (summer 1994): 49-56.

[In the following essay, Shockley explores the similarities between Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman and the life of former U.S. president Ronald Reagan.]

Death of a Salesman hit the American stage in 1949, catapulting Arthur Miller into the status of the “greats” of American dramatists. While the play was never without its critics, who argued over whether the play could appropriately be called a “tragedy,” whether the writing was a bit stilted, and whether Miller's message about American capitalism and the American dream was a bit garbled, it still was an enormously popular play among theater-goers and critics. All of them seemed to find something of the American creed, and of themselves, in the play.1

But more than 40 years have passed since the play was written. Should we now view the play as a dated relic of another age, or does it still resonate with the American character? Is the play primarily the personal problem of an aging playwright whose formative years were spent in the Great Depression, and who therefore could never “trust” American capitalism again?2 If so, do we have little need to understand Death of a Salesman or come to terms with it? On the contrary, I shall argue that Death of a Salesman still resonates powerfully in American life and culture and that in a fascinating and chilling way life has imitated drama. Willy Loman shares a number of important traits with the most successful American politician of the late twentieth century, Ronald Reagan. To understand American culture and American politics, one must come to grips with the phenomenal success of Ronald Reagan. Arthur Miller's perspective in creating Willy Loman and Death of a Salesman can help us do this.


In the first place, both Willy Loman and Ronald Reagan are salesmen. Both understood that a salesman has got to believe in himself and his product before he can sell it to others. Both were selling themselves and the American dream. Ronald Reagan, of course, was a salesman for General Electric, “living well electrically” while touting the corporation's conservative political agenda. But most of all, as he gave “The Speech” to 250,000 GE employees while traveling all over the country, he sold the American dream.3 And he was selling that both before and after his years as a GE salesman.

After he was dropped by GE, he became a salesman for the conservative ideas of Southern California businessmen, who recognized in him the best spokesman for their ideology that they could find. “A salesman has got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory.”4 So says Charlie, Willy's neighbor, at Willy's funeral. Both Willy and Reagan dreamed the American dream and believed that in America a man could, and should, fulfill himself.

Second, both also had to deny basic points of reality in order to believe in the dream. Willy tried desperately to deny that his sons were failures and that he was failing as a salesman. His son Biff is always about to be a success, about to land a good job. And Willy lies to Linda about the source of his income, telling her the money is coming from sales when in fact Charlie down the street is lending him the money. Throughout the play he is always lying about how important he is and how many “friends” he has. Ronald Reagan, as the son of a failed, alcoholic, shoe salesman, was forced to deny his family's problems from an early age. Ronald Reagan is the adult child of an alcoholic. Yet his father's skills as a raconteur and his mother's encouragement of his acting and entertaining abilities channeled the denials and “stories” into more acceptable outlets than Willy had. As Willy loved telling jokes to highlight his personality, Reagan loved entertaining others.5 Denials continued throughout Reagan's life: denying that Hollywood had engaged in a blacklist; denying that the MCA (Music Corporation of America) was involved in bribery and “payola” while Reagan dealt with them as president of the Screen Actors Guild; denying that his tax cuts could be responsible for the mounting federal deficits; denying that his cuts in low-income housing subsidies could be responsible for the rise in homelessness; denying that he sold arms for hostages; and forgetting virtually everything about the Iran-Contra diversion scandal.6

To scholars of the Reagan era, one of the most striking features of Reagan the man was his lack of interest in facts, which were often misstated or completely wrong. His view of “facts” was entirely utilitarian, in service to his ideology of the American dream and American foreign policy. Willy too had great difficulty absorbing facts that did not fit the view he wanted to have of himself and his life. The entire play is basically a struggle within Willy's mind between his vision of himself and the painful reality of facts intruding upon his “dream.” Perhaps the most painful and poignant moment in the play comes when his son Biff tries to tell Willy that he's not now and will never be the “success” Willy imagines for him. Willy cannot hear him. Actually, in denying basic facts each man was trying to create himself from myth.7 One was of course more successful at doing this than the other.

Third, Ronald Reagan and Willy Loman also had to fantasize in order to avoid the realities they could not handle and to give themselves the confidence they otherwise would lack. Willy was “well liked” and known all over New England, and at his own funeral his boys would be impressed at how many “friends” would show up (Miller 764, 796). Ronald Reagan moved more than a dozen times during his childhood, and had to learn to survive without close friends. He wanted to play football but was never any good (his eyes were too poor). Yet he was “the Gipper,” Notre Dame's great football hero, throughout his political career. His movie career and political career often blended, sometimes consciously as in the above example, and sometimes unconsciously. The “Gipper” was a kind of double fantasy, in that George Gipp himself was a mythical hero based heavily on fantasy. While “Win One for the Gipper,” Reagan's favorite movie and political line, probably was said by George Gipp on his death bed, most likely Gipp thought he was talking to his doctor (qtd. in Lippman). In reality, George Gipp was a rather unsavory character who bet on his own games and by today's standards would have been expelled from the sport.8 But, as with so much of Ronald Reagan and Willy Loman, facts were not allowed to get in the way of the myth. And in another kind of chilling rehearsal for life (politics) imitating art (the movie), the Reagan movie helped make Gipp into “a teflon hero.”

Fourth, while both Willy and Reagan wanted to be well liked, and wanted to have the personalities to “win friends and influence people,” neither was successful at forming close personal friendships.9 In both cases, only their wives stood by them, and in both cases their wives tried to protect them and sustain their husbands' illusions in the face of reality.10 Each man tried to make sure his “image” presented an air of leadership and success, but both men in fact were more passive than they wanted to appear.11

Both men also faced severe problems with their children and denied these problems to themselves and the outside world. Willy's pained relationships with his two sons is one of the basic themes running through Death of a Salesman. With Reagan, his relationship with his adopted son Michael (detailed in Michael's autobiography, On the Outside Looking In) has been extremely strained. His daughter Patti barely has been on speaking terms with her parents since the publication of her autobiography (thinly disguised as a novel) several years ago (Home Front). Both men lacked strong fathers who could nurture them, although their father relationships also contained important differences. In a poignant moment, Willy asks Ben (his older brother) to tell him more about “Dad,” who left when Willy was still young, because “I still feel kind of temporary about myself” (Miller 770). Reagan had a much longer relationship with his father, but Reagan's stay in any one place was “kind of temporary.” Jack Reagan was also “footloose.” He moved constantly, changed jobs, and was usually a failure as a salesman. In addition, Reagan's father's alcoholism was a source of worry and shame. But Ronald Reagan also described his father as “the best raconteur I ever heard,” and this surely must have helped Ronald's own skills as a salesman and storyteller.12

Fifth, both men had brushes with the uglier side of capitalism, and yet seemed unable to recognize or condemn this brutal side. To Willy it was his older brother Ben, who became a millionaire at a young age and kept admonishing Willy: “Never fight fair with a stranger, boy. You'll never get out of the jungle that way” (Miller 770). Yet Willy constantly wants Ben's approval and is asking him how he managed to be so successful. Willy even views his son Biff's stealing as “initiative.”

Reagan was called before a grand jury investigating the seamier side of Hollywood capitalism, the bribery and monopolistic practices of the Music Corporation of America. Its special sweet deals with the Screen Actors Guild while Reagan was president of the Guild and simultaneously getting what looked like kickbacks from MCA nearly resulted in his indictment.13

Later, as President, Reagan was surrounded by corruption, influence peddling, indictments, trials and convictions of his aides and associates—Michael Deaver, Lynn Nofziger, John Poindexter—the HUD scandal, the Savings and Loan scandal and the spectacular corruption of some who became multimillionaires during his era. But throughout his administration and throughout Death of a Salesman neither Reagan nor Willy ever criticized or condemned any actions by these people. As Willy refused to condemn son Biff's stealing or brother Ben's ruthlessness, neither did Reagan condemn the stealings and illegalities of any of his aides. Neither had a moral code of what were fair and unfair practices, what were proper ways to get rich and what were improper ways. To both, the American creed meant success and riches, but how these were obtained neither wanted to examine too closely. Perhaps they did not want to examine this too closely because the truth would have been too painful. To both men America and the American creed seemed to have no place for failure. How one succeeded was therefore not a moral question.

Both the Reagan presidency and Death of a Salesman then are dramas about the power of the American dream and the self-deceptions necessary for the kind of American dream believed. These are both potent forces in American politics and culture. But Willy Loman and Ronald Reagan are obviously not identical. Their differences are too important to ignore.


From the beginning, Ronald Reagan had physical traits and a personality that made it more likely that he would succeed in America. His personality was a more marketable commodity, both for Hollywood and in politics. He was physically handsome, meticulous about his appearance and successful at entertaining others. His “self-deprecating humor” was in marked contrast to Willy's braggadocio (Cannon 32). Reagan had the ability to inspire others and to make people feel good about themselves. This allowed others to enjoy being around Reagan and gave him the self-confidence Willy wanted but lacked. Yet, like Willy, Reagan was essentially remote from others and could be highly manipulative (229, 218).

As the “good guy” in so many Hollywood movies, Reagan had a clearer sense of the “bad guy” than Willy had. Demonology—the Sandinistas, the Communists, terrorists, etc., abroad and welfare queens and government at home—served Reagan well both in defining himself and explaining the world to others.14 Willy didn't really know what was happening to him. Death of a Salesman is a desperate search to find out what is killing Willy, and Willy never figures it out. The final “Requiem” scene shows that the remaining characters are divided over what the cause was as well. If Willy had had a scapegoat, or a clearer sense of what was killing him, he could have fought back and found a greater reason for living. But Willy never questioned the social, economic or political order. Broader institutional forces are more remote from him, givens in a system where he's searching for fame, success and the American dream.15 Reagan, however, translated his personal values and dreams into politics and was the defender of the American dream from threats both external and internal.

While both Willy Loman and Ronald Reagan had to confront failure, their responses to their failures were different. Like Willy, Ronald Reagan faced career problems with middle age. He was dumped by Hollywood after a string of B-grade movies. Near the end he was even forced to co-star with a chimpanzee in Bedtime for Bonzo. General Electric rescued him from obscurity in Hollywood and honed his speaking skills. But he was dropped on 24-hours' notice by the company when G.E. Theater was cancelled, and Reagan was forced to take a salary cut in hosting Death Valley Days. By 1964 Reagan was in debt and owed back taxes to the U.S. government.16 Willy of course was also failing financially and with age. But here the differences in the two men are too important to ignore. Willy had no one to rescue him, save his neighbor Charlie, who in fact did help. But Willy was too proud to give up his salesman's job (or admit that he had been fired) to work for Charlie. Ronald Reagan, however, was quite willing to accept help and funds from anyone, including wealthy admirers of his conservative views:

A group headed by Justin Dart (Dart Industries; Rexall Drugs; Kraft Foods), Holmes Tutle (a Los Angeles Ford dealer), William French Smith (a wealthy Los Angeles attorney), and A. C. (Cy) Rubel (Chairman of Union Oil Co.) formed the Ronald Reagan Trust Fund to take over his personal finances. …

(Dye 71)

Willy didn't have anyone to set up the Willy Loman Trust Fund to take over his personal finances. In addition, Reagan was given a ranch. Willy needed one. This difference allowed Reagan never to lose self-confidence (at least not for long), while Willy's self-worth was collapsing around him (Dye 72).17

Other differences follow from ones already mentioned. As Willy's psychological condition deteriorates, he is more obsessed with the meaning of life and his place in history than Ronald Reagan. In his struggle, Willy is engaged in a battle with himself. But that is only because he has to be. Willy is not by nature any more introspective than Ronald Reagan. Reagan seeks love less desperately because he is a more successful salesman. He has enough of what he needs. And while Willy is haunted by his failed relationship with his sons, there is no evidence that Ronald Reagan is. Willy, however, in his own failures, must live more through his sons. Ronald Reagan doesn't need to. These differences thus emphasize that through his more obvious and painful confrontations with failure, Willy has been forced to become more introspective than either Willy or Reagan would have desired. But deep down both men were solipsists. Neither was interested in learning from other people. Neither wanted the real world to intrude upon his fantasy world.

Ronald Reagan, in sum, was what Willy Loman wanted to be: well-liked, at least in a superficial way; entertaining without being a bore; successful; handsome; and not fat. Reagan's attributes allowed him to be rescued by wealthy individuals who realized they could use him for their own purposes, as he used them for his own purposes. But Willy had no Southern California businessmen to come to his rescue when he was washed up, abandoned, aging and unsure of his value to society.


Willy Loman committed suicide. Ronald Reagan became President of the United States. Yet this difference hides greater truths. Each believed in the American dream. That Reagan was elected President twice, and was widely liked by the American people during his tenure, ultimately says more about the American people than about Ronald Reagan. Here Willy Loman and Arthur Miller can help us. That Arthur Miller understood the power of the American dream, and the need of little people to believe in it, helps us later explain the rise and success of Ronald Reagan in American politics when America itself was undergoing a crisis of confidence.

Of course, the American dream has meant different things to different people. Tom Paine (“We have it in our power to begin the world over again”), Franklin Roosevelt and our “rendezvous with destiny” and Martin Luther King (“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal’”) all evoke feelings of the New Adam in the New Eden. In this new world the sins, hatreds, unfreedoms and inequalities of other lands can be changed and history can be forgotten.18

But Arthur Miller (through Willy Loman) and Ronald Reagan are focusing on an altered dream: the self-reliant individual, Jefferson's yeoman farmer, gradually became the man who could make a lot of money. And to do that, marketing, salesmanship and image became the road to the dream. The defense of heroic individualism became the defense of competition, capitalist exploitation and, in Reagan, also virulent anti-communism. Willy never examines his values and how these values don't fit with his true, more agrarian personality. While Ronald Reagan mouthed the potent cliches of the business ethic as the ultimate form of freedom, he examined the values in hardly any greater depth than Willy. But he did have the advantage, once he entered politics, of being someone who had spent his life, including his professional life, presenting himself as an image, a role to be seen by others.

The rewards of being successful for both men were to be well liked and to be rich. To be rich for both seemed to mean 1) having a place where they can get away from it all—a ranch or “a little place out in the country” and 2) consuming the products of a bountiful business society. To be rich is thus to be “free” in the two senses above, with the added self-confidence of being admired, a model for others.

Willy Loman and Ronald Reagan share this new, salesmanship understanding of the American dream. Miller's purpose, however, is very different from Willy Loman's and Ronald Reagan's. While he wanted to show the power of this dream, he also wanted to show the dangers, the costs and the emptiness of it. In his autobiography, Timebends, Miller says that in writing the play he had as a motive “in some far corner of my mind possibly something political; there was the smell in the air of a new American Empire in the making … and I wanted to set before the new captains and the so smugly confident kings the corpse of a believer” (184). He does this in many unsubtle ways, including letting us know early on that the Loman family is caught up in mindless consumerism (“whipped cheese”), and that these new products disrupt attempts at meaningful human interaction. Miller shows the power of advertising and consumerism, and the contradictions of attitudes toward products in the Loman family by having Willy call his Chevrolet both “the greatest car ever built” and “that goddamn Chevrolet” in the space of only a few minutes, and in Willy's remark that “Once in my life I would like to own something outright before it's broken!” (Miller 765, 766, 777). But while Willy utters these remarks, he still is completely caught up in the pursuit of the dream.

Miller understood the power of the belief in a New Land, a New Eden, where the normal rules and motives for other countries and other peoples would not apply. Even in its competitive, “get rich” meanings, Miller understood the continuing force of the dream in mobilizing and inspiring people.

“Can we doubt,” said Reagan in accepting the Republican nomination for President in 1980, “that only a Divine Providence placed this land, this island of freedom, here as a refuge for all those people in the world who yearn to breathe freely. … ?” This is Reagan's belief. But where does this belief lead? Is God a white American, willing to countenance the near genocide of millions of the original Americans and willing to sanction the death and slavery of millions of blacks so that the economic system of white America could grow stronger and be “free”? Reagan's encomium to the American dream can be as soaring and inspirational as it is in part because he never asks or answers these questions, any more than Willy does. Similarly, with American power abroad Ronald Reagan sees only altruism; not imperialism, manifest destiny or messianic causes unwanted by others: “I'd always felt that from our deeds it must be clear to anyone that Americans were a moral people who, starting at the birth of our nation, had always used our power only as a force for good in the world” (qtd. in Wills 3).

Reagan's is a view deeply soothing to a nation questioning its self-confidence after Vietnam, Watergate, stagflation and energy crises. The blinders and the fantasies are not only necessary for the laudatory rhetoric; they also do not prepare anyone for failure. Both Willy and Reagan believed; each was an incurable optimist always wanting to paint a “rosy scenario.”19 And the downside of this view is that there is no place for failure. If in the face of such boundless opportunities (“just check the want ads”), a person does not succeed, there must be something wrong with that person.20 It is this downside that is so hard for Willy to confront, because he believes so strongly in the American dream. Willy is unable to let go of it, unable to change in the face of reality, and commits suicide in the hope that he is helping his family.

Arthur Miller, through Willy Loman, presages the Reagan prototype through 1) emphasizing the power of the capitalist-consumerist-get-rich-and-be-well-liked dream, and the hold it has on the American people. Miller shows us the power of the myth. 2) He also understood the need for selective perception, fantasy and denial, and the tenuous hold on reality necessary for this strident view of the dream. He prepares us for the Reagan denials, misstatements and lies, and the gap between appearance and reality.21 To both Willy and Reagan, uttering the cliches of success is virtually the same thing as bringing these cliches into actuality. To both, “saying makes it so,” and thus they are an evasion of the truth. Arthur Miller helps us understand that Ronald Reagan succeeded not in spite of but because of all his paradoxes and contradictions. As the defender of the little man's dream, he succeeded because millionaires could use him to champion a dream that benefitted primarily themselves. If he had been truly committed to helping the little Willys of the nation fulfill their dreams, he would have been dumped by his financial backers. Instead, Reagan was the “sincerest claimant to a heritage that never existed … —a perfect blend of an authentic America he grew up in and of that America's own fables about its past.”22 As political analysts have written of Reagan: “He had been in some measure the Wizard of Us, a fabulist presiding over a wondrous Emerald City of the mind. … people wanted to believe in it” (Goldman and Mathews 32).23

Miller also seems to understand that 3) as pressures on the dream close in, the desire to believe in it will intensify rather than weaken. The American people did not want to hear Jimmy Carter (or John Anderson or Walter Mondale or Bruce Babbitt, etc.) any more than Willy wanted to hear Charlie. A “realist,” willing to talk of limits, taxes, sacrifice and mixed motives in a complex world isn't what Willy or the American people wanted to hear. Arthur Miller understood this from of the American psyche and its power.

Surely all writers—political analysts as well as dramatists—recognize the need of people to find meaning in their lives. But Miller understood the particular nature of the American need for meaning. Through giving us Willy Loman, Miller helped us better understand the successful Willy Loman when he appeared on the American stage: Ronald Reagan, the super salesman, everything Willy and our nation of Willys wanted to be. Ronald Reagan understood American fears, hopes, lies, vulnerabilities and the need for optimism better than many political scientists, and he understood the role of the salesman in selling us our dreams better than others did. He had the confidence the rest of us wanted.

But whether we should assess Reagan as critically as son Biff assessed Willy—“He had the wrong dreams. All, all wrong” (Miller 797)—is less clear. After a decade of Reagan and Reaganism we have record budget deficits, record trade deficits, increased dependence upon foreign lenders in the world economy, a crumbling infrastructure and, most poignant and ironic of all, a growing gap between rich and poor. It is now harder, not easier, for the little Willys of society to reach the American dream. To criticize Reagan, we, like Biff, would have to condemn part of ourselves, condemn part of our own dreams, and condemn part of our identity and meaning as Americans. We Americans are a long way from being ready or able to do that. But we should not forget that both Willy Loman and Ronald Reagan embody what ought to be a debate about the essence and direction of America.


  1. For reviews of the play, see Harold Bloom, ed., Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, 1982. For a review of Arthur Miller in general, see Neil Carson, Arthur Miller, 1982. As Carson notes (13) the play ran on Broadway for 742 performances and “transformed Miller's life,” elevating him “to a position of prominence where he became exposed to both adulation and criticism of a kind he had not previously experienced.”

  2. The play is in many ways autobiographical, for Miller's father, Isidore, lost his business and his fortune in the Great Depression and was blamed by his son for an inability to cope with these changes. See the review of Miller's autobiography, Timebends (1987), in The New Republic, Feb. 8, 1988, 30-34, “All My Sins,” by David Denby.

  3. These points are mentioned many places, including Lou Cannon, Reagan, 1982, 93.

  4. Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman,The Bedford Introduction to Drama, Lee Jacobus (ed.), 797. William Heyen, “Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman and the American Dream” in Bloom, supra note 1, p. 51, has said, quoting Leslie Fiedler, that American industry produces “not things … but dreams disguised as things.”

  5. Lou Cannon, the journalist who has observed Ronald Reagan the closest over the past three decades, comments in his latest biography of Reagan, “Acting took early hold of him, and never let him go.” President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime, 1991, 39.

  6. On Reagan denying the Hollywood blacklist, see Victor Navasky, Naming Names, 1980 p. 87; for Reagan's relationship with the MCA, see Garry Wills, Reagan's America, 1988, chapters 28 and 29. For his confused views on taxes and deficits, see David Stockman, The Triumph of Politics, 1986; for the severe cuts in low- and moderate-incoming housing, see Charles Moore and Patricia Hoban-Moore, “Some Lessons from Reagan's HUD: Housing Policy and Public Service,” PS: Political Science and Politics, Mar. 1990, 13-18; for denying that the diversion of funds took place and for forgetting nearly everything about the Iran-Contra scandal, see Newsweek, Apr. 2, 1990, 36 (“A Diminished Ron, a Refurbished Jimmy”). Newsweek reports that “Reagan pleaded loss of memory some 150 times in two days of testimony [at the Poindexter trial]—and he had forgotten the conclusion of his own Tower Commission, that funds were diverted to the Contras.” In a chilling parallel with the Iran-Contra scandal, Garry Wills reports (325) that as the Justice Department proceeded with the investigation of MCA and the Screen Actors Guild's favorable treatment of them, “Reagan's strategy was to retreat toward constantly expanding areas of forgetfulness.” At one point in his grand jury testimony in 1962, Reagan said, “And all of this, including the opinions of myself, is vague at the Guild on everything that took place for all those years all the way back including whether I was present or not” (Wills 323).

  7. David Broder, “Reagan Memoir Fails to Tell All,” Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Nov. 23, 1990, editorial page, comments that “Reagan has devoted most of his eight decades to remaking, not the nation or the world, but himself.” Sidney Blumenthal, Our Long National Daydream: The Political Pageant of the Reagan Era, 1986, p. xiv, has written, “The essential quality for any actor is to induce in his audience a willing suspension of disbelief … [h]e must also suspend disbelief within himself, giving himself over to the role and the scene. Reagan's grip over the nation partly lay in his ability to maintain his grip over himself. Above all, he was a true believer in his role. He used that role to persuade that willing was doing, that saying something made it so.” Michael Rogin, Ronald Reagan, The Movie, 1987, 3 argues that Ronald Reagan “found out who he was through the roles he played on film.”

  8. Lippman also reports that after the Notre Dame coach invoked George Gipp's name at half-time, Notre Dame did win 12 to 6, but Army was on the Notre Dame one-yard line as the game ended, and Notre Dame lost the rest of its games that season to finish 5-4 overall. Comments Lippman, “Another few seconds and … Ronald Reagan might never have become president.”

  9. The string of “kiss-and-tell” books from Reagan's closest aides, starting with Michael Deaver and continuing through David Stockman, Larry Speakes and Chief of Staff Don Regan, makes this point painfully clear.

  10. Nancy, however, was a greater help to Ronald than Linda was to Willy. As an entertainer herself, she better understood the needs of her husband, but both actively intervened to try to defend their husbands. See Garry Wills, “The Man Who Wasn't There” [a review of Lou Cannon's President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime], The New York Review of Books, June 13, 1991, 3-7.

  11. Fred Greenstein, “Ronald Reagan—Another Hidden-Hand Ike?” PS: Political Science and Politics, Mar. 1990, 7-13 concludes that Reagan was surprisingly passive and remote from the specifics of politics and policy, although he did have strong general beliefs. He quotes Chief of Staff Donald Regan that Reagan's outgoing personality and infectious likability are based on a “natural diffidence.”

  12. Wills, supra, note 6: 15, quoting Reagan's autobiography, Where's the Rest of Me? (1965): 14.

  13. Wills, supra note 6: 322. Wills also concludes (322) that “it seems that Reagan's political career would not have emerged at all if the circumstances of a 1962 investigation had become known at the time; if an indictment of Reagan, seriously considered for months by the Justice Department, had been brought or even publicly threatened; if a civil suit of conspiracy against the MCA had not been settled by a divestiture.”

  14. One does not appoint master spy and covert operator William Casey as campaign manager unless one has a strong sense of the need for action against “enemies.” Michael Rogin, supra note 7, argues that demonology was an essential part of Reagan's persona.

  15. Helene Wickham Koon, “Introduction,” Twentieth Century Interpretations of Death of a Salesman, 11, says of Willy that he “accepts the world without question and never seeks to better it, who reacts without thought, who substitutes dreams for knowledge, and who is necessarily self-centered because unanalyzed feelings are his sole touchstone to existence.” Willy does, however, protest the surrounding of his house by apartment buildings and the loss of sunlight and space that comes with it. He also protests how things are constantly breaking down. But these protests are completely devoid of meaningful human action. He is apolitical.

  16. These events are discussed in Thomas Dye's Who's Running America? The Reagan Years, Third Edition, 1983, 69-73 and Garry Wills, Reagan's America, 1988, 338-39. Wills, however, states that “Reagan was financially secure by 1962,” which seems not to account for the need for his trust fund to be set up by wealthy benefactors.

  17. Dye notes other investments for Reagan as well.

  18. The first two men are quoted in Ronald Reagan's speech accepting his party's nomination in 1980, which can be found in Ronald Reagan Talks to America (1983) 77. But Reagan does not quote Martin Luther King. For contested meanings of the American dream, see David Madden, American Dream, American Nightmare (1965), who argues that the American dream comes in an older agrarian and a newer urban form. John Cawelti, Apostles of the Self-Made Man (1965), describes three main competing versions: the first came from a more conservative tradition of middle-class Protestantism and stressed piety and honesty; the second stressed more secular qualities of initiative, aggressiveness and competitiveness; the third tied individual fulfillment to social progress more than wealth or status, along the lines of Emerson's self-reliant man. Alfred Ferguson, “The Tragedy of the American Dream,” Thought (1978) 83-98 explores the “New Adam” in the “New Eden” in greater detail, arguing that the dream now means “it is possible for everyman to be whatever he can imagine himself being” (88). “[T]he wish is father to the fact” (90).

  19. William Heyen, supra note 4: 49, speaks of Willy Loman as “an incurable yea-sayer, painting everything rosy, prophesizing empire … for the Lomans. … He is insatiable. He so much needs to believe in his dream.” David Stockman, supra note 6: 385, recounts a story President Reagan would tell of a boy who is an optimist that gets a roomful of horse manure for a Christmas present: “He's delighted. He digs around the room for hours on end. With all that horse manure, he figured there just had to be a pony in there somewhere!” Stockman uses the term “rosy scenario” to describe President Reagan's constant belief that the nation would “grow” itself out of the deficit problems.

  20. John Cawelti, supra, note 25, discusses this in more detail. He notes (217) that “positive thinkers like Norman Vincente Peale and Dale Carnegie seem to accept the American business world wholeheartedly. If it has flaws, they are the result of some failure to assume a positive “attitude.” Cawelti argues provocatively (217), however, that “positive thinking is … a revelation of the failure of the dream,” because these books are full of eloquent testimony of anxious, neurotic people and “the failure of the business world to fulfill human needs.”

  21. To say this is not to say anything as precise as that from Miller we can sense that Ronald Reagan would launch a “war on drugs” while secretly dealing with Manuel Noriega, or condemn “terrorism” while secretly dealing with Iran. Rather, the point is that when these gaps between appearance and truth appear, most Americans will want to believe their leader, especially one who can evoke the symbols of the dream as powerfully as Reagan. If the leader can maintain his self-confidence and affability, even as the truth is (partially) revealed, he will likely survive and be “well liked.”

  22. Lou Cannon, Ronald Reagan,supra note 5: 793, quoting Garry Wills, supra note 6.

  23. See also Sidney Blumenthal, quoted in footnote 6, supra.

I owe thanks to many people, especially the following: Albert Wertheim of the Indian University Department of English for encouraging my interest in politics and drama; David Olson and Donald McCrone of the University of Washington Political Science Department, along with Norman Walbek of Gustavus Adolphus College, for allowing me to teach courses in politics and drama; and Debbie Wiley of Western Illinois University for preparing the manuscript.

Works Cited

Cannon, Lou. Reagan. New York: Putnam, 1982.

Dye, Thomas R. Who's Running America?—The Reagan Years. Third ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1983.

Goldman, Peter Louis, and Tom Mathews. The Quest for the Presidency, 1988. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989.

Lippman, Theo. “Let Reagan Have Role He Was Born to Play: Rockne.” Minneapolis Star-Tribune, date unknown (1988) quoting sportswriter Jim Murray.

Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. Ed. Lee Jacobus. New York: Bantam Books, 1955.

Wills, Garry. “Mr. Magoo Remembers.” New York Review of Books 20 Dec. 1990.

H. C. Phelps (essay date summer 1995)

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SOURCE: Phelps, H. C. “Miller's Death of a Salesman.Explicator 53, no. 4 (summer 1995): 239-40.

[In the following essay, Phelps examines the uncertainty regarding Biff's love for his father in Death of a Salesman, faulting critics for easily accepting Biff's affection as the impetus for Willy's suicide.]

Curiously, most critics seem to accept at face value the assumption that at the conclusion of Arthur Miller's classic drama Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman determines to commit suicide because his older son Biff has at last openly and unequivocally declared his “love” for his father (e.g., Aarnes 104; Bigsby 123; Hynes 286; Dukore 39). Yet a close examination of this crucial scene and the subsequent Requiem reveals a far greater degree of ambiguity than has been acknowledged.

Though Willy has obviously contemplated suicide for a long time, he only makes his final, irrevocable decision after the play has reached its undoubted emotional climax, Biff's dramatic declaration to his father: “Pop, I'm nothing! I'm nothing, Pop. Can't you understand that? There's no spite in it anymore. I'm just what I am, that's all.” Following this outburst, Biff physically collapses in his father's arms, and Miller carefully comments in his stage direction: “Biff's fury has spent itself, and he breaks down, sobbing, holding on to Willy, who dumbly fumbles for Biff's face.” The son's final words to his father in the play are simply: “I'll go in the morning. Put him—put him to bed” (133).

At best, this statement can only be regarded as a tepid and ambiguous expression of concern. Yet Willy's immediate reaction to it is to conclude: “Biff—he likes me!” To which Linda and Happy quickly respond with enthusiastic reinforcement: “He loves you, Willy!” and “Always did, Pop” (133). Their reaction suggests that Biff's feelings are obvious. However, Linda and Happy are repeatedly shown to be among the most deluded, obtuse, and mendacious characters in the play. Earlier, each had made equally enthusiastic and reinforcing—but dangerously inaccurate—comments on the supposed affection of Bill Oliver, Biff's former boss, for his departed employee. When Biff outlined his plan to persuade Oliver to “stake” him to a business venture, he insisted: “He did like me. Always liked me.” Linda immediately exclaimed: “He loved you” (64). Earlier, Happy had responded to the plan in a similar fashion: “I bet he'd back you. 'Cause he thought highly of you, Biff” (26). Yet Oliver, when Biff finally sees him in his office, doesn't “remember who [Biff] was or anything” (104).

Even the choice of words of Linda's and Happy's comments in the scene with Willy seems deliberately to echo their earlier remarks, as if Miller is intentionally undermining their credibility in this scene. And if their reactions are as erroneous as they had been earlier with Oliver, it casts Willy's subsequent suicide into a new light. For it is primarily due to their insistence on Biff's love for his father, not to any explicit comment by his son, that Willy decides to take his own life to provide Biff with insurance money for a fresh start.

If Biff does indeed not love his father, Willy's suicide must be regarded as just the last in the series of futile, misguided gestures that made up his life. Biff's awareness of this fact, then, would go far to explain his puzzling tension and bitterness at the Requiem, where he argues sullenly with Happy, Charley, and Linda. For perhaps he realizes that to make plain the sad futility of Willy's act would be to rob the ceremony of what little dignity it possesses. Therefore, he remains virtually silent as the other mourners express their eloquent, if contradictory, judgments on Willy's life, insisting only that his father “had the wrong dreams” and “never knew who he was” (138). If the belief that Biff “loves” Willy is only the final, most tragic false perception in a play permeated by such uncertainty, the son's silence on this critical point is both understandable and justified.

Works Cited

Aarnes, William. “Tragic Form and the Possibility of Meaning in Death of a Salesman.Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman: Modern Critical Interpretations. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1988. 84-110.

Bigsby, C. W. E. “Death of a Salesman: In Memoriam.” Modern Critical Interpretations. Ed. Harold Bloom. 113-128.

Dukore, Bernard F. Death of a Salesman and The Crucible. Atlantic Highlands, N. J.: Humanities Press International, 1989

Hynes, Joseph A. “‘Attention Must be Paid …’” Death of a Salesman: Text and Criticism. Ed. Gerald Weales. New York: Viking, 1967. 280-289.

Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. New York: Viking Compass Edition, 1958.

Robert A. Martin (essay date fall 1996)

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SOURCE: Martin, Robert A. “The Nature of Tragedy in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman.South Atlantic Review 61, no. 4 (fall 1996): 97-106.

[In the following essay, Martin explores the elements of classical tragedy in Death of a Salesman, arguing that Willy Loman becomes a tragic figure through “his desire and willingness ‘to secure one thing—his sense of personal dignity.’”]

What the performance of a play gives an audience is less a set of ideas, propositions, or abstractions about life and how to live it than what Arthur Miller has called a “felt experience,” the imaginative sharing and participation in the lives and actions of imaginary characters. The performance is mythic; our sensibilities are enlivened by imaginary characters and we become engaged in their conflicts. Our thoughts and emotions are never so detached from theirs that we can remain “objective” in our feelings for them and in our judgments of them. If the play touches our humanity, we weep, or we smile; their movements move us, and our thoughts about them are kindled by our feelings toward them. Thus, we are most completely engaged in the play, as in any performing art, as it is being performed within a particular space and time. So it may seem, to a degree, presumptuous or meretricious to discuss those ideas of a play, of which the play touches on, without both the writer and reader having directly and immediately experienced the play itself.

Yet many great plays—especially those written by Arthur Miller—are also plays that engage us directly in social, political, and moral questions, in questions that may be posed early in the plays themselves, and which continue to stimulate and engage us. Significantly, these questions may linger, or stimulate us as an audience to ask other related questions, after we have experienced the play. Not only are our feelings stirred by such drama, our ideas about the lives, the social and personal relationships of the characters and their environments, are stirred as well. So Miller does offer us a way to go back to those familiar or less familiar ideas he presents in his plays—by his near-faultless blending of the social, political, moral, and personal questions presented directly or indirectly through his characters.

Miller's great achievement as a playwright allows us to see and understand particular characters or groups of characters as possessing universal, human traits, even as we also see how their lives illuminate, by association, our own lives as individuals and as members of our larger society. In recognizing these larger concerns, we recognize as well that Miller's plays are not exclusively about individuals, but more precisely, are about humanity and human societies with all their contradictions and complications. As an audience we respond to the pointless death of one salesman; but we also respond as members of a society for whom, not the fact, but the nature of Willy Loman's life and death simultaneously diminishes and exalts us.

Willy Loman is not a case study to be argued or defended, but a representative character to be “felt” and “experienced.” Still, in Death of a Salesman, we feel compelled to ask: “Who Is Willy Loman?” for if we do not understand him and do not know who he is, we can hardly understand his death. We may be moved by Willy; but we also want to know what our responses are about. We have, in other words, an emotional investment in watching and hearing him with his family. How can we come to understand the nature of this experience? If Willy is a pathetic figure, do we feel this to be true—do we know this is true? Or is Willy a tragic figure? Do we feel this and know it to be true? Finally, we ask ourselves, what does this character's death mean in social terms—does it represent more than the death of one obscure salesman? To answer these questions, we must as audience and witnesses enter into our “felt experience” of Willy's life and death, and also, paradoxically, to view from a distance how his life affects our understanding of ourselves, our society, and our shared values.

For several thousand years, philosophers, those early cogent critics, have pondered the meaning of aesthetic experience. Within the realms of playwriting and the theatre, Aristotle's definition of tragedy, as described in The Poetics, continues to inform us of what this “felt experience” involves. According to Aristotle:

Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of those emotions.

(Butcher 61)

In assessing Death of a Salesman, some critics have found fault with Miller's intention to portray Willy Loman as a tragic figure. Willy has been criticized for being “too little” or “too common” to meet the supposed requirement of Aristotle, i.e., that tragedy can only affect or be affected by noble beings, who are themselves of a “certain nobility or magnitude.” But here, it is necessary to note two important points. First, Aristotle's Poetics conceives that the prime quality of tragedy is not character, but plot; and second, that Aristotle's opinion about tragedy is based only on the plays he knew—about what necessarily constitutes tragedy. Other philosophers and thinkers—including Miller—have slightly or strongly disagreed with Aristotle's extended definition. But Aristotle's definition of tragedy has retained more followers than detractors, so it is perfectly understandable that classically-oriented critics might object to Willy's qualifications as a figure of tragedy.

Eric Mottram, for one, in his essay, “Arthur Miller: The Development of a Political Dramatist in America,” notes that

If the plot is not to be simply a mocking of the non-passive man, it must show a real chance of heroism and change. This Miller fails to do.


He further argues that although Miller allows for the common man, such as Willy Loman, to be the agent, in Miller's words, who “thrusts for freedom” that as a tragic protagonist the

common man is liable to arouse only pity as a poor fool in terror for his life unless he is allowed an understanding that his revolt is towards ends which have a specific chance of attainment.


It seems reasonable enough to raise the question, does Willy Loman really have an opportunity to develop as a free human being, or are his actions and choices those that proceed from a pitiful and confused character in an impossible situation that leads inexorably to his self-destruction? In short, is Willy, in Mottram's phrase, “a poor fool”? If Willy lacks the ability to engage the circumstances that create a life of disappointment, and if he must die self-defeated, isn't he really just a pathetic character?

It is clear that Willy's life and suicide are perceived by his wife and sons as full of pathos. Although Willy talks grandly of heroic deeds, of great feats of salesmanship, it is evident to everyone (including Willy himself), that his life-long dream of success is flawed. At the age of 63, he confides, ironically, to his imagined image of brother Ben: “I still feel—kind of temporary about myself” (51). He nevertheless keeps searching for the “secret” of success, and pathetically asks Bernard (who was never “well-liked,” but who is now a successful lawyer) to help him understand what it is (93). Even Linda, who maintains that “attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person” (56), and who is Willy's strongest defender, recognizes that Willy is fighting an impossible struggle that has left him talking to himself. After his suicide, she confesses that “I can't understand it”—seemingly confirming her previously unspoken opinion of Willy, that he continued to decline emotionally to the point where he cut himself off from her and her sons forever.

Given Willy's self-deluding dream, his suicide, his constant confusion over the right way to live his life, and how to raise his sons (“Because sometimes I'm afraid that I'm not teaching them the right kind of—Ben how should I teach them?”), and given his wife's opinion of him—of a man of “character” (57) but “not the finest character that ever lived” (56), and given his sons' opinions of him—a failure—how can we possibly see Willy as anything other than, as Eric Mottram describes him, a pathetic, pitiable “poor fool in terror”?

We do, however, see more than a pitiable “poor fool” in Willy. Our “felt experience” of Willy's character includes a sense of his idealism and his will to succeed against all odds. Willy is not merely pitiable. Although his enthusiasm may outstrip the realities of his situations, it also lets us admire his joy of living. A man who is constantly on the edge of pessimism according to his current sales chart, Willy can repeatedly rebound and fill himself with joy, pride, and optimism for the future of his son Biff. A man both of temperament and sensitivity, Willy can be moved to tears by tears, and can be moved beyond mere self-pity. Realizing that Biff loves him, Willy cries out with vibrant enthusiasm: “that boy—that boy is going to be magnificent!” (133).

Numerous critics have suggested that Willy's inability to understand the reality of his competitive salesman's world marks him as merely a pathetic figure, and determines, in effect, his fate. Such criticism implies that Miller fails to give Willy any chance to grow or to free himself from the siren's song of Madison Avenue. But Willy does act freely, not in destroying himself out of a sense of desperation and self-pity, but in sacrificing what is left of his life to provide a more secure future for Biff. Consequently, the small, common man has gained a kind of noble stature in acting heroically in facing death, and in a manner that few of us would have the courage to display. Willy, pragmatically sees his act as one that will immediately benefit Biff through his insurance policy money, and—despite his fear—he acts out his scenario with a strong and passionate determination.

Whether Willy's suicide is seen as a noble act of self-sacrifice by his family is not the point of this play. Willy acts freely—he does not have to kill himself. As Miller suggests in “Tragedy and the Common Man,” “the morality that the common man chooses, that distinguishes his choice from merely psychological or sociological considerations, implies first the desire and ability to act” (5-6). A failure to act freely—even if that free act is an act of sacrifice—conveys to the audience something more than tragedy. But Willy does act freely—and although he acts unwisely, he nevertheless acts heroically, attempting to find in action a solution that evades him in his speech and imagination.

This, however, does not argue that Willy is not, in some ways, a pathetic character. Perhaps Death of a Salesman has the rare quality of presenting its protagonist as both a figure of pathos and of heroism. If this is so, then Death of a Salesman is Miller's finest achievement—for it appears to artfully represent the modern dilemma specifically and generally within the American dream of materialistic success and failure. While graphically portraying the pattern of pathos in Willy Loman, which in Miller's words, means devising a character who “has fought a battle he could not possibly have won” (“Tragedy and the Common Man” 7), Miller also creates a character who “is reaching for a token of immortality, a sign that he lived” (Evans 98), and one who acts heroically on his own terms in trying to provide for his son.

And it is even conceivable that Willy's misplaced optimism, his inheritance from nineteenth-century America, is alone enough to classify him as a tragic figure. For whatever else Willy is in his penultimate moment of sacrifice—he is not pessimistic. In an interview with Phillip Gelb, Miller commented that.

Willy Loman is seeking for a kind of ecstasy in life which the machine civilization deprives people of. He is looking for his selfhood, for his immortal soul, so to speak.


It is Willy's capacity to act, to act freely, courageously, and with optimism and even ecstasy, that defines him as more of a tragic, rather than pathetic, figure. Despite our dismay at his suicide, we are nevertheless moved by Willy's desire to provide for Biff and regard him as someone who is not, finally, “in terror for his life” (33).

In “Arthur Miller and the Idea of Modern Tragedy,” M. W. Steinberg complains that

Willy Loman does not gain “size” from the situation; … his warped values, the illusions concerning the self he projects, reflect those of his society … he goes to his death clinging to his illusions. He is a pathetic figure, yet Miller in his essay written at this time says that there is no place for pathos in real tragedy. Pathos, he remarks, is the mode for the pessimist, suitable for the kind of struggle where a man is obviously doomed from the outset. And earlier in the essay Miller postulated that tragedy must be inherently optimistic. In Miller's view of tragedy and his expression of it in his plays, there seems to be some confusion that needs to be examined.


In Death of a Salesman there may be, indeed, a suggestion of a seemingly defeated character who may or may not obtain a pyrrhic victory, or even an immortal “thrust for freedom,” which, according to Miller in “Tragedy and the Common Man,” “is the quality in tragedy which exalts” (5).

Steinberg is not the only critic to describe Willy's play of memory “inside his head” as that of a victim's. In American Drama since World War II, Gerald Weales notes briefly that even at the play's beginning, Willy Loman is “past the point of choice” (7). Again, for Weales and Steinberg, Willy appears as a victim whose fate is already sealed. But if this were so, there could be no dramatic conflict possible in the play.

Clearly, Willy is a tragic, if occasionally self-contradictory, figure. That he acts unwisely in confronting Biff and in relating to his family is obvious. But his motives are well-intentioned as he struggles to achieve a victory over those forces that seem to conspire to keep his sons from achieving his own dreams. Willy does not die heroically; his tragedy is that he dies blindly and alone. To argue that he does not gain size or stature from his struggle is to ignore the courage required for his sacrifice. But Willy's death serves to underscore the point that the capacity to act is considered more noble and heroic than one's limited capacity to live in harmony with a mechanistic society that eventually destroys by entropy. And although Willy is more than, as Steinberg argues, “a victim of his society”—he is a tragic victim in that he believes it is necessary to sacrifice his life in order to provide for his son. Willy has bought into the American Dream of material success and the ever elusive cult of “personality.” Indeed, Willy carries with him a host of negative qualities that by themselves would make him a pathetic figure. His natural talents as a carpenter and builder have found limited outlets. His love of nature, his desire to breathe fresh air are all thwarted in his prison-like brick home in Brooklyn. Worse still, his real identity is obscured and crushed by a job that consumes his life and daily happiness.

As P. P. Sharma notes in “Search for Self-Identity in Death of a Salesman,” Willy feels “terribly lonely and insecure,” which

is symbolically brought out in the scene when he accidentally switches on the wire recorder and, panic stricken, shouts for Howard's help. Instead of looking within himself, he looks outside to others.


As Sharma notes, Biff, unlike Willy, “gradually learns to be himself, instead of staying on as a compulsive victim” (78).

Certainly, added to Willy's shortcomings are his lack of self-knowledge and successful business acumen. As an audience, we laugh at Willy's contradictions, his distorted logic, and cringe at his stubbornness. In addition, he both practices and encourages lying, cheating, stealing, violence, day-dreaming, adultery, slander, and contemptuousness. He is the butt of jokes and feels obliged to crack a salesman “right across the face” for calling him a “fat walrus.” Nevertheless and notwithstanding, we feel his pathos, and are both moved by and pity his sense of obligation to Biff. Willy Loman is not merely “insecure” and a “compulsive victim,” he is absolute and reveals himself as multi-dimensional. As Miller comments in the Introduction to his Collected Plays,

he [Willy] has achieved a very powerful piece of knowledge, which is that he is loved by his son and has been embraced by him and forgiven.


In other words, Willy is at this point not merely a lost figure drowning in self-pity and pathos. He is a tragic figure, who attains a modern tragic stature, according to Miller, by his desire and willingness “to secure one thing—his sense of personal dignity” (4). The knowledge that Biff loves him, despite their past differences, allows Willy to achieve a moral victory, which, for Miller, is the stuff of tragedy. Willy regains a faith in himself, just as we in the audience ponder Miller's own conception, the “belief—optimistic if you will, in the perfectibility of man” (“Tragedy and the Common Man” 7). The play might also have been titled Death of a Father.

Some critics and scholars, however, disagree with Miller's ideas on what constitutes the tragic condition and continue to view Willy as a misguided dream chaser, a character who foolishly throws his life away on the false promises of Madison Avenue, the power of money, and a desire for some imaginary self-aggrandizement. After the play is over, we may be haunted by Willy's suicide and thereby conclude that it represents an act lacking in “good faith,” to borrow Jean Paul Sartre's expression. But what elevates this play to the status of tragedy is not only Willy's self-conscious choice to sacrifice his life, that given the nature of our society, we might also make a similar choice. If we fail to empathize with Willy, it may be as Miller suggests in the foreward to his Theater Essays of Arthur Miller that “we have lost the art of tragedy for want of a certain level of self-respect, finally, and are in disgrace with ourselves” (xliii). And, as if to underscore his own concerns in Death of a Salesman, in his essay “The Family in Modern Drama,” Miller has commented that:

If, for instance, the struggle in Death of a Salesman were simply between father and son for recognition and forgiveness it would diminish in importance. But when it extends itself out of the family circle and into society, it broaches those questions of social status, social honor and recognition, which expand its vision and lift it out of the merely particular toward the fate of the generality of men.


Just as Miller sees the stage as “the place for ideas, for philosophies, for the most intense discussions of man's fate,” he also believes that we can, by contemplating dramatic tragedies, acquire that same knowledge that the tragic figure acquires “pertaining to the right way of living in the world” (“The Nature of Tragedy” 9).

How then do Willy Loman's experiences represent those questions that social plays ask? Is there more to the idea of tragedy than transcends the struggle between father and son for forgiveness and dignity? As an audience, our “felt experience” involves our own empathetic feelings toward and about Willy. While we may intellectually identify with him in his existential situation, we may also imaginatively feel, concerning the larger society, that someone might also be led to take “the easy way out.” Not only do we pity Willy and his broken dreams, we also fear for ourselves, either at present or in the future, in which the possibility of gaining money through suicide can become a social reality—the final affirmation in a failed life. This is why Willy reflects a social pattern as well as a personal tragedy.

In his new foreword to the Methuen second edition of The Theatre Essays, Miller laments the decline of actors and playwrights in the theater as films and television attract them to a different medium. But he ends his lament by stating:

Embarrassing as it may be to remind ourselves, the theatre does reflect the spirit of a people, and when it lives up to its potential it may even carry them closer to their aspirations. It is the most vulgar of the arts but it is the simplest too. … All you need is a human and a board to stand on and something fascinating for him to say and do. With a few right words, sometimes, he can clarify the minds of thousands, still the whirling compass needle of their souls and point it once more toward the stars. … Theatre is not going to die, it is as immortal as our dreaming.


The tragedy inherent in Death of a Salesman is no longer only an American tragedy. It is part of the universal tragedy of love, grief, despair, and betrayal that today characterizes life in most countries of the world. With “a few right words” Miller has again and again expressed in his plays the thoughts and fears of people everywhere. And occasionally he has even pointed that whirling compass needle of their souls toward the stars.

Works Cited

Aristotle. The Poetics. Trans. S. H. Butcher. Introduction by Francis Fergusson. New York: Hill and Wang, 1961.

Corrigan, Robert W., ed. Arthur Miller: Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice, 1969.

Evans, Richard I. Psychology and Arthur Miller. New York: Dutton, 1969. Reprinted in Conversations with Arthur Miller. Ed. Matthew C. Roudané. Jackson, MS: UP of Mississippi, 1987, 152-72.

Martin, Robert A., ed. The Theater Essays of Arthur Miller. New York: Viking, 1978. Reprinted in Penguin edition, 1979, 1985. All references to Miller's essays are to the Viking/Penguin editions.

———. The Theatre Essays of Arthur Miller. 2nd edition. London: Methuen, 1994. Contains a new Foreword by Miller and a revised chronology.

Miller, Arthur. “Author's Foreword: Sorting Things Out” in Martin, xli-xliv.

———. Death of a Salesman. New York: Penguin, 1986.

———. “The Family in Modern Drama” in Martin, 69-85.

———. Introduction to The Collected Plays in Martin, 113-70.

———. “Mortality and Modern Drama.” Interview with Phillip Gelb, in Martin, 195-214. Reprinted in Conversations with Arthur Miller. Ed. Matthew C. Roudané. Jackson, MS: UP of Mississippi, 1987, 27-34.

———. “The Nature of Tragedy” in Martin, 8-11.

———. Preface to An Enemy of the People in Martin, 16-21.

———. “Tragedy and the Common Man” in Martin, 3-7.

Mottram, Eric. “Arthur Miller: The Development of a Political Dramatist in America” in Corrigan, 23-27.

Sharma, P. P. “Search for Self-Identity in Death of a Salesman.The Literary Criterion 11:2 (1974), 74-79.

Steinberg, M. W. “Arthur Miller and the Idea of Modern Tragedy” in Corrigan, 81-93.

Weales, Gerald. American Drama since World War II. New York: Harcourt, 1962.

Frank Ardolino (essay date 1998)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5119

SOURCE: Ardolino, Frank. “Miller's Poetic Use of Demotic English in Death of a Salesman.Studies in American Jewish Literature 17 (1998): 120-28.

[In the following essay, Ardolino examines Miller's use of “demotic” language in Death of a Salesman and asserts that Miller heightens the tragic elements of the play “by exploiting the sounds and multiple meanings of simple verbal, visual, and numerical images.”]

The level of language of Death of a Salesman has long been a subject of critical discussion. Perhaps because Arthur Miller compared his work to ancient Greek tragedy in which poetic or elevated language was a requirement, early critics responded negatively to Miller's demotic English. T. C. Worsley wrote that the play fails in its “attempt to make a poetic approach to everyday life without using poetry …” (225). Similarly, John Gassner noted that the play “is well written but is not sustained by incandescent or memorable language …” (232). However, later critics have pointed out that Miller does make use of poetic devices. Arthur K. Oberg commented on his patterned speech, striking images, and artful cliches (73, 74, 77), while Marianne Boruch discussed his use of objects as metaphors. Finally, Lois Gordon described the entire play as a “narrative poem whose overall purpose can be understood only by consideration of its poetic as well as narrative elements” (98-99).

Miller's poetic use of demotic English, the level of language which characters speak and which describes their actions and environment, creates the play's tragic dimension. To achieve the depths of tragedy, Miller expands the ordinarily limited expressive capabilities of demotic English by exploiting the sounds and multiple meanings of simple verbal, visual, and numerical images. Words for ordinary objects, daily activities, geographical places, and conventional relationships also function as puns and homonyms which recall meanings from other contexts and establish new ones. The resulting verbal patterns and images form an interconnected and multileveled network of associated meanings which exist in two temporal perspectives: chronological time and construct in which meaning echo and mirror each other, creating nightmarish repetition and a sense of stasis. The network of demotic language, which generates these two perspectives, forms an image of Willy's demented psyche and tragic fate. Giles Mitchell points out that Willy suffers from a personality disorder, pathological narcissism, which demands “grandiosity, omnipotence and perfection” (391) rather than normal achievement. Willy's madness is like a fatal flaw, which blinds him to his reality and fills him with arrogance or hubris so that he challenges the limits of his humanity. Then, like an offended god who punishes hubris, Willy's psyche drives him to suicide which he insanely believes will result in his apotheosis. Members of the audience respond with pity and fear to Willy's fate, for the psyche, which is ultimately incomprehensible, is a reality in their own lives and Willy's fate might have been theirs. Moreover, Biff's merciful release from Willy's dreams into normal life does not mitigate this response, for Biff's good fortune underlines the psyche's capriciousness.


The play's dominant metaphor is the polyvalent image of time. On the one hand, metaphors for chronological time represent physical reality and normal human development from youth to maturity to old age and from one generation to the next. Linda, Charley, and his son Bernard and Frank Wagner and his son Howard live in harmony with chronological time, a condition which Biff achieves after he experiences a profound psychological change. On the other hand, images of stasis represent personality disorders which afflict Willy, Happy, and Biff.

The play's three-part temporal setting—night, the next day, and the following night—indicates the progression of chronological time. But on another level, the temporal setting is an image of containment and stasis which alludes to the play's primary subject, Willy's imprisonment in neurosis and his consequent death. The nighttime settings, along with Willy's ominous cliches, “I'm tired to the death” (13) and “I slept like a dead one,” (71) portend his suicide. Moreover, although the daytime setting during act 2, before Willy goes out for the day, Linda mentions a grace period to him (72). The grace period, the time before their insurance premium is due, also alludes to Willy's beliefs that on this day his employer will give him a non-traveling job and that Biff will get a loan to go into business with Happy. The grace period, however, does not give rise to the fulfillment of Willy's desires, but proves to be a mocking prelude to his death.

Much of the play takes place in a psychological construct which Willy creates. An Eden-like paradise which lies at the center of his neurosis, it is characterized by the paradoxical union of reality and his delusory fulfillment of his grandiose dreams of omnipotence. Willy's paradise is identified with the time in which Biff and Happy were growing up in Brooklyn, when they expressed, reflected, and validated his belief in their virtual divinity. Willy ironically incorporated the human concept of progress and the future, time's movement, into his changeless paradise. He believed that Biff, who was already “divine” as a football player, would become more so as a businessman. However, before Biff realized Willy's projected future, he lost faith in Willy's dreams, left the state of mind or paradise Willy had created, and destroyed its coherence. As a result, Willy moved from the condition of stasis to one characterized by a confusion of the present and his fragmented paradise. Willy never experiences the future which is part of normal chronological time because he recognizes only the hyperbolic future which he believes is latent in his paradise. To his destruction, he seeks to actualize it.

Images which Willy uses to express his beliefs in his and his sons' divine power suggest the opposite, powerlessness, or allude to and echo events which undercut his extravagant claims. Confusing divine omnipotence with his sons' good looks and personalities, Willy compares them to Adonis, and implies that their inherent qualities will make them successful businessmen just as the inherent power of gods allow them to achieve without effort:

That's why I thank Almighty God you're both built like Adonises. Because the man who makes an appearance in the business world, the man who creates personal interest, is the man who gets ahead. Be liked and you will never want …


Willy points to himself as an exemplar of his beliefs, using his name as a manifestation of his omnipotence.

You take me for instance. I never have to wait in line to see a buyer. … “Willy Loman is here!” That's all they have to know, and I go right through.


Elaborating on name imagery that echoes his own grandiose self-assessment, Willy expresses his belief in Biff's omnipotence and predicts limitless success for his future in business: “And Ben! When he walks into a business office his name will sound out like a bell and all the doors will open to him!” (86). Name imagery, however, also reveals Willy and Biff's failures. In reality, Willy has been working on commission “like a beginner, an unknown” (57). After he overhears Biff tell Linda and Happy that businessmen have laughed at him for years (61), he pathetically asserts his importance by using names:

They laugh at me, heh? Go to Fileno's, go to the Hub, go to Slattery's, Boston. Call out the name Willy Loman and see what happens! Big Shot!


Name imagery also reveals Biff's failure to develop a career. When he attempted to meet with Bill Oliver, a businessman, he waited in Oliver's reception room, and “[k]ept sending [his] name in” (104), but it meant nothing to Oliver, and his door remained closed. Moreover, when announcing a name, ringing a bell, and opening a door constitute the dramatic action, it contrasts Willy's belief in his omnipotence with his base behavior. Upon Biff's arrival at Willy's hotel, he asks the telephone operator to ring his room to announce his arrival; when Biff opens the door to Willy's room, he discovers Willy's adultery.

Willy believes that Biff's success as a high school football player is proof of his divinity. As he talks to Ben about him, he points to Biff who stands silently by them like a divine presence. Biff wears his school sweater, symbolic of his athletic career, carries a suitcase, which alludes to Willy and his job as a traveling salesman and to Biff's projected future as a businessman. Happy, like an attendant to a god, carries Biff's regalia, his shoulder guards, gold helmet, and football pants (86). Willy, who believes that Biff, like his gods, fulfills his adage, “Be liked and you will never want” (33), momentarily turns from Ben to remind Biff of his god-like condition and responsibilities: “And that's why when you get out on that field today it's important. Because thousands of people will be rooting for you and loving you” (86).

This iconic image of Biff, however, also alludes to other incidents which occur in reality and prove Willy's beliefs empty. The suitcase suggests Biff's trip to Boston where he discovers his father's betrayal of him and Linda, and his football uniform, which marks the height of his achievement, also points to his failure to graduate from high school. He dropped out and spent the next seventeen years moving from one marginal job to another.

Football imagery not only separates Biff from Willy, but also connects him with Miss Francis and alludes to Willy's having betrayed him. At the Boston hotel, after Willy attempts to deny his relationship with Miss Francis and tells her to leave his room, she turns to Biff and asks, “Are you football or baseball?” “Football,” he replies. “That's me too,” she says (119-20).

Gardening and building images are also used to express the madness of Willy's paradisiacal state of mind. Willy points out the bucolic aspects of Brooklyn when it was his paradise:

This time of year it was lilac and wisteria. And then the peonies would come out, and the daffodils. What fragrance in this room!


Willy continues to use garden imagery to contrast the satisfaction and joy he took in the past when his paradise was intact with the anger he feels toward the urban present when his paradise is fragmented by the increase in traffic and the number of apartment houses (17). As Willy goes on, however, he unwittingly alludes to himself as the destroyer of his garden and of his family in a metaphorical sense: “Remember those two beautiful elm trees out there? … They should've arrested the builder for cutting those down …” (17). On one level, the two trees are allusions to the Tree of Life and the Tree of Good and Evil, echoes of Willy's Edenic paradise. On another level, the trees allude to Biff, who uses plant imagery to explain his failure to achieve a career—“I just can't take hold, Mom. I can't take hold of some kind of a life” (54)—and to Happy. The builder whom Willy complains about refers to himself, for he has the skills of a carpenter and rebuilds much of his house: “All the cement, the lumber, the reconstruction I put in this house! There ain't a crack to be found in it any more” (74). Willy's house, however, which is a sound structure as a result of his efforts, is a metaphor for his mind, an air-tight prison which confines him in neurosis. Miller reverses the slang use of the word “crack” as “crazy” to suggest that Willy might have escaped his insanity if his house/mind had had a crack in it to allow help to reach him.

Because of his madness, Willy, who literally rebuilds his house, destroys it in the metaphorical sense of progeny or line of descent.

Well, it [their house] served its purpose.
What purpose? … If only Biff would take this house, and raise a family. …


Ironically, the metaphorical level of language reveals that Charley, who does not have the skills of a carpenter, has successfully built where Willy has failed. Charley's son Bernard matured in harmony with chronological time. He completed his education, became a lawyer, married and had two children. He met mundane expectations, paradoxically only to exceed them. When Willy meets Bernard in Charley's office, he is about to leave for Washington, D.C. To argue a case in the highest arena in his profession, the Supreme Court. The word “supreme,” which recalls the “S” on Biff's high school sweater (28) and Willy's belief that Biff would become a superman, mocks Willy's deluded hope and recalls that seventeen years earlier Biff played in a championship football game at prestigious Ebbets Field, but did not go on to a career of any kind. “His life ended after that Ebbets Field game,” confides Willy to Bernard (92). He “laid down and died like a hammer hit him!” (93). Ironically, Willy's reference to a hammer, a tool used to build, points to the fact that he, himself, is Biff's destroyer. The image of the hammer mocks Willy who failed as a father by echoing the insulting statement he made to Charley: “A man who can't handle tools is not a man. You're disgusting” (44). It also mocks Biff's failure to become a professional athlete and alludes to Charley and Bernard's professional success: “Great athlete! Between him and his son Bernard they can't hammer a nail! (51),” says Willy contemptuously. Willy's hammering in his garden at night, a negative image of creation, mirrors his tragic reversal of life and death—his belief that he will achieve the future which his neurosis demands by committing suicide.

Like Willy's garden, his Chevy symbolizes his paradise and the particular satisfaction he takes in the mutually reflective relationship he has with his sons. He associates the Chevy with the abundance of nature: “But it's so beautiful up there, Linda, the trees are so thick, and the sun is warm. I opened the windshield [of the Chevy] and just let the warm air bathe over me” (14). The care his son bestowed upon the Chevy represents their past admiration for each other: “Ts. Remember those days? The way Biff used to simonize that car? The dealer refused to believe there was eighty thousand miles on it” (19). “Simonizing” or “waxing,” a pun on Willy's waxing euphoric, alludes to the fullness of emotion he experienced in their relationship.

The Chevy, however, is also associated with the personal and professional failures that the Lomans experience in reality. The car is connected through numbers with the great football career Willy believed that Biff would have as a result of his playing quarterback in a championship game at Ebbets field. In response to his friend Charley's skepticism, Willy yells, “Touchdown! Touchdown! Eighty-thousand people! … (90), echoing the eighty thousand miles on the car. And when Willy tried to convince Howard to give him a non-traveling job, Willy recalls the year 1928, the model of the Chevy, as the height of his professional success and acceptance in the business world: “[I]n 1928 I had a big year … (82).”

Images of geographical expansiveness further reflect Willy's emotional inflation and the inevitable collapse that results from it. In his description of a business trip, Willy evokes and identifies with the grandeur of New England and its history. However, the names of the cities along his route, which is a metaphor for the downward course of his life, are not only images of aggrandizement but of pain that Willy and Biff suffer after their inflated emotions collapse. Providence, the name of Willy's first stop, is presided over by a mayor whose title suggests an eponymous deity. Rather than providing Willy with care and benevolent guidance, however, the mayor of Providence confers a malign fate on him, as the names of the other places on his route attest. “Waterbury, a big clock city” (31), is an image of time which mocks the Loman's and their dreams of success. Moreover, it is also an allusion to Willy's attempt to commit suicide by driving his car into a river (59). Willy's praise of “Boston, the cradle of the Revolution” (31), presages Biff's disillusionment with Willy from him after finding him in a Boston hotel in an adulterous relationship. Portland is the city Willy is unable to reach because of his mental breakdown. Metaphorically, Portland suggests Willy's failure to achieve “port” or fulfillment that he might have expected during the last years of his career. Along with the word “boat,” “Portland” alludes to Willy's insane conviction that his dreams will become reality through suicide. Linda, who pities Willy and understands him as a man who has failings, but not as a neurotic, asks Biff to be “sweet' and “loving” to him “[b]ecause he's only a little boat looking for a harbor” (76). The image becomes horrific just prior to his suicide when he psychologically joins Ben, who acts as a Charon figure to bring him to port in the land of the dead.

Time, William, Time! …
(Looking at his watch) The boat. We'll be late. (He moves slowly off into the darkness.)


Bangor, the name of the last city on Willy's route, onomatopoetically explodes—“bang!”—echoing imagery of emotional inflation and collapse associated with Willy's paradisiacal past. Years after Biff became disillusioned with Willy, he uses imagery of inflation to blame Willy for his failure to achieve a career: “… I never got anywhere because you [Willy] blew me so full of hot air I could never stand taking orders from anybody” (131). And he accuses Happy of being a liar: “You big blow, are you the assistant buyer? You're one of the two assistants to the assistant, aren't you?” (131). The group of three which Biff describes forms a deflated parallel to the one Willy once imagined would create a sensation upon entering the Boston stores—Biff and Happy accompanying him, carrying his sample bags: “Oh, won't that be something! Me comin' into the Boston stores with you boys carryin' my bags” (31). In the light of the Loman's' lack of success, the bags, suggestive of wind-bags, reflect, finally, the burden of Willy's meretricious beliefs and the unfounded grandiosity that Biff and Happy bore.

Ultimately, images of inflated emotion and collapse cruelly come together in the word “blow,” meaning “to treat” as well as “a violent impact,” and in the name of the restaurant, “Frank's Chop House.” The name “Frank” recalls Frank Wagner, who has been replaced by his heartless son, and “chop”, which literally refers to a cut of meat, also means “a sharp blow.” In anticipation of getting a loan to establish a sporting goods business, Biff asks Linda to invite Willy to a celebration at Frank's Chop House: “Tell Dad, we want to blow him to a big meal” (74).

Willy expects to make the dinner a dual triumph. He feels sure that his current employer, Howard Wagner, will give him the non-traveling job that he wants. That evening, however, when the three Loman's meet, Willy announces that Howard fired him, and Biff reluctantly tells Willy that Bill Oliver did not give him the loan. When Biff orders drinks that evening, “Scotch all around. Make it doubles” (105), he unwittingly signifies their dual failures.


Hidden in Willy's images of a past paradise is an Eve-like temptress, a personification of his neurosis. This ambiguous character, who is a siren on one level and Miss Francis, the woman with whom Willy commits adultery on another, stands in opposition to Linda who is associated with the diurnal rhythms of chronological time and mundane reality. The strength of Willy and Biff's disordered relationship is tested and broken when Willy introduces Miss Francis to him at the Boston hotel. Willy's adultery is obvious, but Willy wants Biff to deny what he sees and understands:

[N]ow listen pal, she's just a buyer. … Now stop crying and do as I say. I gave you an order. Biff, I gave you an order!


Biff, however, does not comply. Seventeen years later, the word “order” echoes Willy's loss of power over Biff in a conversation in which Willy and Bernard talk about Biff's failure to make up a high school math course.

Did you tell him [Biff] not to go to summer school?
Me? I begged him to go. I ordered him to go!


Mathematics, a metaphor for order in mundane reality, and Mr. Birnbaum, its personification, also reveal the damage that Willy does by taking over Biff's life and preventing him from maturing in chronological time. Biff's age, seventeen, and the four points by which he fails math echo and contrast with Ben's achievement. Ben, Willy's dead brother and his image of an ideal business man, was seventeen when he set out to make his fortune. Four years later, he was rich (48). The repetition of “seventeen” and “four” also contrasts Biff's stasis with Bernard's progress in chronological time. Seventeen years after Biff failed math at the age of seventeen, he has no career, but Bernard has become a lawyer. When Willy congratulates him on his success, he alludes to Biff's failure: “I'm—I'm overjoyed to see how you made the grade, Bernard, overjoyed” (92).

Mathematics and Mr. Birnbaum reveal the meretriciousness of Willy's dream. Mr. Birnbaum rejects Willy's conviction that personal attractiveness is more important that actual achievement and refuses to give Biff the four points he needed to pass, thus motivating his trip to Boston. Birnbaum's name comments on the consequences of the trip for both Biff and Willy. As Karl Harshbarger noted, the first syllable in “Birnbaum” is reminiscent of fire and the second one means “tree” in German (58). The whole name echoes Willy's cry of disaster, “the woods are burning” (41, 107). Willy uses the phrase to signify trouble just before he tells Biff and Happy that he was fired. In the circumstances, it is a double pun. At the hotel, Willy, who knows that Biff is knocking on the door of his room, refuses to open it, but The Woman insists: “Maybe the hotel's on fire!” (116). Her exclamation echoes Willy's locution and alludes to imminent disaster for him—Biff's recognition of his duplicity.

After Biff tells Willy why he came to the hotel, he imitates Mr. Birnbaum as he did for his classmates at school:

… I got up at the blackboard and imitated him. I crossed my eyes and talked with a lithp. … The thquare root of thixthy twee is …


Biff's crossed eyes, which parody Mr. Birnbaum's eyes, are part of a palimpsest of related images and concepts. Without Biff's realizing it, his eyes allude to the remark that The Woman made to Willy just before his arrival: “You are the saddest, self-centerest soul I ever did see-saw …” (116). The word “see-saw” presages Biff's seeing and realizing Willy's having betrayed him and Linda. “See-saw,” which joins past and present tenses of “to see,” also alludes to Willy's disordered experience of time after Biff breaks the bond of their relationship. Moreover, as the image of a child's toy, a see-saw mockingly contrasts Willy's actual position with his dream of divine success. Contrary to ordinary expectations, Willy holds the same job at the end of his career as he did at the beginning of it—working on commission. The movement of the see-saw—its ups and downs in place—contrasts Howard Wagner's rise in the business world with Willy's stasis. At the age of 36, the transposition of Willy's age and the number of years that Willy worked for the Wagners (56), Howard is the head of the company and Willy's superior. Finally, Howard's position contrasts his father Frank's success with Willy's failure. Frank passed on his company to Howard, but Willy has nothing to give his sons.

The math problem, the “thquare root of thixthy twee,” is a coded message which reveals Willy's insanity and Biff's participation in it, but they do not recognize its significance. The number “63,” Willy's age, identifies him as the focus of the problem. The word “square,” an image of an enclosed area, and “root,” a plant image, refer to Willy's paradisiacal garden, the two trees representing Biff and Happy which grew there, and the condition of his mind which is imprisoned in insanity, the root of his and his family's problem. Ironically, when Biff concludes his imitation by saying that Birnbaum walked in, drawn by Willy and Biff's laughter, The Woman, whose entrance parallels Mr. Birnbaum's, leaves the bathroom, her hiding place, and enters Willy's room. Biff's eyes are no longer “crossed” and he finally sees who Willy is.

Stocking imagery further unites Willy, The Woman/Miss Francis, and Linda and Biff in a cycle of betrayal and its recognition. Stockings refer to the nylons Willy gives to Miss Francis, the stock that he sells as a salesman, his status with Biff, and the Loman familial line. During one of Willy's hallucinations, Linda “darns stockings” (36) prior to The Woman's appearance and “mends a pair of her silk stockings” (39) just after her disappearance. When Willy sees Linda at her work, his reaction is intense, for her stockings recall his adultery: “I won't have you mending stockings in this house! Now throw them out! (39). Willy gives stockings to The Woman in exchange for her favors. “And thanks for the stockings, she says to him. “I love a lot of stockings” (39). When Biff surprises Willy and The Woman in his hotel room, she insists on her gift even while Willy desperately tries to get rid of her: “You had two boxes of size nine sheers for me, and I want them!” (119). Betrayers and the betrayed come together in a “stocking” image when Biff poignantly recognizes Willy's adultery and rejects him: “You—you gave her Mama's stockings!” (121).

“Sheers,” the word that Miss Francis uses to refer to silk stockings, also is a pun for “scissors” and suggests cutting, which in turn alludes to Biff's metaphorically cutting the tie that has bound him to Willy. After Biff arrives at home, he burns his sneakers on which he had printed “University of Virginia” (33-34), an act which echoes Willy's utterance of disaster. The act also alludes to the story of Adam and Eve's expulsion from the Garden of Eden for it symbolizes Biff's change from innocence to knowledge, his rejection of Willy's beliefs, and his departure from Willy's paradise. Seventeen years later, at Frank's Chop House, Biff “takes the rolled up hose from his pocket …” (115) and shows it to Happy. Another synonym for stocking, the hose is the means by which Willy planned to commit suicide.

Biff's attempt to get the loan from Oliver has not resulted in the recreation of the Loman's mutually reflective relationship, but in Biff's freedom from Willy's domination and movement to psychological health. Earlier images which Willy used to express his vision of Biff's omnipotence—his name's sounding like a bell and opening all doors to him (86)—are echoed in Biff's unwilled insight and ironically compare the experience to the mysteriousness of divine intervention. After Oliver refuses to talk with him, Biff psychologically awakens as if he hears the sound of a bell. For no explainable reason, Biff suddenly realizes the value of his ordinary human life and accepts his identity or name which opens the door to the possibility of his living normally in chronological time.

As a result of Biff's revelation, he and Willy engage in an agon at the Chop House. Biff tries to make Willy see and accept him as an individual, but Willy struggles to return Biff to his former identity as his alter ego. At this point, Willy vacillates between reality and the hallucination of the past when Biff knocked at the door of Willy's hotel room in Boston. In reality, at the restaurant Biff makes a joke of the blow Willy dealt him and offers him acceptance and forgiveness, an act which would have been impossible for him before his revelation. However, Willy, who is about to accept Biff's invitation, turns away from his and responds to The Woman, who pulls him back into the hallucination and asks him to open the hotel room door. An image of guilt and forgiveness, imprisonment and release, the door suggests Willy's betrayal of Linda and Biff and Biff's psychological release from him and his forgiving him. The washroom in Frank's Chop House, which is conflated with the bathroom where the Woman hid, also evokes Linda's washing clothes (33, 47, 85) and her forgiving Willy.

However, Linda's selfless devotion and Biff's filial love are not strong enough to free Willy from his neurosis. Willy does not relinquish his insane dream even after Biff begs him to give it up. Willy imagines that his death will be the means of his and Biff's long-awaited apotheosis as business gods like Ben and Dave Singleman.

Willy's last utterances refer or allude to images of his and Biff's deification and to his own insanity. With great enthusiasm, he asks Ben, “Can you imagine that magnificence [Biff] with twenty thousand dollars in his pocket?” (135). Willy's reference to his life insurance policy echoes Charley's description of J. P. Morgan: “Why must everybody like you? Who liked J. P. Morgan? Was he impressive? In a Turkish bath he'd look like a butcher. But with his pockets on he was very well-liked” (97). Willy carries out his plan to literally put money into Biff's pockets in the demented belief that he will become the equivalent of his gods, businessmen like J. P. Morgan.

Willy completes his vision of the future by translating Biff's love to worship, thus achieving divinity like Dave's in Biff's eyes, and by identifying with Biff whom he believes will become as successful as Ben: “[H]e'll worship me for it!. … Oh Ben, I always knew one way or another we were gonna make it, Biff and I!” (135). Finally, Willy sees himself as becoming the embodiment of all success and all time—the eternal in death and the dynamic with Biff in life.

In summary, the imagery which we have discussed, while not exhaustive, exemplifies Miller's poetic use of demotic language. Through his system of associated meanings and dual temporal schemes, Miller infuse the commonplace with tragic significance which mirrors Willy's madness and fate.

Works Cited

Boruch, Marianne. “Miller and Things.” Literary Review 24.4 (1981): 548-61

Gassner, John. “Death of a Salesman: First Impressions, 1949.” In Weales. 231-39.

Gordon, Lois. “Death of a Salesman: An Appreciation.” In Koon. 98-108.

Harshbarger, Karl. The Burning Jungle: An Analysis of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. Washington, D. C.: University Press of America, 1979.

Koon, Helene, ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of Death of a Salesman. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1983.

Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman: Certain Private Conversations in Two Acts and a Requiem. New York: Penguin, 1949.

Mitchell, Giles. “Living and Dying for the Ideal: A Study of Willy Loman's Narcissism.” The Psychoanalytic Review 77:3 (Fall 1990): 391-407.

Oberg, Arthur. “Death of a Salesman and Arthur Miller's Search for Style.” In Weales. 70-78.

Weales, Gerald, ed. Death of a Salesman: Text and Criticism. New York: Penguin Books, 1967.

Worsley, T. C. “Poetry without Words.” In Weales. 224-27.

Jonathan Witt (essay date June 1998)

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SOURCE: Witt, Jonathan. “Song of the Unsung Antihero: How Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman Flatters Us.” Literature & Theology 12, no. 2 (June 1998): 205-16.

[In the following essay, Witt investigates the emotional effect that the character of Willy Loman has on theatergoers of Death of a Salesman, noting that Loman's conflicting obscurity and fame make him appealing to a wide range of audiences.]

Many nineteenth and twentieth century writers seek to convey the experience of a lowly character chafing against his obscurity. But how can an author convey such an experience when the very attention of a readership confers upon the character social significance and dignity, even fame? Exactly how obscure can Jude be when he has a four hundred page novel written about him, and written by Thomas Hardy no less? This is a problem I call the audience's paradox, a special form of the observer's paradox. In essence, the audience's paradox is the tension created when a lowly character, chafing against his obscurity, serves as the protagonist of a work of literature and so becomes the centre of the audience's attention, becomes famous.

The paradox is endemic only to post-Enlightenment tragic literature. Pride stands as a pivotal human imperfection in both the Ancient Greek and Judeo-Christian traditions; in contrast, the metaphysics of a debased form of romanticism valorizes pride, both hubris and narcissism, while denigrating humility. In America, the roots of this tendency can be seen at least as early as Walt Whitman. The title of his ‘Song of Myself’ signals a poem unblushing in its swelling praise of the poem's speaker, and even if we insist that the speaker is not Whitman the man but a cosmic Whitman joined to all humanity by a boundless love, the contempt for humility evinced by the poem is hard to ignore. Narcissism, in another form, also rears its head in the dark romanticism of Edgar Allen Poe. In both his poetry and his short stories we repeatedly encounter personas who seek narcissistic fulfilment in child brides, a romantic tendency critiqued with savage clarity in Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita. And on the other side of the Atlantic, Percy Bysshe Shelley already had created a poetry of unparalleled humourlessness, the need for comic deflation crowded out by the poet's swelling humanism.

But in the next century modern American tragedy would do even more to valorize pride at the expense of humility. Indeed, such literature reinforces the audience's own pride by way of flattery—both by implying in various ways that the audience is superior to the flawed protagonists and, paradoxically, by causing the audience to identify with an artificially elevated protagonist.

Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman starkly illustrates this process, and his stated poetic illuminates for us why this is the case, though we need to distinguish his stated poetic from the poetic actually evidenced in his tragedies. If in creating his greatest drama, Miller actually had followed the advice he offers in ‘Tragedy and the Common Man,’ we long ago would have consigned Death of a Salesman to the second echelon of American theatre. Fortunately, the sterile poetic we find in ‘Tragedy’ merely infects the drama; it does not govern it.

In that oft-reprinted 1949 essay, Miller tells us ‘the tragic feeling is evoked in us when we are in the presence of a character who is ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure … his sense of personal dignity’. So far, Miller's poetic seems in harmony with the history of tragedy. And it continues to seem so when he adds, ‘From Orestes to Hamlet, Medea to Macbeth, the underlying struggle is that of the individual attempting to gain his “rightful” position in his society.’1 Do the quotation marks around rightful constitute censure of the hero's attitude, or are they an effort to pass on to the reader the attitude of the tragic hero free of Miller's opinion? The ambiguity that Miller adroitly creates here strikes to the heart of tragedy.

Did Oedipus, through his hubris, deserve, even hasten his downfall? Or was he simply a noble man unjustly crushed by amoral fate? Which is the more precise characterization of Oedipus: ‘he commits a tragic error,’ or ‘he possesses a tragic flaw’? How should we translate Aristotle's term hamartia? Or more to the point, how should we read Sophocles? If we see in Oedipus's tragic flaw an ingrained sin rather than merely an error or a misstep, are we reading into Sophocles' ancient Greek Weltanschauung a Renaissance and Christian view of the world? I find the debate invigorating, and yet to insist on an either/or is to miss an ambiguity inherent to tragedy. Oedipus sums up the ambiguity well when the chorus-leader asks him what god incited him to blind himself; Oedipus replies:

It was Apollo, friends, Apollo.
He decreed that I should suffer what I suffer;
But the hand that struck, alas! was my own,
And not another's.(2)

The ambiguity is deepened rather than rejected by Shakespeare, who needed to reach no further than his own religious tradition for the paradox of man as both free and predestined, simultaneously guilty of choosing sin and doomed to sin by original sin. This paradox resonates through his major tragedies, works in which omen and error, vanity and plain bad luck combine to annihilate the protagonists.

Miller, sensitive to the fate/freedom tension in the great tragedies, is committed to walking the fine line between a facile individualism and a facile fatalism. But then he steps off that line, arguing instead for a definition of tragedy akin to its debased, journalistic meaning, as when a news anchor speaks of a woman tragically killed by a drunk driver. This shift is easy to miss. ‘The wound from which the inevitable events spiral is the wound of indignity,’ Miller writes, ‘and its dominant force is indignation. Tragedy, then, is the consequence of a man's total compulsion to evaluate himself justly.’3 Here, I first took Miller to mean that the tragic hero, for all his pride, ruthlessly searches out the truth about himself, even if it means facing some monstrous ugliness in himself—patricide (Oedipus), incest (Oedipus), vanity (Oedipus, Lear, Macbeth), murderous ambition (Macbeth).

But Miller's subsequent elaboration precludes such an interpretation. He goes on to write that the hero's flaw ‘is really nothing—and need be nothing, but his inherent unwillingness to remain passive in the face of what he conceives to be a challenge to his dignity, his image of his rightful status’. Having neutralized the flaw, Miller goes on to exalt it as that quality separating the hero from the common man: ‘Only the passive, only those who accept their lot without active retaliation, are “flawless”. Most of us are in that category.’ When Miller has finished defining it, that category, although supposedly flawless, seems a pretty pathetic place to be. The other category, the category of the flawed but active hero, clearly seems preferable. There the tragic hero battles a world bent on degrading him, and in so doing forces the torpid masses to examine ‘everything we have accepted out of fear or insensitivity or ignorance’.4

Willy Loman as Prometheus. The world as jealous god.

Or, as Miller explains, ‘The tragic hero's destruction in the attempt to evaluate himself justly posits a wrong or an evil in his environment.’5 Thus, Willy Loman's attempt to reject Biff's view of both of them as ‘a dime-a-dozen’ is not vanity or egotism, but rather the salesman's noble effort to secure his dignity, his nobility. In other words, it is noble to believe that one is noble. To believe that one is better than others is to be better than others. Vanity is the greatest virtue, humility the greatest sin.

To be humble means, etymologically, to be close to the ground, a condition that Anthony Bloom describes as ‘silent and accepting … transforming corruption itself into a power of life and a new possibility of creativeness’,6 or what Mikhail Bakhtin could have been speaking of when he described ‘the reproductive lower stratum’7 found in the comedy of grotesque realism. But in Willy Loman's mind being humble, being close to the earth, means being a human doormat for a universe bent on wiping its feet on him, bent on robbing him of his rightful status.

Thankfully, Miller's most famous drama offers us a vision of human pride more complex than a strict adherence to his stated poetic would have allowed. If Death prompts us to admire Willy's tenacity, however misdirected, it also forces us to see how his dubious notion of personal dignity, his narrow dedication to being well-liked, has made him grotesque. Such a reading has from the first been well attested to by critics, but a brief analysis of the precise nature of Willy's conception of personal dignity will explain the play's fundamental weakness more probingly than does the conventional wisdom on this matter, which holds that Willy's foolishness robs him of that air of personal dignity fundamental to the great tragic heroes of our tradition.

Christopher Lasch, in The Culture of Narcissism, describes ‘a way of life that is dying—the culture of competitive individualism, which in its decadence has carried the logic of individualism to the extreme of a war of all against all, the pursuit of happiness to the dead end of a narcissistic preoccupation with the self’.8 It is in such a world that Willy struggles for both success and love, goals that under the rubric of Willy's personal philosophy are at times synonymous, at times mutually inimical.

Willy's confusion, though by no means unique to our age, is a characteristically modern one. Jürgen Habermas might have been describing Willy Loman and his situation when he spoke on the subject of modernity. Habermas writes that the modernist understands that seemingly settled modes of life often turn out to be mere unstable conventions without rational foundation. Consequently, modern man dares not base his self image on the particular roles and norms he presently fills and fulfils. Instead, he seeks to establish it upon ‘the abstract ability to present himself credibly in any situation as someone who can satisfy the requirements of consistency even in the face of incompatible role expectations and in the passage through a sequence of contradictory periods of life’. In short, ego identity supplants role identity.9 This is Willy Loman in a nutshell. Confused about what direction he should take, early in his adult life he retreated behind the hope that if he could cultivate an impressive manner, he would never want for admiration or material success, regardless of the direction he took.

But the play forcefully dramatizes the distasteful and ultimately unsuccessful result of such a narcissistic tack. When the family discusses Biff's idea to ask his old boss for a loan, Willy repeatedly interrupts his wife and then viciously castigates her for interjecting enthusiastic support for Willy's position, even though she does so at perfectly appropriate moments. Are we to admire Willy's behaviour here, view it as another example of ‘his inherent unwillingness to remain passive in the face of what he conceives to be a challenge to his dignity, his image of his rightful status’?10

Or consider an earlier scene when Willy, unable to keep his mind on his driving, has returned home prematurely from a sales trip. Here, when he's not shouting at his family, he's conversing enthusiastically with the ghosts of his past. His next door neighbour Charley comes over to see what the racket is all about and lulls Willy into a card game to calm him down

Did you see the ceiling I put up in the living-room?
Yeah, that's a piece of work. To put up a ceiling is a mystery to me. How do you do it?
What's the difference?
Well, talk about it.
You gonna put up a ceiling?
How could I put up a ceiling?
Then what the hell are you bothering me for?
You're insulted again.
A man who can't handle tools is not a man. You're disgusting.(11)

Here, as when he repeatedly cuts off his well-meaning wife during his conversations with Biff, Willy is fighting for what he conceives to be his rightful status, fighting, as Happy phrases it at the funeral, ‘to be number-one man’.12 But in his treatment of his wife and Charley we see the ugly, inhuman behaviour to which this personal philosophy leads. This little man is the king of his castle, and he tears down his wife to prove it. He senses that Charley is the better man—the better businessman and the better father—so he ruthlessly belittles him.

For Willy to be happy, ‘attention must be paid’ as Linda puts it in making a different but not unrelated point. He and his son Biff must not merely be liked, but be ‘well-liked’—admired by a throng of cheering fans, so to speak—and not because they earned it, but because ‘I am Willy Loman, and you are Biff Loman!’.13 This philosophy seems warm and humane beside Charley's belief that ‘the only thing you got in this world is what you can sell’;14 but the problem with it is that in the economy of attentiveness, demand for attention inevitably outstrips supply. If being well-liked means having a throng of adoring fans, à la Biff when he was captain of the football team, then precious few people will be able to achieve this. For every number-one man, there are many who must settle for sitting in the stands and cheering. When few do settle for the job of cheering for Willy Loman, life for this failed drummer becomes a game of king of the hill in which rather than climbing mountains he climbs sand piles and beats down every one else, if not in fact, then in his imagination.

And so Willy, having failed to succeed through an impressive manner, pretends that he is well liked, that he is the king of his castle, that his carpentry skills place him on a higher plateau than Charley, that his sexual conquest of The Woman makes him more of a man. Biff tries and fails to make his father face reality, but only Biff realizes that the phallic pen of egotism, which he clutches at in Oliver's office, is worthless. Only he comes to understand that the pursuit of egotism is as absurd, as irrational, as the theft of the pen itself. Willy Loman's personal philosophy—like the Hastings refrigerator that had ‘the biggest ads of any of them!’—just doesn't work. If Arthur Miller the critic misses this point, Arthur Miller the dramatist does not.

And yet the form of Miller's drama suggests that something of Miller the critic did indeed infect Miller the dramatist. Although Death forcefully censures the very narcissism Miller applauds in ‘Tragedy and the Common Man’, the play nevertheless flatters its audiences. It manages this in two ways.

The more obvious way becomes most apparent in the play's climax. During the course of the play I come to sympathize with Willy Loman, despite his lack of wisdom. But, to paraphrase Sylvan Barnet, Morton Berman, and William Burto's argument, because Willy Loman appears even more foolish than usual in his ‘exaltation’, it is more difficult for us to identify with him in his death than with a royal figure such as Lear.15 When Willy exclaims, ‘Can you imagine [Biff's] magnificence with twenty thousand dollars in his pocket?’ and ‘When the mail comes he'll be ahead of Bernard again!’,16 we are effectively protected from participating in his death. His glaring foolishness at the play's climax kills my identification with him precisely when identification is most essential.

There is a similar foolishness in Lear, but it comes early. At the moment of his death we are in sympathy with this wiser, better Lear and so can participate in his ultimate humiliation, death. Miller employs the tragic form to gain some measure of sympathy for his common man, but then he politely shields us from that deepest of poverties, that greatest of indignities, death.

In a less extreme form we have in Death the same technique that makes the formulaic horror movie ultimately so reassuring. In such movies, all but one or two characters are obviously victims, idiots who insist on backing into dusty, cobwebbed rooms while a heavy-handed score positively shouts warning. While these obvious victims are dropping like flies, the audience is encouraged to identify principally with the common-sensical hero who is marked from the beginning as a survivor.

Happily, Miller rejects this emotional gimmick through the bulk of the play, drawing us into the foolish Willy Loman's psyche through a variety of experimental techniques and through the ardour of Willy's pursuit of what The Great Gatsby's Nick Carraway called ‘the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us’.17 But Miller's brand of humanism finds no value in slaying either the protagonist's or the audience's ego as do the great Classic and Renaissance tragedies. Rather, Miller's humanism values giving man ‘his whole due as a personality’;18 and so it values reinforcing the audience's ‘sense of personal dignity’.19 Consequently, Miller chooses not to press Willy into a complete recognition of his littleness and, more significantly, chooses not to press the audience into an identification with a protagonist in his ultimate confrontation with his littleness.

How different this modern-romantic attitude is from that attitude evinced in the great tragedies of Sophocles and Shakespeare. In her essay ‘Tragedy and Self Sufficiency’, Martha Nussbaum explains that the Athenian valued pity as evidence of a non-hubristic disposition, as acknowledging ‘true facts about one's own possibilities’.20 When audiences feel this pity, they draw near to the sufferer and acknowledge that something akin to the hero's suffering could happen to them, that both hero and audience live in a world of tragic reversals ‘in which the difference between pitier and pitied is a matter far more of luck than of deliberate action’.21 From such a view fear arises: ‘If this happened to the hero, it could happen to anybody,’ the pitier reasons. ‘And if it could happen to anybody, it could happen to me.’ Aristotle went so far as to argue that pity, by definition, demands that the pitier witness in the pitied a pain ‘which one may himself expect to endure, or that someone connected with him will’.22

The pity evoked in most modern tragedy fails to ruffle us in this way because we can reason that our greater wisdom protects us from the sort of tragedy which befalls a foolish person like Willy Loman. But hardly any such comfort existed for the Athenian who witnessed the fall of Oedipus. Even if our hypothetical Athenian views Oedipus as rash, he sees that fault in a character who is admirable in all other important respects. The doomed king is courageous, honest, intelligent, strong, sympathetic to the plight of his citizens, skillful in combat, in virtually every respect a model man and king. Perhaps Oedipus's rashness is partially to blame for his tragedy, but who is perfect? If fate can trip up and trample under foot such a fine, strong individual, it certainly can trip up and trample an average one.

Shakespeare's great tragedies evoke in me a similar response. Even that murderous usurper, Macbeth, elicits from me a certain measure of Aristotle's brand of pity, for because of Macbeth's many noble qualities I am less tempted than I might be to pity Macbeth condescendingly. In his study of villain-heroes in Elizabethan drama, Clarence Valentine Boyer underscores the fact that Macbeth possesses a highly sensitive nature and a poetic imagination, which together make him capable of extraordinarily deep feeling and cause him to suffer more intensely than anyone else in the play. Not only this, but Macbeth demonstrates extraordinary courage, aspires to extraordinary accomplishments, and both loves deeply and is deeply loved.23

Thus, despite his villainy in violently usurping the throne of a good king, we pity Macbeth in his agonizing internal struggle, pity a man who is highly suited to reign but who can reign only through crime, a tragic situation.24 Finally, we are further spurred to Aristotelian pity by the play's supernatural aura, which, as Boyer puts it, produces ‘in us a feeling that there are strange mysterious forces in nature tending to evil, which sweep a man away with them to his destruction once he exposes himself to their power’.25

Instead of cultivating and deepening our sense of Aristotelian pity for his protagonist, Miller, in contrast, alienates us from Willy and transfers the recognition to Biff, whose greatest humiliation—the scene in which he waits in Oliver's office for six hours only to find that Oliver, when he arrives, does not even recognize him26—appears offstage, preventing me from internalizing Biff's dime-a-dozen status as Biff does. What's more, having been abandoned by the original protagonist, at the conclusion of the play I am tempted to seize upon Biff as a surrogate hero. He possesses a nobility of spirit, a courage in the face of cold reality, that makes him genuinely admirable. But Biff's nobility is not the nobility we feel in an Oedipus gouging out his eyes, in a Macbeth recoiling from his spiritual poverty, or in a Lear weeping himself to death. It is the relatively static nobility of a Tiresias, an Edgar, persons who strike us as basically good from the first, as the salt of the earth. We have experienced no fall and redemption, no death, burial, and resurrection. We have received redemption on the cheap, our facile dignity, typical of the pre-fallen tragic hero, neatly intact.

But Death of a Salesman flatters its audience by another, more subtle means, a means that has been overlooked. Earlier I referred to the Hastings refrigerator that Willy bought because it had the biggest ads, and credited Miller with critiquing the personal philosophy that lay behind such a foolish method of choosing a major appliance. Ironically, though, Miller himself has created a very big ad for the dysfunctional Willy Loman and its effect is not altogether unlike the effect of the Hastings refrigerator ad on Willy Loman. For Miller manages to create an audience for a man who does nothing to earn an audience beyond monumentally fouling up his life, manages to make us pay attention to a man we might otherwise have ignored, impresses us with the life of a relatively unimpressive man—in short, gives Willy Loman ‘the biggest ads of any of them.’ In effect, Death brings to the failed salesman's funeral not the handful of kith and kin that his life warranted, but thousands upon thousands of mourners, outdoing even the funeral of the eighty-four year-old salesman Willy so admired. Certainly, the fumbling tenacity with which Willy follows his misguided philosophy ennobles him to a degree, but are we actually ready to insist that this characteristic alone elevates him to a level consistent with his fame?

So here is where we stand: Within the fiction of Death we meet Willy Loman, a low man on the totem pole chafing against his obscurity, a man discarded by the sales company for whom he has worked for thirty-five years not because he is loathed but because he is useless. Willy Loman, a man whose highest aspiration in life is to be well-liked, is not even well disliked. He achieves only the status of nuisance. In sum, Willy Loman belongs to that group referred to by Flannery O'Connor's Mrs McIntyre as ‘all the extra people in the world’.27 And even when Loman recognizes his status as an extra person, and takes that most drastic of measures to remedy the situation, he fails. He fails to impress his son and, we can assume, fails even to make his suicide appear an accident and so garner the $20,000 that supposedly will launch his alter ego, Biff, into a successful business career.

But viewed from the outside, as a character in a play, Willy Loman is not an extra. He is the leading man, the protagonist, the tragic hero, a character who looms large in the audience's imagination. Consequently, his position as dramatic centre tends to misshape our identification with him, a phenomenon overlooked by Miller in his bracing but at times facile attack on the Aristotelian notion that tragic heroes are necessarily persons of rank and importance.

When I insist that a lowly character's position as dramatic centre tends to misshape my identification with that character, some readers will skip over my explicit contention and quarrel with what they perceive as my unstated assumptions, that a work should encourage an audience to identify with its protagonist, or that an audience should strive to achieve such an identification. If, as some advise, I cultivate a rigorous aesthetic distance throughout an engagement, the analytical part of my brain assiduously churning away in Brechtian fashion, the empathetic part remaining dutifully inert, I hardly identify at all. I say ‘hardly’ because even in a work committed to minimizing identification, such as Brecht's The Good Woman of Setzuan, it must prod its audience into some degree of identification before it can alienate them, must draw them in before it can distance them. If one has felt, even briefly, any empathy for the good woman of Setzuan, then one has identified with her.

Or, if I follow an older conventional wisdom and surrender my awareness of the work as a formed object, as a fiction, I become absorbed into the life of the protagonist. But there exists a third alternative to which I suspect most serious auditors aspire. Under this alternative, the reader or viewer, together with Coleridge's ideal poet, brings his or her whole soul into activity,28 energetically joining the author in the creative process, shuttling between intuition and logic, feeling and thought, empathy and critique, identification and analysis.

But whether critics are advocating a primarily logical, intuitive, or critically imaginative approach to literary engagement, nothing in us, so the unstated assumption goes, need prevent our imaginations from translating the protagonist of dramatic theatre (as opposed to epic or absurdist theatre) off page or stage and into the mind—or recreating him, at least—and then identifying with him.

I disagree.

As we observe Willy Loman playing out his tragedy or, to take other examples, as we follow Rodion Raskolnikov's fall and redemption, or Stephen Dedalus's search for a calling that will exalt him to the sun, or Jude Fawley's struggle against loneliness and obscurity, or Blanche DuBois's search for love and dignity, at some level we are aware of these figures as the centres of their respective worlds, as the focal points of audiences hanging on their every available thought and action. Thus, even when I disappear into a character as small and lowly as Willy Loman, I participate in the romance of the stage. I am caught up in the audience's paradox. Although I feel Willy's obscurity, his insignificance, his failures, these qualities have been transfigured by his role as protagonist. You see, although lowly Willy Loman is oblivious to his status as dramatic centre, I cannot be, am not oblivious to it even in those moments when, slack-jawed, like a boy become his action hero, my identification with him occurs effortlessly.

As Willy Loman, I lead a double life and, in so doing, create a second Willy Loman. I am a second-rate travelling salesman struggling to maintain my dignity. I also am a self among other selves identifying with Willy Loman. The collective imagination of the audience has joined itself to the life playing itself out on the stage. But like a quanta of light fired into the theatre of the subatomic, that collective identification has altered the thing observed.

And here, I speak not of the alterations that inevitably occur when a story moves from author to auditor. Rather, I mean that transformation which only an audience—or better still, an audience among audiences stretched across time—can generate.

Willy Loman is obscure.

Willy Loman is famous.

My mind, the whole of it, right and left, conscious and unconscious, is stuck with the paradox of these opposing realities, two realities inextricably mingled. Certainly, we may posit a Willy Loman who exists in some hypothetical realm as a thoroughly unrenowned failure, stripped of the egotist's supreme fantasy of a rapt audience unto eternity. But that Willy Loman remains stubbornly hypothetical, permanently unknowable, for if we the audience come to know him, he is no longer obscure. Our Willy Loman, for all his failures, for all his obscurity within the world of the fiction, remains to patrons of American theatre a household name.

It would be easy enough to argue that this tension enriches the drama, that Miller, through the magic of the stage, has redeemed life from its stubborn shabbiness. Within the scope of American literature, the work is canonical. But the work misses entry into the canon of the ages, seems out of place beside such tragedies as Oedipus,Lear,Hamlet. This is hardly to damn the work. But under the pressures of that pseudo-democratic spirit which takes the phrase ‘all men are created equal’ as a refutation of the traditional concept of nobility, Miller's drama participates in that seamier work of Lasch's capitalism, providing not only life and liberty but narcissistic escape for all, even for the common man. For protagonist and audience alike, the movement is away from the ground of reality, a movement that can be compared illuminatingly to the notion of evil propounded by St Basil, and further developed by Augustine, Boethius and Thomas Aquinas—as a movement toward darkness, toward negation.29 As noted, the modern root of the glorification of such a rebellious impulse can be traced to romanticism.

I do not mean to imply that the movement that began in Germany and moved into the literature of our language principally through Wordsworth and Coleridge is without merit. But like any set of ideas and attitudes, it was and is vulnerable to corruption through excess. Thus, while Goethe gives us glorious Faust and while Whitman gives us an all-embracing cosmic self, modern Americans writers give us Of Mice and Men's Lennie and Streetcar's Blanche DuBois—give us, to put it crudely, idiots and lunatics. If Goethe and Whitman privilege boldness and creativity over humility, realism, and consistency, the heirs of O'Neill and Fitzgerald romanticize narcissism, solipsism, and psychosis even while dramatizing their tragic consequences.

That second generation romantic, Percy Bysshe Shelley, in a long tradition of moral philosophers, insists that love is the secret to living morally, or as Shelley puts it, ‘A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own.’ He then goes beyond this to declare that literature, far from serving to demoralize, exercises this crucial empathetic faculty.30 Now, whereas we may agree with Shelley that literature can exercise our powers of empathy, we still can ask how well a particular work actually succeeds in doing this. As for Death of a Salesman, how well does its well-attended Willy Loman enlarge our powers of empathy for anyone of flesh and blood? What I have been arguing suggests that our identification with this protagonist does not benefit us as much as it initially might seem. There is a human type, however individuated its members, the beaten and obscure casualty of the rat race, shattered by failure, whom we may encounter again and again in the world beyond page and stage. But we have not been given such a figure in Death of a Salesman. Instead, we have been given a synthetic figure sprung from the audience's paradox, an obscure loser paradoxically famous.


  1. A. Miller, ‘Tragedy and the Common Man’, in Types of Drama, sixth edn, eds, S. Barnet, M. Berman and W. Burto (New York: Harper Collins, 1993) pp. 593-4 (p. 593).

  2. Sophocles, ‘Oedipus the King’, in Types of Drama, sixth edn, eds, S. Barnet, M. Berman and W. Burto (New York: Harper Collins, 1993) pp. 49-70 (p. 68).

  3. ‘Tragedy and the Common Man’, p. 593.

  4. Ibid., p. 593.

  5. Ibid., p. 593.

  6. A. Bloom, Beginning to Pray (New York: Walker, 1986) p. 46.

  7. M. Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. H. Iswolsky (London: MIT Press, 1968) p. 21.

  8. C. Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism (New York: Warner, 1979) p. 21.

  9. J. Habermas, Communication and the Evolution of Society, 1976, trans. T. McCarthy (Boston: Beacon, 1979) pp. 85-6.

  10. ‘Tragedy and the Common Man’, p. 593.

  11. A. Miller, Death of a Salesman, 1949 (New York: Penguin, 1976) p. 44.

  12. Ibid., p. 139.

  13. Ibid., p. 132.

  14. Ibid., p. 97.

  15. S. Barnet, M. Berman and W. Burto, Types of Drama, sixth edn (New York: Harper Collins, 1993) p. 553.

  16. Death of a Salesman, p. 135.

  17. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (New York: Scribner's, 1925) p. 182.

  18. ‘Tragedy and the Common Man’, p. 594.

  19. Ibid., p. 593.

  20. M. Nussbaum, ‘Tragedy and Self Sufficiency’, Essays on Aristotle's Poetics, ed. A. O. Rorty (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1992), pp. 261-90 (p. 268).

  21. Ibid., p. 267.

  22. Aristotle, Treatise on Rhetoric, trans. T. Buckley (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 1995) p. 136.

  23. C. V. Boyer, Villain as Hero in Elizabethan Tragedy (New York: Dutton, 1914) p. 213.

  24. Ibid., pp. 203-4.

  25. Ibid., p. 208.

  26. Death of a Salesman, p. 104.

  27. F. O'Connor, The Complete Stories (New York: Farrar, 1971) p. 226.

  28. S. T. Coleridge, The Oxford Authors: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. H. J. Jackson (New York: Oxford UP, 1985) p. 480.

  29. St Augustine, City of God, trans. G. G. Walsh et al. (Garden City: Image, 1958) pp. 244-55.

  30. P. B. Shelley, ‘A Defense of Poetry’, Critical Theory since Plato, revised edn (New York: Harcourt, 1992) pp. 516-29 (pp. 519-20).

Philip C. Kolin and others (essay date fall 1998)

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SOURCE: Kolin, Philip C., and others. “Death of a Salesman: A Playwrights' Forum.” Michigan Quarterly Review 37, no. 4 (fall 1998): 591-623.

[In the following essay, part of a special issue devoted to Arthur Miller, Kolin gathers reappraisals and interpretations of Death of a Salesman from several prestigious playwrights—including Edward Albee, Neil Simon, and Lanford Wilson, among others—on the occasion of the play's fiftieth anniversary.]

Ever since it premiered on Broadway on 10 February 1949, Death of a Salesman has been an indispensable script in the modern theater. Louis Kronenberger described the heightened anticipation New Yorkers felt when the play opened after its tryouts in Philadelphia:

Whoever you met that had caught the show out of town had clearly seen a masterpiece already, and behaved a little as if he had seen a ghost. Few things in Broadway history can have had so sensational a build-up: fewer still—which is far more wonderful—have been so breathlessly received when they arrived.1

Running for 742 Broadway performances, Salesman entered the canon of American theater with glory. Eugene O'Neill gave the play his imprimatur: “Miller's bolder than I have been … I'm not so sure he hasn't written a great American play.”2 Brooks Atkinson proclaimed in the New York Times that “Miller has written a superb drama. … It is so simple in style and so inevitable in theme that it scarcely seems like a thing that has been written and acted. For Mr. Miller has looked with compassion into the hearts of some ordinary Americans and quietly transferred their hope and anguish to the theater.”3 Twenty-five years after the premiere, London critic Harold Hobson pronounced Salesman, along with A Streetcar Named Desire and Long Day's Journey into Night, “one of America's three greatest plays.”4 This trinity of plays represented the best American theater offered to an admiring audience of world theatergoers. As Miller himself noted, “I think it is true that wherever there is theater in the world, it has been played.”5

Miller's accomplishments in Salesman were revolutionary for 1949, fundamental for 1999, the play's golden anniversary. His use of time—not flashbacks or interruptions, he is quick and right to point out—was highly experimental, proleptic. According to Miller again, Salesman “is one continuous poem.”6 Equally controversial in 1949 was Miller's idea that Salesman was a tragedy of the common man. Salesman proved that essential tragic ingredients—moral choice, conflict, disruption in family and state, intense loss—were no less viable in the twentieth century than in Sophocles' or Shakespeare's eras. The grumblings of Joseph Wood Krutch over this issue of genre seem short-sighted today in light of the way time has endorsed Miller's views.7 Perhaps one of the most profound insights on the common man's tragedy came from Miller himself in a 1969 interview: Willy's “uniqueness was bypassed in favor of his total obedience to social stimuli, and he ends up as he does in the play, believing in what he is forced to rebel against.”8 This is as close to hamartia, peripeteia, and tragic fate as it gets. Miller knew full well that “Man is in society but the society is in the man and every individual.”9 Willy's tragedy continues today each time a promised golden parachute fails to open, a job or department is phased out, or a technological advance leads to a personal retrenchment. The tragedy of the Family Loman is replayed as cities decay and their residents' dreams with them.

As the above comments from Miller prove, the playwright is also a perceptive critic—of society and of art, which for Miller are inseparable. Miller's acuity is shared by many of his fellow playwrights as well. To honor the 50th anniversary of Salesman on Broadway, I gathered the following encomia, interpretations, reappraisals, and memoirs from some of America's most distinguished playwrights. I encouraged these playwrights to reveal how Salesman may have influenced them (Ari Roth contends, “For what writer is immune to the shadow of Salesman?”), the American theater, American audiences, and why Miller's play continues to enlighten, to disturb, and to inspire us. Not only are these playwrights' views a valuable text on Salesman but, in many instances, they form miniature essays that rightfully take their place in the playwrights' own canon.


All American playwrights who have been around for a long time seem to have one play above all their others that they're identified with—part of a quick and, very often, superficial journalistic checklist. Say Tennessee Williams and you get A Streetcar Named Desire; say Thornton Wilder and you get Our Town; say William Inge and you get Bus Stop; say Eugene O'Neill and you get Long Day's Journey into Night; say me and you get Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; say Arthur Miller and you get Death of a Salesman.

These “signature” plays are usually very good examples of the playwright's work; certainly they are very popular examples, which may be why they become “signature”; and, sometimes, are the playwright's best, though sometimes it is simply the popularity which tips the balance, leaving in the lurch subtler, quieter, or tougher plays.

No one would question, however, that Death of a Salesman is a very fine play—I leave for a hundred years that injured term “great”—and it is certainly one of Arthur Miller's two or three finest, and may well be his finest—unless he writes a better one.

Like all of Arthur's plays, Death of a Salesman forces us to observe much that we would rather not, consider much that we are less than comfortable with, holds up to us a clear reflection of both our potentialities and our avoidances.

It is a powerful, sad, brutal play, and it has “conscience” written all over it, and probably set a standard for that unpopular word.


It makes me feel very old that we are celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Death of a Salesman … but also very young, knowing that something that was created fifty years ago has withstood all the “new waves” which have washed over the theater in that time. I remember being at the opening, where strong men wept, bent over in their seats with their heads in their hands, or standing, applauding wildly.

The critic Louis Kronenberger wrote, “The play is so simple, central and terrible, that the run of playwrights will never dare nor care to attempt it.” Brooks Atkinson wrote, “Salesman is one of the finest dramas in the whole range of American theatre.”

So it remains.

What Salesman meant to me personally as a fledgling playwright just back from World War II was that it was “there,” Arthur Miller was “there” among us, large in stature, large in aspirations. Standing tall.

The night before I was commissioned in the Navy in 1942, I had passed my oral exams for my Ph.D. I think I was passed on the assumption that I would not be coming back. For years I had wanted to be a playwright, but I had studied for my Ph.D. because I am a “belt and suspenders” man and knew that it would be difficult to support myself and my wife as a beginning playwright.

But, miraculously, I had come marching home a playwright. I had won a prize sponsored by the Army and the Navy and The National Theatre conference for the best play written by a serviceman overseas. I had been awarded a Rockefeller Grant, and before my return I had landed one of the great agents, Audrey Wood.

Among the plays I saw soon after my return was Miller's All My Sons. It held me riveted. I had studied my Ibsen. So had Miller. His subject was “responsibility,” his method the so-called well-made play.

Then, two years later came Salesman. As John Gassner wrote, “Miller still has a firm hand on the sequence of events …” but he had achieved a poetry, a theater poetry, the whole work magnificently realized in the Elia Kazan production with setting and lighting by Jo Mielziner.

Miller was again writing about family, a subject always close to my heart and concerns. Someone once wrote, “drama should provide the opportunity for the most intense, basic human interrelationships. Is there an arena more intense than the family?”

Though Benedict Nightingale, the English critic, has always expressed his contempt for the American playwright's absorption with family and has wondered when we are going to “cut the umbilical cord,” still, with Death of a Salesman,Long Day's Journey into Night,The Glass Menagerie,Awake and Sing and others, we have done very well with the “family play.”

Salesman struck yet another sensitive area for me. In my teens I had been deeply moved by Charles Lamb's essay, The Superannuated Man. The man out of work, diminished, out of the job which had provided the meaningful routine of his life. I had first read this essay during the Depression, when men were throwing themselves out of windows in despair.

My father, at twelve, had found himself an orphan on the streets of New York (1889) working in lumber yards, dressed in cast-off clothes provided by the church. He had then come across an advertisement for free courses in shorthand and typing provided by the Underwood Typewriter Company. He started as a stenographer at five dollars a day and rose to become vice-president of a large copper company. Then in that most terrible year of the stock market crash, 1929, he had been “retired.” The only work he could get was as a salesman (insurance), and he found himself waiting in the outer offices of company presidents who, only months before, had been his fellow directors, sitting on boards of prestigious firms.

How contemporary Salesman is in this age of downsizing on all levels from laborers to vice presidents (without golden parachutes). The despair, the loss of the feeling of self-worth which overcomes us when we are fired or “retired” from work which has provided us with not only “food on the table” but also a sense of dignity.

This despair, this feeling of worthlessness, is surely a universal experience and will continue to be. And probably fifty years from now, men will be seeing Salesman, and, remembering their father or experiencing the shock of recognition of their own lives, will be sitting in some theater, bent over weeping or standing and applauding. For Miller, in portraying the life and death of Willy Loman, has obeyed his own admonition … attention has to be paid.


Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby says, “I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all. …” By this he means that Gatsby is a story of innocence corrupted, of Westerners possessing “some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.” As Wilson, the desiccated man of the ash heaps, says, “I'm sick … I'm all run down … I've been here too long. I want to get away. My wife and I want to go West.” Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman is of the same paradigmatic order. The opening stage direction makes this clear:

A melody is heard, played upon a flute … telling of grass and trees and the horizon. The curtain rises. Before us is the Salesman's house. We are aware of towering, angular shapes behind it, surrounding it on all sides. … As more light appears, we see a solid vault of apartment houses around the fragile-seeming home.

The play ends with the same image:

Only the music of the flute is left on the darkening stage as over the house the hard towers of the apartment buildings rise into sharp focus.

The grass, trees, music, and horizon are, of course, the elements of the West, the Territory, a locus amoenus, imbued with the magical and mythic qualities of virtue, truth, hope, beauty, freedom, and a horizon co-relative with heaven itself, as so many nineteenth-century landscapes give testimony to. “It's beautiful up there,” Willy says vaguely to his wife Linda about his life on the road: “the trees are so thick and the sun is warm.” Where, exactly, has he been? To what is he referring? Clearly it is the Territory, not the road on which he sells his line.

Willy Loman, the (not a) Salesman, is another archetypal “Westerner,” but in a much abused and debased form, who is unadaptable to eastern life. Instead of a pistol and a horse, he has a sample case and an untrustworthy car. His “territory” is not the open spaces, where a man is a man and his word is better than law, but a series of ash heap settings with layers of corruption, by which Willy has already been compromised (as in his marital infidelities), although he stubbornly clings to other values. His road never goes west. In the East, Willy is “always in a race with the junkyard,” both materially and morally. When, as his wife says proudly, he opens up “unheard of territories,” it is for trademark products. He is no explorer of pristine wilderness, engaged in heroic and mythic feats, as was the grandfather in Steinbeck's “A Leader of the People,” another defeated “Western” type, or his own heroic older brother Ben, who is associated with epic deeds in Africa and Alaska. In Act II, the hallucinatory Ben says to Willy, “Get out of these cities, they're full of talk and time payments and courts of law.” Willy himself says to his son Biff, “Go back to the West! Be a carpenter, a cowboy, enjoy yourself!”

The loss of joy in Willy's world is scarifying, mutilating. Willy's fragile “house” in Brooklyn is a virtual last outpost, “boxed in” as a burial vault, dwarfed and deprived of light and horizon by the towering apartment buildings, which represent the new, angular, and cold urban/commercial order. It is Loman's last stand. The street is lined with cars, there is no fresh air, the grass won't grow, and Willy cannot even grow a carrot in his own back yard, which is what the Territory has been ridiculously reduced to, a place where you “gotta break your neck to see a star. …” The builders of the apartment buildings have cut down the beautiful elm trees and “massacred the neighborhood.” He remembers when there were lilacs, wisteria, peonies, and daffodils. This downward-spiraling litany continues throughout the play. As Willy puts it more than once, “The woods are burning!” That is to say, the transcendental space within which virtue can be naturally constituted and in which happiness and ideal family are attainable is being destroyed, and what is left are the wizened and morally anemic creatures of the ash heaps, the virtual wasteland that is the estate of modern America, where selling, anything, anything at all, is a confirmation of being.

Willy's son Biff, in particular, has absorbed his father's ambivalence. On the one hand, he adores the West, horses, the out-of-doors, working with his hands, and so on. He has also absorbed the common man's Ben Franklin ideal of do-it-yourself expedience, as shown by his numerous correspondence courses. But, on the other hand, he lies, he cheats, and he steals. And just as Willy is regularly called “kid” by his boss, his son Biff, who is thirty-four, says, “I'm mixed up very bad. … I'm like a boy.” In another incarnation, Biff will be a new type, like Nathanael West's Earl Shoop in The Day of the Locust, a displaced urban cowboy, a sometime hustler and pimp, stranded on cement with a far-away look and maybe a barbershop Indian or dying consumptive for a companion, just as Willy, in a later, less tragic, incarnation might well be, say, an Archie Bunker. In total exasperation at one point, Willy's neighbor and friend Charley says to Willy, “When the hell are you going to grow up?” But neither Willy nor Biff can grow up in the only world they have. Willy's “massive dreams” will not allow them to grow up. They are ambiguously and delusionally enmeshed in a moral universe that has no currency in their world. Willy's concern with growing carrots, which are good for vision, is a desire somehow to see better, to understand the nature of things, to repair the loss of vision in his old glasses, to stay on the road from which he strays suicidally or on which he absent-mindedly comes close to vehicular homicide. But he does not grow carrots or anything else, although he tries with a flashlight in the dark. He just dies, lamenting a broken life and a broken world.

Whether he is his own victim or society's is something to consider. Most likely he is both. So much of American literature is obsessed with what we have supposedly lost in our transition from wilderness and Territory to a city and suburb, from a pastoral-agricultural society to an industrial-commercial one. The two most produced and studied plays in America, Death of a Salesman and Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire, are both about traveling salesmen, no doubt a telling sign. One of them fails and one succeeds. Williams's Stanley Kowalski is the ultimate mercantile man, with no illusions about America's past, as his “rape” of Blanche reveals. And, as his name implies, he is (like Angelo, the mechanic who doesn't understand Willy's Studebaker) part of the out-of-control population in the stinking apartment houses (read tenements, projects) that Willy complains about. He doesn't worry about things like whipped cheese. He has a firm grip on the corruptions of America, and he will succeed (his child by Stella, Blanche's sister, will unite both an old and new America, for better or worse—for example, a mongrel child comparable to the horrible cultural birthing in Hemingway's “Indian Camp”). The choice between Willy Loman and Stanley Kowalski for national character is not much of a choice. One is a willing victim, the other an unwilling victim, of a fallen world, although there must be reservations in both cases. Even were Willy less corrupt and Stanley more “sensitive,” it still would not be much of a choice, although Stanley is far better than Faulkner's equally mercantile Snopses, who similarly represent the new order's “rape” of the old. (The protagonist of Henry James's The Princess Casamassima, in a different context, reflects a similar problem of old and new and can only kill himself as a solution.) What is clear is that both Stanley and Willy represent a continuing conflict deep in the American psyche, animating much of our debate about how America and Americans (past, present, and future) should be constituted. It is a debate not likely to be concluded soon, although perhaps temporarily occluded by other concerns.

Miller has a lot of sympathy for Willy. Through Willy's wife he proclaims that “attention must be paid. He's not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog,” because he is a “human being.” Later, through Willy, he says, “a man is not a piece of fruit!” (read “shit”), and again, “a man has got to add up to something.” But how much attention, and why? What does Willy add up to? These are important questions. Willy and his sons contribute to the very decline Willy bemoans (“personality always wins the day”). And others, like Charley and his son Bernard, who between them can't hammer a nail but who adapt to a corrupting and dehumanizing system (“When a deposit bottle is broken you don't get your nickel back.”), are decent and caring people What, we can ask, does this mean? At this nexus, Miller does not seem quite clear. A more contemporary political paradigm about the value of Everyman, about Willy as representative of the downtrodden in an unfair and evil economic system, seems to be imposed on another paradigm, one about the conflict between the values of the West and the East, the Territory and the Community. The latter is historically enduring, reflected in much of our history, politics, and literature. The former, although very likely edifying to many, is a point of view, a parti pris, that has little to do with most of the imagery set in motion in the play. A weakness of the preacher-reformer artist is that she lures us to transfer the virtue of her cause to the work at hand. Part of Miller's (and our) moral endorsement of and conferral of tragic status on Willy is the quasi-sanctity of Miller's ideological position—despite the facts he is laying before us of Willy's huge derelictions of character. There is no question that America has come upon hard times, that America, never in a state of grace, has surely fallen away from any possibility of it in its current morass. It is doubtful that paying attention to Willy Loman, in Miller's imposed sense, will help us understand this fall and these hard times. But paying attention to the tragedy of Willy's divided and confused loyalties, his misconceptions and compromises, his pernicious electioneering for false gods, will, I think, help us to understand.


So much has been written of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman that it is now as familiar to us as an old and valued friend and seems to have been with us forever. I remember a time though when there was no Death of a Salesman, and the year it opened in New York to its dazzling recognition. I saw this celebrated production with Lee J. Cobb and Mildred Dunnock, and later the revival with Dustin Hoffman, and I've read it a number of times as well as read many essays and criticisms of the play.

The real power of the play itself was revealed to me when I was asked by a friend to go and see a production in a small regional theatre in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Frankly I dreaded going. Hadn't I seen Lee Cobb and Mildred Dunnock both on the stage and television? Did I want my memory of a wonderful evening in the theater spoiled? Reluctantly, I went. None of the actors were celebrated, but from the very beginning all my reservations about going vanished as the power of the play itself took hold of me and the audience, and made clear to me that the play is graced with an elemental power, with the strength and the enduring truth of a parable, and I was as moved at the end of the play as if I had never seen it or read it before. It's a remarkable piece of work and has deservedly stood the test of time.


In 1952, my father and I went to the movies. Nothing special in that. He and my mother and I, the three of us, our entire family, loved the movies and went a lot. But this night was different. After dinner, out of the blue, my father stood up and said, “Johnny and I are going to the movies. Just the two of us.” Where? To the movie version of that play Death of a Salesman playing down the street from us at the Colony movie theater on 82nd Street in Jackson Heights in Queens. My mother wasn't invited, which didn't bother her because who wants to see some depressing thing anyway with death in the title especially after seeing Singin' in the Rain at the Music Hall earlier in the year which would be our all-time favorite plus we had the new Dumont twelve inch TV so who wanted to go out?

Now I knew all about Death of a Salesman because I knew all about the American theater. I was fourteen. We went to Broadway plays all the time like Annie Get Your Gun,Where's Charley?,Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,Wish You Were Here which had a real live actual swimming pool right on the stage plus a number one hit song sung by Eddie Fisher. I also knew all about Arthur Miller from Life magazine, my main source of information about the world, because I, like Miller, was going to be a playwright, although a funny playwright. That night was really strange because one of the things I knew about him, thanks to all this exciting House Un-American Activities Committee McCarthy stuff, was that for all his success Arthur Miller was probably a Commie, and not only that, so was Frederic March, the star of this movie. I knew everyone who was a Commie in show business not only from the priests and nuns at our church, St. Joan of Arc, who would tell us who to watch out for from Red Channels, but also because my father was no less a dignitary than Vice Commander in Charge of Americanism at his American Legion Post: The Elmjack Post #298 which had saluted Hollywood that year for making the kind of movie that should be made, My Son John, directed by Leo McCarey. What a story! A wonderful Irish Catholic mother played by Helen Hayes discovered that her beloved Irish Catholic son had become a Communist. After some—but not that much—hand wringing, Helen did the only thing and turned him in to the FBI. Would my family do that to me if I became a Communist? They'd have to. But luckily I would never become a Communist. So why were we going tonight to this leftie Death of a Salesman? Hadn't The American Legion in Boston already tried to shut down this movie as Commie propaganda? The Elmjack Post #298 had decided to let the picture open in New York without protest because why give it the attention. The Commies would like that. So why then were the two of us going? Suppose anybody saw us going into the Colony? How would the Vice Commander in Charge of Americanism explain this one—and taking a kid who could be brainwashed. Wait! Had my father secretly become a Communist? Would I have to turn him in? The night became weirdly illicit. My father bought the two tickets. We went in.

Death of a Salesman was kind of boring. The story kept jumping back and forth in time which confused me. Frederic March drove his car back from Boston the way my father drove—all over the road and panicky. Was it March's rotten driving that made my father need to see this movie? March played a guy named Willy who fought with his sons. I didn't have any brothers. Willy had a girlfriend in Boston. Then Willy killed himself to get insurance and everybody went to his funeral. My father had suffered a heart attack two years earlier. I didn't like this movie one bit. We didn't wait for the double feature. We walked home but this time we didn't talk over the jokes from the picture or reenact our favorite bits. “I want to tell you something.” My father said that in a low tone of voice you use when you're going to break a secret. I liked being told secrets but not from him. Did he have a girlfriend in Boston?

“I once was a salesman.”

“Like the salesman in the movie?”

“No, for Procter & Gamble.”

“Ivory soap!” I was very impressed.

This is what he told me.

When World War One, the war to end all wars, was over, my father came back not to New York but to L. A. to start a new life working as a soap salesman in a section called Angel's Flight which was a street on a hill so steep you had to take a cable car to go up and down it.

“You worked for Ivory soap and we could live in L. A. in a place called Angel's Flight. Why aren't we there now?”

My father who worked down at Wall Street and hated it said this in a low slow voice. He tended to mumble anyway so you always had to get close to hear him. “It hadn't worked out.” That was it. We walked home in silence.

My mother asked how was the movie? My father said in his bright chipper voice, “The usual Commie propaganda.” While he brushed his teeth, I whispered to my mother what my father had told me. “He lived in L. A.?” she said. “He was a salesman for Ivory soap? Then you know more about him than I do.”

One thing I did know was that the secret he had just told me was directly connected to the story we had just seen. And seeing that story had somehow made it possible for him to say to me those four terrible words: It. Hadn't. Worked. Out. That night on the walk back from that movie was the only time he ever mentioned that part of his life. If I brought it up later, he'd laugh it off with a song or a joke or a drink. By the time I could've brought it up and pushed it, he had died. But something happened that night. I saw for the first time that a play, a movie that had been a play, something with actors in it, could touch a man as familiar as my father with such mysterious power that it made him a stranger to me and gave him strength to reveal—not a secret—What was it he had told me? Something deeper than a secret. But the play had given him courage to say the most horrible words he could imagine: It. Hadn't. Worked. Out.

T. S. Eliot in his great essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” writes about the last time the artist was a full-fledged member of the establishment society. In Shakespeare's day, people went to the theater for the same reasons you'd go to the doctor today. Audiences went to the Globe Theater to see their problems acted out. Seeing emotions carried to the extreme helped audiences find the proper limits for their own lives.

Did my father go to see Death of a Salesman in this instinctual primal Elizabethan way—although he wouldn't know what the hell that meant if you woke him out of his grave today with all the knowledge in the world. He knew if he saw this story the psychic pain of his life would be—what? forget about healed. Eased. Settle for eased.

Is this what accounts for the universality of Miller's work? His ability to get into people's dreams, to touch their disappointment, to give voice to the American shame of failure, to make that which is most human in us also the very same thing we can least bear to acknowledge? To say Yes, I have been heard. I am not alone. No matter where we are on this planet. Did what my father tell me that night heal him in some way? Did he pay some debt to his only child in this meager confession which haunted him for a lifetime? He never got to that place again. But some debt was paid that night, some dent made that night in the fragile armor we invent to survive, walking home that night in 1952.


What most intrigues me about Death of a Salesman, and indeed about many of Arthur Miller's other plays, is the thematic ambiguities at the core of his work. We all value his solid architecture, his driving moral energy, his sardonic wit, and his ability to seize on subjects which manage to forge disparate audiences into responsive communities all over the world. Yet it would be a mistake to view the playwright simply as a passionate polemicist.

Death of a Salesman, for example, is generally acknowledged to be a major indictment of American capitalism and consumerism. Willy Loman's story dramatizes the heartlessness of a system which seduces and exploits and then casts aside its most devoted supporters. Yet the Bernard subplot embodies almost the opposite position. Here the point would seem to be that if you work hard and play by the rules you can end up arguing a case in front of the Supreme Court, and enjoy a good tennis game on the side. Obviously both plot strands work with and against each other. Willy Loman's story, standing by itself, would be a grim and limited distortion of the American experience; Bernard alone would seem as false as Horatio Alger. Woven together, however, each strand informs and modifies the other, so that at the end we embrace a much more complicated vision of our country and ourselves.

This ability to defy the laws of physics and occupy two places at the same time is what good art can do so compellingly. And it's what makes Miller a major artist. In The Crucible, for example, he manages to chronicle the horrors of what happens to a community when pent-up feelings are expressed publicly, while at the same time exploring how unexpressed feelings can undermine a marriage. In The Price, he looks at the price we pay when we cut ourselves off from our roots, juxtaposed with the price we pay when we elect to stay home. In an underestimated recent play of Miller's called The Ride Down Mount Morgan, the central character is a bigamist, whose two wives show up in his hospital room after an automobile accident. Talk about two opposing positions occupying the same place at the same time!

In any case, Death of a Salesman, for all the power and passion of its politics, and the groundedness of its domestic detail, has at its center this complex sense of ambiguity, which, I believe, will intrigue and move audiences far removed from the particular concerns of this country or century.


Death of a Salesman is the best play yet written about an American immigrant family. Granted, the Lomans never reveal specifically the country in which Willy was born; they don't speak English with an accent or revel in colorful old-country customs. Nonetheless, the moment I first read the play, I recognized in my bones an immigrant household, for in Willy's desperate quest to hold onto the American Dream, I heard the voice of my own father. Immigrant patriarchs often embrace American sloganism in order to justify the radical choice they have made, for the pain of uprooting must surely be rewarded with a better life or else it is a fool's choice. Note also the play's obsession with travel: not only is Willy himself a virtual road map of American territories, but his role model Ben ends up in Africa, where he makes his fortune. Ben's advice to Willy is the slogan that has inspired American immigrants for generations: “There's a new continent on your doorstep, William. You could walk out rich. Rich!”

The Loman boys also represent familiar responses of second-and third-generation Americans, who, burdened with a more intimate knowledge of this country, must choose to endorse or reject immigrant romanticism. Happy's need to prove that “Willy Loman did not die in vain” suggests all second-generation Asian Americans currently becoming doctors, lawyers, engineers, and other upwardly-mobile citizens, in part to fulfill the dreams of their parents. On the other hand, Biff's conclusion that “He [Willy] never knew who he was” tells of the loss of identity and cultural confusion often brought on by rapid assimilation.

Though I am virtually certain Willy is an immigrant, I do concede a potential contradiction in the play, when he and Ben discuss their childhoods … in South Dakota. Could this be Willy's delusion, his need to be accepted as an American so great that it forces him to invent a false past? Possibly. Or perhaps immigration is so intrinsic a part of the American character, has so shaped the dreams and slogans of this land, that no true examination of the national spirit can escape its pull. All evidence to the contrary, I will always remain convinced that Arthur Miller has written the great American immigrant play. That the Lomans are a typical Asian American household. That Death of a Salesman captures, of course, my own family.


When I saw Death of a Salesman in 1949 I was most struck by the fact that Willy Loman could assess his life and through reflection and memory he could arrive at insights and great conclusions. And in his car after doing this he could die.

He wasn't a character in Shakespeare or Shaw but an ordinary man who nevertheless possessed the right to make such a monumental decision.

I believe it was then I decided, if my memory one day ever presented me with agonizing insights, that I too possessed that right. I found this thought a comfort. And it's why I still love Willy Loman fifty years after.


I sat behind Arthur Miller at the 1994 Tony Awards, and I stared at the back of his head—far more interesting than anything transpiring on stage. Inside this impressive cranium, inside this dome, I thought to myself, Willy Loman was conceived: for an American playwright, a place comparable in sacrosanctity to the Ark of the Covenant or the Bhodi Tree or the Manger in Bethlehem. I wanted to touch it but I thought its owner might object. The ceremonies ended, and I'd missed my opportunity to make contact with the cradle whence came one of the three postwar pillars—the other two being of course A Streetcar Named Desire and Long Day's Journey into Night—upon which the stature of serious American playwriting rests. All the wonderful writers who followed the Triad—realists, naturalists, and experimentalists—have at least these three plays in common. Nothing that American theater can point to with pride since the decade which produced these works was not shaped, in some degree, by their influence, in homage or in opposition or, more frequently, both. A salesman, a streetcar, and a journey: three ambient testaments to rootlessness, to American wanderlust and the hazards of nomadism. Death,Desire and Night: tragedies all, downers embraced by a country of people who like to imagine themselves, perversely, as relentlessly upbeat. Bertolt Brecht in his journal wrote that American theater is written “for people on the move by people who are lost.” And that insight before the Big Three had been written or staged!

We think American drama apolitical because the Big Three are family plays. Except of course Streetcar is about a family in which a woman who cannot operate within conventional economies is raped. Journey is about a family of immigrants haunted by poverty and class. And the Lomans are compelled by the tide of history to return East from a paradisaic pioneer frontier past; the motion of Manifest Destiny has reversed itself, an acid reflux which had carried Gatsby from Chicago to Long Island twenty years before, brings the Lomans to a doomed pursuit of happiness in the place whence happiness, in the previous century, had fled—Happiness having Gone West and never returned, drowned perhaps in the grips of some Pacific undertow.

We think American drama mired in naturalism, lacking formal inventiveness and playfulness, but Journey is an extremely artificial play about the theater, full of actors playing actors and the victims of actors. Streetcar is great verse drama, as close as we'll ever get, close enough, its characters unforgettable because they speak a language that's as “natural” as any great poetry is—which is to say, not in the least. And Salesman has Uncle Ben, whose wealth has made him as alien to the Lomans' struggles and disappointments as the character is, formalistically, to the rest of the play.

I saw Salesman when I was six years old, and I never forgot Uncle Ben and his line, “When I went into the jungle I was eighteen years old and when I came out, by God, I was rich!” I don't think I understood the entire story, but in the kaleidoscopic version I subsequently constructed for myself I thought Uncle Ben some sort of great clown who blows open the Loman quotidian bearing tidings of fun, spontaneity, adventure, life,—of which, apparently, menace and real danger were constitutive elements. I didn't, at six, know much about the quotidian. No six year old should know anything about the quotidian. But I think perhaps watching the Loman family love and wound one another, and love and be wounded by the world without, was the first indelible inkling I'd consciously had (lucky child!) of what the Everyday was, that such a monstrous thing existed; and how important it is to despise the Everyday, to live one's life, to the extent one can, resisting it.

Salesman is not only a play about death, though its sadness is overwhelming. It is also about resistance, even unto death. I have never believed that the issue of inexorability ought to be resolved in tragedy. A tragedy in which suffering and death are truly inexorable lacks drama; there needs to be a what if, a possible escape, or else the whole thing becomes grimly mechanical, pathetic, not exhilarating, grotesque rather than cathartic. “We're free,” Linda keens over her husband's grave. The words in their mortal/mortuary context are heartbreaking, horrible, ironic and deeply true of human beings even in inhuman circumstances. We are free, and that fact is both insufficient, as freedom in isolation always is (which I think is a point of the play), but terribly important and true.

Linda Loman's graveside lament, from that Lake Charles, Louisiana, production in 1962, is what made the biggest impression on my six-year-old sensibilities. This is not surprising, given that my mother, Sylvia Kushner, was playing Linda. She was a wonderful actor, a tragedienne. A professional bassoonist, she was drawn to and felt entirely at home in dark, somber tones, in elegy and minor keys, in sorrow. She was honest on stage, she saved a good deal of her truthfulness, the things she couldn't say in the course of the quotidian, for her music and for the roles she played. She kept the lid on a lot of unhappiness, into which she could tap when she needed to. On stage, grief and rage and pain added years to her looks. As Linda Loman she changed from my beautiful young mother (dressed more dowdily than she ever did in real life) to an old woman in the course of the evening. It was terrifying and wonderful; I was anxious to see her afterwards, to see what she'd look like, if she'd become my mother again. She did change back, but I don't think I ever saw her the same way again. Perhaps having spent several weeks being married to Willy Loman, she never was the same.

This was the first time Lake Charles had seen theater-in-the-round, a spatial innovation the advocacy of which caused the more progressive members of the local community theater to split off from the more established Little Theater, to form a company committed to producing plays as controversial as Salesman then was. I remember being amazed that I could watch the action and the audience opposite me, all of us watching my mother play Linda Loman, seeing Brenda Bachrack, one of my mother's best friends, crying at the play's genuinely devastating, lonely, cemetery ending. I was very impressed.

The actress who played Willy's floozy in Boston had broken her arm two days before opening and sported a big plaster cast. I thought the cast somehow connected to what made the hotel room scene so sleazy, had something to do with why Biff and Willy were so angry with each other. I didn't know the meaning of the hose the boys find at the beginning of the play but I knew that it was incredibly ominous, and I certainly knew—had I ever really considered death before?—that when Willy leaves at the end of the play, it's a final exit; I knew it broke my mother's heart.

I saw her play several other parts when I was very young, all of them involving the shedding of tears and the venting of rage, none of them Linda, none of the plays Death of a Salesman. Since then I've seen maybe half-a-dozen Linda Lomans, only Mildred Dunnock as good as my mother; I've seen Lee J. Cobb's beaten titan and Dustin Hoffman's indestructible rat-terrier. But how do I know Salesman is a very great play? Because I knew it when I was six. I didn't know precisely what I'd just seen, but I knew I was in the presence of a great mystery: the sorrow experience brings to innocence, the anger injustice brings to the just. Reading Salesman today, I'm still in its presence, I know it still.


Everybody's Father

The first, and come to think of it, only time I ever saw Death of a Salesman was in a college production at the University of Wisconsin. I remember straining forward in my seat, my knuckles white, gripping the armrests on both sides. The play is so much a part of the American ethos that whether or not one has seen it or read it ever or dozens of times, Miller's sensibility is as if implanted in our heart/brains. My own father was not a salesman, but a certified public accountant. Not a Loman, but the son of Italian immigrants, who had worked his way out of a reactionary Catholic ghetto, married a Jewish woman, moved to fancy suburbs and died at the age of forty-four. He was, I always thought, like Willy, a victim of the American Dream. “Attention must be paid.” Miller was a young playwright on the Federal Theater Project. He is the direct descendant of a time in American history when theater felt it had both a right and a duty to speak to the citizens of a democracy about our role as the makers and safeguards of the society in which we live. Miller wants the middle classes to be responsible. He knew that upward mobility and assimilation might sap something finer in the nature of a people of immigrants who suddenly, because they had defeated fascism, could become globally rich and powerful. Rightly so, in All My Sons he critiqued the isolationism of the nuclear family. I like the fact that he intertwines personal sexual longings with public ethical dilemmas. I appreciate Miller's honesty, his courage, and his sense of citizenship; his secular Jewish belief that through human action the social world might become a better place, and his conviction that dramatic fiction has a role to play in this worthwhile endeavor. If, as a playwright, I claim Susan Glaspell and Gertrude Stein as mothers, I also lay claim to Miller as one of the great and good fathers of us all.


I heard about Death of a Salesman when I was a child, eight or nine years old, before I had ever seen a play. My Uncle Phil, my father's oldest brother, was a businessman in what we used to call the “shmatte business,” in New York City. He manufactured knit shirts. He was a gruff, perpetually angry man educated only through high school, a man who grew up tough on the streets of Brooklyn. We children were often scared of him.

One night at dinner he told the family about a play he'd seen. This play was called Death of a Salesman and he told us it had hit him so hard he couldn't drive home that night to Long Island. He and his wife, Claire, had to take a room in a hotel. I asked my aunt about this years later, and she said, “Oh, yes. Phillie could barely walk out of the theater, so we had to stay over in New York.”

Two things hit me as a young girl:

1) My uncle wasn't as tough as I thought he was.


2) Theater must be a pretty powerful thing.


Reading Death of a Salesman in my Introduction to Theater class, freshman year, University of Miami, 1958, ranks as a seminal moment in my life. In terms of what the aspiring eighteen-year-old writer learned about the possibilities of structure, it ranks with The Sound and the Fury,Wuthering Heights, “The Waste Land,” and Waiting for Godot. In terms of the emotional impact of Mr. Miller's play—simple: nothing—nothing!—since has hit me so hard.


Arthur Miller's plays have been a major influence on me since the first moment I discovered them. Not just his most famous works, but also his newer, lesser-known plays continue to amaze, fascinate, and challenge me both as an individual and as an artist.

The first Miller play I ever saw was a college production of Death of a Salesman, and even though the play was glaringly miscast (a strapping young Hispanic graduate student as Willy Loman), the poetry, power, and passion of Miller's work still shone through, hit me hard, and have stayed with me ever since. Thankfully, I was later able to see Broadway revivals of Salesman and many other Miller plays—and I continue to be astounded by the depth of humanity in his writing.

Personally, I have always been fascinated by The Big Moral Questions in life and drama—and that, I believe, is one reason Miller's plays have always resonated so strongly for me. So few writers bother to contemplate the nation's (or world's) moral barometer in their plays anymore, and I believe one reason Miller's plays continue to remain so timely is because they serve a primal function of the theater: to hold a mirror up to our souls, to be the moral conscience of our times. On top of that, Miller has crafted some of the most original, fully-developed characters in American drama. What more could one ask for in a play? You can't. Arthur Miller has already given you everything.

Fifty years and still going strong … congratulations to you, Mr. Miller! And thank you for inspiring several generations of playwrights with your vision.


He's a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back—that's an earthquake. And then you get yourself a couple of spots on your hat, and you're finished. Nobody dast blame this man. A salesman is got to dream. … It comes with the territory.

—Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman

Was it our comforting belief that Willy Loman was “only” a salesman? That Death of a Salesman was about—well, an American salesman? And not about all of us?

It's probable that, when I first read this haunting and mysterious play at the age of fourteen or fifteen, I may have thought that Willy Loman was sufficiently “other”—“old.” He hardly resembled the men in my family, my father or grandfathers, for he was “in sales” and not a factory worker or small-time farmer, he wasn't a manual laborer but a man of words, speech—what his son Biff bluntly calls “hot air.” His occupation, for all its adversities, was “white collar,” and his class not the one into which I'd been born; I could not recognize anyone I knew intimately in him, and certainly I could not have recognized myself, nor foreseen a time decades later when it would strike me forcibly that, for all his delusions and intellectual limitations, about which Arthur Miller is unromantically clear-eyed, Willy Loman is all of us. Or, rather, we are Willy Loman, particularly those of us who are writers, poets, dreamers; the yearning soul “way out there in the blue.” Dreaming is required of us, even if our dreams are very possibly self-willed delusions. And we recognize our desperate child's voice assuring us, like Willy Loman pep-talking himself at the edge of a lighted stage as at the edge of eternity—“God Almighty, [I'll] be great yet! A star like that, magnificent, can never really fade away!”

Except of course, it can.

It would have been in the early 1950s that I first read Death of a Salesman, only a few years after its Broadway premiere and enormous critical and popular success. I would have read it in an anthology of Best Plays of the Year. As a young teenager I'd begun avidly devouring drama; apart from Shakespeare, no plays were taught in the schools I attended in upstate New York (in the small city of Lockport and the village of Williamsville, a suburb of Buffalo), and so I read plays with no sense of chronology, in no historic context, no doubt often without much comprehension. Reading late at night when the rest of the household was asleep was an intense activity for me, imbued with mystery, and reading drama was far more enigmatic than reading prose fiction. It seemed to me a challenge that so little was explained in the stage directions; there was no helpful narrative voice; you were obliged to visualize, to “see” the stage in your imagination, the play's characters always in present tense, vividly alive. In drama, people presented themselves primarily in speech, as they do in life. Yet there was an eerie, dreamlike melding of past and present in Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman's “present-action” dialogue and his conversations with the ghosts of his past like his revered brother Ben; there was a melting of the barriers between inner and outer worlds that gave to the play its disturbing, poetic quality. (Years later I would learn that Arthur Miller had originally conceived of the play as a monodrama with the title The Inside of His Head.)

In the intervening years, Willy Loman has become our quintessential American tragic hero, our domestic Lear, spiraling toward suicide as toward an act of selfless grace, his made scene on the heath a frantic seed-planting episode by flashlight in the midst of which the once-proud, now disintegrating man confesses, “I've got nobody to talk to.” His salesmanship, his family relations, his very life—all have been talk, optimistic and inflated sales-rhetoric; yet, suddenly, the powerful Willy Loman realizes he has nobody to talk to; nobody to listen. Perhaps the most memorable single remark in the play is the quiet observation that Willy Loman is “liked … but not well-liked.” In America, this is only B+. It will not be enough.

Nearly fifty years after its composition, Death of a Salesman strikes us as the most achingly contemporary of our classic American plays. It has proved to have been a brilliant strategy on the part of the thirty-four-year-old playwright to temper his gifts for social realism with the Expressionistic techniques of experimental drama like Eugene O'Neill's Strange Interlude and The Hairy Ape, Elmer Rice's The Adding Machine, Thornton Wilder's Our Town, work by Chekhov, the later Ibsen, Strindberg and Pirandello, for by these methods Willy Loman is raised from the parameters of regionalism and ethnic specificity to the level of the more purely, symbolically “American.” Even the claustrophobia of his private familial and sexual obsessions has a universal quality, in the plaintive-poetic language Miller has chosen for him. As we near the twenty-first century, it seems evident that America has become an ever more frantic, self-mesmerized world of salesmanship, image without substance, empty advertising rhetoric and that peculiar product of our consumer culture, “public relations”—a synonym for hypocrisy, deceit, fraud. Where Willy Loman is a salesman, his son Biff is a thief. Yet these are fellow Americans to whom attention must be paid. Arthur Miller has written the tragedy that illuminates the dark side of American success—which is to say, the dark side of us.


On what Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman means to me, an enraged 21st Century Africamerican male:

Salesman means that American theater intellectuals and their scholarly counterparts should rid themselves of their insufferable inferiority complex toward European theater. Enough of this subliminal colonialism! Enough of this snide, elitist derision and aesthetic conformism that attends discussions of American Theater! Had it been left to those blustery, nattering organizers of aesthetic bureaucracies that are clogged with semantic semiotics, we Americans never would have invented jazz. Miller teaches me that the American “Revolution” is not over yet; we won only the military victory; otherwise we are yet colonized. Miller makes me remember that being “black” in America is to be in a state of constant rebellion, and, as such, I exempt myself from the notion of American cultural inferiority.

Salesman is a great 20th century play about universal human suffering which is caused by the pervasive malady of “moral ignorance.” Miller had no ancient American (Caucasian) legends and myths upon which to draw when he wrote Salesman; he invented his own, as Americans are wont to do. In Salesman he gave us an in-depth glimpse at the highly infectious “disease of unrelatedness,” American-style alienation and despair in the common man, the Everyman who faces the limitless possibilities of America and dares to dream and fail.

Willy Loman finally failed because he couldn't escape the self-invented myths of his idealized past. Miller purposefully blurred the lines between expressionism, as he learned it from the Germans, and realism. He did this because he wanted us to see the confused “process” of Willy's mind and to reflect perhaps on the confusion of moral values in the modern industrialized Western world. Nations also invent myths about their pasts.

Miller is inventing the American Theater. Salesman is an exceptionally strong foundation stone. We can be proud to call him our own. We needn't look overseas for approval of what we do in our American Theater. We needn't aesthetically measure ourselves by 2500 years of someone else's history. Why shoulder Europe's calamity-ridden baggage? America is the world now. Everyone in the world comes here to settle, and they export our culture to their homelands. I think those Europeans who condescend toward us are fearful that we Americans will culturally obliterate them. Well, that may be a justifiable fear, but that's their problem, not ours.


So Many Memories

In the contemplative stages of writing this homage, I lost my job. I lost it at Arthur Miller's alma mater which, as it so happens, is my alma mater too. It was a modern-day mugging—no police reports to be filed—a paper decision; a corporate farewell. Following nine years of service, the pro forma phone call—“Thanks for the labor; we've completed our search; you came in second; we'll keep your program; oh, we can help pack your office.” I was scheduled to speak at a high school awards ceremony the next week. I'd planned to talk about Miller anyway. For the confluence of an awards ceremony with a 50th anniversary had recalled an earlier commemoration—this one marking the half-century birthday of the University of Michigan's Avery Hopwood Awards, when I received my first literary prize from Mr. Miller himself back in 1981. My dad had taken the Amtrak up from Chicago to watch the ceremony, to bear witness to the leave-taking; this Oedipal movement from one influence to another. I told the high school students of the thrill of meeting Miller that day; of his presenting me with a $400 check for a 13 page play; and then—welcome to the world of Art, kids—of the sting upon reading the contradictory comments from the two national judges; the acerbic dismissal made by playwright-historian Martin Duberman who disagreed with the praise of the other judge (whose name, naturally, escapes me), that my one-act was “imitative of Miller's The Price,” which, of course, I had yet to read, but which, in turn, of course, I would. And so a connection had been forged; a connection born of common heritage and total coincidence. I embraced and imbibed Miller's influence, bought The Price for my mother on her birthday and announced that I was no longer going to be a lawyer but a playwright.

I mythologized Miller way out of proportion, perhaps due to the uniqueness of the man himself: the beguiling convergence of physical attribute, moral authority, and private proclivity. For here was a man whose face, as etched in that 50th Anniversary Hopwood poster lithograph, half-turned, half obscured by shadow, with stern jaw, craggy frown and endlessly sloping forehead, summoned images of a literary Mt. Rushmore. As he strode to the Rackham Auditorium podium that afternoon, I was reminded of his carriage—a tall Jewish man—and how often did one see a tall Jewish man in the Midwest? A lanky Yankee Bronx Jew with the wing span of a Phil Jackson and the rough-hewn hands of a working stiff—the kind of laborer he once had been and would always remain—a maker of things—a builder of furniture; of houses in which actors could live. The texture of work seemed to permeate his being and was one he would lovingly celebrate in A Memory of Two Mondays—his tenure as a shipping clerk, where he spent two summers as a teenager during the Depression before taking off in the fall for the University of Michigan. Inspired (and in a hurry) to emulate, I too found work as a shipping clerk in a steel pipe manufacturing plant that very same summer, and then wrote about it, and then submitted it to “the Hopwoods” my senior year.

Miller's work—with its fierce critique of the ravages of a brutally competitive, market-driven economy, his call for a more expansive consciousness imploring that we be responsible not just to ourselves and our families but to our community, to our nation, to the soldiers who fight overseas to defend us and who are just as much blood relation as our own sons—moved me to see him as a kind of theatrical rabbi (albeit, Reform, in the classical sense). Or better yet, a fusion figure, uniting the pulpit, the bench, the lectern, and the spotlight. He had been married to Marilyn after all. And John Proctor had had an affair. A hero could have sin on his hands, lust in his heart, and still wage a moral war. One could indict and not be above the fray but part of the muck. It was, and remains, a populist critique, never a priest's sanctimony.

And so I rally (defensively, perhaps?) whenever Miller is assailed as a moralizing scold, out of step or date. And there are plenty of snipers out there, make no mistake. When our most ambitious playwrights of the moment rush to dismiss, in print, any suggestions of influence that Salesman might have on their own grandiose structural designs, I take it as a personal affront. (Does Miller even care? Yet still I scold, “Attention. Attention and respect! Pay up!”) For what writer is immune to the shadow of Salesman? The personal downfall as social indictment; the elegant movement from objective to subjective; from present to past. Only the cold, ideologically driven could turn his back on the pain of a father and son separated by disappointment.

What I know to be true is this: That Salesman was the first play to ever move me to tears. That it was the only show that's caused me to touch a perfect stranger on the arm during intermission. And that it's still the play that comes most readily to mind—to the heart—whenever one fears for one's place; when one loses one's way, or one's job. Salesman is there for us in manifold moments. Whenever we falter, when we feel the earthquake, when we bluster or pose or plant seeds in the moonlight. The achievement of Salesman is one of exposing vulnerability at every stage of life.

Even as a twelve year old, I knew this in my bones. I wasn't much of a reader growing up, but I bawled when I read my homework assignment in seventh grade. I was at Camp Chi in the Wisconsin Dells with my family for an American Jewish Congress retreat. I went out in a rowboat and began to read the gray and yellow covered paper-back with the picture of a man in a raincoat and a suitcase full of samples under a streetlamp. Floating in a lily-pad covered lagoon, I cried for a man who said to his Uncle Ben, “I have a fine position here, but—well, Dad left when I was such a baby and I never had a chance to talk to him and I still feel kind of temporary about myself.” The line rings with the shock of recognition even still. This unfillable void that Willy seeks to stuff with ephemera—this son who can't reach his father, his unutterable longing, expressing love through car wax, despair in a broken fan belt, guilt in a flute that leads a man backwards, forever backwards, to the point of his undoing—to the moment where son unmasks the father and is not made free by the discovery. Somehow I understood all that, floating in a pond in Wisconsin all those years ago. Even though my dad's not in retail, I still saw tons of him in Willy. And now I see much more that is me. With a spot on my hat, I've felt alone in the blue riding on little more than a wing and a prayer, the people not always smiling back.

Remarkable how Miller's lines keep coming back. “A man is not a piece of fruit,” I told the high-school assembly, and the weight of that moment in the hall was of a concern not just for one itinerant lecturer, but for a class of humanity that, at least for a moment in time, becomes dispossessed. I told the students of Miller's cautionary words; and of the caution in his example. And that despite the romantic figure he cut, how he went out of his way that Hopwood afternoon in 1981 to urge us not to go into theater (“Your lives will only be filled with pain and misery!”). It was a warning that came with a wink. He knew of the great good to come from work that is difficult, of the catharsis to come from crisis. In Death of a Salesman, Miller pays attention and respect to the ways in which we founder, and we are made wiser and more aware for the showing. So moved, we touch a perfect stranger on the arm at intermission; we cry in rowboats in the middle of Wisconsin; we know what links us each to each: a kindred sense of longing and pain. With spots on our hat, our fathers stumbling on the path before us, we, like Biff, are able to find our footing. We regain the road. Thanks to Miller's towering, humble play. Happy birthday, Salesman.


Death of a Salesman, along with Karel Capek's R.U.R. and Eugene O'Neill's The Hairy Ape, is centrally lodged in my earliest memory of theater. And that is because I was able to read it—that is, to speak it to myself—in an anthology of literature that must have come down to me from a college-going cousin. Because fewer plays are now being published, fewer children will have the experience of making their own relationship with a play before it is interpreted for them on a stage. I remember Death of a Salesman much better for having read it before I saw it.

I was very young when I first looked at the play—perhaps eight or nine years old—and my father was still a kind of traveling salesman himself—so of course the work struck me with the force of a blow, as it continues to do when I read it now. I think it is the only complete tragedy—in loosely classical terms—in the American language and certainly the only one to put a kind of Lear and a kind of Fool in the same body. And it is the only play I can think of to turn a stock figure like “Linda the maltreated wife” into an immensely dignified and personalized chorus of praise for her husband—“attention must be paid”—and get away with it.

Death of a Salesman gives full expression to the dreams and disillusionments of my grandparents' and parents' generation—a purchasable democracy in which being “well-liked” meant, inevitably, being “well-fixed” and success always seemed possible in the antipodes. Because it's such a good play, written to the rhythms of its subject in language that lasts, it also perfectly exposes What Troubles Us Now—and Willy Loman's obsession with surface instead of substance seems particularly apropos.

Death of a Salesman may be middle-aged, but it is still large-hearted and full-bodied and will, I think, continue to play on the world stage as long as American dreams do.


I was a young man when Death of a Salesman first appeared on Broadway, and as yet had no aspirations to be a playwright. My parents first saw the play and since my father was a salesman himself, one can understand why he was so anxious to see this event that all New York was talking about. My parents were not really theatergoers except for an occasional breezy musical that my father thought a prospective buyer for his garment center wares might get a kick out of. The costly tickets didn't always guarantee a sale for my father, but since his jokes were wearing thin, he could always use some help from professionals.

I remember vividly the night my parents came home from Mr. Miller's play. I never saw my father so excited, so animated, far more stimulated than he had ever been as seen through my teenage view.

“It was so real,” he began. “So honest, so truthful. I knew everything this salesman was going through. It felt so much like my own life.”

“Well, what was it about?” I asked with enormous curiosity.

“It's about this hard-working salesman and his two lazy sons.”

Since my father had two sons, me and my brother, the impact of his insult took a few moments for me to feel the weight of it. I was a teenager in school and my marks did not indicate any reason to be lazy. My brother was in his early twenties and had ideas for his future other than following my father's footsteps into the garment center. He wanted to be a writer and go to Hollywood, an occupation no loftier in my father's mind than becoming a gangster. My brother had girls on his mind which qualified him as being a “bum” in my father's narrow-minded estimation.

When I finally saw Salesman, a year or so later, I saw how my father had twisted the story in his mind to fit his own personal scenario, making my brother into the two brothers he saw in the play, and laying the blame for his own lack of accomplishment on his two wastrel sons. Not exactly Willy Loman, who perhaps put too much faith in his older son's ability to become a huge success, thus bailing out Willy's failed dreams by moving the spotlight of responsibility on to his reluctant offspring.

I think many people who saw the play saw it through their own subjective view, that Mr. Miller was telling their story and not necessarily the one Mr. Miller had in mind. It made no difference. The play's purpose, as all plays' purpose should be, is to make an impact on the audience's emotions, their psyches, their own sense of being, whether failed or otherwise. No play in my memory ever left such an impact on those who saw it.

I have never gotten Death of a Salesman out of my mind and probably never will. In fact, it's the one play that almost kept me from becoming a playwright. It's this play that I measured my own young capabilities against and I knew that that was one mountain too high to climb. Instead, I used it to my own advantage as I made it the one play to aspire to. If I only made it two thirds to the summit, I would have achieved more than I ever dreamed of.


Arthur Miller, benevolent patriarch of American playwrights, deserves our homage. His Death of a Salesman opened ways to write many of the plays which followed it, both mainstream and experimental.

Salesman was, for its era, radical in form—time shifts back and forth, place changes continually—yet the spirit of Aristotle's unities is preserved. No matter the many unusual theatrical paths we are led down during the action of the play, we feel secure in the hands of the writer. To playwrights experimenting with form, Salesman teaches that if you're clear and confident in intention and know how to express that intention, the audience will follow, whatever the shape of your play.

Salesman is classic, however, in its themes, and in the subtle, thorough way Miller explores them. Irreconcilable conflicts between fathers and sons, questions of right and wrong, are raised also in Greek tragedy. But Willy Loman (Low man) is not, like, say Agamemnon in Aeschylus, larger than life.

From Salesman we learn that titanic conflicts may be embodied in finely etched contemporary characters somewhat like our imperfect selves, much smaller than gods yet living, in the deepest sense of the word, tragic lives.

Ultimately, as in Chekhov's major plays, I am moved in Death of a Salesman by the characters in their hopeless situations, by the playwright's depth of feeling for them, and by the unflagging quality of his attention and his craft.


This brief tribute was given at the presentation of the Last Frontier Playwright Award to Arthur Miller during the Fourth Annual Theater Conference of the Prince William Sound Community College in Valdez, Alaska, on August 18, 1996.

I can pinpoint exactly the moment I fell under the spell of the theater. Not “In love with the theater,” anyone can fall in love. You have to witness the potential of something to fall under its spell.

Each year the high school freshmen of Ozark, Missouri, travel north the twelve short miles to Springfield to attend a production of Southwest Missouri State University's theater department.

S.M.S.U. is famous for its excellent drama department. In 1951 their major production was Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman.

The curtain rose on Miller's play, the first adult play I had ever seen. The set was stunning. The second story roof of the house was outlined, a thin black line indicating the pitch of the gable, above the room where two brothers slept. Below that was the kitchen of the ground floor.

But the house was dwarfed by giant brick apartment buildings that had arisen on either side. I had lived in Springfield, Missouri, in such an apartment house. My bedroom window looked down on just such an anachronism of a house.

As the Salesman talked (the most natural talk I had ever heard on stage, yet something elevated into speech that was way beyond natural), he remembered when he had moved his family to his house—when the house was new and in a neighborhood of such houses. And as he remembered, I gasped as the sooty apartment buildings faded away, faded into the towering maples of the Salesman's memory. The neighborhood as it had been years ago.

In that moment I realized that in films this effect is merely a cross-fade. But on stage, in this moment, it was a miracle. It was magic. In films it merely takes us to another place. On stage it takes us into the Salesman's mind. It took me to a place where I had never been. I wanted from that moment to be a part of this miraculous medium.

But something else was happening, something larger, and to a fourteen year old, something much more disturbing. Yes: While the Salesman was spinning his beautiful dream, I knew that this clarity and beauty were not going to materialize. This was his idealized dream from the past. The ugly apartment building looming over his house was the reality. There was something in the Salesman that was going to prevent his dream from happening.

I had learned that this was the basis of tragedy, and was thrilled to see that such a story could be told about people, common people, today. But this wasn't all the author was doing. He seemed to be saying that there was something flawed also in the dream.

This was something a kid from a middle-class Missouri Republican household had never heard. And I had certainly never known that social criticism and a tragic personal history could be told, simultaneously and compellingly, in a mere story.

I came away from the play with my mind reeling. This wasn't the way stories were supposed to work out. Even if something in this guy propelled the Salesman into screwing-up, no author was supposed to say, in the same breath, that the system also had failed the Salesman.

This was my first intimation that the American Dream was—what? An implant, a hoax, an illusion. No mere Night in the Theater was supposed to make me nervous about the ground I stood on.

I realized in that moment that the theater was the only public place where truth could be spoken aloud. No wonder plays, evenings in the theater, entertainments, were censored. No wonder they were banned, no wonder governments were uncertain about this medium above all others. No wonder they wanted to suppress this stuff. No wonder they still want to.

This was the magic of story telling. This was the provocation, the sly galvanization, to political action. No other medium has this power. No wonder I was shocked and compelled by the witchcraft of that night.

And it was all caused, it was all started, by a sleight of hand. It was the first time I had realized that a sleight of hand could tell me something rather than hide something from me. The next time I saw this phenomenon was four years later when I saw a regional theater production of The Crucible. I wouldn't see it again until I moved to New York City and saw the Off Broadway smash hit production of A View from the Bridge.

It is a great privilege to be able to acknowledge, before The Man, my generation's debt to Arthur Miller. And to thank him (I think I thank him, 'cause this stuff ain't easy) for thrilling us, and for showing us the way.

And for setting the standards so high that it will take us all a lifetime to try, in our own way, to repay him for the lesson.


  1. “The Theatre,” Town and Country 17 (1949), 65.

  2. Quoted in Brenda Murphy, Miller: Death of a Salesman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 66.

  3. Death of a Salesman, A New Drama by Arthur Miller, Has Premiere at Morosco,” New York Times, 11 February 1949.

  4. Streetcar Bolsters Broadway's British Name,” Christian Science Monitor, 27 March 1974, F6.

  5. Murray Schumach, “Miller Still a Salesman for a Changing Theatre,” New York Times, 26 June 1975, 32.

  6. Christian-Albrecht Gollub, “Interview with Arthur Miller,” Michigan Quarterly Review 16 (1977), 123.

  7. “Drama,” Nation 168 (5 March 1949), 283-84.

  8. Richard I. Evans, Psychology and Arthur Miller (New York: Dutton, 1969), 91.

  9. Robert W. Corrigan, “Interview with Arthur Miller,” Michigan Quarterly Review, 13; 4 (Fall 1974), 402.

Brenda Murphy (essay date fall 1998)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4646

SOURCE: Murphy, Brenda. “Willy Loman: Icon of Business Culture.” Michigan Quarterly Review 37, no. 4 (fall 1998): 755-66.

[In the following essay, Murphy examines the cultural impact of Death of a Salesman, focusing on the effect the play has had on the public's perception of salesmen.]

In 1963, critic and director Esther Merle Jackson wrote a perceptive essay entitled “Death of a Salesman: Tragic Myth in the Modern Theatre,” in which she argued that [Death of a Salesman] is “the most nearly mature myth about human suffering in an industrial age.” In Salesman, she suggested, Arthur Miller “has formulated a statement about the nature of human crises in the twentieth century which seems, increasingly, to be applicable to the entire fabric of civilized experience.” For Jackson, the unique power of this play, as opposed to other significant twentieth-century tragedies, lies in “the critical relationship of its central symbol—the Salesman—to the interpretation of the whole of contemporary life”:

In this image, Miller brings into the theatre a figure who is, in our age, a kind of hero—a ritual representative of an industrial society. It is its intimate association with our aspirations which gives to the story of Loman an ambiguous, but highly affecting, substratum of religious, philosophical, political, and social meanings. The appearance of the Salesman Loman as the subject of moral exploration stirs the modern spectator at the alternately joyful and painful periphery of consciousness which is the province of tragedy.1

That Esther Jackson was right about Death of a Salesman's mythic relationship to modern culture is clearest from the play's impact on the young. In the fifty years of its life since the premiere, Salesman has found its way into university and secondary school curricula throughout the world, and the responses of succeeding generations of students have not diminished in immediacy or intensity. The description of one high school student's experience when he took the part of Biff in his class's staged reading will serve for many:

Arthur Miller's play Death of a Salesman struck me on a very tender nerve. … I see many parallels between myself and my father and the Loman family. My father is a salesman. He, too, is much happier with a batch of cement. I feel a strong “can't get near him” feeling with my father. The only way I can get and hold his attention is to tell him of all my accomplishments. We are not close as Willy and Biff are not. I dislike Willy a great deal and this dislike stems from my anger and disappointment in not being close to my father. At the end of this play I was made acutely aware of this anger and disappointment.2

The student was so affected by the play that he engaged in a confrontation with his father that was inspired by Biff's confrontation with Willy:

We talked and talked. For almost half an hour my anger poured from my body into his. When I finished and we had both broken down in tears, I told him everything I had ever wanted to tell him. After my anger had all spewed out, for the first time in my entire life I felt love toward him. For the first time!! I feel I have grown up in a very big way. I think I have done in seventeen years what took Biff thirty-four.

All of this because of a play, a bunch of words printed on paper. How can a play do this? Genius, I say!! Death of a Salesman is the greatest piece of literature I've ever read.3

The student's aesthetic criterion may not be sophisticated, but it is certainly valid. In many countries, in many languages, in cultures as different from that of the United States as Communist China's and capitalist Japan's, in all kinds of productions, from the most sophisticated efforts of London, Broadway, and Hollywood to a high school classroom reading, Death of a Salesman has proved its power to move audiences profoundly. There is no doubt that Arthur Miller has captured something in this play that is vital to human experience in the twentieth century.

The cultural impact of Death of a Salesman far exceeds the bounds of those who have encountered it as a theatrical or literary experience, however. Willy Loman and his failure and death have a status as defining cultural phenomena, both inside and outside America's borders, that began to be established in the first year of the play's life. In February 1950, as the original production approached its first anniversary, a newspaper reporter marveled that Salesman had “already become a legend in many parts of the world,” commenting that “why this play has approached the stature of an American legend in these distant lands defies analysis.”4 In a single year, Arthur Miller had received more than a thousand letters explaining the personal ways in which the play was related to their writers' lives. A number claimed to be the model for Willy, or suggested that Miller record their lives too, because they were so much like Willy's. A number of sermons, both spiritual and secular, had been preached on the text of the play, with ministers, rabbis, and priests explaining its exposure of the emptiness of Willy's dreams of material success, and sales managers using Willy as an object lesson of how not to be a salesman.

In the years immediately following the original production, Willy Loman entered the world's consciousness as the very image of the American traveling salesman, an identity with which the business world was far from comfortable. Writing in the garment industry's own Women's Wear Daily shortly after the play's premiere, Thomas R. Dash articulated the conflict between identification with Willy and resistance to him that characterized the typical relationship that people in business were to have with the play. Noting that Willy's was an “individualized tragedy,” and that “it does not follow that all salesmen necessarily are discarded to the ashcan after thirty-five years of service for one firm, that they crack mentally and that they dash themselves to pieces on a mad and suicidal ride to the hereafter,” he nonetheless had to concede that, “if you have traveled the road and are honest with yourself, you may recognize certain traits of Willy's in your own behavior pattern, both professional and personal.” Since the very art of salesmanship “is predicated upon a talent for fictionalizing and romanticizing,” Dash suggested, “from the habits formed by this forgivable fantasy and hyperbolic praise of the product, certain illusions of grandeur inevitably creep into the mental fabric of the practitioner. Frequently, as in the case of Willy Loman, these habits percolate into the salesman's personal life.” As for Willy's infidelities on the road, Dash wrote, “this writer does not propose to have the wrath of the whole craft descend upon him by making any generalizations … let each man probe his own conscience and answer ‘True’ or ‘False.’”5

The most immediate and overwhelming response of the business world to the failure and death of Willy Loman was to try to erase it from the public's consciousness. When the first film adaptation of the play was done in 1950, the executives of Columbia Pictures, fearing a public reaction against the movie for its failure to uphold the values of American capitalism, made a short film which they planned to distribute to theaters along with the feature. The short was filmed at the Business School of the City College of New York, and consisted, according to Miller, of “interviews with professors who blithely explained that Willy Loman was entirely atypical, a throwback to the past when salesmen did indeed have some hard problems. But nowadays selling was a fine profession with limitless spiritual compensations as well as financial ones. In fact, they all sounded like Willy Loman with a diploma.”6 Only when Miller threatened to sue did Columbia withdraw the short film.

By the 1960s, businessmen were nearly desperate to divorce the salesman's identity from that of Willy Loman. Only one in seventeen college students was willing to try selling as a career in 1964.7 Business executives blamed this largely on Arthur Miller. “To many novelists, playwrights, sociologists, college students, and many others,” wrote Carl Reiser in Fortune magazine, the salesman “is aggressively forcing on people goods that they don't want. He is the drummer, with a dubious set of social values—Willy Loman in the Arthur Miller play.”8 In direct opposition to Willy's image, American business was trying to define a “new salesman” in the 1960s, “a man with a softer touch and greater breadth, a new kind of man to do a new—much more significant—kind of job.”9 Despite the best efforts of corporate America, however, Willy's image remained the public's clearest vision of the salesman. “To be sure,” suggested Newsweek in 1964, “the old-style drummer is no longer in the mainstream. But he's still paddling around out there with his smile and shoeshine, his costume a bit more subdued and his supply of jokes, sad to relate, a bit low.”10Newsweek's article, “The New Breed of Salesman—Not Like Willy,” was tellingly illustrated with the familiar Joseph Hirsch drawing of Willy with his sample cases, over the caption: “Willy Loman: An Image Lingers On.”

When plans were announced for the CBS television production of Salesman in 1966, the Sales Executives Club of New York mobilized itself to prevent further erosion of the salesman's image. Complaining that “Willy Loman has been plaguing our ‘selling as a career’ efforts for years,” the club suggested changes in the script “to improve the image of the salesman depicted in the drama.” As had been tried with the Columbia picture, the sales executives suggested a prologue to the play, “alerting viewers that they were about to see the tragedy of a man who went into selling with the wrong ideas, a man who had been improperly trained by today's standards. The prologue would warn that Willy Loman would have been a failure ‘in anything else he tackled.’” In case that wasn't enough, an epilogue could be added, called “The Life of the Salesman.” The epilogue would indicate that, “with modern, customer-oriented selling methods, Willy Lomans are ghosts of the past.” The Xerox Corporation, which sponsored the telecast, had a golden opportunity, the sales executives thought, “to enlighten the public about what a well-trained modern salesman really does, and dispel the idea that the rewards of a selling career are often disillusionment and death.”11 Arthur Miller, the writer of the newspaper report on this effort noted, “could not be reached for comment.” It is not hard to imagine what his comment would have been.

In the year following the telecast, an industrial film producer, David R. Hayes, made a film called Second Chance, an inspirational film for salesmen that featured football coach Vince Lombardi in a narrative that allowed him to use his “break-'em up football coaching technique on a fictionalized typical salesman.” Hayes explained that the reason for scripting the film as a play rather than an inspirational talk was that “we had to undo for the art, science and business of selling … what Arthur Miller had done in damage to the field in his stageplay, Death of a Salesman. I decided to do it with Miller's own tools—that is, drama.”12 Within two years, the trade film had been sold to 7,000 companies, and had made the fortune of Hayes's industrial film company, Take Ten, Inc. The introduction of dramatic conflict into trade films wrought a major change in the industry, one of Willy Loman's many influences on American business.

Throughout the 1970s, the effort to expunge the image of Willy Loman from the public's view of the salesman continued without much success, despite the continually improving material circumstances of the typical salesman, and the greater security that came from an ever-higher ratio of salary to commission throughout the sales profession. Willy and the play had become an unconscious part of the businessman's vision and vocabulary, as is evident from the titles of articles in business publications. “The Salesman Isn't Dead—He's Different” and “The New Breed of Salesman—Not Like Willy” were succeeded by titles like “Deaths of a Salesman,” “The Rebirth of a Salesman,” and “The New Life of a Salesman.”

With the worsening economy of the 1980s, the cultural resonance of Willy Loman had a new meaning for the generation that had not been born when the play was first produced. Speaking of “underemployed 30-year-olds” who were being forced to “bring their families home to live with bewildered and resentful parents,” and middle-aged people “with kids and mortgages who have been out of work for three months,” Jeff Faux suggested in 1983 that “Willy Loman could again symbolize a widespread middle-class tragedy—people trapped by expectations of status that no longer fit the cruel realities of the labor market.”13 Meanwhile, business executives were moving salesmen off salary and back onto commission—just as Howard Wagner had done to Willy—and calling it “Motivating Willy Loman.”14 As one executive put it, “You really should get the carrot as big as possible without making the guy die to reach it … Give him salary for the essentials, to help pay the rent and put food on the table, but not much else. Hell, he's supposed to be a salesman.”15

By this time, Willy Loman had taken on a life of his own, with little or no reference to the play. Edward Spar, the president of a marketing statistics firm, used Willy's putative sales route as an example of sensible county-based marketing for the Association of Public Data Users in 1987. Noting that Willy's territory was simply a matter of convenience and logic, Spar commented that, “if that company existed in reality, Willy's territory wouldn't have changed.”16 Interestingly, the route that Spar gave to Willy was completely imaginary: “Up to Westchester, through Putnam—all the way to Albany, Route 23 over to Pittsfield in Berkshire County, then down to Hartford and back to New York.” Although Willy does mention having seen a hammock in Albany, the only indications of his route in the play are his turning back from Yonkers on the night the play begins and his description of his route to the boys when he returns from his trip in the first day-dream scene: Providence, where he met the Mayor, Waterbury, Boston, “a couple of other towns in Mass., and on to Portland and Bangor and straight home,”17 a not very logical and rather improbable route. To Spar, however, Willy was not a character in a play, but the prototypical salesman with the “New England territory.”

Evidence of the extent to which Willy and the American salesman have become identical to the culture at large is everywhere, in the most casual of references. A 1993 Wall Street Journal article on the certification, and thus professionalization, of salesmen is entitled, “Willy Loman Might Have Had a Better Self-Image.”18 One on the introduction of portable computers to the sales force is called “What Would Willy Loman Have Done with This?”19 Neither has any reference to Miller's play. An article on the faltering U.S. balance of trade in U.S. News and World Report, called “The Yankee Trader: Death of a Salesman,” makes no reference to the play, but carries the familiar Joseph Hirsch image of Willy with his sample cases as an icon on each page of the article.20 An article opposing advertising for law firms is entitled “Willy Loman Joins the Bar: Death of a Profession?”21 An article on Fred Friendly's efforts to use television to popularize the U.S. Constitution is called “TV's ‘Willy Loman’ of the Law.”22 And so on. There is no doubt that, at the end of the twentieth century, Willy Loman, and the Joseph Hirsch image of him, have achieved the status of cultural icon.

The conflict between identification with and resistance to Willy is obvious for members of the sales profession. As Miller has so eloquently put it, “Willy Loman has broken a law without whose protection life is insupportable if not incomprehensible to him and to many others; it is the law which says that a failure in society and in business has no right to live.”23 Willy has failed in business, and the wages of his sin is death. Having experienced his own father's failure during the Depression, and its personal consequences, Miller knew this business creed intimately when he wrote Salesman. The extraordinary thing about the universality and endurance of Willy Loman as cultural icon, however, is that is it not necessary to have experienced Willy's sin and its wages at first hand in order to respond to Willy in the most primal way. This may be because Willy Loman has become the prime site for working out our deepest cultural conflicts and anxieties about the identity and fate of the salesman. And, being Americans, we are all salesmen in one way or another.

The extent to which the American way of life is identified with the salesman, and with Willy, becomes obvious from a cursory look at the numerous obituaries each year that are entitled “Death of a Salesman.” This phrase has been used recently to sum up the lives of many successful businessmen, among them Commerce Secretary Ron Brown, who was lauded for his efforts to forge commercial links between the U.S. and China; record promoter Charlie Minor, who was shot by his former girlfriend, stripper Suzette McClure; and Victor Potemkin, known to a generation of New Yorkers for the TV commercials advertising his car dealerships. Less immediately evident is the connection between Willy Loman and counterculture guru and LSD promoter Timothy Leary, or Jerry Rubin, who, noted the Hartford Courant, “came to stand for hypocrisy” for the counterculture “when he committed the mortal sin—selling out.” As the Courant pointed out, however, “Mr. Rubin was always a good salesman who knew how to market a message. Like many others of his generation, he realized that idealism alone doesn't put bread on the table.”24

There is affection and even respect in identifying Willy Loman with men who are as successful in their fields as Ron Brown and Victor Potemkin. Potemkin, whose death, according to Automotive News, was “mourned by the whole automotive community,”25 might be said to embody Willy's dream of achieving business success and being “well-liked” at the same time. Most often, however, identification with Willy Loman is cultural shorthand for failure, no matter what the field of endeavor. A review of the movie Cop Land refers to the local sheriff played by Sylvester Stallone as “a failed American dreamer, a Willy Loman of the police world, a profoundly poignant figure.”26 Failed presidential candidate Phil Gramm is described as “a pathetic self-destroyer like traveling salesman Willy Loman.”27 Political pundit George Will describes President Bill Clinton as “a political Willy Loman” in his unsuccessful attempt to sell his Mideast foreign policy to the American people.28

While accepting the iconography of failure that is associated with Willy and his death, business writers often situate themselves in opposition to its implications about the American socio-economic system. Willy Loman didn't have to die, these writers contend. If only he had had better sales training, or better job counseling, or a laptop computer, he would not have failed. The anxiety of having to master new technology, or at worst, of being replaced by it, is displaced by a hopeful rhetoric that suggests technology might be the salesman's salvation. The references to Willy Loman in these articles simultaneously evoke and attempt to dispel the typical salesman's anxiety about losing a job for failing to keep up with technology. “If Only Willy Loman Had Used a Laptop” explains the “competitive edge” that salespeople can get from “having access to product information at the point of sale.”29 Similarly optimistic portrayals of the necessity for updating the salesman's technology are presented in articles like Business Week's “Rebirth of a Salesman: Willy Loman Goes Electronic” and Advertising Age's “Willy Loman Never Had It So Good: New Technologies Enhance the Job of Selling.” Upbeat reminders to the sales force that they need to keep up in order to compete have pervaded business journals since the early part of the century. What the evocation of Willy Loman provides is the subliminal suggestion of failure and its consequences should the reader disregard the writer's advice.

Willy Loman appears more substantially in another group of articles that purport to save his successors from his fate by addressing some of the issues that Miller addressed in the play, but within the context of the business environment. “He had the wrong dreams,” says Biff of Willy, “All, all wrong.” Writing for Industry Week, Joseph McKenna asks, “Was Willy Loman in the Wrong Job?” In the article he suggests that the reason Willy Loman “never made a lot of money” was that he “should have been plying another trade—just as many of today's real-life salesmen should be.”30 He goes on to cite an industry consultant who estimates that 55٪ of those working as sales professionals “don't have the ability to sell” and another 25٪ are selling the wrong product. This can be remedied through the consultant's method of “job matching,” “marrying the appropriate job to the appropriate person with the appropriate skills or correctable weaknesses or both.” Similarly, an article on “Career Entrenchment” uses Willy as a case study of the tendency to remain in a job despite one's obvious unfitness for it and suggests ways out of this inappropriate career direction.31 In “Taking a Lesson from Willy Loman: Brokers Must Move Beyond Sales to Satisfy Risk Manager Demands,” readers of Business Insurance are advised to “break free of their sales roles” and “act as consultants and partners to risk managers” if they are to avoid Willy's fate.32 In “The Death of Some Salesmen,” Allen Myerson writes that “the old-style career salesman is dead,” but that a new force of part-timers is replacing “the likes of Willy Loman,” eschewing the old door-to-door methods and replacing them with home parties and demonstrations.

The subliminal message of these articles is clear. To be like Willy is to be a failure. Therefore we will make the job of sales as different as we can from the job as Willy did it. These articles all define the modern, successful salesperson in opposition to a putative Willy Loman. Of course, this is a cultural, not a literary evocation. The fact that Miller's character did not sell door-to-door, nor did he sell insurance, matters little. The point is that he represents the conjunction of traditional sales methods and failure to sell—precisely the formula that the business advisors want to place in opposition to their own ideas. To escape Willy's fate, the salesperson need simply follow this good advice. As one advisor to life insurance salespeople writes in the hopefully entitled “Goodbye, Willy Loman”: “as long as we continue to participate in solutions to society's insurance problems and are receptive to change, the challenges that lie before us will be easy to meet … if only Willy Loman had known what we do now.”33

Sometimes the context is darker than this, however. Death of a Salesman and Willy Loman are also evoked in cultural commentary that is not selling a quick fix for the individual, but is pointing to significant economic changes and trends that create deep anxiety for some part of the populace. In these cases, Salesman's cultural iconography is a shorthand that reaches the reader's emotions before the analysis begins. In “Ageism and Advertising: It's Time the Ad Industry Got Past Its Death of a Salesman View of Employees Over 40,” for example, Blake Brodie complains that executives in ad agencies are worried about being seen as surrounding themselves with “older staff,” which is “death” in most ad agencies, making it rare to find a creative director who is over thirty-nine or an account executive over forty-five. Associating the anxiety of these relatively youthful executives over the possible loss of their jobs with Willy's predicament—“you can't eat the orange and throw the peel away. A man is not a piece of fruit!”—not only heightens the reader's emotional response but suggests that what might be viewed as an isolated difficulty in a particular “fast-track” yuppie career is part of a pervasive social problem—what the writer is calling “Ageism.” Similarly, the mounting fear that one's chosen career could evaporate in the context of the rapidly developing technologies of the business world is expressed in serious articles like The Economist's “Death of a Salesman: Travel Agents,” which analyzes the declining profits of travel agents as customers do more of their own travel reservations online, and Maclean's “Death of a Car Salesman,” which delineates major changes in the tactics of car sales as a result of online buying and the increasing replacement of commissioned agents by salaried sales forces at large car dealerships. These articles are fundamentally optimistic. They endorse the changes in the ways of doing business as better uses of technology that will result in greater efficiency and productivity. But the reference to Willy Loman creates a subtext of anxiety that undermines the positive rhetoric. Older salespeople will not be able to keep up, it reminds the reader. People will lose their jobs. Smaller agencies will be swallowed up by bigger ones. Humanity is losing out to technology.

To read these publications is to discover a mindset that simultaneously loathes Willy Loman and identifies with him. The writers want to put as much distance as possible between themselves and what Willy stands for—failure and death—but they can't help embracing him like a brother. After all, he has enacted their own deepest fears, and the experience has killed him. In Willy Loman, Arthur Miller has supplied to America's business culture—and as Calvin Coolidge reminded us, the business of America is business—the site where these deeply conflicted feelings can be engaged with some safety. Much as we try to deny it, Americans need Willy Loman. As long as our socio-economic system survives, Willy Loman will be right there with it, reminding us of our lyrical, fantastic dreams, and our darkest fears.


  1. CLA Journal 7 (September 1963), 64.

  2. Quoted in Meredith Kopald, “Arthur Miller Wins a Peace Prize: Teaching, Literature, and Therapy,” English Journal 81 (March 1992), 59.

  3. Ibid.

  4. Luke P. Carroll, “Birth of a Legend: First Year of Salesman,New York Tribune (5 February 1950), section 5, 1.

  5. Thomas R. Dash, “‘Life’ of a Salesman,” Women's Wear Daily (24 February 1949), 51.

  6. Timebends: A Life (New York: Grove, 1987), 315.

  7. “The New Breed of Salesmen—Not Like Willy,” Newsweek 64 (5 October 1964), 94.

  8. Carl Reiser, “The Salesman Isn't Dead—He's Different,” Fortune 66 (November 1962), 124.

  9. Ibid.

  10. “The New Breed,” 94.

  11. Val Adams, “Willy Loman Irks Fellow Salesmen,” New York Times (27 March 1966).

  12. Morry Roth, “Un-Do Death of a SalesmanVariety (16 April 1969), 7.

  13. “What Now, Willy Loman?” Mother Jones (8 November 1983), 52.

  14. John A. Byrne, “Motivating Willy Loman,” Forbes 133 (30 January 1984), 91.

  15. Ibid.

  16. Martha Farnsworth Riche, “Willy Loman Rides Again,” American Demographics 10 (March 1988), 8.

  17. Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman, Acting Edition (New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1952), 21.

  18. 2 April 1993, B1.

  19. The Wall Street Journal (26 November 1990), B1.

  20. 98 (8 April 1985), 64-70.

  21. ABA Journal 76 (October 1988), 88-92.

  22. The National Law Journal 9 (6 October 1986), 6.

  23. Arthur Miller's Collected Plays (New York: Viking, 1957), 35.

  24. Death of a Salesman,Hartford Courant (30 November 1994), A18.

  25. Jim Henry, “Death of a ‘Salesman,’” Automotive News (12 June 1995), 3.

  26. Brian D. Johnson, “Cop Land,Maclean's 110 (25 August 1997), 74.

  27. Francis X. Clines, “Downbeat Days for Salesman Gramm,” New York Times (10 February 1996), 10.

  28. George F. Will, “A Political Willy Loman,” Newsweek (2 March 1998), 92.

  29. Jonathan B. Levine and Zachary Schiller, “If Only Willy Loman Had Used a Laptop,” Business Week (12 October 1987), 137.

  30. Joseph F. McKenna, “Was Willy Loman in the Wrong Job?” Industry Week 239 (17 September 1990), 11.

  31. Kerry D. Carson and Paula Phillips Carson, “Career Entrenchment: A Quiet March toward Occupational Death?” Academy of Management Executives 11 (February 1997), 62-75.

  32. Sally Roberts, “Taking a Lesson from Willy Loman: Brokers Must Move Beyond Sales to Satisfy Risk Manager Demands,” Business Insurance 30 (6 May 1996), 49.

  33. Alan Press, “Goodbye, Willy Loman,” Best's Review (Life-Health-Insurance) 90 (September 1989), 70.

Brenda Murphy (essay date 1999)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3700

SOURCE: Murphy, Brenda. “‘Personality Wins the Day’: Death of a Salesman and Popular Sales Advice Literature.” South Atlantic Review 64, no. 1 (1999): 1-10.

[In the following essay, Murphy argues that Death of a Salesman constructs “a history of the career of the traveling salesman in America.”]

One of the primary characteristics of Willy Loman's character is his penchant for self-contradiction: “Biff is a lazy bum! … There's one thing about Biff—he's not lazy” (16). One area where this is evident is Willy's attitude toward business and success. As he tells his boss Howard Wagner, he is aware that in 1948, the “real time” of the play's action, business is “all cut and dried, and there's no chance for bringing friendship to bear—or personality” (81), but he still longs for the days when “there was respect, and comradeship, and gratitude in it” (81). As Brian Dennehy's performance in the 1999 production of Death of a Salesman reminds his audience, Willy is a “born” salesman. In the scene between Willy and Howard, he nearly sells Howard on the myth of Dave Singleman before he sabotages his sales pitch by losing his temper. Willy Loman is a very confused man, but his confusion about what it means to be a salesman and what it takes to succeed at the job is as much cultural as personal. In the character of Willy Loman, Arthur Miller has established a metonymic representation of the contradictory beliefs and value-systems that were at the heart of American business culture in the decade after World War II. In his own memory and experience, Willy encompasses three generations of American salesmen, that of his father and his hero Dave Singleman, that of Willy, his brother Ben, and his friend (or brother-in-law) Charley, and that of Willy's sons and his boss, Howard Wagner. In the play, Miller creates a history of the career of the traveling salesman in America through the references to these characters, and in doing so, he suggests the extent to which social and cultural forces have figured in Willy's business failure, and his personal disintegration.

The occupation of traveling salesman began in the United States with the Yankee peddler, in the early nineteenth century. The peddler would buy up cheap, portable manufactured goods in the early industrial centers of the Northeast, pack them in a wagon or peddler's pack, and set off for the rural South or the frontier villages of the West, where he would travel from small town to small town, selling his wares at a high profit. Peddlers were entrepreneurs, operating completely on their own, free to buy and sell whatever they wanted and to travel wherever they liked. Willy Loman's father, born in the mid-nineteenth century, is a peddler, a “very wild-hearted man,” according to Ben, who would “toss the whole family in the wagon” and drive right across the country, through Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, and all the Western states (49).1 Miller emphasizes the elder Loman's independence by indicating that he even manufactured the products that he sold, the flutes that he made along the way. According to Ben, he was also a great inventor, who made more in a week with one gadget than a man like Willy could make in a lifetime (49). It is the elder Loman that Miller evokes with the play's flute music, “small and fine, telling of grass and trees and the horizon” (11). It expresses nostalgia for a lost age when the traveling salesman was free and independent, living by his wits and his own hard work.

It is significant that Willy's father traveled west, away from the urban centers of the country, and eventually left his family to go to America's last frontier, Alaska. During Willy's childhood in the 1890s, the Yankee peddler was already an outmoded figure, living on the fringes of society. He had been replaced by a figure who served the interests of the larger manufacturers more efficiently, the drummer. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, the drummer, usually a young man with a pleasant personality, was sent by a large manufacturing firm or wholesaler to greet small retail merchants who came from outlying areas to the industrial centers in order to buy their stock. The drummers would go to hotels, railroad stations, and boat landings, greet the merchants, help them to make their way around the city, and offer them free entertainment in hopes of securing their orders for merchandise. As competition between wholesalers intensified, the drummers were sent on the road with sample cases and catalogs, going out to the merchants rather than waiting for them to come to the city. These were the original “commercial travelers” or “traveling salesmen,” and they spent six to nine months a year on the road, living in hotels and sleeping cars.

Dave Singleman, Willy's hero, is Miller's example of the drummer. As Willy tells it, he met Dave Singleman when he was young, in the first decade of the twentieth century. Singleman, a salesman who had drummed merchandise in thirty-one states, was eighty-four years old at the time that Willy met him, and still making his living as a salesman. According to Willy, he could go into twenty or thirty different cities, pick up a phone, and call the buyers, who would give him orders. Willy says that he decided then that he wanted to be a traveling salesman because he wanted to become like Singleman, and be “remembered and loved and helped by so many different people” (81). In the early part of the century, it was character that was considered to be the paramount factor in sales success. Aspiring salesmen were urged to develop the qualities of character that would make customers respect and want to buy from them. A prototype for Dave Singleman, James Fenelon, an eighty-nine year veteran of the traveling sales force in 1916, attributed his success to the fact that “he never used tobacco in any form and that he always acted as a gentleman should” (Geyer 53). His virtue was rewarded when he became ill and the president of the company wrote that “he wanted to keep the dean of the force on the pay roll as long as he lived, even if he never made another trip” (Geyer 53). Willy's generation remembered the time when there was “respect, and comradeship, and gratitude” (81) in business.

In the first two decades of the twentieth century, salesmen were urged to improve sales by improving their character, often as a kind of religious exercise. Self-tests to see whether one had the requisite strength of character for the job were common in popular magazines. One expert suggested a self-examination at the end of each day:

The salesman should possess the ability to review carefully his work at the close of each day, and decide just where and how he has been weaker than he should have been. There is some reason for the loss of every sale. The salesman may not be at fault, but it is safer for him to assume that he is and to endeavor to put his finger upon his weakness. Such a practice will foster in him the habit of holding himself strictly accountable for errors. He should also at the same time review the essential qualifications of a salesman and decide in which of them he is lacking.

(Jones 170)

The salesman was urged to be thoroughly honest with himself when performing his “task of introspection,” for “the salesman can develop only by earnestly striving to discover and eliminate his negative qualities, while at the same time he makes every effort to strengthen his positive ones” (Jones 170-71).

Willy's own career as a salesman begins in the early part of the twentieth century, when it was, as Willy tells his sons, “personality” that was considered the salesman's greatest asset. His job was to make friends with the buyers and merchants, so they would buy what he was selling. The product itself was not all that important. With the growth of mass production, however, the pressure increased on the salesman to move merchandise in order to keep up the volume of production. Consequently, as Willy's generation came into its maturity, married, and raised children during the 1920s, there was a good deal of pressure to sell merchandise, but it was relatively easy to do since the American business economy was enjoying one of its greatest periods of prosperity.

Salesmen at this time debated the best approach to selling merchandise. While there were many like Willy, who put all their faith in personality, friendship, and personal loyalty—“Be liked and you will never want” (33)—there was a new way of thinking about salesmanship. The earlier assumption had been that salesmanship was an essential quality, an innate character trait that could be nurtured and developed, but not created by the aspiring salesman. During the teens and twenties, salesmanship was beginning to be treated as a profession to be learned. The new interest in psychology led experts to think about the psychology of the buyer, and how best to manipulate it, as well as the psychological traits that made for the best salesmen. With mass production and increased competition, buyers and merchants began to think more about profit margins and customer satisfaction than their own personal relationship with the salesman. There was more interest in the quality of the product and the salesman's knowledge about it. Companies began to train their salesmen in the methods of salesmanship and to educate them about the products they were selling. As one writer put it:

Salesmanship is not trying to persuade people to buy something they do not want. That kind of salesmanship is, indeed, practiced, but not for very long; and no one makes any money out of it. Real salesmanship is demonstrating an article, or whatever it may be, in terms of the person who, it is hoped, will buy it. It is the development of a need, that already exists, into a present want. It is an operation performed first on the intellect and only secondly on the pocketbook of the prospect.

(Hopkins 29)

With the stock market crash in 1929, and the Great Depression that followed it, the competition among salesmen became more and more cutthroat. As Willy tells Ben in one of the day-dream sequences that takes place in 1931, “business is bad, it's murderous” (51). Using all of the tricks that Willy has learned in a lifetime of selling, including seducing the buyer's secretary and bribing her with stockings, Willy is barely able to eke out a living for his family. The salesman was up against an unforgiving business climate that placed the blame for failure squarely on the individual. Business writer J. C. Royle, for example, maintained that all that was needed to increase sales in 1931 was better salesmen: “The sales of the born salesmen have not suffered terribly during the Depression, but the amount of goods handled by the poor salesmen or those who need training has been pitiable.” In 1929, he contended, American salesmen did not sell sufficient goods to justify themselves, and “they are urged to do so now under spur of necessity. They are not being asked the impossible either” (“Wanted” 41-2).

During this period, the prevailing idea was still that, as Willy puts it, “the man who makes an appearance in the business world, the man who creates personal interest, is the man who gets ahead” (33). As J. George Frederick suggested in his 1000 Sales Points: The “Vitamin Concentrates” of Modern Salesmanship (1941), the first element of good salesmanship was to “Polish Off Your Personality.” A salesman's personality “must not be rough-hewn. It must feel agreeable and bland to all who contact it, or else it is a handicap. Therefore the first sales fundamental is to present an acceptable personality—in neatness, cleanliness, clothes, manner, deportment, expression, etc.” (17). Once his own personality was attended to, the salesman could concentrate on the psychological manipulation of the customer.

With most of the younger men in the military, middle-aged salesmen like Willy made an adequate living during World War II, despite the fact that the manufacturing of consumer goods was severely restricted. In the post-war period when the real time of the play takes place, there was a pent-up demand for things like new cars, tires, brand-name liquor, and nylon stockings, which had not been available during the war. The enormous American war industry was being retooled to produce consumer goods, and the advertising business was expanding rapidly as Americans were “educated” into desiring things like vacuum cleaners, television sets, and air conditioners, which had not been manufactured in large quantities before the war. The newly invigorated American business sector seized on the youthful and energetic workforce of young men returning from the military, displacing the women and older men who had been employed during the war. Men like Willy Loman, sixty-three years old in 1948, were being displaced by the younger generation everywhere.

Hap Loman and Howard Wagner represent typical members of this younger generation. Hap is not a salesman, but one of two assistants to the assistant buyer of a large department store. His job is more secure than Willy's, and it carries a regular salary rather than the precarious commission that Willy lives on. Unlike his father, though, Hap does not use his salary to support a family. Instead, he lives a carefree bachelor life, more interested, as Linda tells him, in his apartment and his car and his women than in helping his family, soon to become the ideal consumer of Hugh Hefner's Playboy. His final response to his father's death is to proclaim that he is “not licked that easily. I'm staying right in this city, and I'm gonna beat this racket! … Willy Loman did not die in vain. He had a good dream. It's the only dream you can have—to come out number-one man” (138-39). Howard Wagner, who has taken over the business that employs Willy after the death of his father Frank, is pragmatic and impersonal in his treatment of the aging salesman. When Willy admits that he can't handle the road anymore, Howard refuses to consider finding him something to do in New York as his father might have done, explaining, “it's a business, kid, and everybody's gotta pull his own weight” (80). When Willy loses control, showing his desperation, Howard fires him, telling him that he is not in a fit state to represent the firm.

The profession of selling underwent a tremendous change after the war. In the late forties, a movement to professionalize the salesman began, promoting sales as a career for college graduates. An important part of this movement was to emphasize the salesman's expertise and downplay his personality. Students were taught in business courses that the salesman's job was to learn everything he could about his product, and about the market, to gather all the data he could and analyze it using the most sophisticated statistical methods—in Willy's words, “today, it's all cut and dried, and there's no chance for bringing friendship to bear—or personality” (81). A number of books were written about “salesmanship” in the late forties and early fifties, attempting to codify the knowledge that was the fruit of a lifetime of experience for a Willy Loman or a Dave Singleman. Unfortunately for the veteran salesmen, the knowledge was expressed in a new lingo they didn't always understand, and it was based on different values, Howard Wagner's values, where the bottom line was everything

During the forties and fifties, the professional salesman became increasingly driven by things like market studies and demographics. Willy's plea for loyalty and humane treatment—“you can't eat the orange and throw the peel away—a man is not a piece of fruit!” (82)—is irrelevant to Howard's way of thinking. The prevailing view in the post-war business culture was that a salesman's job was not to sell a product—any product—to a buyer because he was liked and trusted by him, but to learn as much as possible about a particular product, identify its market, and bring the product to the buyer, any buyer. The two human beings, salesman and buyer, were becoming the least important elements of the transaction. Willy's complaint that salesmanship was becoming “cut and dried” is meaningless to a man like Howard, who is interested only in the bottom line of profit and loss. That is exactly the way he wants it to be.

A good example of the popular application of the new ideas about salesmanship is Harry Simmons' How to Sell Like a Star Salesman (1953). Simmons' description of the first two necessities for salesmanship are “application to the job—keep everlastingly at it” and

complete knowledge—knowing not only the rules of the game, but the reasons behind the rules and the smart application of the rules to the situation at hand. This also includes every single bit of knowledge about your product that it is possible to acquire; you never know when the smallest fact will develop into a big factor that will turn the tide in your favor.

(Simmons 12)

Simmons' book includes “Twenty-eight pint-size capsules that hold a gallon of helpful sales advice” for the salesman operating in the post-war business environment, several of which speak directly to Willy's failings. For example: “Reach for the order instead of applause. Many a man mistakes sociability for sales ability. He spends his time being a good-time Charley instead of a brass-tacks salesman. And then he complains about business being slow!” and “Tall tales make funny stories, but sound selling talks its way to the cash register! It's just a question of whether you want your sales manager to laugh with you or at you” (Simmons 94). The modern salesman, in Simmons' post-war view, is a serious businessman emphasizing “product information” and “helpmanship”—“helping your customer to buy properly, to use correctly, and to sell efficiently will fill both your pockets with more profits” (Simmons 98).2

The successful representatives of Willy's generation in the play, Charley and Ben, are hard-nosed capitalists, who have never allowed themselves to succumb to the sentimentality of the Dave Singleman myth as Willy has. Ben's creed is “never fight fair with a stranger, boy. You'll never get out of the jungle that way” (49). Although Charley is a loyal friend to Willy, he understands that the business world operates by different rules than human relations: “You named him Howard, but you can't sell that. The only thing you got in this world is what you can sell. And the funny thing is that you're a salesman, and you don't know that” (97). Unlike Willy, Charley has been able to adapt to the prevailing business culture. Willy's reaction to his failure in business during the real time of the play is similar to his response to his sense of failure in the other areas of his life. He retreats from present reality into nostalgic daydreams of the past, until he can no longer separate daydream from reality, past from present. His response to Charley's blunt statement of reality is a nostalgic reference to the bromides of the sales literature of the twenties: “I've always felt that if a man was impressive, and well liked, that nothing—” (97).

From the point of view of men like Howard and Charley, Willy's failure in business is a failure to adapt his old-fashioned sales technique—based on the buyer's personal loyalty to the salesman—to the new post-war business climate where salesmanship was based on knowledge of the product and service to the customer. Willy is a dinosaur. Howard fires him because “Business is business,” and Charley offers him a job out of charity because he is an old friend, a gesture Willy recognizes and rejects. Through his representation of the three generations of businessmen in the play, however, Miller suggests that Willy's failure is also due to a deep cultural dissonance in the messages he has heard throughout his life. Willy has heard the hard truth from the capitalists, but he has chosen to believe in the Dave Singleman myth, widely reflected in the popular literature of his day, that it was humanity that mattered—whether it was measured in sterling traits of character, as in the early part of the century, or in a pleasing personality, as in the twenties. Despite the fact that Biff has won the chance to play in Ebbets Field through his accomplishments on the football field, Willy really believes, as he tells Ben, that “three great universities are begging for him, and from there the sky's the limit, because it's not what you do, Ben. It's who you know and the smile on your face! … that's the wonder, the wonder of this country, that a man can end with diamonds here on the basis of being liked!” (86). The play's overwhelming message is that this is a lie, and that Willy is a fool to believe it. It is one of the things that destroys him. Willy is not alone, however, as the popular sales literature demonstrates. His belief that innate superiority will win out is the other side of the “strive and thrive” message of the American Protestant success ethic. Willy never ceases to believe that Biff is “magnificent,” that he is one of the elect. It is imagining “that magnificence with twenty thousand dollars in his pocket” (135) that Willy goes to his death, destroyed, in one sense, by the salesman's creed of the twenties, from which he has never deviated.


  1. See Barry Gross, “Peddler and Pioneer in Death of a Salesman.Modern Drama 7 (Feb. 1965): 405-10 for a discussion of these themes.

  2. For similar views, see also Paul Ivey and Walter Horvath, Successful Salesmanship, 3rd ed., New York: Prentice-Hall, 1953; Melvin S. Hattwick, The New Psychology of Selling, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1960.

Works Cited

Frederick, J. George. 1000 Sales Points: The “Vitamin Concentrates” of Modern Salesmanship. New York: Business Bourse, 1941.

Geyer, O. R. “The Oldest Traveling Salesman.” The American Magazine 81 (Mar. 1916): 53.

Hopkins, George W. “The Real ‘Star Salesman’ in Modern Business.” The American Magazine 93 (Apr. 1922): 28-9, 70.

Jones, John G. Salesmanship and Sales Management. New York: Alexander Hamilton Institute, 1919.

Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. New York: Viking, 1949.

Simmons, Harry. How to Sell Like a Star Salesman. New York: Henry Holt, 1953.

“Wanted: Salesmen.” The Literary Digest 113 (21 May 1931): 41-2.

Terry Otten (essay date fall 1999)

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SOURCE: Otten, Terry. “Death of a Salesman at Fifty—Still ‘Coming Home to Roost.’” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 41, no. 3 (fall 1999): 280-310.

[In the following essay, Otten addresses the critical debate surrounding the categorization of Death of a Salesman as a tragedy, commenting that “the play completes the tragic pattern of the past becoming the present, and it affirms the tragic dictum that there are inevitable consequences to choices.”]

“Tragedy,” Eric Bentley has warned, can “easily lure us into talking non-sense” (Playwright, 128). If so, Death of a Salesman surely doubles the risk. For likely no modern drama has generated more such talk than Miller's classic American play. After only two decades of strenuous debate seemed to have exhausted the subject, critics began to complain about “the pointless academic quibbles” about whether or not Death of a Salesman is a “true” tragedy (Weales, American Drama, 3). Such topics, wrote Lois Gordon in 1969, “have been explored ad nauseum” (98). Yet thirty years later and a half-century after the play's premiere, the question of its fitness as a tragedy continues to be a central critical concern.

Of course, Miller himself provided much of the impetus for the critical battles by writing his controversial 1949 essay on “Tragedy and the Common Man” in defense of Willy Loman as a suitable subject for tragedy, an essay later the same year on “The Nature of Tragedy,” and a number of important essays in subsequent years, including the preface “On Social Plays” published in the 1955 one-act edition of A View from the Bridge and A Memory of Two Mondays. Furthermore, the issue was and still is raised one way or the other in many, if not most, interviews, often by Miller himself. Although he admitted in the 1957 introduction to the Collected Plays that “I set out not ‘to write a tragedy’” and called Death of a Salesman “a slippery play” to categorize, he defended it against “some of the attacks upon it as a pseudo-tragedy” (Theater Essays of Arthur Miller, 144): “I need not claim that this is a genuine solid-gold tragedy for my opinions on tragedy to be held valid” (146).1

By the time he wrote the foreword to his Theater Essays (first edited by Robert A. Martin in 1977), Miller admitted, “I have often wished I had never written a word on the subject of tragedy” (Theater Essays, lv), and then, “[t]he damage having been done,” he went on to argue for the validity of modern tragedy, concluding, “I have not yet seen a convincing explanation of why the tragic mode seems anachronistic now, nor am I about to attempt one” (lv).

The controversy, however, has never really abated among critics, and the topic inevitably continues to surface in interviews. By the time Matthew Roudané interviewed him in November of 1983, Miller seemed less defensive and insistent. Responding to the question of whether or not Death of a Salesman was a Sophoclean tragedy, he commented, “I think it does engender tragic feelings, at least in a lot of people. Let's say it's one kind of tragedy. I'm not particularly eager to call it tragedy or anything else; the label doesn't matter to me” (Conversations [Conversations with Arthur Miller], 361). And in a recent interview in 1997 he claimed that when people ask him what the play is about, he simply responds, “Well, it's about a salesman and he dies. What can I tell you?” (Mandell).2

But undeniably the “damage” has been done—one way or the other Death of a Salesman still provokes critical wars about the viability of tragedy in the modern age, and particularly in American culture. Even as Miller seems to have moved more into the contemporary literary world in his recent dramas and as more critics have begun to see his canon in postmodern terms alien to the concept of tragedy and traditional approaches to the genre, the question still remains dominant in evaluations of a work that Eugene O'Neill may well have prophesied in response to those who argued that tragedy is foreign to the American experience:

Supposing someday we should suddenly see with the clear eyes of the soul the true valuation of all our triumphant, brass band materialism, see the cost—and the result in terms of eternal values? What a colossal, ironic, 100 percent American tragedy that would be, what? Tragedy not native to our soil? Why we are tragedy the most appalling yet written or unwritten.

(Selected Letters, 159)

Miller has always admitted his predilection for tragedy, at times at the cost of obfuscating his plays by defending them as tragedies. The plays “that have lasted,” he has insisted, “have shared a kind of tragic vision of man” (Conversations, 294). Although “tragedy is still basically the same” and can be traced back to the Bible and “the earliest Western literature, like Greek drama,” he told Robert Martin in the late 1960s, “it is unlikely, to say the least, that since so many other kinds of human consciousness have changed that [tragedy] would remain unchanged” (Conversations, 200). He acknowledged to Steven Centola in a 1990s interview that his own later plays “may seem more tragic” than his earlier efforts in which “the characters' inability to face themselves gives rise to tragic consequences” (“Just Looking” [“‘Just Looking for a Home’: A Conversation with Arthur Miller”] 86-87). This awareness of an evolving form may partly explain why even those critics who share Miller's belief in the “tragic nature” of Death of a Salesman often stop short of declaring it (or other of his plays) an unequivocal or conventional tragedy. They instead allude to its “tragic situations,” its evocation of “tragic feelings,” its “tragic implications” or “tragic rhythms,” or other subthemes of the genre.

Nonetheless, Miller has long confessed that classical tragedy and Ibsen's subsequent adaptation of it in the post-Enlightenment period have provided the structural and thematic spine of his work. Looking back over his career in the mid-1980s, he remarked: “I think probably the greatest single discovery I made was the structure of the Greek plays. That really blinded me. It seemed to fit everything that I felt. And then there was Ibsen, who was dealing with the same kind of structural pattern—that is the past meeting the present dilemma” (Conversations, 386).3 He recalled that as an undergraduate he read “by chance … a Greek tragedy and Ibsen at the same time” and discovered that “something happened x years ago, unbeknownst to the hero, and he's got to grapple with it” (Bigsby, Arthur Miller, 49). His devotion to the tragic mode as he perceives it and his varied experiments with tragic form and matter have made him the more vulnerable to critics bent on showing the deficiencies of his works as tragedies or his mere mimicking of an obsolete literary tradition.

Christopher Bigsby may be right in claiming that “the argument over the tragic status of Death of a Salesman, finally, is beside the point” (“Introduction,” xviii),4 but of all Miller plays Death of a Salesman has been the lightening rod that has most attracted the unending debates on Miller and tragedy, and any assessment of its endurance and significance after fifty years must engage the question.5 Most often paralleled with Oedipus,Death of a Salesman has also been compared with Shakespearean tragedies (especially Lear and Othello), Lillo's The London Merchant, and various plays by Ibsen, O'Neill, Williams, and others.6 Attacks on the play as tragedy have ranged from casual dismissal to vitriolic antagonism. Representative views include Eleanor Clark's early severe condemnation of the play's “pseudo-universality” and “party-line” polemics in her 1949 Partisan Review essay. Calling Miller's concept of tragedy “not feasible,” Alvin Whitley, among other later critics, admonished Miller to realize “that he is extending the traditional interpretation [of tragedy] to embrace demonstrably different emotional effects” and that “in the basic matter of personal dignity, Willy Loman may have ended where Hamlet unquestionably began” (262). Richard J. Foster labeled Willy a “pathetic bourgeois barbarian” and concluded that the drama was “not a ‘tragedy’ or great piece of literature” (87-88). Reflecting a common theme among Miller critics, Eric Mottram assaulted Miller's “muddled notions of Greek tragedy and modern psychology” which “lead him to plumb for that old stand-by for the American liberal, ‘the individual’” (32). For a more recent indication of dismissive critical commentary regarding Miller's sense of tragedy, one might cite Harold Bloom's rather patronizing remark in his 1991 anthology Willy Loman: “All that Loman actually shares with Lear and Oedipus is aging; there is no other likeness whatsoever. Miller has little understanding of Classical or Shakespearean tragedy; he stems entirely from Ibsen” (1).

Because no single concept of modern tragedy has ever attained the status of being the standard measure of the genre like Aristotle's Poetics in reference to classical tragedy, Death of a Salesman is subject to as many interpretations and evaluations as there are definitions. Most modern theories of tragedy severely modify Aristotle whether applied to Death of a Salesman or any other modern drama,7 but certain elemental subthemes have constituted the targets of critics, among them the loss of community and divine order, the victimization and diminution of the hero, the banality of language, the absence of choice, the protagonist's lack of awareness or epiphany, the irresolution of the ending, and the failure to effect a “catharsis.”

Perhaps the most sustained historical study of the development of tragedy generally is Robert Heilman's two-volume exploration of the genre, Melodrama and Tragedy: Versions of Experience and The Iceman, The Arsonist, and The Troubled Agent: Tragedy and Melodrama on the Modern Stage. Distinguishing between tragedies and what he calls “disaster” plays or serious melodrama, Heilman incorporates the thinking of many theorists, proposing that tragedy includes a “divided” hero driven by counter “imperatives” or “impulses,” who chooses between irreconcilable opposites, gains awareness, accepts consequences, and evokes emotions of both defeat and victory (what Heilman calls a “polypathic” rather than “monopathic” response). He differentiates between such plays and “disaster” dramas in which characters are mere victims whose deaths shed little or no light on the nature of human experience. Like all such formulaic criticism, Heilman's at times creates a Procrustean bed of criticism in which some plays of dubious merit are raised in stature as “tragic,” and superior dramas receive the more pejorative label of “melodrama.” Nonetheless, because his study, in addition to offering a useful survey of dramatic theory and major plays, provides a functional definition that allows for critical discriminations to be made, I shall occasionally use his critical terminology, while keeping in mind Bernard Shaw's admonishment that critics can “become so accustomed to formula that at last they cannot relish or understand a play that has grown naturally, just as they cannot admire the Venus of Milo because she has neither corset nor high-heeled shoes” (54). To be sure, different critics using the very same elements cited by Heilman and others have vociferously declared Death of a Salesman both “the great American tragedy” and an exemplum of cheap pathos.8 In response to the play's fiftieth anniversary and continued prominence as what many still consider “the great American tragedy,” it seems appropriate to look once more at the issues raised in the critical debate as they have been amplified and qualified by different theoretical approaches.

Underlying any consideration of the play's tragic potential is the larger question of whether or not tragedy can exist in an age when “God is dead.” Nietzsche warned that it would go hard with tragic poets if God is dead, and writers like Joseph Wood Krutch and George Steiner have long since pronounced the death of tragedy, largely on the grounds that the absence of some identifiable, universal moral law that locates the operation of a transcendent order against which to judge the tragic hero denies the possibility of tragic drama. Miller himself has certainly recognized the problem this poses. When asked if his plays were “modern tragedies,” he admitted,

I changed my mind about it several times. … To make direct and arithmetical comparison between any contemporary work and the classic tragedies is impossible because of the function of religion and power, which was taken for granted in an a priori consideration of any classic tragedy.

(Conversations, 88)

In a seminal discussion on the nature of tragedy with Robert Corrigan, Miller identified society as

the only thing we've got in modern times that has any parallel to the ancient deities. … and what it lacks is sublimity because at bottom, I think, most people … have no sense of divinity. … and this is what cuts down the tragic vision. It levels.

And he went on to explain, “By society, I don't mean, of course, merely the government. It is the whole way we live, what we want from life and what we do to get it” (Conversations, 254). In the same interview he noted that the classic hero

is working inside a religious cosmology where there is no mistaking a man for God; he is conscious to begin with that he is in the hands of God. … We are in the middle of a scrambled egg and mucking about in it, and the difference between the points of contact with the man and his god, so to speak, are fused.


In effect, in a secular universe the moral center shifts to the individual in relationship to his social environment. As Miller told Robert Martin, “What we've got left is the human half of the old Greek and the old Elizabethan process” in which human beings were measured against the presence of the gods (Conversations, 202). As a consequence, Miller concluded,

if we're going to talk about tragedy at all … we've got to find some equivalent to the superhuman schema that had its names in the past, whatever they were. Whether they went under the name of Zeus's laws, or, as in Shakespearean times, reflected a different ideology toward man, they also had lying in the background somewhere an order which was being violated and which the character was seeking to come to some arrangement with.

(Conversations, 201)

In Death of a Salesman society assumes the role of the gods to whom Willy gives allegiance. It constitutes what Heilman calls an “imperative,” an obligation to a given, externally located code that compels the tragic hero to act in direct opposition to an opposing imperative or “impulse,” which Heilman characterizes as a personal or egocentric need or desire. The dilemma is underscored with irony, though, because unlike the traditional gods of tragedy, Willy's gods provide to be morally indifferent. As Rita Di Giuseppe has written, they have “metamorphosed … into the fat gods of consumerism” (115). Miller's depiction of such a secular universe has inevitably led to the protesting cry of some critics who apparently want Miller to provide a transcendent moral force that would belie the realism of his conception.9 He often frustrates them by contextualizing the play in a realistic, if expressionistic, form that seems too reductive to allow for the grandeur of tragedy; but he encloses within this realism a tragic rhythm that depends upon the integrity of his uncompromised realism. The “discovery of the moral law,” he wrote in “Tragedy and the Common Man,” is no longer “the discovery of some abstract or metaphysical quantity” but is grounded in the nature of human experience itself (Theater Essays, 5).

Eric Bentley offered the much repeated view in his In Search of Theater that Death of a Salesman futilely attempts to align tragedy with social drama, the one conceiving of the hero as responsible for his own fate and the other as the pathetic victim of a severely flawed society.10 But, as Christopher Bigsby has observed, surely Oedipus and Hamlet integrate social drama and tragedy (“Introduction,” xviii). For Miller, “there are certain duties and social fears that can create a tragic event,” specifically when the dialectic develops “between the individual and his social obligations, his social self” (Conversations, 346). Miller has described Greek tragedies as “social documents, not little piddling private conversations” written by “a man confronting his society” (Conversations, 101). The differences that emerge in modern tragedy when realistically described social forces usurp the role of the gods transfigure tragedy profoundly—but not unrecognizably. Miller has called what emerges “the tragedy of displacement,” in which “the tragic dimension” surfaces in the protagonist's struggle for a lost “personal identity” displaced by “the social mask” (Conversations, 347). In “Tragedy and the Common Man” he attributed “the terror and fear that is classically associated with tragedy” to the “inner dynamic” driven by the “total onslaught of the individual against the seemingly stable cosmos surrounding us” (Theater Essays, 4). Not unlike in Hamlet, though obviously different from it, the tragic conflict pits one imperative against another: the social imperative of success in direct competition with the personal imperative or “impulse” of finding the authentic self. This transformation of the tragic conflict generates concomitant tensions in the form and focus of the text, between the outer and inner worlds, between Willy as hero and Willy as a psychological case study, between social commentary and personal experience, between the socially accepted view of morality and personal guilt, between suicide and self-sacrifice—in short, between melodramatic documentary and modern tragedy.

Miller himself has sensed the precarious nature of his plays as tragedy, admitting in his essay “On Social Plays” that “The debilitation of the tragic drama … is commensurate with the fracturing and the aborting of the need of man to maintain a fruitful kind of union with his society” (Theater Essays, 62). Furthermore, he has implied that his artistic end in Death of a Salesman was closer to Ibsen than to Sophocles. In Timebends he confessed that he “wanted to set off before the captains and the so seemingly confident kings the corpse of a believer,” to plant “a time bomb under American capitalism” (184); but he knew this differed from the Greek plays which, at the end, “return to confirm the rightness of the laws” (Theater Essays, 6). His purpose was political and satirical, for he knew, as Christopher Bigsby has written, that “Willy Loman's American dream is drained of transcendence. It is faith in the supremacy of the material over the spiritual” (“Introduction,” xxiii). It is little wonder that Miller threatened a lawsuit when he was asked to permit a twenty-five minute short to be shown before the film version of the play to assure the audience that “nowadays selling was a fine profession with limitless spiritual compensations as well as financial ones”—indeed, it would have made the play “morally meaningless, a tale told by an idiot signifying nothing” (Timebends, 315).

Because Miller both creates a naturalistic, almost Marxist view of American culture in the post-Depression era, some have reduced the drama to social determinism. And the truth is Miller does describe Willy as a childlike victim of the cultural values he adopts virtually without question. In Miller's words, he “carried in his pocket the coinage of our day” (Conversations, 176) as a “true believer” in the American dream of success. The very embodiment of the myth, he carried an unidentified “product” in his case, “the cipher,” in Stephen Barker's reading, “of an empty signifier” (88). And yet Miller grants Willy stature and significance because of, as much as despite, his dogged commitment to a pernicious ideal. One cannot take away Willy's dream without diminishing him, Miller has suggested: “[T]he less capable a man is of walking away from the central conflict of the play, the closer he approaches a tragic existence” (Theater Essays, 118). Ironically, like Oedipus, who at every point insists on fulfilling his obligation as king by unwittingly searching for his own father's murderer even though it finally destroys him to do so, Willy unreservedly follows his imperative to its fatal end, similarly encouraged by all the others around him to abort his quest: Linda, Biff and Happy, Charley, and Bernard all urge him to give up, just as Teiresias, the Chorus, Jocasta, and the shepherd plead with Oedipus to do the same. That Willy does not finally understand the corruptness of the dream exposes his intellectual failure, but he dies in defense of the imperative that consumes him. When in a symposium on the play John Beaufort and David W. Thompson argued that Willy “has no moral values at all,” Miller contended that “The trouble with Willy Loman is that he has tremendously powerful ideas. … The fact is that he has values” (Conversations, 30). As he told the Chinese actors for the 1983 production in Beijing, Willy “hasn't a cynical bone in his body, he is a walking believer, the bearer of a flame. … He is forever signaling to a future that he cannot describe and will not live to see, but he is in love with it all the same” (Salesman, 49). Even though the imperative devastates him as it does Oedipus, and even though it ironically proves false, Willy “in his fumbling and often ridiculous way … is trying to lift up a belief in immense redeeming human possibilities” (49).11 What matters finally is not so much the validity of the ideal but that Willy offers himself up to affirm it. It motivates him just as the oracle compels Oedipus to fulfill his kingship. However ironically, Willy fulfills his role as salesman with the same determination that compels Oedipus to affirm his kingship.

But it would be absurd to argue Willy's tragic stature on the grounds of his innocent, misguided commitment to the American dream of success, even though his devotion to the code is no less consuming than Oedipus's or Hamlet's commitment to their imperatives. At a deeper level we must ask why he invests so totally and self-destructively in support of the dream. For Oedipus or Hamlet, of course, the moral imperative was a given—there was divine order, after all, a divinity that shapes human destiny. For Willy, however, the imperative was not so readily apparent or universally acclaimed. His fierce devotion to it was not for its own sake, but rather it was for Willy a means to an end. In a critically important comment, Miller contended that “Willy is demanding of the market and of his job some real return psychically” (Conversations, 297-98, emphasis mine). He seeks self-dignity and with it something more, what most defines the counter to the social imperative in the play, to recover the lost love of Biff and preserve the family. Willy does not want simply to fulfill the imperative for the dream's sake, but to express his love through “success.” Because his will to succeed consistently frustrates his impulse to love, he suffers the division Heilman ascribes to the tragic hero.12

In a reversal of Aristotelian priorities Miller dramatizes, in Browning's phrase, “Action in Character, rather than Character in Action.” Or, to put it another way, plot enters character to create “the soul of the action” rather than the narrative or external plot. Death of a Salesman “removes the ground of the tragic conflict from outer events to inner consciousness,” as Easter Merle Jackson has proposed, depicting “a tragedy of consciousness, the imitation of a moral crisis in the life of a common man” (68). This shift violates the linear, architectonic movement of classical tragedy by placing the impetus for the action not in the hands of the gods but in Willy's own consciousness. When he announces “I am tired to death” (2), he sets in motion an inexorable internal struggle between past and present. On the verge of neurosis and paranoia because he vacillates hopelessly between two poles, Willy shares an obsessive nature with other tragic figures who skirt madness. But Miller has always insisted that Willy is not insane. His well-known aversion to Frederic March's portrayal in the film version of the play emphasizes the point. “If he was nuts,” Miller wrote of Willy in Timebends, “he would hardly stand as a comment on anything” (325). March, who had been a “first choice for the role on stage,” made Willy “simply a mental case,” a neurotic, pathological case study, “an idiot” headed for the “looney bin,” Miller complained to Christopher Bigsby—but Willy is not “crazy,” and the audience recognizes that “This man is obviously going down the chute and he's telling them exactly what they believe” (Arthur Miller, 54, 58).

The internalization of the conflict is expressed in the staging of the play. We are on “The Inside of His Head,” as Miller first proposed calling the work, on a stage expressive of the dialectical tensions between what Miller refers to as “social time” and “psychic time,” city and country, home and workplace, as Willy's “daydreams” project the counter forces operating in his consciousness. On one hand, Miller maintained the dictum of tragedy he learned from the Greeks and Ibsen and coined “the birds coming home to roost” (Bigsby, Arthur Miller, 49), initiating the play in the rhythm of ancient tragedy with the appearance of “the x-factor” when Willy announces he cannot go on. But from there the play assumes more postmodern traits. As Matthew Roudané has suggested, the text is “Postmodern in texture but gains its theatrical power from ancient echoes, its Hellenic mixture of pity and fear stirring primal emotions” (“Death of a Salesman,” 63). Although Elia Kazan recognized from the beginning that Willy creates his own history in the play, only recently have critics begun to appreciate Miller's postmodern view of history, an element increasingly apparent in plays like Some Kind of Love Story,Elegy for a Lady, and more recent works like The Last Yankee,Ride Down Mount Morgan, and even Mr. Peter's Connections. Miller collapses time in Death of a Salesman, rather than simply showing the past reasserting itself in the present, making past and present coexist so completely that neither we nor Willy can always distinguish between them. June Schlueter has observed how the extraordinary design “invites a recontextualizing reading of the play and a distinctly postmodern query: To what extent has Willy assumed authorial control of his own history, consciously or unconsciously rewriting and restaging it to suit his emotional needs?” (“Re-memoring Willy's Past,” 143). In Miller's use of “re-memory,” the text challenges “the historicity of knowledge, the nature of identity, the epistemological status of fictional discourse” (151). Yet for all its postmodern elements, as Roudané has rightly asserted, it “gets its power from ancient echoes.” Miller began the play with the conviction that “if I could make [Willy] remember enough he would kill himself” (Theater Essays, 138). The eruption of the past is vital in this sense because it reflects Miller's tragic view of causality, because it is “an acknowledgment,” Christopher Bigsby has declared, “that we are responsible for, and a product of, our actions” (“Introduction,” xi).13

Inspired by seeing A Streetcar Named Desire, Miller developed what Brenda Murphy has termed “subjective realism,” which she describes as “expressionistic with the illusion of objectivity afforded by realism” (Miller: Death of a Salesman, 5). It allowed him to project a concept of time in which “nothing in life comes ‘next’ but … everything exists together at the same time. … [Willy] is his past at every moment.” As a result the “form seems to be the form of a confession” (Theater Essays, 136). The form thereby conveys the moment of moral consequence when Willy must finally pay the price for his choices—“you've got to retrieve what you've spent and you've got to account for it somehow” (Bigsby, Arthur Miller, 201). In fact Miller has employed Biblical language to define the moral significance of the drama, which shows us, “so to speak, the wages of sin” (Conversations, 31). Willy, in a way, confesses despite himself as his memory becomes an unwilled confession. As a divided hero he sins against both imperatives that motivate him. He violates the law of success, Miller has explained, “the law which says that a failure in society and in business has no right to live.” But he also sins against “an opposing system which, so to speak, is in a race for Willy's faith, and that is the system of love which is the opposite of the law of success” (Theater Essays, 149). To be true to one set of values necessitates betrayal of the other. That is the tragic dilemma that Miller traced back to Eden, when either way they choose, either by disobeying the injunction not to eat the fruit or denying their impulse toward freedom, Adam and Eve were fated to suffer tragic consequences. Unable to accommodate diametrically opposite demands, Willy must and does make choices in response to the contending codes. He commits adultery in Boston to gain access to buyers, but consequently carries undeniable guilt for breaking “the law of love.” In his annotations to the playscript Miller recorded that Willy is in fact “craving to be liberated from his guilt” (qtd. in Rowe, 56).

It is an essential question whether Willy does choose and, perhaps more importantly, whether he truly pays a price for his choices. It is difficult not to see his moral viability in light of his pervasive sense of guilt. Even if he fails to make the right moral choices (though no choice can be “right” in relation to the contending poles in the dialectic), he is surely not amoral. The play demands an accounting for his actions. One may contend that Willy lacks intellectual awareness, of course, and is thereby diminished as a tragic hero, but not that he is morally moribund. Few characters in modern drama expose so vividly the presence of a guilty conscience.

When Willy returns “tired to death,” Gerald Weales has concluded, he is “past the point of choice” (“Arthur Miller,” 172). In a way he is right. The play begins when Willy must finally suffer “the wages of sin” for choices already made, in the same way that Oedipus must confront the consequences of a crime already enacted. But in fact he also makes choices within the time frame of the present. As Miller has insisted, he is unwilling to “remain passive in the face of what he conceives to be a challenge to his dignity” (Theater Essays, 4). To this end he chooses not to take Charley's repeated offer of a job, although he already depends on Charley's help and could resolve his immediate financial crisis by accepting the position. Almost without regard to Willy's rejection of the job, Charley ironically explains why when he remarks at the Requiem, “No man only needs a little salary” (110). Willy chooses not to suffer the loss of dignity—to accept would demean him and, perhaps more, would deny the validity of the imperative by which he measures his worth. Most importantly, he chooses the car at the end of the play over the rubber hose, the latter representing both acceptance of defeat and escape from the consequences of failure, the former embodying an act of sacrifice, an ironic affirmation of the failed dream but, nonetheless, a conscious assertion of will. As will be discussed later, suicide by means of the rubber hose constitutes death from something, suicide by car death for something. Without free will tragedy cannot exist in Miller's view, for tragedy contests the idea that characters are only victims of external powers rather than participants in their own destiny. Just as we can conclude that Willy is morally alive, we must acknowledge that he possesses freedom of choice. He chose to follow the imperative that finally defeats him, and he chooses to die in part to perpetuate the dream. “He brings tragedy down on himself,” Raymond Williams has explained in his defense of the play as tragedy, “not by opposing the lie, but by living it” (104).

Willy might be considered a composite tragic hero in that his divided nature and tragic fate are inexplicably bound to his two sons, who represent the poles in the dialectic. Willy's choice to follow the dictates of the cultural ethos most directly affects his family, which provides the locus of the tragic action. The larger community and its unifying myth of universal order are projected in the altar, the palace, and the throne-room in traditional tragedy; but the fragile Loman house, part externally real and part psychically real, houses a fragmented, dysfunctional family, where Willy's adherence to the law of success makes him, as Dan Vogel has noted, a petty “tyrannos” in his own house. But whereas “the family was subsumed by community, by public and even metaphysical-religious repercussions” in Greek drama, William Demastes has reminded us, in the Loman household family matters are disconnected from the larger human society or a spiritually charged cosmos (77). Though Shakespeare's heroes all engage in psychological warfare at some personal level, they all see themselves as primarily agents of the larger community. Oedipus's or Hamlet's “Oedipus Complex” is hardly the “soul of the action” in either text, however much both may be perceived in Freudian terms. But Miller has spoken of family in overtly Freudian terms as, “after all, the nursery of all our neuroses” (Conversations, 271), moving tragedy much more into the realm of the psyche and subjective reality as O'Neill tried to do. Some critics, and most notably the psychiatrist Daniel E. Schneider, have read the play as centrally about the Oedipus complex, “an unreal Oedipal bloodbath,” in which we witness the search for the father, violent sibling rivalry, castration fear, and crippling guilt over the death of a parent.14 But while such themes doubtless appear, the rivalry between brothers and their struggles against the father are more important as manifestations of larger mythic forces operating in Willy himself. Biff's association with nature and desire to return to a pastoral world characterized by fecundity and openness parallel Willy's lyrical references to New England, the open windshield and the warm air early in the play and, later in the play, his promise to Linda to someday buy a farm and his desperate attempt to “plant something.” Hap's counter-commitment to the idea of success, seen throughout in his unconscionable business dealings and sexual prowess, reaches full expression at the Requiem in his vow to reclaim Willy's dream. But because Willy still naively convinces himself that he will eventually succeed and never doubts the dream Hap embodies, Willy does not need the assurances of his younger son or his forgiveness for not having been a success. It is Biff with whom he must be reconciled for the breech caused by his denial of “the system of love,” a denial of his own other self.

Brenda Murphy has noted Miller's evolving conception of Biff. At first seeing the elder son as caught “between hatred for Willy and his own desire for success,” the playwright had difficulty “developing a motivation for Biff's hatred” (Miller: Death of a Salesman, 9). But especially under Kazan's direction, Miller came to see the work, in Kazan's words, as “a love story—the end of a tragic love between Willy and his son Biff. … The whole play is about love—Love and Competition” (qtd. in Rowe, 44).15 When the Chinese actor playing Biff in Beijing wondered why Biff says “I don't know what I want,” Miller, in a telling comment, replied,

You don't say “I don't know what I want,” but “I don't know what I'm supposed to want,” and this is a key idea. Biff knows very well what he wants, but Willy and his idea of success disapprove of what he wants, and this is the basic reason you have returned here—to somehow resolve this conflict with your father, to get his blessing.

(Salesman, 71)

Willy and Biff form a symbiotic relationship. Biff cannot gain freedom from his father's imperative until his father somehow frees him from it—as, tragically speaking, he can do only through death. Similarly, Willy cannot succeed until he can align his love for Biff with the dream he follows. This explains that Biff returns because, as Miller explained to the Beijing actors, he “sometimes feels a painful unrequited love for his father, a sense of something unfinished between them brings feelings of guilt” (Salesman, 79). Willy equally feels “unrequited love,” which we see in his eagerness for Biff's return, and yet he also suffers “feelings of guilt.” Biff has failed to meet Willy's imperative and feels estranged because of it; Willy has violated love for the sake of the dream by which he hoped to express it and feels alienated as well. Inextricably linked, both in Willy's subjective world where he romanticizes Biff in the past to conform to his dream and in the external realm of reality where Biff has markedly failed to succeed, the two return to the crossroads, the place where x marks the spot, the hotel room in Boston where the law of success and the law of love collided, inflicting upon father and son a shared guilt that can only be redeemed by the death of the tragic hero.

Like the Greek chorus whose plea for relief unwittingly leads to Oedipus's tragic end, Linda's supplications propel Willy and Biff toward their tragic destiny. As she tells her son, “Biff, his life is in your hands!” (43). Yet from the beginning Linda has provoked intense critical reactions. Many see her as an enabler who “contributes to the truth-illusion matrix” by supporting Willy's “vital lie” (Roudané, “Death of a Salesman,” 70).16 Some consider her an even more sinister figure. Guerin Bliquez has called her “the source of the cash-payment fixation” whose acquiescence “in all Willy's weaknesses” makes her a “failure as a wife and mother.” Seeing Ben as a rival, Bliquez adds, she emasculates and makes Willy a victim of her “ambition as well as his own” (384, 386). Calling her “stupid and immoral” for encouraging Willy's self-deceit, Brian Parker accuses Linda of possessing no higher ideal than Willy's dream and finds her “moral sloppiness” manifested in Hap “one degree farther”—“Hap is his mother's son” (54). And Karl Harshbarger makes her an even more malevolent character who coerces Willy “to relate to her as a small boy … by not allowing him to communicate his deeper needs to her.” sides with Biff against him, and blames him “for his own feelings. She offers him his reward, love and support, only when he becomes dependent on her” (14). He goes so far as to claim that in her “extreme defensiveness” against her own guilt she “must disguise the joy that she, not a man, has been victorious” (28).17 Linda is also commonly referred to as merely a sentimental sop, a cardboard figure, or “a mouthpiece for Miller's earnestness” (Welland, 50). One critic has named her Jocasta, a “mousy twentieth-century Brooklyn housewife” who, like Oedipus's wife-mother, prevents her husband “from asking the fatal question, ‘Who am I?’” (C. Otten, 87).

More recent feminist critics have found Linda a likely target for assaults on Miller, though as early as his 1970 book on Miller, Benjamin Nelson sounded a feminist chord that shows Linda helping “build a doll's house around [Willy] and, consequently, [doing] to Willy what he has been doing to Biff and Happy,” making him as well as them “victims of her gingerbread house” (112-13).18 A number of studies published in the late 1980s deny Linda a significant role in a tragic pattern, depicting her as reflecting a male perspective, which “borrows the methods and espouses the sexual politics of melodrama. … If Miller writes tragedy … he makes it a male preserve” (Mason, 113). Linda, according to Linda Ben-Zvi, “is the embodiment of society's perception of women” and of Miller's own conception (224), a view shared by Gayle Austin. Employing the feminist theory of Gayle Rubin, Austin laments Miller's reduction of women as “objects to be exchanged” and denial of them “as active subjects in the play” (61, 63). And Kay Stanton concludes that Miller conflates all female characters in the play “in the idea of Woman: all share … in their knowing”; and possessing “the potential to reveal masculine inadequacy,” they “must be opposed by man” (82).19 More recently, Linda Kintz has explored Miller's “grammar of space,” which projects “a nostalgic view of the universalized masculine protagonist of the Poetics,” in which conception women like Linda “wait at home, to console and civilize both husband and children, roles that provide a structural, narrative guarantee of masculine agency even in very different historical periods” (106). Tracing antifemale bias to the core of traditional tragedy itself, she raises a serious criticism not only of Linda's role but of the gender-biased nature of tragedy as genre.

These and other feminist attacks on the characterization of Linda and the other women in the play20 have not gone unchallenged; and relative to seeing the play as tragedy, the issue is important, because Miller conceives of Linda as an essential contributor to the tragic meaning of work. Jan Balakian, for example, has argued that, rather than supporting a sexist view of women, Death of a Salesman in “accurately depicting a postwar American culture that subordinates women, … cries out for a renewed image of American women” (115). Although the drama realistically portrays America “through the male gaze,” it “does not condone the locker-room treatment of women any more than it approves of a dehumanizing capitalism, any more than A Streetcar Named Desire approves Stanley Kowalski's brash chauvinism or David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross approves of sleazy real-estate salesmen” (124). Even if Linda's fierce will and love for Willy cannot save him, Christopher Bigsby had added, “this does not make her a ‘useful doormat’” as some feminists have complained (“Introduction,” xx).

As Elia Kazan wrote in his directing notes on the play, Linda often appears as if she is ideally “fashioned out of Willy's guilt” and male ego as “Hard-working, sweet, always true, admiring. … Dumb, slaving, tender, innocent.” In fact, “in life she is much tougher. … she has chosen Willy! To hell with everyone else. She is terrifyingly tough” (qtd. in Rowe, 47). Certainly Miller did not think of her as a sentimental sop. Kay Stanton has suggested that Miller “seems not to have fully understood” her strength as a “common woman who possesses more tragic nobility than Willy” (96), but at various times Miller has expressed his concern that Linda not be sentimentalized, beginning with Mildred Dunnock's original portrayal of the role.21 He recalled how Kazan forced Dunnock to deliver her long accusatory speech to Bill and Happy in Act II in double time and then doubled the pace of the delivery again in order to straighten “out her spine, and has Linda filled up with outrage and protest rather than self-pity and mere perplexity” (Timebends, 189). He also observed how the Linda in the Beijing production, Zhu Lin, at first weakened Linda's character by “exploiting … the sentiments” that “will sink them all in a morass of brainless ‘feeling’ that finally is not feeling at all but an unspecific bath of self-love.” Zhu Lin's interpretation reminded him of a Yiddish production in New York in which “the Mother was a lachrymose fount” like mothers “performed by actors of Irish backgrounds” in early film, “always on the verge of tears, too” (Salesman, 43).

For Miller, Linda's role was never merely ancillary. And although he acknowledged that she contributes to Willy's death—nothing that “When somebody is destroyed, everybody finally contributes to it” (Conversations, 265), he conceived of Linda as “sucked into the same mechanism” as Willy.22 Though not a “tragic hero,” Linda contributes hugely to the tragic vision of the work. She functions in part as a chorus. In the crucial moments when she demands that “Attention must be paid” and when she castigates her sons for abandoning Willy, she both provokes the action and provides a moral commentary on it. Perhaps more, as George Couchman has contributed, she “is conscience itself” to her two sons—“she fixes responsibility for actions, something which, according to the playwright himself, must be done if our theater is to recover the spirit of tragedy” (74). And, Bernard Dukore has added, “Far from demonstrating her stupidity, her comprehension of why [Willy] committed suicide derives from what she, not the audience, was aware of. When she last saw Willy, he was happy because Biff loved him” (28). Her essential recognition, though emotionally rather than intellectually expressed, illuminates the tragic implications of the text.

No mere passive victim, even though she is powerless to prevent Willy's end, Linda is primarily responsible for generating the tragic reunion of Willy and Biff. She can only respond to, not prevent, the fatal encounter she unwittingly prophesies when she tells Biff, with ironic accuracy, that Willy's fate is in his hand; and it is she who tells Biff about the rubber hose, thereby empowering him with the knowledge he needs to confront Willy at the end of the play. The climactic scene occurs at the restaurant when Willy can no longer evade the memory that must return him, like Oedipus, to the crossroads that mark his betrayal. The scene in Howard's office which precedes it would surely be the pivotal moment in the action were this essentially a social or political drama; but rather than being the turning point, it leads directly to it, stripping Willy of his final hope and leaving him without reserves to combat the evidence of his failure as father and husband as well as salesman.23 Christopher Bigsby has proposed that “There is no crime and hence no culpability (beyond guilt for sexual betrayal), only a baffled man and his sons trying to find their way through a world of images” (“Introduction,” xxvi); but the guilt Willy endures goes beyond mere infidelity, and Biff's culpability in abandoning his father both in Boston and at the restaurant adds a moral dimension that exceeds Willy's sexual indiscretions. The restaurant scene, which Miller once stayed up all night to rework during rehearsals (Timebends, 189), brilliantly weaves together past and present by simultaneously showing Biff and Hap reenacting Willy's violation of love while Willy concurrently relives it. Again, were this only a social or polemical social play, the scene in Howard's office would constitute the nadir of Willy's hopeless existence, and the restaurant scene would begin the dénouement. But the restaurant scene carries what Miller calls a “metaphysical” dimension, moving the play into the realm of tragedy by dramatizing the usurpation of the present by the past, the place where Willy must reenact rather than excuse or sanitize the past. In true tragic rhythm, every step forward leads back to that defining moment.

Biff's humiliating experience at Oliver's office mirrors Willy's at Howard's, Thomas Porter has noted (142), and links their destinies together as they meet at the restaurant. The scene opens with Hap seducing “Miss Forsyth” with the deception and exaggeration typical of the Lomans, directly establishing a parallel to Willy's sexual infidelity. When Biff arrives, he already has realized his inauthenticity after stealing Oliver's pen and is determined to force Willy and Hap to face the truth about all their self-deceit. Interestingly, Miller changed the early versions of the play, including the initial preproduction script distributed to the production team in 1948. Originally Biff intentionally lies both to Willy and Hap about having a lunch meeting with Oliver (Murphy, Miller: Death of a Salesman, 6). In the far more meaningful final version, Biff openly rebels against what he has become. Daniel Schneider, in his Freudian interpretation of the scene, calls it “the ultimate act of father-murder … [a] very adroitly designed Oedipal murder” in which Biff is “hero of the Oedipal theme” in rebelling against his father (250-51).24 But while Biff comes in anger against what his father has made of him and does indeed rebel against him, he brings with him a deeper self-hatred and, with it, an understanding of Willy's desperation. Even as Hap competes for the girls unmindful of his father's distress, Biff finds a compassion born of his self-awareness and Willy's agonizing cry that “the woods are burning … there's a big blaze going on all around” (83). Biff's consciousness of his own culpability—expressed in his plea to Hap to “help him … Help me, help me, I can't bear to look at his face!”—bespeaks of something more than Oedipal revenge on the father. Calling Willy “A fine, troubled prince” (90), he lies about the appointment with Oliver not to conceal his failure, as in the original script, but to alleviate Willy's suffering, even though he finally runs away from Willy in frustration, “Ready to weep” (90). Biff wants to be free of the past and free of the imperative of success his father imposes on him, but he cannot achieve these ends without feeling guilt for failing his father, nor can he erase from the past the estrangement that occurred in Boston for which he feels partly responsible. In this modern tragedy, moral as well as psychological forces propel the scene.

As tragic protagonist Willy, above all, must gain some measure of awareness, something now possible when he no longer possesses the capacity to reinvent, glamorize, or excuse the past. The “re-memory” of the experience in the hotel room is driven by guilt left unchecked without recourse to the defensive mechanisms of deceit and denial he has always employed. Consciously trying to fend off responsibility, he told Bernard at Charley's office that the math teacher, “that son-of-a-bitch,” destroyed Biff, but he knows subconsciously Biff “laid down and died like a hammer hit him” because he lost all will when he caught Willy with the secretary (71). Willy's anger at Linda's mending stockings makes apparent his inability to wash his hands of guilt as well. His infidelity, echoed by Biff's prowess as a teenager and Hap's exploitation of his competitors' women, is ironically fused with its opposite. The same sexual exploits which violate “the system of love” Miller alludes to are a means to fulfill the imperative of success, whose ultimate end for Willy is, paradoxically, to secure the family and assert his fatherhood. The merging of Linda's laughter with that of the woman in the hotel represents the fatal union of imperative and impulse in Willy's mind; he is now unable to separate the contending forces that propel him. The sexual encounter with the woman is not the cause of Willy's violation of his love for Linda or his sons but the symptom of a tragic conflict which he has, nonetheless, created. However much Willy struggles to live in denial consciously, he knows subconsciously that he bears responsibility, as his suffering bears witness. The play shifts after the restaurant scene into the future and out of Willy's unconscious, as Willy, having returned to the point of offense, seeks for some means to reconcile the conflicting “laws” that define him. The dénouement inevitably follows the subjective reenactment of the encounter his memory will not let him evade—once again, “the birds come home to roost.”

To what degree Willy really understands and accepts responsibility is a matter of unending debate among critics. In his prefatory essay to his Collected Works, Miller argued that

Had Willy been unaware of his separation from values that endure he would have died contentedly polishing his car. … But he was agonized by being in a false position, so constantly haunted by the hollowness of all he had put his faith in. … That he had not intellectual fluency to verbalize his situation is not the same as saying that he lacked awareness.

(Theater Essays, 148)

Nevertheless, in an earlier interview he acknowledged the “danger in pathos, which can destroy any tragedy if it goes too far,” and confessed, “I feel that Willy Loman lacks sufficient insight into his situation, which would have made him a greater, more significant figure” (Conversations, 26). Miller's detractors, and in some cases defenders, have focused on this issue. Heilman, for example, has written that Death of a Salesman is a near-but-not-quite-tragedy because “Willy is always in the first stage of the tragic rhythm—the flight from the truth; but he never comes to the last stage of the tragic rhythm, in which truth breaks through to him” (234). And June Schlueter has argued that although Willy “casts an immense shadow over all of modern drama, he remains a pathetic ‘low man’” (Schlueter and Flanagan, 63).25

But even granting Willy's limited insight, it would be a mistake to claim that he is ignorant of himself or of his moral offenses. Certainly emotionally, as Lois Gordon contends, “he confronts himself and his world” (103). Roudané persuasively argues that Willy “tragically knows at least part of himself” as is evidenced when he admits to Linda that he looks foolish, that he babbles too much, and that he feels estranged. He “mixes self-disclosure with external fact,” as when he sarcastically responds to Hap, “You'll retire me for life on seventy goddam dollars a week?” And his lyric cry, “The woods are burning!” further reflects Willy's “self-knowledge within the marketplace” as “he honestly assesses his overall predicament” when he meets his sons at the restaurant. “Such insights make Willy more than a misfit or an oversimplified Everyman” and “enhance his tragic structure precisely because they reveal to the audience Willy's capacity to distinguish reality from chimera” (“Death of a Salesman,” 79). Granting that Willy himself does not comprehend the full meaning of his spiritual crisis or his guilt, Bernard Dukore asks, What if he did fully understand? “The play would then become too explicit and Willy the know-it-all protagonist of a drama with Uplift” (37), devoid of tragic significance and at odds with the play's realistic portrayal.

Miller's commitment to the truthfulness of Willy's character in effect mitigates against his playing the role of the classical tragic hero—he “knows” in the Old Testament sense of experiencing reality, but there is no doubt that his intellectual vision is restricted. When he leaves the restaurant shattered by his painful return to the Boston hotel room, Willy is to a degree freed to act, to choose. Before his mental reenactment he was incapacitated by Howard's final humiliation of him, by his agonizing awareness that Bernard's success reflected on his own failure as father, by Charley's offer of a job that would come at the cost of any self-respect. Now he is galvanized into desperate action. Mobilized by the stinging awareness that he has utterly failed materially and morally, he impulsively tries to plant something, to nature life amid walls of urban apartment houses that symbolize the domination of the nature he loves by the material world created by the selling mythos of American culture to which he is hopelessly tied.

His actions expose his sense of, rather than understanding of, his existential dilemma. In Miller's view of a world without transcendent mythic heroes, Willy alone cannot embody the tragic vision of the play. As part of a composite tragic figure, Biff assumes a dimension of the tragic protagonist Willy is too diminished to satisfy. As a projection of competing forces operating in Willy's psyche, Biff seeks freedom from the “phony dream” that he nonetheless carries as symbolically part of Willy. Joseph Hynes has expressed dismay that “The only one who gains self-awareness is Biff; but the play is Willy's. … the showdown lights up the play's failure as tragedy” (286). But in fact the play does not turn on Willy as a single protagonist. Because Willy is so wedded to the dream, nothing less than his death can free him from it. Biff, however, can acquire freedom from the imperative Willy cannot abandon without self-destruction; but, paradoxically, he can only be freed by Willy. Possessing awareness of the corrosive nature of Willy's dream and its devastating effect on his father and himself, Biff pleads with Willy to “take that phony dream and burn it” (106). The “anagnorosis is there,” declares David Sievers, but “is given … to Biff, who is purged of his father's hostility when he comes to see his father for what he is” (396). When he expresses his love for his father in a climactic embrace, he frees Willy to claim his tragic fate, as, paradoxically, Willy's death frees him.

Biff, then, provides the awareness Willy lacks, but he cannot himself resolve the tragic crisis. It may be true that Miller does not adequately develop Biff's character in relation to Willy or fully trace his moral development, although it is clear from the beginning that Biff returns home because he feels a sense of guilt and moral responsibility to heal the breech with his father. Miller himself has stated, “I am sorry the self-realization of the older son, Biff, is not a weightier counterbalance of Willy's character” (Theater Essays, 9-10), but his intent is not obscure. Biff is not a counterweight to but a counterweight of Willy's character. However unwittingly, Willy pays the price to free Biff from the imperative he ironically thinks he dies to defend: “[T]ragedy brings us knowledge and enlightenment” as audience, Dukore has wisely remarked, “which it need not do for the tragic hero” (37).

It is hardly surprising that the motivation for Willy's suicide is variously interpreted, for Miller himself substantially altered his earlier depiction of the death. The earlier version of the penultimate scene, Brenda Murphy has noted, occurs not when Biff confronts Willy with the rubber hose but when he confesses for the first time that he lied about the appointment with Oliver (Miller: Death of a Salesman, 6). The difference is important because the rubber hose, like the car accidents earlier, reveals Willy's flirtation with surrender to defeat. The car wrecks “were cowardly and escapist,” Dan Vogel has rightly claimed, whereas his death at the end of the play is “purposeful, self-sacrificial, and epiphanic” (101). Although it does nothing to achieve Willy's dream, it is not, as June Schlueter has concluded, simply “a deluded death gesture that only compounds the waste of his life” (Schlueter and Flanagan, 65). Miller has identified the cause as Willy's “epiphany” in the penultimate scene when he realizes “He loves me!” and discovers “the resurrected knowledge of his vision with Biff, his seed and hope” (Salesman, 170). Having gained “a very powerful piece of knowledge, which is that he is loved by his son and has been embraced by him and forgiven,” he can now choose death as fulfillment, not mere escape:

That he is unable to take the victory thoroughly to his heart, that it closes the circle for him and propels him to his death, is the wage of sin, which was to have committed himself so completely to the counterfeits of dignity and the false coinage embodied in his idea of success that he can prove his existence only by bestowing “power” on his posterity, a power deriving from the sale of his last asset, himself, for the price of his insurance policy.

(Theater Essays, 147)

The point is that Willy, however wrongly, chooses to die in such a way that he believes can restore the equilibrium between the imperative of success and the contesting will to love. “Unwittingly,” Miller has written, “he has primed his own son Biff for his revolt against what he himself has done with his life and against what he has come to worship: material success” (Salesman, 135).26 Anything less than death would make Willy's end purely melodramatic. As Kazan recorded, “it is a deed, not a feeling” (qtd. in Rowe, 49)—that Willy chooses rather than succumbs makes all the difference. In “The Nature of Tragedy” (1949), Miller wrote that “When Mr. B., while walking down the street, is struck on the head by a falling piano,” we witness “only the pathetic end of Mr. B. … the death of Mr. B. does not arouse … tragic feeling” and produces no catharsis (Theater Essays, 9). Willy's death is neither accidental nor senseless. That he dies for something, however misconstrued, rather than from debilitating defeat makes his end meaningful—and necessary. His death eliminates Biff's obligation to conform to his father's ideal. Although Christopher Bigsby is right in claiming that it is not “truth” but Willy's “commitment to illusion” that kills him (Critical Introduction, 179), the consummate irony is that he frees Biff from the very idea he holds in absolute allegiance. In the final analysis, the dream of success is not Willy's “ultimate concern” but a corruptive means to a higher end. That Willy remains ignorant of the truth that the dream subverts his end to reestablish the love between him and his son does not erase the fact that he dies as the agent of that love.

The effectiveness of the Requiem has been another point of contention among critics: to some it is contrived and extraneous to the rest of the play, to others a necessary commentary on the consequences of the action. Miller has described a distinct breakpoint at the end of the drama. When Willy “dies his consciousness vanishes and there is a space between the requiem and the play. … We've left Willy's head now; we're on the earth” (Bigsby, Arthur Miller, 59). In his view, crossing the distance between Willy's distorted internal point of view to external reality is essential to the resolution of the play. Without the Requiem there would be only the death of a self-deluded salesman whose end achieves nothing but blind self-annihilation. Willy's “tragedy” would provoke, as George Jean Nathan described it in his famous review of the play, an “experience [like] we suffer in contemplating on the highways a run-over and killed dog, undeniably affecting but without any profound significance” (284). Miller, though, does not portray Willy's death as meaningless, though it is certainly ironic. He has written, “We have abstracted from the Greek drama its air of doom, its physical destruction of the hero, but its victory escapes us. Thus it has become difficult to separate in our minds the ideas of the pathetic and of the tragic” (Theater Essays, 59).

In Death of a Salesman he attempts to conjoin the pathetic and the tragic in a unique way by uniting the destinies of Biff and Willy. Chester Eisinger has argued that Biff's recognition “provides the contrapuntal release to life that we must see over against Willy's defeat in suicide” (171). But, in a larger sense, Biff's epiphany—that “I know who I am kid” (111)—is not one thing and Willy's death another, not a point/counter-point but an integrated whole. Miller has acknowledged the seeming “rift” in the play between the focus of the dramatic action which falls on Willy and the recognition and moral resolution which fall on Biff. He knew he could not give Willy Biff's insight and be true to Willy's character, which is why he considered the funeral essential to rescue the play from pessimism. Willy's last conversation with Ben keeps his illusion intact,27 but the Requiem enlarges the vision. You go to a funeral because “You want to think over the life of the departed and it's then, really, that it's nailed down: [Biff] won't accept his life” (Bigsby, Arthur Miller, 56). Willy gains emotional awareness of Biff's love and consequently finds self-worth in dying for that love; Biff discovers freeing self-knowledge. His decision to go West may represent, as Nada Zeineddine has suggested, a “metaphorically killing of the father” (178), a last expression of Oedipal rebellion against the father.28 Biff confidently asserts that Willy “had the wrong dreams. All, all wrong” (111). His rejection of his father's ideal, however, emerges paradoxically from his embrace of his father and his father's ultimate act of love for him.

There is more uncertainty, more lack of resolve, at the end of the play than we ordinarily find in most conventional tragedies. Biff's heading West, Christopher Bigsby has written, “smacks a little of Huck Finn lighting out for the Territory, ahead of the rest. He is moving against history” (“Introduction,” xix). And both Bigsby and Gerald Weales have noted the irony that Biff's return to the West foreshadows the cowboy Gay's fate in The Misfits, who is displaced in the dying agrarian society (Modern American Drama, 90; “Arthur Miller,” 178).29 Weales also has concluded that “there is no reason to assume that some of the irony” directed to Willy and the other Lomans “does not rub off on Biff” (“Arthur Miller,” 169). Nevertheless, Biff most certainly moves “from something and to something.” As he developed Biff's character, Miller clearly intended to show that Biff gains independence from, rather than perpetuates, his father's life of illusion. Bernard Dukore has implied that it is good that Miller does not more fully counterbalance Biff's perception against Willy's blindness, because the play “might then become an italicized message.” Those who say Biff's vision is “vague, trite and romantic, miss the point” (25). The tragic vision does not depend on being able to predict what will happen to Biff so much as on our awareness that Willy's death dissolves Biff's obligation to meet a spurious ideal, whatever the sequel might say.

Other parts of the Requiem have also been debated vigorously. Charley's “A salesman is got to dream” speech has been variously called out of character and realistic,30 and Linda's often discussed last words “we're free … We're free …” (12) have been dismissed as a trite appeal for sympathy and too obvious irony.31 One might ask what the essential irony is, that Linda thinks they are free when they are not or that they are free more than Linda knows—freed from the fear of Willy's death and freed from his illusory ideal. While some, like Ruby Cohn, have accused the Requiem of being “jarringly outside” Willy's mind and devoid of any new insights, it introduces a metaphysical dimension at the end. Rita Di Giuseppe has proposed that Linda's remark about the insurance, “It's the grace period now,” gives “the jargon of commerce … a metaphysical connotation” (126). And one might add that Miller considered calling the play A Period of Grace, as if to emphasize something transcendent that emerges in it.

What we are left with is perhaps a tragedy despite itself—Willy is a victim, but chooses nonetheless; he lacks self-knowledge, but is responsible for his son's self-awareness; his ideal is all wrong, but his commitment to it is aligned with a love he willingly dies for; his death lifts no plague and does not affect the larger community, but it rescues his family from the continuing anxiety of his death and releases Biff from a destructive imperative. Willy is petty, delusional, pathetic; but “Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person” (43). However circuitously, the play completes the tragic pattern of the past becoming the present, and it affirms the tragic dictum that there are inevitable consequences to choices, that the “the wages of sin” must be paid. Lacking a singular tragic protagonist, it offers a composite figure of father and sons who embody the tragic conflict between the imperative of success and the “system of love.” Leaving society unredeemed, it ends in sacrifice to reclaim the family and restore love. Not “high tragedy” in Aristotelian terms, Death of a Salesman is something more than melodrama or “low tragedy” in its revelation of tragic vision, choice, awareness, and consequence. At fifty years of age, Miller's play is still “coming home to roost.”


  1. Miller earlier told Robert Corrigan that he was not “concerned about tragic form” in writing the play: “That is after the fact. Just to lay that to rest. The theatre gets too involved in analytical theory” (Conversations, 257).

  2. He also has described the play as “absurdly simple! It is about a salesman and it's his last day on the earth” (Theater Essays, 423).

  3. Miller also told James J. Martine his often repeated admission that the Greeks and Ibsen were the “two sources for my form—certainly for my ideas of a theatre's purposes” (Conversations, 292). He told Olga Carlisle and Rose Styron in a Paris Review interview published in 1966 that tragedy “seemed to me the only form there was” when he began writing drama and that he especially admired the Greeks “for their magnificent form, the symmetry. … That form has never left me; I suppose it got burned into me” (Conversations, 88). He also called himself a “descendent of Ibsen” in an interview with Ronald Hyman: “What he gave me in the beginning was a sense of the past and a sense of the rootedness of everything that happens” (Conversations, 189).

  4. All citations to Death of a Salesman refer to this edition.

  5. For a general summary of major opening-night reviews of the play as “tragedy,” see especially Murphy, Miller: Death of a Salesman, 61-65. Articles and books that directly address the question tend to include summaries of critical opinions on the topic. For an especially useful commentary placing the play against historical definitions of tragedy, see Barker's “The Crisis of Authenticity,” particularly his pithy but useful appendix tracing the evolution of theoretical views of tragedy.

  6. For more sustained discussions of Death of a Salesman and Oedipus, see especially Siegel; C. Otten; Bhatia; Bierman, Hart, and Johnson; Jackson.

  7. Among those measuring Miller against Aristotle, Rita Di Giuseppe argues most extensively and convincingly that Death of a Salesman is a modern Aristotelian tragedy. Her essay might be compared with Stephen Barker's provocative reading of the play in “The Crisis of Authenticity,” which treats it as an essentially Nietzschean tragedy.

  8. Heilman himself concludes that Willy is “so limited that this is a limitation of the play itself” (Tragedy and Melodrama, 237), a common view of many critics who identify the play with Aristotelian “low tragedy.”

  9. The theologian-literary critic Tom Driver, for example complains that There being no objective good and evil, and no imperative other than conscience, man himself must be made to bear the full burden of creating his values and living up to them. The immensity of this task is beyond human capacity” (111-12). In fact, Miller's depiction of the moral viability of characters surfaces in their pervasive sense of guilt and the compulsion shared by Willy and Biff to somehow redeem the past. Driver, like Foster and Mottram, among others, seemingly expects Miller to manufacture a god, a metaphysical reality that would somehow resolve the spiritual crisis. But Miller's refusal to identify “an ultimate truth” is more a matter of artistic integrity than a failure of moral vision.

  10. John Manders identifies a related unresolved conflict between Marxist and Freudian elements: “If we take the ‘psychological’ motivation as primary, the ‘social’ documentation seem gratuitous; if we take the ‘social’ documentation as primary, the ‘psychological’ motivation seems gratuitous’ (115).

  11. In Helene Koon's words, “His principles may be unconscious and built upon fallacies, but he believes in them, practices them, and finally dies for them” (7).

  12. Bernard F. Dukore asks the telling question, “does not the desire for love inhere in Willy's occupation, and does not the hope of success link to the family?” (21)

  13. In Modern American Drama 1945-1990 Bigsby has written, “the present cannot be severed from the past nor the individual from his social context: that, after all, is the basis of [Miller's] dramatic method and of his moral faith” (124).

  14. Freudian readings appear incidentally in various interpretations of the play as well as being the primary approach of many studies like Schneider's. See especially Field, Hagopian, Harshbarger, and Schlueter and Flanagan.

  15. Miller described the play in similar language: “Death of a Salesman, really, is a love story between a man and his son” (Salesman, 49).

  16. Donald Morse also has noted Linda's reinforcement of Willy's “life-lie” (273-77). And William Dillingham, among others, has identified her as a “contributing cause” of the tragedy (344).

  17. In his extreme psychological reading Harshbarger argues that Linda dominates Willy and attempts to reduce Biff “to the level of a dependent child” motivated by “a longing for Biff she has always had—a relationship which is symbolized by Biff taking ‘her in his arms’” at the end of the play (28-29).

  18. Related to feminist criticism, David Savran attacks the play from a different gender perspective, claiming that “the play eulogizes the contents of the Loman imaginaire by its romantization of a self-reliant and staunchly homosocial masculinity and by its corroborative and profound disparagement of women” (36).

  19. In a recent article Rhonda Koenig concurs that Miller diminishes female figures, making Linda “a dumb and useful doormat” and reducing all women in the play to either the “wicked slut” or “a combination of good waitress and slipper-bearing retriever” (10, 4).

  20. For other feminist interpretations see especially Billman, Canning, Goodman, Hume, and Zeineddine.

  21. Even in writing the play Miller was intent on showing Linda's toughness. He even cut the famous “Attention must be paid speech” at one point for fear it made her too sentimental, and he took out of the original dialogue references she made to Biff and Hap as “darling” and “dear” (Murphy, Miller: Death of a Salesman, 45).

  22. Elsewhere he has commented that “There is a more sinister side to the women characters in my plays. … they both receive the benefits of the male's mistakes and protect his mistakes in crazy ways. They are forced to do that. So the females are victims as well” (Conversations, 370).

  23. Bernard Dukore rightly comments that even if Howard had given Willy a job in the city, it would not eliminate “the elemental source of Willy's discontent, which lies in his relationship with his older son and the world in which they live” (34). One might add that Willy cannot accept Charley's offer of a job for much the same reason. It would not resolve his existential crisis, and Willy's acceptance of it would in fact reduce him to a totally pathetic figure.

  24. Field, Eisinger, and Harshburger offer other Freudian analyses. Some critics especially note the Freudian importance of Biff's stealing Oliver's pen, a phallic symbol, thus expressing his assertion of manhood or fear of castration. More simply, the stealing of the pen is another re-enactment of the past, when Biff stole the basketballs, like he stole lumber and the football. His existential self-questioning of his motives for stealing the pen makes him determined to coerce Willy to confront the truth about who he really is.

  25. Miller has denied that he intended the name as a pun, claiming he took it from a character in Fritz Lang's early film The Testament of Mr. Mabuse (Timebends, 177).

  26. In the same essay Miller has claimed, “Willy is indeed going toward something through his dying, a meaningful sacrifice, the ultimate irony, and he is filled, not emptied of feeling” (196).

  27. Ben represents the most corrupt form of the American dream of success, what Thomas Porter has called “the older version of the Salesman, the ruthless capitalist” whose adventuresome brutality contrasts with Willy's “Dale Carnegie approach to success” (135), most fully idealized in Willy's vision of Dave Singleman. But Ben is also Willy's alter ego, as Sister M. Bettina, SSND, has discussed, “a projection of his brother's personality” whose presence provides “a considerable amount of tragic insight” (83). Willy's dependency on Ben's approval stems from his brother being a substitute father and the sole link to their peddler-father, who sold what he created with his own hands in opposition to Ben, who entered the virulent “jungle” and ripped out the riches. Rita Di Giuseppe has drawn the interesting conclusion that Ben functions “much in the same manner as the ‘gods in classical tragedy who hover in the twilight zone uttering prophesies” (117), both the embodiment of the success myth and its arbitrator.

  28. Roudané has agreed that Biff “still carries on an Oedipal resistance to his father” at the Requiem (Death of a Salesman, 81).

  29. In his Critical Introduction to American Drama Bigsby has alluded to Gay as “an aging cowboy, as bewildered by the collapse of his world as Willy Loman has been” (185). Other critics, like Eisinger, have similarly contended that Miller sentimentally “romanticizes the rural-agrarian dream” (174).

  30. For example, Joseph Hynes has dismissed the speech as “sheer sentimentality” and “untrue” (283), whereas Dennis Welland has claimed that Charley alone understands Willy as salesman “in a wholly unsentimental way” (42). Miller himself considered the speech “objective information … it is absolutely real” and presents the obverse of Charley's earlier remark, “‘Why must everybody like you. Who liked J. Press, Morgan?’ … These are two halves of the same thing” (Conversations, 351-52). As several critics have noted, Miller's sympathetic portrayal of Charley as successful businessman, father, and neighbor, mitigates against simplistically reading the play as an attack on American capitalism.

  31. Joseph Hynes, for example, has described Linda and Charley's words as a “Hallmark Card flourish at the curtain” (284).

Works Cited

Austin, Gayle. “The Exchange of Women and Male Homosexual Desire in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman and Lillian Hellman's Another Part of the Forest.” Pp. 59-66 in Feminist Readings of Modern American Drama, ed. by June Schlueter. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1989.

Balakian, Jan. “Beyond the Male Locker Room: Death of a Salesman from a Feminist Perspective.” Pp. 115-24 in Approaches to Teaching Miller's Death of a Salesman, ed. by Matthew C. Roudané. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1995.

Barker, Stephen. “The Crisis of Authenticity: Death of a Salesman and the Tragic Muse.” Pp. 82-101 in Approaches to Teaching Miller's Death of a Salesman, ed. by Matthew C. Roudané. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1995.

Bentley, Eric. The Playwright as Thinker: A Study of Drama in Modern Times. New York: Meridian Books, 1963.

———. In Search of Theater. New York: Vintage Books, 1959.

Ben-Zvi, Linda. “‘Home Sweet Home’: Deconstructing the Masculine Myth of the Frontier in Modern Drama.” Pp. 217-25 The Frontier Experience and the American Drama, ed. by David Mogen, Mark Busby, and Paul Bryant. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1989.

Bettina, Sister M. “Willy Loman's Brother Ben: Tragic Insight in Death of a Salesman.” Pp. 80-83 in The Merrill Studies in Death of a Salesman. Comp. by Walter J. Meserve. Columbus, Ohio: Charles E. Merrill, 1972.

Bhatia, Santosh K. Arthur Miller: Social Drama as Tragedy. New Delhi: Arnold-Heinemann, 1985.

Bierman, Judah, James Hart, and Stanley Johnson. “Arthur Miller: Death of a Salesman.” Pp. 265-71 in Arthur Miller: Death of a Salesman. Text and Criticism, ed. by Gerald C. Weales. New York: Viking, 1967.

Bigsby, Christopher, ed. Arthur Miller and Company. London: Methuen Drama in association with The Arthur Miller Center for American Studies, 1990.

———, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Arthur Miller. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

———. A Critical Introduction to Twentieth-Century American Drama 2: Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Edward Albee. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

———. “Introduction” to Death of a Salesman: Certain Private Conversations in Two Acts and a Requiem. New York: Penguin Books, 1998.

———. Modern American Drama, 1945-1980. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

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Canning, Charlotte. “Is This Play about Women? A Feminist Reading of Death of a Salesman.” Pp. 69-76 in The Achievement of Arthur Miller: New Essays, ed. by Steven R. Centola. Dallas: Contemporary Research Associates, 1995.

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———. “‘Just Looking for a Home’: A Conversation with Arthur Miller.” American Drama 1.1 (1991): 85-94.

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Cohn, Ruby. Dialogue in American Drama. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1971.

Corrigan, Robert W., ed. Arthur Miller: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1969.

Couchman, Gordon W. “Arthur Miller's Tragedy of Babbitt.” Pp. 68-75 in The Merrill Studies in Death of a Salesman. Comp. by Walter J. Meserve. Columbus, Ohio: Charles E. Merrill, 1972.

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Dukore, Bernard F. Death of a Salesman and The Crucible: Text and Performance. Atlantic Heights, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1989.

Eisinger, Chester E. “Focus on Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman: The Wrong Dream.” Pp. 165-74 in American Dreams, American Nightmares, ed. by David Madden. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1970.

Field, B. S., Jr. “Hamartia in Death of a Salesman.Twentieth Century Literature 18 (1972): 19-24.

Foster, Richard J. “Confusion and Tragedy: the Failure of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman.” Pp. 82-88 in Two Modern American Tragedies: Reviews and Criticism of Death of a Salesman and A Streetcar Named Desire, ed. by John D. Hurrell. New York: Scribner's, 1961.

Goodman, Charlotte. “The Fox's Clubs: Lillian Hellman, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams.” Pp. 130-42 in Modern American Drama: The Female Canon, ed. by June Schlueter. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1990.

Gordon, Lois. “Death of a Salesman: An Appreciation.” Pp. 98-108 in Twentieth Century Interpretations of Death of a Salesman, ed. by Helene Koon. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1983.

Hagopian, John V. “Arthur Miller: The Salesman's Two Cases.” Modern Drama 6 (1963): 117-25.

Harshbarger, Karl. The Burning Jungle: An Analysis of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1979.

Heilman, Robert Bechtold. The Iceman, The Arsonist, and The Troubled Agent: Tragedy and Melodrama on the Modern Stage. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1973.

———. Tragedy and Melodrama: Versions of Experience. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1968.

Hume, Beverly. “Linda Loman as ‘The Woman’ in Miller's Death of a Salesman.NMAL: Notes on Modern American Literature 9.3 (1985): Item 14.

Hurrell, John D., ed. Two Modern American Tragedies: Reviews and Criticism of Death of a Salesman and A Streetcar Named Desire. New York: Scribner's, 1961.

Hynes, Joseph A. “‘Attention Must Be Paid. …’” Pp. 280-89 in Arthur Miller: Death of a Salesman. Text and Criticism, ed. by Gerald C. Weales. New York: Viking, 1967.

Jackson, Esther Merle. “Death of a Salesman: Tragic Myth in the Modern Theatre.” CLA Journal 7 (1963): 63-76.

Kintz, Linda. “The Sociosymbolic Work of Family in Death of a Salesman.” Pp. 102-14 in Approaches to Teaching Miller's Death of a Salesman, ed. by Matthew C. Roudané. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1995.

Koenig, Rhoda. “Seduced by Salesman's Patter.” The [London] Sunday Times 20 Oct. 1996: 10, 4.

Koon, Helene, ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of Death of a Salesman. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1983.

Mandell, Jonathan. “Renaissance Man: At 82 Arthur Miller Is Pleasing a New Generation of Theatergoers.” Newsday 28 Oct. 1997: B03.

Manders, John. The Writer and Commitment. Philadelphia: Dufour Editions, 1962.

Mason, Jeffrey D. “Paper Dolls: Melodrama and Sexual Politics in Arthur Miller's Early Plays.” Pp. 103-15 in Modern American Drama: The Female Canon, ed. by June Schlueter. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1990.

Meserve, Walter J., compiler. The Merrill Studies in Death of a Salesman. Columbus, Ohio: Charles E. Merrill, 1972.

Miller, Arthur. Conversations with Arthur Miller, ed. by Matthew C. Roudané. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1987.

———. Death of a Salesman: Certain Private Conversations in Two Acts and a Requiem. With an introduction by Christopher Bigsby. New York: Penguin, 1998.

———. Salesman in Beijing. New York: Viking, 1984.

———. The Theater Essays of Arthur Miller, ed. by Robert A. Martin and Steven R. Centola. Revised Edition. New York: Da Capo, 1996.

———. Timebends: A Life. New York: Penguin, 1995.

Morse, Donald. “The ‘Life Lie’ in Three Plays by O'Neill, Williams and Miller.” Pp. 273-77 in Cross-Cultural Studies American, Canadian and European Literature: 1945-1985. ed. by Mirko Jurak. Ljubljana, Yugoslavia: English Department, Filozofska Fakulteta, Edvard Kardelj University of Ljubljana, 1988.

Mottram, Eric. “Arthur Miller: The Development of a Political Dramatist in America.” Pp. 23-47 in Arthur Miller: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. by Robert W. Corrigan. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969.

Murphy, Brenda. Miller: Death of a Salesman. Plays in Production Series. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Nathan, George Jean. Review of Death of a Salesman. Pp. 279-85 in The Theatre Book of the Year, 1948-49. New York: Knopf, 1949.

Nelson, Benjamin. Arthur Miller: Portrait of a Playwright. New York: David McKay, 1970.

O'Neill, Eugene. Selected Letters. Ed. by Travis Bogard and Jackson R. Bryer. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1988.

Otten, Charlotte F. “Who Am I? … A Re-Investigation of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman.” Pp. 85-91 in Twentieth Century Interpretations of Death of a Salesman, ed. by Helene Koon. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1983.

Parker, Brian. “Point of View in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman.” Pp. 41-55 in Twentieth Century Interpretations of Death of a Salesman, ed. by Helene Koon. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1983.

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Roudané, Matthew C., ed. Approaches to Teaching Miller's Death of a Salesman. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1995.

———. “Death of a Salesman and the Poetics of Arthur Miller.” Pp. 60-85 in Arthur Miller and Company, ed. by Christopher Bigsby. London: Methuen Drama in association with The Arthur Miller Center for American Studies, 1990.

Rowe, Kenneth Thorpe. A Theater in Your Head. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1960.

Savran, David. Communists, Cowboys, and Queers: The Politics of Masculinity in the Work of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992.

Schlueter, June, ed. Feminist Readings of Modern American Drama. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1989.

———. “Re-membering Willy's Past: Introducing Postmodern Concerns through Death of a Salesman.” Pp. 142-54 in Approaches to Teaching Miller's Death of a Salesman, ed. by Matthew Roudané. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1995.

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———, ed. Arthur Miller: Death of a Salesman. Text and Criticism. New York: Viking, 1967.

———. “Arthur Miller: Man and His Image.” Tulane Drama Review 7.1 (1962): 165-80.

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Fred Ribkoff (essay date spring 2000)

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SOURCE: Ribkoff, Fred. “Shame, Guilt, Empathy, and the Search for Identity in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman.Modern Drama 43, no. 1 (spring 2000): 48-55.

[In the following essay, Ribkoff considers the roles of guilt, empathy, shame, and self-identity in Death of a Salesman.]

Among other things, tragedy dramatizes identity crises. At the root of such crises lie feelings of shame. You might ask: what about guilt? There is no question that guilt plays a major role in tragedy, but tragedy also dramatizes the way in which feelings of shame shape an individual's sense of identity, and thus propel him or her into wrongdoing and guilt. In fact, Bernard Williams examines the relation and distinction between shame and guilt in his study of ancient Greek tragedy and ethics, Shame and Necessity. He “claim[s] that if we can come to understand the ethical concepts of the Greeks, we shall recognise them in ourselves.”1 In the process of establishing a kinship between the Greeks and ourselves, Williams provides an excellent foundation upon which to build an argument on the dynamics of shame, guilt, empathy, and the search for identity in Arthur Miller's modern tragedy Death of a Salesman. Williams states that

We can feel both guilt and shame towards the same action. In a moment of cowardice, we let someone down; we feel guilty because we have let them down, ashamed because we have contemptibly fallen short of what we might have hoped of ourselves. …

… It [guilt] can direct one towards those who have been wronged or damaged, and demand reparation in the name, simply, of what has happened to them. But it cannot by itself help one to understand one's relations to those happenings, or to rebuild the self that has done these things and the world in which that self has to live. Only shame can do that, because it embodies conceptions of what one is and of how one is related to others.2

In order to understand the identity crises of Miller's tragic characters in Death of a Salesman, and especially the late, climactic scene in which Biff confronts Willy with the truth, it is necessary to understand shame's relation to guilt and identity. It is the confrontation with feelings of shame that enables Biff to find himself, separate his sense of identity from that of his father, and empathize with his father. Moreover, it is the denial of such feelings that cripples Willy and the rest of the Loman family.

Until Biff stops to examine who he is, while in the process of stealing the fountain pen of his old boss, Bill Oliver, feelings of shame determine his self-perception as well as his conduct. Even before discovering his father with “The Woman” in Boston, Biff's sense of self-worth, like that of his brother Happy, is dependent on his father's conception of success and manhood and on his father's approval. In fact, because Willy is abandoned at the age of three by his father, his elder brother, Ben, becomes the measure of success and manhood for his sons to live up to. Ben is, in Willy's own words, “a great man!” “the only man I ever met who knew the answers.”3 “That's just the way I'm bringing them up, Ben—rugged, well liked, all-around,” says Willy while reliving Ben's visit in the past (49). Early in the play, we see Biff through the proud memory of his father. Willy asks Biff, “Bernard is not well liked, is he?” and Biff replies, “He's liked, but he's not well liked” (33). Biff inherits from his father an extremely fragile sense of self-worth dependent on the perceptions of others. “Be liked and you will never want,” says the proud father of two sons who are, in his own words, “both built like Adonises” (33). But according to the true Loman heroic creed, it is not good enough simply to be “liked.” As Willy points out to Happy earlier, “Charley is … liked, but he's not—well liked” (30).

Shame, together with the sense of inadequacy and inferiority manifest in the need to prove oneself to others, is evident in both Loman sons, and of course, in the fatherless father, Willy. The Loman men's shame propels them into wrongdoing and guilt.4 In Act One, Willy begs Ben to stay “a few days” more, and, in the process of doing so, reveals the degree to which he feels incomplete and inadequate:

(longingly) Can't you stay a few days? You're just what I need, Ben, because I—I have a fine position here, but I—well, Dad left when I was such a baby and I never had a chance to talk to him and I still feel—kind of temporary about myself.


The fact that Willy feels “kind of temporary about” himself is reflected in his inability to complete a thought after he has raised the issue of his identity—the “I.” This confession is riddled with dashes—or, in other words, uncomfortable, self-conscious pauses. While in the presence of his god-like brother, Ben, Willy, out of shame, constantly attempts to cover up the sense of failure and inferiority that threatens to expose his sense of inadequacy and weakness every time he is about to say what the “I” really feels.

Willy is driven to commit his greatest wrong by feelings of shame that arise out of his sense of inadequacy as a man. His adulterous affair with “The Woman” in Boston, which haunts both him and his son Biff, is a desperate attempt to confirm and maintain his self-esteem.5 In the middle of Act One, while reliving the past, Willy confesses to his wife that “people don't seem to take to me” (36), that he “talk[s] too much. A man oughta come in with a few words. One thing about Charley. He's a man of few words, and they respect him” (37). After this confession, “The Woman” appears “behind a scrim” as his feelings of guilt for betraying his wife surface in his words to her. Just prior to “The Woman's” first spoken words and interruption, Willy attempts to make sense of his betrayal without mentioning it:

(with great feeling) You're the best there is, Linda, you're a pal, you know that? On the road—on the road I want to grab you sometimes and just kiss the life outa you.


The Woman has come from behind the scrim […] laughing,” and Willy continues:

'Cause I get so lonely—especially when business is bad and there's nobody to talk to. I get the feeling that I'll never sell anything again, that I won't make a living for you, or a business, a business for the boys.


Willy believes that he turns to another woman out of loneliness for his wife, Linda. But at the root of his loneliness and his need of a woman are feelings of shame he cannot face. He is driven by feelings of inadequacy and failure to seek himself outside of himself, in the eyes of others. “The Woman” makes him feel that he is an important salesman and a powerful man. After she interrupts Willy with the words, “I picked you,” Willy immediately asks, “pleased,” “You picked me?” (38). Again, on the same page, after she says, “And I think you're a wonderful man,” Willy asks, “You picked me, heh?” (38). Just prior to leaving, “The Woman” makes a point of saying exactly what Willy wants to hear. “I'll put you right through to the buyers,” she says, and, feeling full of masculine power, “slapping her bottom,” Willy responds, “Right. Well, bottoms up!” (39).

The father's bravado is the son's shame. At the root of Biff's wrongdoing and feelings of guilt lie shame and feelings of inadequacy and inferiority. But, unlike his father, he faces, and learns from, his shame. Consequently, the play suggests that he can rebuild his sense of self-worth and re-establish his relation to others on healthier grounds. He makes sense of his guilt by confronting the shame buried deep in his sense of identity. Ultimately, the ability to do so enables him to empathize with his father.

Biff's inherited sense of inadequacy and inferiority send him “running home” (22) in springtime from the outdoor life out West—a life that reflects his own desires and needs. And yet, it is his father's wrong, a shameful act of adultery, coupled with Biff's failure to pass math and go to university to become a football star (as he and his father had hoped), that shatters Biff's already fragile sense of identity and sends him out West in the first place. His own desires and needs cannot hold him still. He is plagued by his father's, and his society's, measure of a person—the mighty dollar, the dream of “building a future” (22). Until Biff discovers his father with “The Woman” in Boston, Willy is as good as a god to him. So, rather than expose his father's shame, which, at some level, he experiences as his own, Biff runs, and attempts to hide, from the collapse of the ideal, invulnerable, infallible image of his father. Thus the source of his sense of identity in shame goes unquestioned. He continues to steal and to move from job to job, not so much because he feels guilty but because he feels ashamed of himself for not living up to an image of success that has already been proven to be a “fake.” After he witnesses his father give “The Woman” in Boston “Mama's stockings!” Biff calls his father a “liar!” a “fake!” and a “phony little fake!” (121). He does not, however, reconcile this image of his father with his sense of himself. Not, that is, until he is in the process of stealing a fountain pen belonging his old boss, Bill Oliver. As he says to his father, “I stopped in the middle of that building and I saw—the sky” (132)—the same sky that is obscured from view by the “towering, angular shapes […] surrounding” the Loman home “on all sides” (11), and which also forms part of the “inspiring” outdoor world Biff has left behind (22). Biff goes to see Oliver in a futile attempt to fit his, if you will, circular self into an “angular” world—a world in the process of crushing both the son and the father, men far more adept at using their hands than at using a pen. Biff reveals to his father that he has taken Oliver's pen, and that he cannot face Oliver again, but Willy accuses him of not “want[ing] to be anything,” and Biff, “now angry at Willy for not crediting his sympathy,” exclaims, “Don't take it that way! You think it was easy walking into that office after what I'd done to him? A team of horses couldn't have dragged me back to Bill Oliver!” (112-13). There is no question that Biff feels guilty for what he has “done to” Oliver, first, by stealing “that carton of basketballs” (26) years ago, and second, by stealing his fountain pen. On the other hand, he also feels extremely ashamed of himself.

Biff's inherited sense of shame drives him to steal and to perform for his father. The fact that he steals does not, however, bother his father too much. Guilt can be concealed and, perhaps, forgiven and forgotten. Willy suggests as much when he advises Biff to say to Oliver: “You were doing a crossword puzzle and accidentally used his pen!” (112). But Biff's sense of himself is at stake, and he knows it. He knows that he cannot bear to be seen (the classic sign of shame) by Oliver. He can no longer separate his sense of himself from the act of stealing. Biff says to his father: “I stole myself out of every good job since high school!” (131). But, in essence, as Biff now realizes, his self was stolen by his inherited, shame-ridden sense of identity. He never had a chance to see himself outside his father's point of view. Willy feels attacked by Biff's confession that he “stole” himself “out of every good job,” and responds: “And whose fault is that?” Biff continues: “And I never got anywhere because you blew me so full of hot air I could never stand taking orders from anybody! That's whose fault it is!” (131).

Biff understands his relation to others, notably his father, only after he literally goes unnoticed and unidentified by someone he thought would recognize him: Bill Oliver. Biff comes to the realization that there is no reason why Oliver should have recognized him, given that he couldn't recognize himself. That is, as Biff says to Happy, “I even believed myself that I'd been a salesman for him! And then he gave me one look and—I realized what a ridiculous lie my whole life has been! We've been talking in a dream for fifteen years. I was a shipping clerk” (104). Unlike his father's true self, which is immersed in shame and guilt, Biff's self surfaces and stays afloat because he learns about his guilt from his shame.

Willy's insistence that Biff is “spiting” him by not going to see Oliver prompts Biff to voice what he sees as the meaning behind his theft and his inability to face his old boss again: “I'm no good, can't you see what I am?” (113). In this case, it is not simply Biff's wrongdoing that makes him identify himself as “no good”; he has now grasped the fact that behind his habit of breaking the law lie feelings of shame. This question, “can't you see what I am?” represents the beginnings of Biff's separation of his own identity from that of his father. By the end of Act Two, Biff is certain, as he says to his brother, that “[t]he man don't know who we are!” At this point he is determined to force his father to “hear the truth—what you are and what I am!” (131, 130). He knows who he thought he was and, thus, why he stole Oliver's pen. As he reveals to his whole family,

I stopped in the middle of that building and I saw—the sky. I saw the things that I love in this world. The work and the food and time to sit and smoke. And I looked at the pen and said to myself, what the hell am I grabbing this for? Why am I trying to become what I don't want to be? What am I doing in an office, making a contemptuous, begging fool of myself, when all I want is out there, waiting for me the minute I say I know who I am! Why can't I say that, Willy? He tries to make Willy face him, but Willy pulls away and moves to the left.


“Willy,” the father who has been transformed from “Dad” into simply a man in his son's eyes, cannot bear to have his dreams, and his heroic vision of his son, himself, and his own brother and father—the vision by which he lives and dies—exposed. Therefore, he “pulls away” in shame, before standing his ground and yelling, “with hatred, threateningly,” “The door of your life is wide open!” (132). Unlike the scene in the restaurant, in which Biff presents Happy with “the rolled-up hose” with which Willy intends to commit suicide and tells his brother that he “can't bear to look at his [father's] face!” out of shame (115), this time Biff does not turn away from his father. He insists on the truth being truly heard by his father. It is only after he realizes that this is an impossibility that “he pulls away” (133): “There's no spite in it any more. I'm just what I am, that's all” (133), says the son to his father. He now knows that he is “nothing” only under the umbrella of his father's destructive vision.

By the end of Act Two, Biff has a relatively clear understanding of who he is or, at the very least, who he is not. “I am not a leader of men,” he says to his father in a “fury,” before “he breaks down, sobbing” (132-33). But his father cannot empathize with him because he is incapable of facing his own feelings of guilt and shame. To Willy, Biff's tears symbolize simply his son's love, and not, in any way, the struggle to separate from him. Biff demonstrates that he does in fact love his father, but, at the same time, this love is balanced by the recognition that if there is any chance of saving himself and his father he must leave home for good. The complexity of his feelings for his father goes unrecognized, however. Willy's response to Biff's breakdown is, “Oh, Biff! Staring wildly: He cried! Cried to me. He is choking with his love, and now cries out his promise: That boy—that boy is going to be magnificent!” (133).

What Biff wants from his father he ends up giving, without getting it back. He wants not only love, but empathy. Moreover, after confronting his own shame and discovering who he is not—that is, not the “boy” his father believes him to be—Biff demonstrates his ability to separate from his father and, consequently, his ability to empathize with him. In his dictionary of psychoanalysis, Charles Rycroft defines empathy as “[t]he capacity to put oneself into the other's shoes. The concept implies that one is both feeling oneself into the object and remaining aware of one's own identity as another person.”6 Biff does exactly this. In tears, he asks his father, “Will you let me go, for Christ's sake? Will you take that phony dream and burn it before something happens?” (133). He is not simply asking for his own freedom from the shame produced by not living up to the dream of success and being “well liked”; he is asking for his father's freedom from shame and guilt as well. He feels for his father and recognizes how “that phony dream” tortures him, at the same time that he retains his own sense of identity. But nothing can save Willy from his inability to accept the failure to live up to his own expectations—not even his son's empathy and forgiveness. Both are powerless in the face of shame.

In “Requiem,” the final moments of Miller's tragedy, Biff is alone in his empathic understanding. Even Charley does not understand the meaning of Biff's final words about his father: “He had the wrong dreams. All, all wrong. […] He never knew who he was” (138, intervening dialogue omitted). Happy is “ready to fight” after these words, and Charley responds by saying to Biff, “Nobody dast blame this man. You don't understand: Willy was a salesman.” But, as Linda suggests prior to this statement by Charley, “He was so wonderful with his hands,” and it is this very suggestion that triggers Biff's final words about his father (138). Willy Loman was more himself, relatively free of guilt and shame, when he worked with his hands than at any other time in his life.

Driven by shame, he kills himself in order to preserve his dream of being “well liked” and a successful father and salesman. Of course, the irony is that because of his suicide the odds are very good that neither of his sons will benefit from his sacrifice, and nobody from his world of sales comes to his funeral. Linda's words at the end of the play, and especially the words, “We're free and clear” (139), reveal the degree to which she and her husband lived in denial, in fear of exposing the man who hid in shame behind the idea of being a successful salesman and father. To be “free and clear” is, ultimately, an impossibility for Willy Loman. His vision of success perpetuates crippling feelings of inferiority and inadequacy that drive him to destroy himself.

Unlike Biff, Willy does not confront and come to terms with his shame, and therefore he can never understand his guilt, nor his son's pain and his own responsibility for it. In “Tragedy and the Common Man,” Miller states that “In [tragedies], and in them alone, lies the belief—optimistic, if you will, in the perfectibility of man.”7 In Death of a Salesman, he suggests, perhaps unintentionally, that the path to “perfection” lies in a confrontation with feelings of shame that enable one to understand guilt and arrive at a clearer sense of identity, as well as to empathize with others.


  1. Bernard Williams, Shame and Necessity (Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California P, 1993), 10.

  2. Ibid., 92-94.

  3. Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman: Certain Private Conversations and a Requiem (New York: Penguin, 1987), 48, 45. Subsequent references appear parenthetically in the text.

  4. In addition to Shame and Necessity, Helen Merrell Lynd's On Shame and the Search for Identity has been influential in shaping my understanding of the distinction and relation between guilt and shame. Lynd states that “[a] sense of guilt arises from a feeling of wrongdoing, a sense of shame from a feeling of inferiority. Inferiority feelings in shame are rooted in a deeper conflict in the personality than the sense of wrongdoing in guilt.” Helen Merrell Lynd, On Shame and the Search for Identity (New York: Harcourt, 1967), 22.

  5. In On Shame and the Search for Identity, Lynd defines shame as “a wound to one's self-esteem, a painful feeling or sense of degradation excited by the consciousness of having done something unworthy of one's previous idea of one's own excellence” (23-24). See note 4.

  6. Charles Rycroft, A Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis (London: Penguin 1988), 42.

  7. Arthur Miller, “Tragedy and the Common Man,” in The Theater Essays of Arthur Miller, ed. Robert A. Martin (New York: Viking, 1978), 7.

Terry W. Thompson (essay date spring 2002)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 797

SOURCE: Thompson, Terry W. “Miller's Death of a Salesman.Explicator 60, no. 3 (spring 2002): 162-63.

[In the following essay, Thompson explores the comparisons between Willy Loman's sons and the mythological figure of Adonis in Death of a Salesman.]

Early in Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller's most celebrated play, Willy Loman—the financially burdened and emotionally exhausted main character—makes a fleeting reference to a mythological figure who was renowned for his physical beauty. Pronounced during an effusive conversation with his sons, it is an allusion that Willy believes is completely flattering to his two beloved boys, Biff and Happy. However, the reference signifies much more than Willy thinks it does. Like the aging and unenlightened salesman himself, the comparison is superficial and uninformed, tellingly shallow and rather ignorant.

The mythological allusion comes midway through the first act, during one of Willy's rose-tinted recollections of the family's past, when his sons were young and all things were possible. Willy proclaims to the wide-eyed Biff and Happy, “Bernard can get the best marks in school, y'understand, but when he gets out in the business world, y'understand, you are going to be five times ahead of him. That's why I thank Almighty God you're both built like Adonises” (Miller 33). In these lines, Willy not only shows his ignorance of the business world but also demonstrates his sketchy knowledge of the classical myth that he alludes to.

Willy sees his comparison of his two sons with the handsomest of all Greek males (with the possible exception of Narcissus), as a polished, erudite compliment. But sadly, Willy does not know the whole story of Adonis.

The son of Myrrha, a beautiful mortal woman. Adonis grew into “an exceedingly handsome young man, who was loved by the goddess Aphrodite” (Feder 6). This loveliest of all the goddesses—as well as one of the most powerful—tried to educate her young paramour, to guide him with her Olympian intellect and insight. However, the youthful Adonis was invariably headstrong and arrogant, proud and impetuous. A virile, athletic risk-taker by nature, he especially enjoyed the thrill of the chase and the violence of the hunt. On one occasion before he went out hunting, Aphrodite clutched the handsome boy to her immortal breast and sternly warned him, “‘Your youth and beauty, and the charms which make [me] love you, have no effect upon lions or bristling boars, or in the eyes and minds of other wild beasts” (Ovid 239). Impulsive and confident, brimming with youthful bravado, Adonis paid her no heed. On the very next hunt, his carelessness brought him to a violent and grisly end: he was gored by a wild boar and expired, “writhing in his own blood” (Ovid 244). After tearing at her breasts with her fingernails, in grief over the tragic death of one so young, so handsome, and so promising, Aphrodite sprinkled Adonis's freshly spilled blood onto the fertile Greek soil where

within an hour, a flower sprung up, the colour of blood, and in appearance like that of the pomegranate. […] But the enjoyment of this flower is of brief duration: for it is so fragile, its petals so lightly attached, that it quickly falls, shaken from its stem by those same winds that give it its name, anemone.

(Ovid 245)

In essence, Willy Loman's attempt at a flattering mythological allusion turns out to be just as inept as his business advice. It parallels his inability to see deeply into anything, be it ancient myth, modern commerce, or even the demands of fatherhood. Yet ironically—and totally unperceived by Willy—his allusion actually proves to be a subtle and poignant one: Both of Willy's sons are like bright spring flowers, attractive and beautiful when young, but like the blood-fertilized anemone, their bloom is only temporary. Their young lives, once as promising as that of the handsome Adonis, come to nothing, not because they are killed by a wild animal, but because, like Adonis, they believed that their physical attractiveness and their superficial charm would carry them through lives. Now well into their thirties, when they should be responsible young men out making their careers, supporting families, and living independent lives. Biff and Happy Loman remain as immature, as petty and snickering, as they were in high school, when they spent their time cheating on exams, stealing from neighbors, roughing up girls, and lying at every opportunity. Although they do not die tragically or violently in the play, their youthful promise certainly comes to naught, proving that they are indeed, as their father boasts, just “like Adonises.”

Works Cited

Feder, Lillian. Crowell's Handbook of Classical Literature. New York: Harper Colophon, 1964

Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman: Certain Private Conversations in Two Acts and a Requiem. New York: Viking, 1949

Ovid. The Metamorphoses. Trans, Mary M. Innes. New York: Penguin, 1955.

Frank Ardolino (essay date August 2002)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5171

SOURCE: Ardolino, Frank. “‘I'm Not a Dime a Dozen! I am Willy Loman!’: The Significance of Names and Numbers in Death of a Salesman.Journal of Evolutionary Psychology (August 2002): 174-84.

[In the following essay, Ardolino evaluates the role that repeated patterns of letters, names, and numbers play in Death of a Salesman, arguing that Miller uses these patterns to “create an expressionistic juxtaposition of the past and present and desire and guilt in Willy's disordered mind.”]

In Death of a Salesman, Miller's poetic use of demotic English, the level of language which characters speak and which describes their actions and environment, creates the play's tragic dimension.1 To achieve the depths of tragedy, Miller expands the ordinarily limited expressive capabilities of demotic English by exploiting the sounds and multiple meanings of simple verbal, visual, and numerical images. Miller's system of onomastic and numerical images and echoes forms a complex network which delineates Willy's insanity and its effects on his family and job.

Much of the play takes place in a psychological construct which Willy creates. An Eden-like paradise which lies at the center of his neurosis, it is characterized by the paradoxical union of reality and his delusory fulfillment of his grandiose dreams of omnipotence. Willy's paradise, which he identifies with the time in which Biff and Happy were growing up in Brooklyn, was also synonymous with his and his sons' exclusive society in which they expressed, reflected, and validated his belief in their virtual divinity. Expressing his enthusiasm for Biff's divine condition, Willy ironically incorporated the concept of progress, time's movement, into his changeless paradise. He believed that Biff, who was already “divine” as a football player, would become more so as a businessman. Before Biff realized Willy's projected future, however, he lost faith in Willy's dreams, left the state of mind or paradise Willy had created, and destroyed its coherence. As a result, Willy moved from the condition of stasis to one created by a confusion of the present and of its fragmented paradise.

Willy never experiences the future which is part of normal chronological time because he recognizes only the future which he believes is latent in his paradise. To his destruction, he seeks to actualize it.

Willy Loman reconstructs the past “not chronologically as in flashback, but dynamically with the inner logic of his erupting volcanic unconscious” (Schneider 252.) This “visualized psychoanalytic interpretation woven into reality” (Schneider 253) serves as Miller's principal dramatic method—the simultaneous existence of the past and present in Willy's disordered mind. Miller has said that he was obsessed with “a mode that would open a man's head for a play to take place inside it, evolving through concurrent rather than consecutive actions,” which “turned him [Willy] to see present through past and past through present, a form that … would be … a collecting point for all that his … society had poured into him” (Timebends 129, 131).

The most difficult aspect of the play is the nature of the scenes, seemingly from the past, which are reconstructed by Willy's disordered mind. It is hard to determine whether Willy is hallucinating or actually recalling a past event. Although it may be impossible to resolve this problem, it is possible to determine the psychological associative processes which dictate why and how Willy experiences these events.

Willy is a salesman who values names, of people, places, and products, and numbers, of salaries and commissions, as the coinage of his personal, commercial, and psychological worlds. Miller uses these names, even letters, and numbers to create a network of associations which establish a surrealistic pattern of insistent mockery and fatalism repeated in different but related contexts. As a result, the play becomes “a sort of narrative poem”:

Images—car, road, refrigerator, valises, silk stockings, a woman's laughter—through their rhythmic reappearance in the past and present, in different contexts, grow into symbols of his entire life. … The imagery is drawn from the hard cold facts of the life … Willy Loman, the salesman for the Wagner Company, who lives in a house in Brooklyn. It grows in meaning by association and juxtaposition to metaphorical significance.

(Gordon 98, 107-08)

But this narrative poem is an expressionistic nightmare. The repetition of the names and numbers produce an echo chamber of mockery indicative of Willy's failure to achieve his dreams. He is like a rat in a maze; no matter where he turns he runs into the same indices of defeat. This is a deterministic universe, one that parallels the world of Greek tragedy. Willy can not escape the fate which he in a sense has created through the demented dreams instilled in him by his perversion of the American dream of success (Messenger 199).

Miller suggests that the power of the psyche is comparable to the fate represented by the omnipotent and capricious gods of Greek tragedy. For no apparent reason, Willy's psyche blinds him to the madness of his grandiose dreams of omnipotence and compels him to attempt to replace reality with his own concept of it.2 In other terms, it drives him to challenge the gods. His delusory fulfillment of his grandiose dreams and the punishment for his hubris come together in his act of suicide. Happy, who is obsessed by sexuality, is a base variation of Willy and a mocking comment on his insane aspirations and death. Characterized by duality and duplicity, Happy lives in unending alternations of assertion and contradiction which result in nothingness. In contrast, Biff's psyche or fate mercifully releases him from Willy's dreams and their effects into the ordered multiplicity and movement of normal life. Biff's good fortune, however, does not explain or justify Willy's tragedy and Happy's meaninglessness. In the face of the incomprehensible and uncontrollable power of the psyche, modern audiences are moved to pity and terror as ancient audiences were moved by the fall of these heroes in Greek tragedy.

Willy points to himself as an exemplar of his beliefs, using his name as a manifestation of his omnipotence: “You take me for instance. I never have to wait in line to see a buyer. … ‘Willy Loman is here!’ That's all they want to know, and I go right through” (33).3 Elaborating on name imagery that echoes his own self-assessment, Willy expresses his belief in Biff's omnipotence and predicts limitless success for his future in business: “And Ben! when he walks into a business office his name will sound out like a bell and all the doors will open to him!” (86).

But in reality, name imagery reveals Willy and Biff's failures. Willy has been working on commission “like a beginner, an unknown” (57). After he overhears Biff tell Linda and Happy that businessmen have laughed at him for years (61), he pathetically asserts his importance by using names: “They laugh at me, heh? Go to Filene's, go to the Hub, go to Slattery's, Boston. Call out the name Willy Loman and see what happens! Big Shot!” (62). Name imagery further points to Biff's failure to develop a career. When he attempted to meet with Bill Oliver, a businessman, he waited in his reception room, and “[k]ept sending my name in” (104), but it meant nothing to Oliver, and his door remained closed. In sum, when announcing a name, ringing a bell, and opening a door constitute the dramatic action, these actions contrast Willy's belief in his omnipotence with his base reality. Upon Biff's arrival at Willy's hotel, he asks the telephone operator to ring his room to announce his arrival; when Biff opens the door to Willy's room, he discovers Willy's adultery.

The names that appear throughout Death of a Salesman can be grouped into three related categories: geographical, personal, and business, the most significant of which often begin with “B,” “F,” and “S.” The geographical names consist primarily of the places Willy travels to as a salesman; the personal include his family, friends, and business associates. Finally, the business category is comprised of the names of the people, stores, and products Willy reveres and intones throughout the play as proof of his value and the signs of the success he envisions for his sons.

Willy uses the names of the places on his business route as images of geographical and temporal expansion to enhance his relationship with his sons. In his description of a business trip, Willy evokes and identifies with the grandeur of New England and its history. The names of the cities along his route, a metaphor for the course of his life, however, are not indicative of his professional success but of the pain that Willy, Biff, and Happy suffer after their inflated emotions collapse.4 Providence, the name of Willy's first stop, is presided over by a mayor whose title suggests an eponymous deity. Rather than providing Willy with care and benevolent guidance, however, Providence foreshadows and initiates the malign fate which pursues him, as the names of the other places on his route suggest. Waterbury, a “[b]ig clock city” (31), is an image which mocks the Lomans and their dreams of success. Moreover, it is also an allusion to Willy's attempt to commit suicide by driving his car into a river (59). Boston “the cradle of the Revolution” (31), alludes to Biff's disillusionment with Willy and separation from him after having found him in a Boston hotel in an adulterous relationship.5 Portland is the city Willy is unable to reach because of his mental breakdown. Metaphorically, Portland suggests Willy's failure to achieve the “port” or fulfillment which he might have expected during the last years of his career. Along with the word boat, Portland alludes to Willy's insane conviction that his dreams will become reality through suicide. Linda, who pities Willy and understands him as a man who has failings, but not as a neurotic, asks Biff to be “sweet” and “loving” to him “because he's only a little boat looking for a harbor” (76). The image becomes horrific just prior to his suicide when he psychologically joins Ben who acts as a Charon figure to bring him to port in the land of the dead.

Time, William, time! …
(looking at his watch) The boat. We'll be late. (He moves slowly off into the darkness.)


Bangor, the name of the last city on Willy's route (31), onomatopoetically explodes—“bang!”—recalling imagery of emotional inflation and collapse associated with Willy's dreams. On the one hand, images of cohesion and of expansion respectively reflect the past mutual admiration between him and his sons and Willy's emotional inflation that results from it. Stage directions and rhythmic dialogue bring Willy, Biff, and Happy together like three vaudevillians, as Willy indulges his visions of himself as a master salesman basking in his son's admirations. Willy's mood expands as he tells Biff and Happy about his business trip and promises to take them with him on his next one.

This summer, heh?
BIFF and Happy:
(together) Yeah! You bet.
We'll take our bathing suits.
We'll carry your bags, Pop!
Oh, won't that be something! Me comin' into the Boston stores with you boys carrying my bags, what a sensation!


The repetitions of accented “b's” in the words bet, Boston, boys, and bags unify, energize, and inflate the three Lomans. Willy's vision of Biff and Happy's carrying his bags symbolizes his unity with his sons and their mutual admiration.

But years after Biff became disillusioned with Willy, he uses imagery of vain inflation to blame Willy for his failure to achieve a career: “… I never got anywhere because you [Willy] blew me so full of hot air I could never stand taking orders from anybody!” (131). And he accuses Happy of being a liar: “You big blow, are you the assistant buyer? You're one of the two assistants to the assistant, aren't you” (131). The group of three which Biff describes forms a deflated parallel to the one Willy once imagined would create a sensation upon entering the Boston stores—Biff and Happy accompanying him, carrying his sample bags. In the light of the Lomans' lack of success, the bags, suggestive of wind-bags, allude to the burden of Willy's meretricious beliefs and unfounded grandiosity that Biff and Happy bore.

The image of inflated emotion and explosion inherent in Bangor is cruelly echoed in the word blow, which can mean “to treat” as well as “a violent impact,” and in the name of the restaurant “Frank's Chop House.” The name Frank recalls Frank Wagner, Willy's former benevolent boss, and chop, which refers to a cut of meat, also means “a sharp blow.” In anticipation of getting a loan to establish a sporting goods business, Biff asks Linda to invite Willy to a celebration at Frank's Chop House. “Biff came to me this morning, Willy, and he said, ‘Tell Dad, we want to blow him to a big meal.’ Be there [at Frank's Chop House] at six o'clock, you and your two boys are going to have dinner” (74)6. At the restaurant, Biff, who has stolen Bill Oliver's pen and escaped from his office in disgrace, tries to make Willy face the reality of their respective failures. Deeply angered, Willy strikes Biff, a blow which precipitates his subsequent hallucination in which Biff knocks on—or strikes—the door of Willy's hotel room in Boston, initiating the series of events that resulted in Biff's disillusionment.

Willy measures people's worth by their “names”—their popularity and reputation—and by the money they earn and amass. He cherishes and intones sacred names like Dave Singleman, Ben Loman, Bill Oliver, and Frank Wagner, among others, who “represent aspects of his splintered mind” (Hoeveler 632).

Names beginning with “B” are used to present taunting images of success and failure. Ben, Willy's successful brother, walked into the jungle at seventeen and emerged at twenty-one a wealthy man. Bill Oliver, Biff's past employer and present delusory hope, has a first name which alludes to his monetary success, but he does not lend the money to Biff for his hopeless athletic scheme. Moreover, by its closeness to Biff and its equation with Willy, Bill mocks their respective failure. Similarly, Willy's reference to B. F. Goodrich, the founder and namesake of a tire manufacturing company, as a businessman who succeeded later in life also ironically alludes to Biff (18). The initials, “B. F.,” sound like “Biff,” and the last name describes the financial condition that Willy wants for him. In addition, Bernard, Charley's son, has achieved the success that Willy predicted he would never have because he was not well-linked, unlike Biff who was the popular football hero destined for fame and fortune. Willy Loman, the lowman on the economic totem pole, is tormented by the success of Ben, Bernard, and Bill Oliver and by the failure of Biff, which began with his son's flunking math seventeen years ago.

When Biff went to Boston to ask Willy to talk to his math teacher Birnbaum about raising his grade, he saw Willy with The Woman and lost faith in Willy and himself. As Harshbarger has noted, the first syllable in “Birnbaum” is reminiscent of fire and and the second one means “tree” in German (58). The whole name echoes Willy's cry of disaster, “the woods are burning” (41, 107). Willy uses the phrase to signify his growing sense of dread, just before he tells Biff and Happy that he was fired. In the context of the events at the Boston hotel, Birnbaum's name is a double pun. Willy who knows that Biff is knocking on the door of his room, refuses to open it, but The Woman insists: “Maybe the hotel's on fire!” (116). Her exclamation echoes Willy's locution and alludes to imminent disaster for him—Biff's recognition of his duplicity.

The next important letter is “F,” found primarily in the names of people, usually Frank or a derivative, which convey a conflict between benevolence and protection on the one hand, and dismissal and degradation on the other. The principal benevolent Frank is Frank Wagner, Willy's former employer, who in 1928, according to Willy, made promises to him which his son Howard, whom Willy says he helped name (97), has failed to honor. Other benevolent characters named Frank are Biff's teenaged friend who, under Biff's direction, helps with household chores (34), and the repairman Frank, whom Willy depends upon to repair the cherished Chevrolet (36). At the opposite pole is Miss Francis, Willy's Boston mistress. Finally, there is Frank's Chop House where Willy relives the Boston episode and Happy ignores his father's distress to leave with Miss Forsythe, the “chippy” who parallels Miss Francis.

The third important letter is “S,” which appears in the names of important salespeople cut, and in related stores, places, brand names, objects, and qualities which represent concomitantly Willy's dreams of success and his guilt in not fulfilling them cut. Dave Singleman is the eighty-four-year-old salesman who conducted his successful business activities wearing his green velvet slippers, which symbolize the easy success of the David-like single man who conquered the business world (81). The store and place names beginning with “S” include J. H. Simmons, the company for which Miss Francis was the buyer, and the Standish Arms (111), the hotel where Biff witnessed the primal scene of patriarchal betrayal. Also, there are the aspects of Willy's profession, the “smile and a shoeshine” (“Requiem” 138) which Charley says a salesman faces the world with.

A key object with “S” is the silk stockings Willy gave to Miss Francis as a kind of payment for sex, which he guiltily recalls every time he sees Linda mending her stockings. As Boruch has explained, “Willy can't get rid of the ghost of silk stockings, symbol of his infidelity, and cause of Biff's distrust” (554). During one of Willy's hallucinations, Linda “darns stockings” (36) prior to The Woman's appearance and mends “a pair of her silk stockings” (39) just after her disappearance. When Willy sees Linda at her work, his reaction is intense for her stockings recall his adultery: “I won't have you mending stockings in this house! Now throw them out!” When Biff surprises Willy and The Woman in his hotel room, she insists on taking her gift even while Willy desperately tries to get rid of her: “You had two boxes of size nine sheers for me, and I want them!” (119).

Sheers, the word that Miss Francis uses to refer to silk stockings, when spelled shears means “scissors” and suggests “to cut,” which in turn alludes to Biff's metaphorically cutting the tie that has wrongfully bound him and Willy. He cries out in anguish that Willy has given her “Mama's stockings” (121). After Biff arrives at home, he burns his sneakers on which he had printed “University of Virginia” (94), an act which echoes Willy's utterance of incendiary disaster and symbolizes his change from innocence to knowledge, his rejection of Willy's belief when the “illusion of [Willy's] sexless godhead … is shattered” (Schneider 253). Seventeen years later, at Frank's Chop House, Biff “takes the rolled up hose from his pocket” and shows it to Happy (115). Another synonym for stockings, the hose is the means by which Willy planned to commit suicide.

Parallel to the silk stockings is the letter “S” on Biff's football sweater (28), which represents his special or superman status in Willy's eyes. Biff wears the sweater when he discovers his father's adultery in Boston and its “S” is echoed ironically seventeen years later when Willy encounters the now successful and formerly “anemic” and unpopular Bernard, who is going to argue a case before the Supreme Court. The word Supreme mocks Willy's deluded prediction about Bernard and recalls that seventeen years earlier Biff played in a championship football game at prestigious Ebbets Field, but did not go on to a career of any kind. “His life ended after that Ebbets Field game,” confides Willy to Bernard (92).


Numbers, which represent specificity and order in mundane reality, also reveal the damage that Willy does to his family to satisfy his neurotic demands. Like the onomastic images, numbers reveal and comment on Willy and Biff's failures. The numbers used in Death of a Salesman denote: 1. diurnal time, the course of a career, and contract stipulations; 2. money, usually in the form of salaries and commissions, earned, sought or expected, and debts; 3. distance, the miles Willy travels in pursuit of his dreams; 4. street designations. The most important numbers are two or doubles, 4, 6, 11, 17, 34, 48, and 63.

Two's or doubles are an important indication of Willy's inescapable malaise. The play has two acts and takes two days, and Willy lives a dual existence in the past and the present. Willy carries two suitcases (12), emblematic of his business world and the burden of his two sons, who are two years apart (19) and are paralleled by Howard's two children, who are also two years apart (77), and Bernard's two sons (92). Willy mentions the two elm trees which used to be in the backyard but were chopped down, a symbol of destruction of his idyllic plans for his sons (17). There are two sets of brothers, Ben and Willy, and Happy and Biff. Further, Willy gives two pairs of silk stockings to Miss Francis, who is paralleled by the two “chippies” the boys pick up at Frank's where Willy expects to celebrate a dual triumph. He feels sure that Howard will give him the non-traveling job that he wants and that Biff will get the loan from Oliver. When Biff orders drinks that evening, “Scotch all around. Make it doubles,” and Stanley, the waiter repeats “doubles,” they unwittingly echo the dual failures of Willy and Biff.

Seventeen, Biff's age when he failed math by four points, echoes and contrasts with Ben's achievement. Ben, Willy's dead brother and his image of the ideal Darwinian businessman, was seventeen when he set out to make his fortune. Four years later, he was rich (48). The repetition of seventeen and four also contrasts Biff's stasis with Bernard's progress in chronological time. Seventeen years after Biff failed math at the age of seventeen, he is professionally in the same place, but Bernard has become a lawyer. When Willy congratulates him on his success, he alludes to Biff's four missed points: “I'm overjoyed to see how you made the grade, Bernard overjoyed” (92).

Thirty-four, the double of seventeen, reappears at key moments to mock Willy's pretensions and to signal his tragedy.7 Biff lost his desire to succeed at the age of seventeen (92), and now seventeen years later at thirty-four (16), he has returned home to resurrect his life by meeting with Bill Oliver. In anguish after being fired, Willy declares “I put thirty-four years in this firm” (82). Finally, in the “Requiem,” Linda says that she does not know why Willy committed suicide because “this is the first time in thirty-five years” (137) they have been free of debt, and she has “made the last payment on the house” (139), which had a twenty-five year mortgage that began when Biff was nine, (73).

Thirty-six and its reverse sixty-three also haunt Willy and connect directly with the fateful scene in the Boston hotel. Willy is sixty-three years of age (57), and according to Linda has worked at Wagner's for “thirty-six years this March” (56). Nevertheless, Howard, who is thirty-six (76), unceremoniously fires him. Biff's satiric attack on Mr. Birnbaum initiates the baleful consequences of the trip for both Biff and Willy. After Biff tells Willy why he came to the hotel, he imitates Mr. Birnbaum as he did for his classmates at school: “… I got up at the blackboard and imitated him. I crossed my eves and talked with a lithp … The thquare root of thixthy twee is …” (118).

The math problem, “the thquare root of thixty twee,” is a coded message which alludes to Willy's insanity and Biff and Happy's participation in it; however, Willy and Biff do not see its meaning. The number sixty-three, Willy's age, identifies him as the focus of the problem. The word square, an image of an enclosed area, and root, a plant image, refer to Willy's paradisiacal garden and the two trees representing Biff and Happy which grew there, and the condition of his mind which is imprisoned in insanity, the root of his and his family's problems. Biff concludes his imitation by saying, “in the middle of it [Biff's classroom performance] he [Mr. Birnbaum] walked in!” (118). Drawn by Willy and Biff's laughter, The Woman, whose entrance parallels Mr. Birnbaum's, leaves the bathroom, her hiding place, and enters Willy's room. Biff's eyes are no longer “crossed” and he finally sees who Willy is.

The penultimate scene of the second act, which takes place at Frank's Chop House, represents Miller's most effective juxtaposition of the past and the present and the culmination of the onomastic and numerological patterns. Having suffered the dual indignity of being fired by Howard and having to borrow money from Charley, Willy eagerly anticipates meeting his sons at Frank's (six letters) Chop House on 48th Street and 6th Avenue at 6 o'clock. These numbers are portentous. Forty-eight is the reverse of the revered Dave Singleman's age at which he was still successful (81). The number may also refer to the two-day duration of the play at the end of which Willy commits suicide. Six is also a deadly number, recalling the standard 6′×6′ size of graves. Further, Biff failed math, scoring only a “61,” in June, the sixth month (93, 118), and when he went to Boston (six letters) he discovered his father's infidelity. Now Willy confronts his broken son Biff, who waited six hours for Oliver (six letters), and, after being ignored, stole his golden pen, as he once had stolen a carton of basketballs from him, and fled down eleven flights of stairs (104)—11+6=17, the fateful age at which Biff's ambition died and the number of years he has spent wandering aimlessly.

The use of the number eleven also suggests the “11th hour,” and image of Biff's precarious situation poised between destruction—return to his mutually reflective relationship—and salvation—imminent change in his psychological condition. Biff's description of his anger with both Oliver and himself contains an allusion to his past bondage to Willy's sick dreams: “How the hell did I ever get the idea I was a salesman there? … And then he gave me one look and—I realized what a ridiculous lie my whole life has been!” (104). The theft of Bill Oliver's gold fountain pen signals the beginning of Biff's psychological awakening. After he takes the pen, he runs down the eleven flights of stairs, and, in a psychological sense, undoes his past as he descends from inflated dream to fundamental reality: “I stopped in the middle of that building and I saw … the things that I love in this world. The work and the food and time to sit and smoke. … Why am I trying to become what I don't want to be?” (132). Within the confines of the office building, Biff recognizes and accepts the value of his ordinary life.

Despite his liberating insight, Biff is not able to get Willy to see reality at Frank's Chop House, where a scene of filial denial is enacted which parallels the episode in Boston when Willy denied Biff and Linda in his pursuit of Miss Francis. In a parody of his father's career and values, Happy woos the “strudel” (100) by pretending to be a champagne salesman and by claiming that Biff plays quarterback for the New York Giants, an ironic expansion of Willy's past adulation of him as a stellar high-school quarterback playing the championship game at Ebbets Field. Happy also asserts that his real name is Harold (six letters), which recalls Howard Wagner (six letters each), another son who is disloyal to his father and dismissive of another father. Happy “sells himself” to Miss Forsythe by ordering the champagne just as Willy “scored” with Miss Francis by giving her Linda's silk stockings. Happy denies his father—“that's not my father. He's just a guy” (115)—to go with Miss Forsythe and Letta, names that respectively represent Willy's lack of foresight and his defeat as exemplifies by ominous repetitions.

After his sons leave, Willy ends up hallucinating in the downstairs toilet, which signals his descent into the depths of his madness as he relives the events in Boston when Miss Francis emerged from Willy's bathroom and was seen by Biff. He is helped by the waiter Stanley, whose name recalls the Standish Arms, and he leaves, completely despondent, to search for the fruitless seeds, the image of his faithless sons who have never taken hold in the soil of his own prelapsarian backyard garden, in the hardware store on 6th Avenue, the street of the dead (122).

Miller uses the repeated names, letters, and numbers not only to impart a sense of concrete and specific realism to the dreamlike scenes but also to create an expressionistic juxtaposition of the past and present and desire and guilt in Willy's disordered mind. Everyone can empathize with the tragedy of a little man who persists in trying to gain the elusive success that is all wrong for him and his sons. Willy's dilemma is universal, and Miller's depiction of it is both simple and complex, realistic and surrealistic, and ultimately, sad and nightmarishly fatalistic.


  1. For a discussion of the various ways Arthur Miller uses demotic language, see my article “Miller's Poetic Use of Demotic English in Death of a Salesman,Studies in American Jewish Literature 17 (1988): 120-28.

  2. For an excellent discussion of the nature of Willy's madness, see Giles Mitchell, “Living and Dying for the Ideal: A Study of Willy Loman's Narcissism.” The Psychoanalytic Review 77 (1990): 391-407.

  3. All citations of the play will be from Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman (1949; rpt. Penguin, 1976).

  4. Willy uses the cliches of business success to describe to his sons how much he sold in New England—“Knocked 'em cold in Providence, slaughtered 'em in Boston” (33)—but the language conveys the deadly emptiness of his dreams.

  5. Boston is also the place from which Ben says their father began his cross country journeys with the family to sell his successful gadgets (49).

  6. Tuesday, the day on which dinner takes place (71), may also contain an ironic pun on the number two.

  7. Thirty-four is a key number in Miller's life. As he explains in Timebends, he became an overnight success at the age of thirty-four in 1949 with the production and publication of Death of a Salesman (184).

Works Cited

Ardolino, Frank. “Miller's Poetic Use of Demotic English in Death of a Salesman.Studies in American Jewish Literature 17 (1988): 120-28.

Boruch, Marianne. “Miller and Things.” Literary Review 24 (1981): 548-61.

Gordon, Lois. “Death of a Salesman: An Appreciation.” In Twentieth Century Interpretations of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, ed. Helene Koon. Princeton University Press, 1983. 98-108.

Harshbarger, Karl. The Burning Jungle: Analysis of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1979.

Hoeveler, Diane. “Death of a Salesman as Psychomachia.” Journal of American Culture 1 (1978): 632-37.

Messenger, Christian. Sport and the Spirit of Play in Contemporary American Fiction. N.Y.: Columbia University Press, 1990.

Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. 1949; rpt. N.Y.: Penguin, 1976.

———. Timebends: A Life. New York: Grove Press, 1987.

Mitchell, Giles. “Living and Dying for the Ideal: A Study of Willy Loman's Narcissism.” The Psychoanalytic Review 77 (1990): 391-407.

Schneider, Daniel. “Play of Dreams.” in Death of a Salesman: Text and Criticism, ed. Gerald Weales. New York: Penguin, 1967. 250-58.


Arthur Miller Drama Analysis


Miller, Arthur (Vol. 1)