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Death of a Salesman

by Arthur Miller

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Death of a Salesman Themes

The main themes in Death of a Salesman are the tragedy of the common man, the changing mores of post-war America, and the American dream.

  • The tragedy of the common man: Unlike classical and Renaissance tragedies, Death of a Salesman depicts the tragic downfall of a middle-class worker. 
  • The changing mores of post-war America: The play reflects the changes to the business world that occurred following World War II.
  • The American dream: Willy Loman yearns to attain a version of the American dream in which he will not only be successful, but will be recognized as such.

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Themes

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The Tragedy of the Common Man

Unlike the tragedies of antiquity and the Renaissance, which exclusively center royal and aristocratic characters, Death of a Salesman follows the story of a lower-middle-class worker. Rather than depicting a great man whose choices impact the fate of nations, Miller explores a character whose choices only impact himself and his immediate family. However, the contained nature of the drama does not prevent the audience from becoming invested in the narrative, but raises the story’s emotional stakes by ensuring that the action is deeply personal to the protagonist. Miller’s choice also emphasizes the Enlightenment belief that every man is deserving of respect and recognition as an individual, however humble his existence.

In Linda’s beseeching requests to Biff, Miller captures how the tragedy of the common man is just as important as the tragedy of consequential historical figures:

I don’t say that he’s a great man. Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person. . . . A small man can be just as exhausted as a great man.

Aristotle posits that for tragedy to work as a genre, the protagonist must bring the tragedy upon himself by possessing a hamartia, or fatal flaw. Willy’s fatal flaw is undoubtedly his pride, which inflates his self-concept to such an extent that he is unable to accept his life for what it is. He feels that he is destined for greatness and meant to found his own business, where he will manage weak men rather than being managed by them. It is this pride that prevents Willy from asking his sons for financial support or accepting Charley’s repeated job offers, either of which might save his life. It is also what has driven a wedge between Willy and his favorite son, Biff. Once Biff realized that Willy was nothing more than a common adulterer and mediocre businessman, he no longer believed in the mythologized version of his father. Ultimately, it is the irreconcilable distance between Willy’s self-concept and his reality that prevents Willy from moving forward with his life.

The Changing Mores of Post-War America

The historical context of the play, which was written in 1948 and first staged in 1949, is crucial in understanding Willy’s misguided expectations and consequent disappointments. The Second World War brought about many changes to the American business landscape, which had previously favored masculine virility, aggressiveness, and gregarious personalities. The environment of pre-war America is represented by Dave Singleman, the salesman who inspired Willy to pursue a career in sales. When Howard Wagner refuses to honor his promise to find an office job for Willy, Willy laments the coldness of modern business by reflecting on Singleman’s career:

He’d go up to his room, y’understand, put on his green velvet slippers—I’ll never forget—and pick up his phone and call the buyers, and without ever leaving his room, at the age of eighty-four, he made his living. And when I saw that, I realized that selling was the greatest career a man could want. ’Cause what could be more satisfying than to be able to go, at the age of eighty-four, into twenty or thirty different cities, and pick up a phone, and be remembered and loved and helped by so many different people? . . . When he died, hundreds of salesmen and buyers were at his funeral. . . . In those days there was personality in it, Howard. There was respect, and comradeship, and gratitude in it. Today, it’s all cut and dried and there’s no chance for bringing friendship to bear—or personality.

Singleman epitomizes a business world where deals were brokered on the backs of lifelong friendships, and family businesses relied on the loyalty of their customers and workers in order to thrive. However, the corporate world Willy finds himself in no longer considers anything other than profit and exponential growth. The amorality of capitalism has taken hold and is on full display when Howard fires Willy, who has worked for the company for over thirty years and was a personal friend of his father, without any thought of supporting Willy in his old age.

The American Dream

In the play, Miller presents two versions of the American dream, symbolized by Willy and his older brother, Ben. Ben represents the traditional American dream, which was inextricably linked to America’s Western expansion and the concept of manifest destiny. It encouraged men to be self-sufficient and generate their wealth from the land, often at the expense of marginalized Indigenous groups. This moral ambiguity is borne out by Ben’s first attempt at generating wealth, which, although vaguely described, involved capitalizing on diamond mines in Africa. Ben then buys land in Alaska and offers Willy a job managing it. Willy is tempted by Ben’s proposition and a chance to claim the masculine, traditional American dream he has been longing for.

However, Willy is striving toward a different American dream that took hold in the 1930s. This is a material dream built on consumerism, where success is ultimately zero sum. In this context, success is defined by getting “ahead of the next fella” by having a better salary, bigger house, or nicer car. Although Willy and Biff both value the physicality and consequent satisfaction of a job well done, Willy yearns for the high visibility of the corporate American dream. The isolation of Ben’s American dream, while fulfilling Willy’s vocational desires, provides no oxygen for Willy’s vanity and pride. For Willy Loman, being successful by itself is not enough; in order to satiate his ego, he must be seen to be successful.

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