Arthur Miller Miller, Arthur (Vol. 15)

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Miller, Arthur 1915–

Miller is an American playwright. A moralist who has often been charged with didacticism, he poses questions for which he gives no answers, seeking, instead, a state of "heightened consciousness" for his heroes and audience. See also Arthur Miller Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 2, 6, 10, 26, 179.

P. P. Sharma

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[That the theme of the search for self-identity] is crucial to a proper understanding of [Death of a Salesman] and that Miller is in no small degree preoccupied with it, is supported by the frequency of its overt statement in the dialogue of the characters. 'The man', says Biff, referring to his father, 'didn't know who he was', and 'I know who I am …' Thus, the theme can be traced not only in the case of Willy but also in that of Biff. By showing that the father has failed in the search for self-identity, whereas the son is on the fair road to success, Miller has effectively used both the negative and the positive strategy to strengthen and reinforce his overall concern. The play has generally been interpreted as a conflict between Willy and his milieu; the conflict between father and son has been passed over as only a tangential and peripheral matter. The approach adopted in this paper, however, is to shift the centre of gravity to father-son conflict and then to examine why Willy dies unenlightened and in what manner Biff achieves an awareness about himself…. (p. 74)

Although Willy is aware, maybe dimly and imperfectly, that he is not cut out for success in the world of trade and commerce, he nevertheless nurses the dream of getting the better of everybody else. And this leads him into an alienation from himself, obscuring his real identity. (p. 75)

Presumably, his life would have been more satisfying if he had … engaged in some pioneering work or free enterprise. However, as matters stand, he has given his real nature a horrible wrench in an attempt to mould it, as has been rightly suggested, 'in accordance with what he believes others expect of him'. This other-directedness on his part is his acceptance to have his identity determined by 'images of himself proffered from the outside by other people'.

What Willy really cares for is not identity or integrity but personality, which would include such outward characteristics as wearing a smile, winning friends by a show of bonhomie, to be, in Willy's ridiculously iterative phrase 'well liked'. To be impressive one may find it expedient to cultivate an ersatz personality, to behave in an unauthentic way. This is how he has been living and now he expects his son to follow suit. Needless to say, in this process one's identity is inevitably violated and vulgarized, so much so indeed that the motive of Willy's suicide turns out to be not to help Biff out of love with the twenty thousand dollars of insurance money but his desire to be worshipped posthumously.

With his self-identity weakened and undermined, Willy loses his grasp of things in general. (p. 76)

[Willy's] self-awareness remains at best incipient and nebulous and he does not try to sharpen it.

On the other hand, Biff is seriously engaged upon a quest for self-identity and serves as a foil to his father. It would be incredible if he were to make a clean break, at the very start, from his father. His ambivalence towards his life at the ranch in Texas unmistakably declares him as his father's son. In the traumatic experience in the hotel room, however, he achieves an insight. With the realization that his father is a fraud comes his deliverance. The greatest hurdle before Biff was the idealization which father and son mutually indulged in. With the breaking of the umbilical cord, so to speak, Biff's realistic perception suddenly gains in depth and intensity. By trying to make a hero of him, Biff realizes Willy was only obscuring his identity and to that extent not acting helpfully. He lays the blame squarely on Willy for filling his (Biff's) mind with exaggerated self-conceit: '… I never got anywhere because you blew...

(The entire section is 7,158 words.)