Death of a Salesman 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.
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.
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.