Arthur Miller Miller, Arthur - Essay


(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 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.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Lawrence Rosinger (essay date winter 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.


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Leah Hadomi (essay date June 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Granger Babcock (essay date fall 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Steven R. Centola (essay date September 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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John S. Shockley (essay date summer 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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H. C. Phelps (essay date summer 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)....

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Robert A. Martin (essay date fall 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Frank Ardolino (essay date 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Jonathan Witt (essay date June 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Brenda Murphy (essay date fall 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Brenda Murphy (essay date 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Terry Otten (essay date fall 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Fred Ribkoff (essay date spring 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Terry W. Thompson (essay date spring 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

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Frank Ardolino (essay date August 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


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...

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