Themes of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman
Themes of Arthur Miller‘s Death of a Salesman
Arthur Miller’s literary play, Death of a Salesman, sets up a theme involving the American Dream and the main character, Willy Loman, in a downward spiral. Death of a Salesman shows that all men must be sentenced to discover their own smallness rather than hiding behind the illusion of a big man who is undone by his own greatness. The major theme is that one must be able, in general, to distinguish between reality and illusion, which becomes harder for Willy to do as his life spirals out of control.
Nobody believes more passionately in the American Dream than Willy, yet the dream has somehow avoided him. At the time of the play he is sixty years old, a beaten and discouraged traveling salesman, with nothing to show for a lifetime of hard work but a small house on a crowded street, and many acquaintances that barely even know his name. Yet he still believes that to be well liked is the means to being successful. He lives this illusion from day to day and even through the illusions he has of conversations between his sons as boys and his dead brother. The author illustrates this through a speech Willy gives to the illusion of his son Biff. He begins as through they have been in deep conversation for sometime, “That’s just what I mean. Bernard can get the best marks in school, y’understand, but when he gets out in the business world, y’understand, you are going to be five times ahead of him. That’s why I thank Almighty God you’re both built like Adonises. Because the man who makes an appearance in the business world, the man who creates personal interest, is the man who gets ahead. Be liked and you will never want.” Willy’s philosophy is sound and foolproof, he feels, but, unaccountably, it has not worked for him, or for his son, Biff. Willy’s character flaw and illusions have not only ruined his life but they have stopped Biff’s life dead in its tracks.
The author also illustrates the theme of the small man unwilling to accept the fact that he is not a big man with greatness but only a small man who has not accomplished much, when Willy goes to his boss to ask for less travel time and more home time. Willy believes that the young boss will grant his wish especially since Willy named the man when he was born. Willy however, only gets disappointment. Howard, his boss, fires him, and Willy turns to his only true friend Charlie for comfort, although he knows that there will be no comfort found for Charlie is the true voice of reality and Willy has always been jealous of his good fortune. During the conversation Charlie tries to explain reality and reason to Willy. “Willy, when’re you gonna’realize that them things don’t mean anything? You named Howard, but you can’t sell that. The only thing you got in this world is what you can sell. And the funny thing is that you’re a salesman, and you don’t know that.” Charlie goes on to tell him that he has to work for any success he wants it is not just going to come to him. “A man isn’t worth anything dead”, and as far as Willy’s worth in the world Willy was dead.
During the play Biff realizes that difference between the illusions he was brought up on and the reality he now must face. He finally is determined enough to till his father what he has learned during a father-and-son chat that turns into an all out argument. “No! Nobody’s hanging himself, Willy! I ran down eleven flights with a pen in my hand today. And suddenly I stopped… I stopped in the middle of that building and I saw – the sky. I swathe things that I love in this world. The work and the food and the time to sit and smoke. And I looked at the pen and said to myself, what the hell am I grabbing this for? Why am I trying to become what I don’t want to be? What am I doing in an office, making a contemptuous, begging fool of myself, when all I want is out there, waiting for me the minute I say I know who I am! Pop! I’m I dime a dozen, and so are you! I am not a leader of men, Willy, and neither are you. You were never anything but a hard-working drummer who landed in the ash can like all the rest of them! I’m one dollar an hour, Willy! I tried seven states and couldn’t raise it. A buck an hour! Do you gather my meaning? I’m not bringing home any prizes any more, and you’re going to stop waiting for me to bring them home.” Although Willy still cannot and will not grasp the realty of what Biff is say, he states to him self as Biff walks away “That boy – that boy is going to be magnificent!”
Through all of his illusions of the perfect life, Willy cannot escape the reality of his failure and as he talks to the illusion of his successful brother Ben, Willy mentions, “Can you imagine that magnificence (Biff) with twenty-thousand dollars in his pocket?” Willy believes that his life has been over for quite some time now. He believes that he is worth more to his family and the world if he were dead. Twenty thousand dollars is the amount of the benefit in Willy’s life insurance policy and so the play begins to end with one scene. “ Suddenly, Linda hears the car motor turn over. Willy guns the engine, the car squeals off down the street – then comes the sound of grinding steel and shattering glass. Even with his last action, his final attempt for something good for his family, Willy does not see the reality that you don’t always get what you paid for.