In all of twentieth-century American drama, it is Arthur Miller's 1949 masterwork Death of a Salesman that has been lauded as the best American play. The play deals with important aspects of American life, discovering and exploring the idea of the American dream. Since its first appearance in New York in 1949 to its numerous worldwide performances since, Death of a Salesman has spoken to the apprehensions of middle-class workers internationally and their great effort for continuation in capitalist society. The play and its preliminary production set the tone for American drama for the rest of the century through its sociopolitical themes, its lyrical pragmatism, and its focus on the ordinary man.
In Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman has to face the truth that he no longer has his sales employment and therefore no longer has his indispensable uniqueness. He can't grip it. Miller lets us know that the trouble lies mainly with Willy himself." (Porter, pp. 154)
The main character, Willy Loman is a salesman, who has lost his hold on reality. Willy, who has constantly placed high value on being admired, dreamed of dying the "death of a salesman." In his illusionary world, he was living a life of comfort and finishing deals through contractors on the phone. Instead, all of Willy's objectives seem to have failed: he is laid off from his job, nobody among his old friends remember him, his son Biff has not turn out the man he expected he would be, and he is forced to rely on loans from his former competitor. His other son, Happy, acts as if he is lucratively climbing the business ladder but is in fact lying to his father regarding the full measure of his achievement (Griffin, Alice.1996). "My own apartment, a car, and plenty of women, and still, goddamit, I'm lonely." (Miller, 23)
On the other hand, Charlie, Willy's rival, is a thriving businessman and his son, Bernard, is a luminous lawyer. In the meantime, Willy is obsessed by memoirs of his brother, Ben, who in young age left for Alaska and grew rich. Followed by his thoughts of success and the realism of failure, at the end of the play, Willy commits suicide.
Willy Loman appears to be in decent physical health, but the play demonstrates that he is suffering from mental instability. Willy has started to run his car off the road and usually forgets his destination. The exact name of his condition is never mentioned in the play but critics believe he was suffering from "symptoms of egotistic personality chaos." (Bettina, 409).
All through the play, Willy embellishes his own attainments, and the abilities of his son, Bill.
He is always lost in his own illusionary world where he enjoys limitless achievements and control.
His character is seen as offensive and annoyed, but this is just a result of his lack of empathy. He continuously seeks esteem from his wife and sons as he desires to be seen as an achievement." Weales, 1977
Willy lies at the lower rung of the capitalistic ladder. He owns nothing, and he makes nothing, so he basically lacks any real achievement. Deprived of this, he subscribes to the theory that if a person is admired and has a great deal of personal magnetism, then all doors of opportunity will repeatedly be opened for him. Willy built his life around these thoughts. Though, for Willy to live by his standards requires building or telling numerous lies, and these delusions reinstate false reality in Willy's mind. He tells lies concerning how well liked he is in all of his towns, and how imperative he is to New England. "Willy is the salesman all through the play, and he is the temperament that ultimately dies, but the title can be seen as metaphorical, rather than factual." (Babcock, 61)
Willy's character is persistently instable, he is furious at one time and simply withdrawn at others, in other words his disposition changes frequently. The character looks for comfort and solace in his lies in order to deal with a bewildering and uncooperative world. For instance, Willy forces his wife Linda to act in precise agreement to his emotional and physical needs. He never permits her to speak her own mind since he believes Linda is only there to support him and his thoughts.
Miller's skill in executing imaginative, meaningful transitions is apparent in the opening scene, which introduces the subject of family disharmony. A conversation with Linda about his driving that day reminds Willy of the old "Chevvy" he owned when his boys still loved and obeyed him." (http://www.geocities.com/SoHo/Den/1151/miller/narrativ.htm)
As Willy looks back at his life, he becomes utterly conscious of his failures.
He comprehends the problems in his unrelenting desire to be well liked. He is embarrassed that he did not become the thriving well-liked salesman that he envisaged, nor did he become the father of great sons. Nor did he persist in the path of enormity that his father, and brother, Ben, left behind.
Willy wanted a life of excellence, power and comfort. But that was all due to his mental instability. In reality, Willy was a hard worker who loved to work with his hands. He had undertaken and completed major developments on the house, and before his suicide, he planted a garden so that he might leave something concrete behind. Willy dreams of being like something like Dave Singleman and thus didn't praise hard work as much as he actually loved it. Willy bought the lie that it was more important to be a successful businessman than a happy worker.
Biff shows that he was the real son of his father's who loves to work with his hands. In one scene, Willy seems to be extremely arrogant of a ceiling that he had installed in the living room. It was an undertaking that the booming Charley could not carry out. Both father and son require expressing themselves through several type of physical labor. But despite all this Willy believes that a charismatic personality is more important than hard work.
As Willy's sons become adult, he teaches them that the manner to get forward is to make a good manifestation in the business world: "It's not what you say, it's how you say it because personality always wins the day." (Hayashi, p 65)
The thought of a weakening and worsening self depiction is seen all through the play. Willy Loman symbolizes Tragic Man trying terribly to hold on to his dreams in a harsh cold world. "I'm tired to death" he states. This declaration divulges a state of self-exhaustion, which the character is not really aware of. He boasts of his reputation and how well like he is, but usually doubts that he is garrulous, and perhaps laughs too much. He is befuddled in a cosmos that is hard to grasp and appears out of control. Willy is continually at odds with refrigerators that break and a car that never works.
Willy attempts to reconcile with reassuring, calming images from his past, but in its place the memoirs turn out to be puzzled with embarrassment and mortification. For example, he endeavors to center on the relationship he had with his son, Biff, but this is eclipsed by an illicit affair that shattered their bond. "Willy as well tries to center on the achievement of his brother, Ben, but inescapably he should turn to his own failure. Willy's reprehensible past is brought to a theatrical understanding as it is pressed into the present." (Bates, 164)
Willy is not essentially an epitome of virtue or goodness. In fact Willy is an ordinary regular man who has his fair share of bad experiences and how uses his flawed thinking to get out of those situations only to discover later that he had been thrown in deeper troubles. On the surface, the Loman family appears to be a successful one and Willy seems to be the kind of man who takes pride in looking after his wife and children. But he is not that pious man after all because in the course of the play he develops an affair with another woman and cheats on his wife. But he has not gone into this illicit relationship because he was a bad person but because of his weaknesses and frailties. It is important to understand here that the only reason why this man made grave mistakes was because he had no clue how to get out of the problems that fate had thrown his into. Therefore instead of seeking solution, he tried to escape them by first developing an affair and later living in a world of delusions and finally committing suicide.
Arthur Miller wrote, "The tragic feeling is evoked when we are in the presence of a character who is ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure one thing-his personal dignity." This statement is vital in the categorizing this play as a tragedy.