Arthur Miller Miller, Arthur

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 89,743 words.)