Last Updated on January 11, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 851
The effects of the Second World War could be felt in radical shifts across every aspect of American societies in the late 1940s and 1950s, and dramaturgy was no exception. Traditionally, ancient Greek tragedies followed the downfall of heroes, kings, and demigods, and this trend held true into modernity. From the fifteenth through to the twentieth century, tragedy was a genre almost exclusively written if not by, then certainly about, the landed aristocracy. This preoccupation with the lives of royalty and aristocracy can be seen in the works of influential pre-war playwrights like Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, Chekhov, and Ibsen. However, the horrors many experienced in the First World War led to a rejection of the traditional artistic conventions that were rooted in classical culture and the consequent rise of modernism.
Modernism shunned the supposedly trivial troubles of the ruling elite in order to focus on the oppression and misfortune experienced by the so-called “common man.” This shifting concern was only compounded by the Second World War, and the late 1940s saw an explosion of American dramas centering the working and lower middle class. Indeed, Miller’s contemporary Tennessee Williams had produced A Streetcar Named Desire—another tragedy that explores the dissolution of a person’s self-concept by the relentless despair of reality—only a year before Miller began to write Death of a Salesman. This was the theatrical landscape in which Miller’s seminal play debuted: a landscape that was interested in the tragedy of the common man and how societal shifts had altered the viability of the American dream in the wake of World War II.
A deeply personal drama, Death of a Salesman is often considered to be, at its core, a character study of one deeply flawed and deeply hopeful man. However, the play also explores how the flaws of one man can foster an intergenerational trauma that touches many more lives. Both of Willy’s paternal figures—his biological father and his older brother, Ben—eschewed raising Willy in order to pursue their commercial ventures. Abandoned as a child, Willy internalized the message that success should be sought at all costs, a belief that he passed down to his two sons. It is this belief that leads Willy to dismiss the burgeoning signs of misanthropy in his favored son, Biff, such as stealing, cheating, and being “rough” with girls, which will eventually go on to inhibit his chances of success in the business world.
Driven by his own boyhood neglect, Willy overcompensates in his attempts to build Biff’s confidence, and contrary to his father’s hopes, at thirty-four Biff is struggling to hold down a minimum-wage job for more than a year at a time. Biff reveals that this vagrancy is due to his habit of stealing and his abhorrence of taking orders from “inferior” men. Willy’s hyperbolic praise of Biff during his childhood has stunted Biff’s ability to empathize with others or even to see others as his equals. This misplaced sense of superiority crumbles when Biff is overlooked by his former boss as a stranger. He finally begins to break free of Willy’s charade, which had begun to unravel when he caught his father having an affair almost two decades earlier.
By the end of the play, Biff has managed to disentangle his personal identity from the aspirational expectations that Willy perpetuated throughout his childhood. Although he is unable to convince Willy to be content with who and what he is, Willy’s death frees Biff from his ongoing parental disappointment and meddling. Unlike his father, Biff declares in his penultimate line of dialogue that “[he] know[s] who [he is]” and appears to be on a path to breaking the generational cycle of prioritizing success over personal contentment. However, his younger brother, Happy, is not so fortunate. Neglected as a child in favor of his more popular older brother, Happy is determined to fulfill the destiny that Willy laid out for Biff.
Although Willy’s blatant favoritism has not made Happy bitter toward Biff, he is conscious of the fact that he will never be able to supplant him in his father’s eyes. At the beginning of the play, Happy is everything that Willy dreamed for Biff: he has a steady job with a good salary and opportunity for growth, his own apartment, and plenty of women to spend time with. Despite this, Happy, too, is unfulfilled and discontent with his life. Like Biff, Happy longs to work outdoors, run his own business, and settle down with a suitable wife to start a family. Biff’s tragic failure has only made Happy more eager to succeed, and while Biff ultimately realizes the paradoxical futility of Willy’s dreams, which led to his death, Willy’s demise only strengthens Happy’s resolve. He is determined to shoulder his father’s tainted legacy and claims that he will “show [Biff] and everybody else that Willy Loman did not die in vain.” In this way, Miller explores two very different responses to the intergenerational trauma inflicted by the play’s central character.