Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller

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Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Following in the tradition of the classic Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, Arthur Miller is concerned above all with the relationship between the individual and society. His investigations range from his portrait of the industrialist Joe Keller in All My Sons (1947), who sacrifices the safety of World War II fighter pilots and ruins his business partner to satisfy his desire for financial success, to examining the connection between the dysfunctional marriage of Sylvia and Phillip Gellburg and the rise of Nazism in Broken Glass (1994). In Death of a Salesman, Miller focuses on the relationship between society and the individual’s concept of self. As a consequence of living in a capitalistic society that emphasizes materialistic values, Willy Loman has a defective sense of self. He is obsessed not only with financial success but also, more specifically, with appearances and impressions and with being considered important and “well-liked” by others. Willy passes these superficial values on to his two sons, Biff and Happy. In the course of the play, Biff becomes more aware of his real needs and feelings and frees himself from this destructive concept of self. Only then is Biff able to care more deeply for his father, and he breaks down and cries in his arms. Willy is moved by his son’s love, but his understanding is incomplete, as becomes clear when he commits suicide under the impression that this is the only way to give Biff financial prosperity. At the play’s end it is clear that Biff will heal himself and go back out West to find work that suits his genuine concept of self, while Happy will probably repeat the misdirected life of his father.

Miller’s plays often mix his characteristically realistic style with expressionistic techniques. In Death of a Salesman , he enhances the theme of self-awareness by using techniques to distort time and space and to represent the working of Willy’s mind. While playing cards with his neighbor Charlie, for example, Willy imagines that he sees his brother Ben, who appears on the stage as if he were a real person. By allowing the past and the present to intermingle freely, Miller represents the confusion and distress in Willy’s mind. In fact, Miller’s working title for the play was “The Inside of His Head” and his original concept for the stage set was a model of an enormous face, inside of which the action was to take place. In having the action follow and portray Willy’s meandering mind, Miller creates a psychological quality that reflects Willy’s confusion about identity. As Willy’s mind wanders in his past, talking to his brother Ben or remembering building projects around the house, Willy’s true self is revealed. He is a man who loves to work outdoors...

(The entire section is 701 words.)