Death of a Salesman
“I realised that selling was the greatest career a man could want,” says Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. But things have not panned out as hoped for Willy, a down-and-out Brooklyn salesman with a dysfunctional family and a death wish. Far from being “great”, his career is stalling, and his sons Biff and Happy barely have jobs at all. Meanwhile, Miller’s career was going places: after its premiere in 1949, this devastating two-act play secured Miller’s reputation as one of the greatest American playwrights of his generation. Its brutal exposure of the hollowness at the heart of the American Dream rings just as true today.
Willy has spent his life chasing the American Dream of wealth and popularity. He is unable to accept that he – and his sons – have failed to achieve this. Biff understands that the family was not destined for such success, declaring at the end that Willy was chasing “the wrong dreams”. He holds on to another version of the American Dream: moving out west and working the land.
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Willy’s problems stem from his tendency to lie – to himself as well as to others. He cheats on his wife, exaggerates his work record, and convinces himself that his sons have achieved more than they have. Happy inherits this dishonesty but Biff sees through it, calling Willy a “phoney little fake”. But the biggest lie of all, the play suggests, is the American Dream’s promise of easy success.
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Willy’s father left him as a child, and he compensates by being overbearing toward his sons. He feels that, by failing in life, they have betrayed him. In return, Biff feels let down by his father’s delusions. They all argue constantly; only Willy’s wife, Linda, who is emotionally grounded, tries to keep the peace. Yet Willy remains devoted to his sons, and makes the ultimate sacrifice for them.
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Even as Willy deludes himself about his life, he is constantly reminded of the truth: he and his sons are failures. The clash between dream and reality is too much for him, and he has a kind of mental breakdown. He spends much of the play hallucinating and muttering to himself. Linda mentions that he is suicidal, preparing the audience for her husband’s tragic demise.
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Throughout the play, Willy slips into and out of daydreams about his happier past. These dreams play out on stage so that the action keeps jumping across time, giving a sense of Willy’s confused mind. Past and present are associated with different sounds and parts of the stage, helping the audience to keep track. Miller was fond of experimenting with narrative structures.
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