Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman" and the death of the American Dream:
The play "Death of a Salesman" by Arthur Miller shows the falseness of the American dream, namely that by obtaining material security for one's self and one's family, one finds true happiness. Willy, even during his lifetime expresses dismay he has worked a lifetime to pay for his house, only to not have his favored elder son live in it. He takes his life, feeling that he is better off dead, rather than living and working on commission, and his wife's final outcry at his grave that the family now owns the home and is free and clear seems hollow -- clearly she would rather have a living husband and debt, than a dead husband, an empty life, and a full bank account. Happy states to Linda, "he had no right to do that. There was no necessity for it. We would've helped." Willy's friend, ever the injection of realism into the drama merely says "Hmmm," while Biff urges Linda to "Come along, Mom," from Willy's grave. (Miller, 6.1) Death is the final, indissoluble contract that cannot be renegotiated.
Loman's suicide at the end of the play is clearly the act of an unbalanced mind and an unbalanced system of values that puts materialism above true feeling. Willy Loman is about to lose his job at the beginning of the play. He is failing as a salesman and failing in mind and body. Although Willy commits suicide at the end of the play, clearly he has been thinking about the topic for a long period of time, as is evidenced in this dialogue between his sons. At one point, Happy observers of his father's driving, a critical function to Willy's occupation as a salesman, "he's going to get his license taken away if he keeps that up. I'm getting nervous about him, y'know, Biff?" (Miller, 1.2)
However, even Biff (who has returned home only for a brief visit and has made clear that he has no intent of sticking around his father's home) deploys his father's and the family's usual defense mechanism of shutting out the truth. "His eyes are going," Biff says of his father. Happy persists, "No, I've driven with him. He sees all right. He just doesn't keep his mind on it. I drove into the city with him last week. He stops at a green light and then it turns red and he goes." Absurdly, Biff rejoins, " Maybe he's color-blind. (Miller, 1.2)
Willy feels as if he might be better off dead than alive because of his inability to make money, something that the playwright Miller suggests is really the failure of American capitalism's ability to give full value human mind and spirit as well as Willy's failure as a provider to his family. Capitalism only sees Willy's diminishing ability to return material rewards. Willy is also failing as a father -- not because of his financial poverty, but because of his refusal to see either his wife or sons as whom they truly are, a failing he has exhibited throughout his life. Willy encouraged Biff in sports, rather than in school, and encouraged him to ingrate himself with his teachers than to work hard. Significantly, he kills himself not during a low point but, according to "though Willy has obviously contemplated suicide for a long time, he only makes his final, irrevocable decision after the play has reached its undoubted emotional climax," after Biff's dramatic declaration to his father: that he is nothing. (Phelps, 239)
According to the psychoanalytic critic Frank Ardolino, Willy's mad drive for a false form of specious material and social success perverts what is good about his own character and his family's character, and this is why he fails as a person, a father, and as a salesman. Adorlino states "to achieve the depths of tragedy," a common man's life, "Miller expands, the ordinarily limited expressive capabilities of demotic English by exploiting the sounds and multiple meanings of simple verbal, visual, and numerical images." In other words, simple phrases like being well liked become significant, even though they are cliches, because of the emotional significance attached to such platitudes in Willy's mind and dialogue.
Frank Ardolino notes that "images of time and place, familial and professional relationships, and athletic activities such as boxing and playing football, among others, echo and mirror each other creating a system of interconnected and multileveled networks. Associational meanings accrue to these images and invest them with the capability of expressing many concepts simultaneously, including contradictory ones." (Ardolino, 1) Willy's cliches and mental images become powerful, even though they are false, even though he fails to see his family for whom they truly are as human beings because he is so focused on himself and his own failings, because the play gives them great significance and shows what a terrible impact they have had on his life and the life of his loved ones.
The intersection between psychology and economics in the American dream is the reason that in all of twentieth-century American drama, "it is Arthur Miller's 1949 masterpiece Death of a Salesman that has been lauded as the greatest American play." The play deals with both the familial and social realms of American economic life, "exploring and exploding the concept of the American dream. From its debut in New York in 1949 to its many international stagings since, Death of a Salesman has spoken to the concerns of middle-class workers worldwide and their struggle for existence in capitalist society. The play and its initial production set the tone for American drama for the rest of the century through its sociopolitical themes, its poetic realism, and its focus on the common man." (Najjar, "Death of a Salesman,"St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, 2002 Gale Group.) The play introduced Miller to the New York theatre-going community "as a controversial young playwright, unafraid to expose the negative effects of capitalism and wartime corruption on typical American families and the "common man." (Abrams, "Arthur Miller," St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, 2002 Gale Group.)
Even today, the critics "are at odds not only as to 'Death of a Salesman'" because of its radical critique of the ideal of American success through the free exercise of capitalism. (Bentley, 629) "Business is not only the business of America -- as President Coolidge announced -- but also of American drama. There are two major ways in which this economic focus has been reflected on the stage: an overwhelming number of instantly forgettable comedies written for entertainment, and a small but serious number of plays that analyze society in a spirit of protest or reform," that began with "Death of a Salesman." (Bloom, 59) Rather than material success, the American dream and the nature of modern, American capitalism creates a salesman who cheats and lies to his wife, sons, and to himself, and even Willy's beloved Biff feels he cannot relax around his father whom he is, because of little material success he has accomplished in life, because Willy expected so much of him.
It is noteworthy that Biff has recently returned from his adventures ranching 'out West,' a place of American dreams of freedom and profit. However, just as Willy has remained unfulfilled from leading the supposedly footloose yet profitable life of an American salesman, which promises the common American dream of success of capitalism, Biff feels unfulfilled leading the adolescent life of a money-making cowboy. Biff returns to find his own brother Happy, much like his father, constantly cooking up impractical schemes to make money, chasing a false ideal of success and falls into the family pattern of false dreams for a little while. (Gottfried, 2004)
Ironically, the most fulfilling relationship Willy has during the play is…