An Analysis of Different Aspects of the Play Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller

The short play tells the tale of depressive, deluded salesman Willy Loman and his well meaning sons and the struggle to come to terms with their dreams and aspirations. The story begins when his son Biff comes back to New York from Texas after working on a ranch for several months and finds his father slipping into a state of suicidal mania. Biff and Happy, his brother try to devise a business plan to sell sporting goods to give their father the satisfaction that his sons are becoming his definition of successful men. When they fail to get a loan, Biff gives a monologue about the evils of the American dream and how it is driving apart his family and taking men and turning them into complacent shadows of themselves when they could be doing something they enjoy and living a much more satisfactory lifestyle. In the end, Willy kills himself after sickeningly fantasizing about his family living off of his life insurance check.

The setting of the play, New York City, is characterized as a kill or be killed world of businessmen that Willy Loman just doesn’t quite fit into. He’s the “New England Man” at his firm of salesmen, and has spent long hours in the car traveling that have eaten into his sanity and brought him to the brink he is at. The chief location, his home, is a run down house in Brooklyn which has become ensconced by towering apartment buildings as the years have passed. Miller hints at how Willy has kept the place in order over the years, how he is a skilled carpenter and mason, contributing further to the theme of wasted, unrealized skills and the unachieved American dream.

Miller portrays the American dream in a way that causes the audience to reevaluate what they associate with true “success”. This overarching theme, combined with the presence of betrayal and loneliness in Willy’s life is a direct shot at the rat race culture that has been ingrained into what it means to be a successful, well respected American. According to Miller, there is no point in achieving that if one is not happy, that it is better for a man to do what he loves and is good at, not what he thinks will make others like him or make him wealthy. Willy Loman is plagued by his own willfulness to be successful and the utter lack of turnout from his years of service to his company.

He has become the literal “Low-Man” as he cannot see himself as anything but a well-liked businessman even though he is far from the sort. He dreams of what his life might have been like citing the life of Dave Singleman as an ideal. “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?” He is a christ figure in the story, sacrificing himself for what he feels is the better of his family. This, in addition to the fact that he is a skilled carpenter suggest his christlike qualities in this tale. He is the protagonist, as well as the root of the problem and by committing suicide, he achieves his goal of financial freedom for his family. His antagonist is his own stubborn will to stick to what he believes he should be, instead of what he could enjoy.

This notion is fueled by the unachievable american dream that he so doggedly persists after, and causes him stress he would not have if he simply accepted his identity as “a dime a dozen” carpenter, as Bill so frankly states in his magnus opus rebuttal in the climax of the play. Many of the symbols and motifs throughout the play are wrought from Christianity as well as Mythology. Willy refers to his sons as “Adonis and Hercules”,as though they are “the pinnacle of personal attractiveness” as he puts it. He admires his sons a great deal and sees in them what he once saw in himself, the will to make the American dream a reality. Willy’s brief obsession with getting seeds and planting a garden symbolizes his desire for a rebirth, a second chance. This contradicts his obsession with diamonds, a symbol of direct material wealth. and he is torn between wanting to start over or stay on his failing path in the “dark jungle full of diamonds”.

The play is characterised by the eclectic portrayal of Willy’s dreams as real people, walking through walls, as well as the crumbling of his existence. As it progresses, the audience can clearly see that the man is not well and needs an intervention, as much as they know he will deny himself what he needs. This creates the sense of impending doom that can be felt through the course of the plot, pulsing and seeping into every corner of the poor man’s conscience until he finally submits and offs himself in a crazed fit of denial and despair. This play, despite its lacking in length and setting, holds a great deal of meaning in its short runtime. The writing style perfectly compliments the mood he is trying to create with the slow demise of Willy Loman, and his toxic obsession with the American dream that he will never achieve. The audience feels the pain that Biff, Happy, and especially their mother Linda feel over watching him fall into a pit of despair. It is an excellently crafted work of art, by one of the great writers of the 20th century.

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