Last Updated on May 19, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1542
Essential Passage 1: Act 1
Before us is the SALESMAN’S house. We are aware of towering, angular shapes behind it, surrounding it on all sides. Only the blue light of the sky falls upon the house and forestage; the surrounding area shows an angry glow of orange. As more light appears, we see a solid vault of apartment houses around the small, fragile-seeming home. An air of the dream clings to the place, a dream rising out of reality. The kitchen at center seems actual enough, for there is a kitchen table with three chairs, and a refrigerator. But no other fixtures are seen. At the back of the kitchen there is a draped entrance, which leads to the living-room. To the right of the kitchen, on a level raised two feet, is a bedroom furnished only with a brass bedstead and a straight chair. On a shelf over the bed a silver athletic trophy stands. A window opens on to the apartment house at the side.
Arthur Miller spends some time describing the stage setting of the play, complete with commentary, because the setting, as much as the dialogue, establishes the theme of the play. It is a small, “fragile” home, cowering down among tall modern apartment buildings. It is simply furnished, with just the basics, so it is the home of a family “just getting by.” On the bedroom shelf belonging to the boys sits an athletic trophy, a reminder of past glory. The blue lighting is indicative of the dreamlike state of the play, that this little house is separate from the reality of the apartment houses around it. It is a throwback to another time, before World War II, when people lived in houses, not apartments, and when the American dream was still alive. Yet off to the side is a menacing orange light, suggesting that something is trying to invade the dream. It is a sign that the American dream’s days are numbered.
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Essential Passage 2: Act 2
BIFF: He walked away. I saw him for one minute. I got so mad I could’ve torn the walls down! How the hell did I ever get the idea I was a salesman there? I even believed myself that I’d been a salesman for him! And then he gave me one look and—I realized what a ridiculous lie my whole life has been. We’ve been talking in a dream for fifteen years. I was a shipping clerk.
Biff is meeting Happy and Willy at the end of the day for a “celebration” dinner, in honor of Biff’s getting a loan from Bill Oliver and Willy’s securing a non-traveling job in New York. However, both plans fall through. Biff had counted on Oliver’s remembering his working for him fifteen years before and procuring a loan from him in order to start a sporting goods business. Yet when Biff goes for his appointment, Oliver does not remember him at all. In the face of his dashed dreams, Biff confesses that he was never a salesman, as he had told his family. He was a lowly shipping clerk, which is not the type of experience one would need in order to get a loan to start a business. Biff had been deluding his family, and most importantly himself, all these years. He has been living in a dream.
Essential Passage 3: Requiem
BIFF: Why don’t you come with me, Happy?
HAPPY: I’m not licked that easily. I’m staying right in this city, and I’m gonna beat this racket! [He looks at BIFF, his chin set;] The Loman Brothers!
BIFF: I know who I am, kid.
HAPPY: All right, boy. I’m gonna show you and everybody else that Willy Loman did not die in vain. He had a good dream. It’s the only dream you can have—to come out number-one man. He fought it out here, and this is where I’m gonna win it for him.
Willy Loman has died, committing suicide by intentionally wrecking his car. This is something that he has tried many times before, according to Linda, and this time he finally succeeded. Despite Willy’s fantasy of hundreds of people from all along his sales route coming to his funeral, only a handful are present to mourn. Biff is intending to go back West and try to find another job. Happy, however, is staying in New York, promising himself that he, unlike his father, will be a successful salesman. Although the dream of “The Loman Brothers” sporting goods business initially died when Biff was unable to secure a loan from Bill Oliver, now that the family has the life insurance money, it still might be possible. Biff is unconvinced. He is not a salesman. But Happy refuses to give up, not for himself, but for his father. Willy was not able to fulfill his dream of being number-one salesman. Happy is determined to fulfill it for him.
Analysis of Essential Passages
A major theme in postwar American literature is the failure of the American Dream. From F. Scott Fitzgerald in the 1920s through Arthur Miller in the 1950s and 1960s, the foundation on which millions of families built their lives was shown not only to be crumbling but to be a foundation of sand and unreality. In Death of a Salesman, Miller examines one family who slowly realizes that the dream had died long before they came along.
Miller describes the setting so that there can be no doubt that the American dream is a major theme of the piece. His use of the apartment buildings overshadowing the Loman house is symbolic of the change that has occurred in American life since World War II. A single family home belongs to the past, when the American dream was still alive, or at least when it was assumed to be alive. The home’s decrepit state details that a new reality has come into being, one that is a community of families, but a community without a central purpose. The apartment building is not like the small town of the past, where the inhabitants knew and supported each other. The families in the apartments live separate lives, even though they share a single building. There is a sense of not belonging to anything larger than oneself, that America is now a country of extreme individualism, where it is “every man for himself.” In the same vein, Willy is now lost in the world of business. In the past, customers and salesmen supported each other, and each could count on the other’s business. When this world is gone, and each salesman is out for himself, Willy finds that he no longer fits, but he still continues to live in his own dream, hoping for a life that is gone.
Biff, in the same way, is a mirror of his father, which is probably why the two do not get along. Biff himself has been living in a dream world, where he pretended that he was a respected salesman, one who can count on the support of his former boss to help him up in the world. Like Willy, Biff’s dream is shattered by the new reality, a reality that has existed for at least fifteen years. Like Willy, Biff’s dream has been largely self-delusion; he believes himself to be greater than he actually is. Yet it is not so much Biff and Willy who have changed, it is the world around them. They no longer fit, because they insist on living as if the American dream is still alive.
In the end, Willy can no longer live in a world where that dream is dead. Thus Willy Loman is symbolic of the death of the American dream. Willy was a good man who no longer fit into reality. To him, true courage was to check out of life, taking the American dream with him. Biff, too, knows that it is a new world. There is no sign that he truly intends to fit into this new world, but to simply retreat into the old one. To him, the Old West is dream enough, and a livable one at that.
Happy, however, is the last holdout. He takes up the dream his father left behind and is intent on fulfilling it. His purpose in succeeding as a salesman is not just to prove the American dream still lives. To succeed in business would be to redeem his father. Willy Loman was the first failure in his family, by all appearances. Willy’s father and his brother Ben were phenomenal successes. Yet their success did not fall to Willy, nor did it come to Biff or Happy. Happy’s goal is to succeed in order to be released from the “curse” of his father’s failure, that the “sins of the father” would stop with him, since they still fell on Biff. Although Happy now has the money to start the business, thanks to the life insurance money the family will receive on Willy’s death, it is doubtful that he will be a success. He does not realize that the American dream is dead.