You were probably aching throughout this play to shove a mirror in front of Willy Loman's face and make him take a good, honest look at himself. But even if you tried, it probably wouldn't have worked. He has a lot of potential, but he also has a whopping case of self-deception paired with misguided life goals. A salesman for all of his career, Willy thinks the goal of life is to be well-liked and gain material success.
So what happens when he doesn't reach these goals? Total disaster.
Willy is a rather insecure guy. He tries to make himself feel better by lying to himself and his family. In his world of delusion, Willy is a hugely successful salesman. He disguises his profound anxiety and self-doubt with extreme arrogance. Periodically unable to maintain this image of strength, Willy despairs and pleads with successful people around him for guidance and support. Despite his efforts, it becomes clear that Willy Loman is not popular, well-liked, or even good at his job. In fact, he never was. In all likelihood, he never will be. Now an older man, Willy can no longer drive competently, pay his bills, or sell anything.
Despite Willy's evident failure to meet his (poorly chosen) life goals, he clings to a fierce belief in the American Dream and the promise that anyone attractive and well-liked can make it big. He has deceived himself his entire life and tries to live vicariously through his unwilling son, Biff. But Biff uncovers Willy's lies when he finds out that Willy has been cheating on Linda. Choosing to alienate his son rather than face reality, and tormented by his failures, Willy spirals downward.
Willy's Desire to Escape
So let's talk about all these flashbacks. Part of this "downward spiral" we keep talking about has to do with Willy losing a grip on reality and on time. Because his life, by his standards, sucks, Willy escapes into the past and also conveniently gives us, the reader or audience, the background information we need. "Escape" becomes Willy's middle name—not unlike his own father, who abandoned him and his brother when they were young.
All this escape business brings us to Willy's mistress. "The woman" gives Willy everything he needs: an alternate world and an ego-boost. Miller makes sure we are able to understand these reasons for why Willy has the affair. If we, the reader/audience, hated Willy for being a cheating jerk, we wouldn't be so upset at his death. But we don't hate Willy. We don't even call him a cheater. Why? Because we understand the psychology behind his affair. He is simply trying to escape.
Which brings us, right on schedule, to the end of the play. As we all know, Willy kills himself. But why? Well, he was clearly still harboring misguided hopes about success for Biff. It seems Willy would rather kill himself than accept the fact that really, honestly, all his son wants is some shirtless sweaty time in Midwestern haystacks.
The point is, Willy is still deluded when he kills himself. We all know the money isn't going to be used to start a business. What's sad is that Willy doesn't. That final delusion is almost worse than his death itself.
Speaking of this death, let's talk about the title of the play. Willy was always in pursuit of being the perfect salesman, and before he kills himself he expresses a wish to die "the death of a salesman." So here's the big money question: does he?
To answer that, we have to ask ourselves just what does it mean to be a salesman in this play? We know what it means in Willy's mind (if we say "well-liked" one more time…), but Charley brings up an interesting point at the funeral: part of being a salesman is having a dream. Part of being a salesman is about selling yourself. We'll let you take it from there.
Willy as Tragic Hero
If you saw Willy Loman sitting across from you on a bus, you probably wouldn't peg him for a hero. If you got to know him, it would probably seem even less likely. Still, Willy Loman is often thought of as a hero. Of course, he's a particular kind of hero: a tragic hero. The ancient Greeks were the first to write about these doomed souls. Sophocles' Oedipus is the most perfect example—at least according to Aristotle.
But how is slouchy old Willy Loman in any way similar to the heroes of Greek tragedy? Well, dear Shmoopsters, they share a little thing the Greeks liked to call hamartia. This word is often translated as "tragic flaw," but it's more accurately translated as "a missing of the mark" or a "mistake made in ignorance."
Just like Oedipus, Willy Loman goes through his life blindly, never realizing the full truth of himself. Willy refuses to admit that he's a failure. You could say that the idea of hamartia is seen in Willy through his delusional personality. Also, like Oedipus and almost all tragic heroes, Willy's hamartia causes his own downfall. In the end, Willy's delusions lead him to take his own life.
According to Aristotle, tragic heroes also have a moment of recognition, or anagnorisis. This is supposed to be a moment where the hero realizes the terrible mistake he's made and usually moans about it a lot. This happens to Oedipus when he realizes that he's inadvertently killed his father and slept with his mother. (Whoops!)
You could argue that Willy has a small realization near the end of the play. He never says it directly, but at some point—probably after Howard fires him—he must realize that he's just never going to succeed in business. If he didn't come to this realization, then he wouldn't decide to kill himself so Biff could use his life insurance money.
However, though Willy must make some small realization toward the end of the play, we hesitate to label it as full blown anagnorisis. Willy definitely goes to his death amid a cloud of delusion. Even after Biff totally lays it out for his dad that all he wants to do is be a cowboy or whatever, Willy refuses to understand.
The pitiful salesman kills himself, thinking that Biff will use the life insurance money to start a business. It becomes painfully obvious at the funeral that this is totally not going to happen, showing that Willy went to his death without coming to grips with reality. Yes, it seems that, unlike many classical Greek tragic heroes, Willy doesn't have a major anagnorisis.
The Common Man
Willy is also different from his tragic predecessors because he isn't royalty of any kind. Yep, Willy is just a salesman. He has no real power in the world, and not too many people really care when he dies. Unlike the legendary and powerful Oedipus, Willy is a nobody. But why would Arthur Miller try to write a tragedy about a total schmuck? Did he not read Aristotle's book or something? Hardly—we're guessing that Miller knew Aristotle's ideas better than we do. It turns out that the fact that Willy is an everyday guy is part of the whole point Miller is trying to make.
In Arthur Miller's famous essay, "Tragedy of the Common Man," he states, "I believe that the common man is as apt a subject for tragedy in its highest sense as kings were." Miller goes on to say that it's not the fact that past tragic heroes have been royal that makes them resonate with modern audiences. It's that fact that they share the same problems as we do today, the same flaws, fears, and hopes.
Some critics have said that true tragedy is impossible when your hero is a common man. They say that when an everyday guy goes down, not as many people suffer as they would if it were a king. OK, sure, but we have a question: is the size of a tragedy really limited to the world of the play? Can't we look into the life of a common man and recognize our own flaws? Can't we see those flaws in society around us? Why can't a common man's life have size and meaning?
Miller ends his essay by saying, "It is time, I think, that we who are without kings took up this bright thread of our history and followed it to the only place it can possibly lead in our time—the heart and spirit of the average man." Preach it, Arthur, preach it.Willy's Timeline
Death of a Salesman and Death of a Salesman: The Swollen Legacy of Arthur MillerBert Cardullo
Introduction: Death in Two Senses
The immense international success of Death of a Salesman comes from the intellectual force of the plays central idea prevailing over the glaring defects of Arthur Millers execution. But the relevance of this central idea, connected with door-to-door salesmen and the Darwinian nature of rampant capitalism, has withered with time and changing technology, and even if it hadn't, Miller still failed to craft a play befitting Salesman's exalted reputation.
While it's impossible to know his psychology enough to be sure, the shape of Salesman's flaws seem to suggest that Miller's artistic trouble stemmed from a divided personal impulse between making his play and his protagonist Jewish, and making them universal or representatively American. But whatever the case, the legacy questions inevitably following the playwright's recent death, make it time to take another look at his vaunted reputation, and pare it down to its rightful size: medium.
Section I: Compliments
Let's begin, however, with some of the reasons why the play continues to occupy the place it does in American drama and our national imagination. The very title Death of a Salesman both declares the significance of a salesmans death and finds value in its ordinary anonymity. This evocation is amplified by the opening sight of Willy Loman coming in the door. Its a superb image, an entrance as unforgettable and instantly iconic as Bertolt Brechts Mother Courage and her wagon (another traveling salesman!). The salesman Willy is home. He is tired to the death, lugging his two heavy sample cases, after having been rejected by the milk-filled bosom of the nation from which he had expected so much nourishment. The commodity he expected to sell is never identified because Willy is in a sense selling himself. Hes a survivor of the early tradition of drummers in this country: men who viewed not their product but their personality as their chief ware, and still claimed they could sell anything.
Beyond the title and the entrance sequence, Millers organizing idea keeps a fitful hold. Its the idea of the mid-century man, who has sold things without making them and paid for things without owning them. He exists as an insulted extrusion of commercial society battling for some sliver of authenticity before he slips into the great dark. And remarkably, he is battling without a real villain.
To his credit, Miller was one of the first writers to comprehend a seismic change in the American economy of the late 1940s that saw corporations expand into large, confusing bureaucracies. He depicts late capitalism in his play as having become impersonal and hierarchical; instead of class struggle, there is simple anomie.
Section II: Detriments
But to read or see Death of a Salesman again is to perceive how Arthur Miller lacked the control and vision to fulfill his own idea. First, consider the plays diction. The dialogue often slips away from a true first-generation Brooklyn Jewish and into a fanciness that is slightly ludicrous in context.
For example, to hear older son Biff say, Ive been remiss, or wife Linda say, Youre too accommodating, dear, or Willy himself declare that Theres such an undercurrent in him, is like watching a car run momentarily off the road and onto the shoulder.
The same goes for Millers grammatical use of the nominative and accusative cases, as well as the subjunctive mood. The less-than-educated Lomans incongruously use the subjunctive were correctly, and unabashedly utter I and Biff, You and I, and Biff and I as if they were reading out of a school book. If the explanation is the Lomans merely aspire to speak in an educated mannerpretending, in keeping with their essential character, to be more booklearned than they areMiller could have helped his cause by having his characters make the mistakes that almost all such strivers make, like using I when me is the grammatically correct form, as in the phrase between you and me.
Thematically, too, Death of a Salesman is cloudy. The salesman figure that comes through is not of a typical grunt brought down by financial failure but of an exceptional invalid, in whom the stress of business only increased existing psychological imbalances.
Willy is shown to be at least as much a victim of psychopathy as of the bitch-goddess Success.
Evidence of Willys psychopathy is so plentiful that it has led to his being diagnosed as manic-depressive, before the age of mood-leveling drugs, by Ben Brantley of the New York Times in a 1998 review of a Chicago-born, Broadway-bound revival of Death of a Salesman. Willy was subsequently diagnosed as other-directedor possessing a value system entirely determined by external normsfrom a sociological point of view by Walter Goodman in a 1999 Times column.
Indeed, Willys self-contradictions go beyond normal human inconsistency into the realm of severe internal division. He yells at Biff: Not finding yourself at the age of thirty-four is a disgrace! But later adds: Greatest thing in the world for him was to bum around.
And again: Biff is a lazy bum! says Willy. Then almost immediately thereafter: And such a hard worker. Theres one thing about Biffhes not lazy.
Willys memories of past conversations produce similar inconsistencies. One minute Chevrolet . . . is the greatest car ever built; the next, That goddamn Chevrolet, they ought to prohibit the manufacture of that car. And, in consecutive sentences, Willy can declare the following without blinking: Im very well liked in Hartford. You know, the trouble is, people dont seem to take to me.
Naturally, for someone like Willy, the past and the present duel with each other as well as with themselves. For example, he remembers saying that the man who makes an appearance in the business world, the man who creates personal interest, is the man who gets ahead; yet he perceives no inconsistency between that statement and this one in the present action of the play: A man who cant handle tools is not a man.
He remembers telling Linda that [People] seem to laugh at me. But he can tell his grown sons, They laugh at me, huh? Go to Filenes, go to the Hub, go to Slatterys, Boston. Call out the name Willy Loman and see what happens! And all of this from a man who has the unwitting nerve to wonder aloud, Why am I always being contradicted?
Section III: Psychology and Drama
But putting this mountain of Miller-provided evidence aside, lets assume for the sake of argument that Willy is not a psychopath. Instead, he was a relatively whole or normal man crushed by the American juggernaut. If we also consider Salesman from that angle, what is its attitude toward that juggernaut and its business ideals? Such a question is crucial because there is no anagnorisis for Willy, nothing that suggests the plays attitude. There is no moment of recognition for him, let alone a great downfall: he dies believing in money.
In fact, he kills himself for money. Because he confuses materialistic success with a worthiness for love, he commits suicide to give his son Biff the insurance benefit as a stake for more business.
Willys other son, Happy, is himself wedded to money values and says over his fathers coffin that hes going to stick to them for his fathers sake. Similarly, Biff was so aggrandized by his father that he became kleptomaniacal as a boy and even now, after his father-as-idol has collapsed, he cant resist stealing a successful businessmans fountain pen as a niggling revenge against that mans success and his own lack of it.
The only alternatives to the business ethos ever produced in Salesman are Willys love of tools and seeds, building and planting, and Biffs love of the outdoor life. Miller confuses thematic matters even further by highlighting the successes of not only Dave Singleman, the gentlemanly eighty-four-year-old salesman who was Willys inspiration (and who, according to Willy, died the regal death of a salesman), but also of young Bernard next door, a lawyer in the Establishment world with a wife and two sons. Bernards is a deserved success for which Willy feels envy, as he does for the success of Bernards father, Charley, who is also a good businessman with his own office and secretary.
Charley himself contributes to the confusion in Death of a Salesman. He can be heard endorsing Willys view of himself when, during the plays Requiem, he says to Biff:
You dont understand: Willy was a salesman. And . . . a salesman . . . dont put a bolt to a nut, he dont tell you the law or give you medicine. Hes a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling backthats an earthquake. . . . A salesman is got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory.
However, in an Act II an attempt to puncture Willys losing self-image, Charley had said almost the exact opposite to his next-door neighbor:
CHARLEY: . . . The only thing you got in this world is what you can sell. And the funny thing is that youre a salesman, and you dont know that.
WILLY: Ive always tried to think otherwise, I guess. I always felt that if a man was impressive, and well liked, that nothing
CHARLEY: Why must everybody like you? . . .
What is left in this play is neither a critique of the business world nor an adult vision of something different and better. Rather, its the story of a man (granting he was sane) who failed as a salesman and father, and made things worse by refusing to admit those failures, which he knew to be true.
Section IV: Pathos, Tragedy, and Verism
That last sentence in the previous section certainly contains a play, and possibly a good one; but it is a quite a different play from Death of a Salesman, a work that implies in its atmosphere and mannerisms a radical perception of deep American ills.
The difference between Salesman as it is, and as it could have been, is the difference between pedestrian pathos and exalted tragedy. Its the difference between the destruction of a decent but unknowing man, and a great man, who simultaneously deserves, and does not deserve, his fate.
Ironically, Miller himself understood this distinction. His famous essay, Tragedy and the Common Man, published in the New York Times in 1949 was a not-so-veiled argument for the tragic status of Salesman, in which he unwittingly described Willy Loman when he wrote,
Where pathos rules, where pathos is finally derived, a character has fought a battle he could not possibly have won. The pathetic is achieved when the protagonist is, by virtue of his witless- ness, his insensitivity, or the very air he gives off, incapable of grappling with a much superior force.
Miller makes clear by the very title of his Times essay that he considers the common man to be as appropriate a subject for high tragedy as the royal leader. Yet modern writers have found it difficult to create powerful tragedies with workaday salesmen, let alone corporate executives, as protagonists.
There are at least two reasons for this:
First, for an audience to feel the full impact of the fate that the tragic hero brings on himself, the hero must have nearly complete freedom of action. In other words, the more the audience feels that the hero has been able to choose his course of action without restriction, the more emotionally moving his injurious choices.
Second, it is vital that the tragic heros actions have some deep moral, spiritual, political, or philosophical significance for the whole of his society. This is why the classic dramatists generally dealt with protagonists whose lives were spent in a public arenaso much so that their every act or decision would have a direct effect on everyone around them.
By contrast, the unique pathos of the salesman lies in the fact that he has neither sufficient freedom of action nor demonstrable public significance. He is one of many just like himself, and unlike classical or neoclassical tragic protagonists, appears to have been conditioned passively and even gladly to accept the very conditions of life that will lead to his own annihilation.This is perhaps sad in the end, but it does not arouse the same kind of feeling as the classic tragedies.
A few additional points about the play, connected more with its verism than with its attempt at tragedy:
When I saw the 1952 film of Death of a Salesman, which made the plays environment more vivid, I couldnt help wondering why Willy had money worries. He had almost closed out the mortgage on his house, which to judge by the community development all around it was a piece of real estate in an increasingly valuable and desirable section of town. This is more than a petty literal point in a realistic play whose lexicon is bill-paying.
Finally, a point that is strangely more apparent now than it was likely to have been when Salesman first appeared in 1949: the drama is set in the late 1940s and reaches back some fifteen years to the early 1930s, yet there is scarcely a mention of the Great Depressionor of World War II? How did the Loman sons escape the war, and if they did, were they criticized or attacked for not serving in the military? If they didnt escape military service, wouldnt the reunited brothers have had something to say about it? About the Holocaust? And wouldnt the postwar economic boom itself have had some effect in the present on Willys view of a promise-crammed America, not to speak of the Depressions effect in the past on Willys view of that same America and his decreased earning power in it?
Section V: Flashbacks, Family, Judaism, and Christianity
The flashback structure of Death of a Salesman suggests something ominous about the plays quality as well, something connected with Millers observed division between composing a Jewish domestic drama and writing a representative play on the American experience. Miller seems to have split the play twice: first, structurally, between a climactic frame of the last hours of Willys life up, and an episodic form that enacts his past in a series of flashback scenes, and then psychologically, as a provisional equivalent for his own divided consciousness on the subject of a Jewish protagonist versus a Christian one.
With regard to the first cleave, who is to say that Willys flashbacks are objectively true, as they are always assumed to be? Might they be the subjective or expressionistic visions of a feverish mind on the verge of collapse, instead of a mere device for explicating past events that the Lomans otherwise do not talk about? After all, this is a kind of memory play, and memory, even in a mentally healthy person, is notoriously fallible as well as selectively creative.
Furthermore, Willys flashbacks could be his attempt to remember a pivotal year in his familys history1931 or 1932, football star Biffs senior year of high school, during which he discovers his fathers adulterous relationship with the woman in Boston, and when Willy purportedly turns down a job in Alaska working for his brother Benwhile also fictionalizing portions of his past. How else to explain why only Willy uses Bens name or refers to the elder brothers South African business ventures, and only Willy refers to his boyhood wagon-travels West with his flute-carving father?
With regard to the second cleave, could the character Ben and the wagon-travels be Arthur Millers inventive attempt to use Willy as a proxy for himself, Christianizing or universalizing his own past? It seems no coincidence that Miller was a real-life Jew whose three marriages were all to Christian women, and who never took the stance of a public Jewish intellectual during his long career.
In any case, a good portion of the material in Salesman is on Millers favorite theme: the love-hate of a father and son. This material alone is still touching to read or watch.
Section VI: Looking Back in Bemusement
But, as in the case of the earlier compliments I paid the play, these are sound moments in a flabby, occasionally false, even schizoid work. Miller had gift enough to get the idea for Death of a Salesman, but thenin the face of his divided dramatic impulsehe settled for the dynamics of the idea itself to write his play. Millers ongoing popularity depends on many viewers' and readers' taking the intent for the deed. But some never did, and others have stopped.
Looking ahead, I believe the latter two groups will ultimately prevail in determining the value of Death of a Salesman and Millers career generally. It wont be the first time an artists reputation has posthumously tanked. Several American playwrights, including Elmer Rice, Robert Sherwood, and Maxwell Anderson, had similarly large followings in the United States and abroad during their lives. Now those legacies are past the point of diminishment.
Miller has the largest international reputation of any American dramatist in our history, with the exception of Eugene ONeill and Tennessee Williams. But now that he has passed away, and is no longer present to "sell" himself, as it were, the small group of dissenters he had during his lifetime should begin to multiply. In their mind, there have always been two Millers: the great dramatist of popular opinion, and the much lesser, mostly middling one of their personal perspective. (The charter members of this minority, incidentally, were Eric Bentley, Robert Brustein, Richard Gilman, and Stanley Kauffmann.)
So what made for Millers undeserved glory in the first place?
Well, in foreign countries his language improves in translationwhich, at its best, is a kind of rewritingand in America his work has an uncanny ability to makes people feel they have undergone daring intellectual and spiritual expeditions when they have stayed cozily at home. In other words, Miller supplies the illusion of depth, endangerment, and enlightenment. He gives his audience a painlessly acquired feeling of superiority for having been present at his plays.
This is not to accuse Miller of cunning. He certainly always did his sincere best. After the Fall (1964) is tainted with a wriggly feeling of self-defense on account of some matters in his private life connected with his marriage to Marilyn Monroe and his appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee investigating communist infiltration of the arts. But usually the falseness that crops up in his work is of another sort. Its the peculiar falseness of honest writers who are not talented enough to keep free of contrived or misguided artistic means.
This is so much the case that going back to Salesman, Millers most highly regarded work yet a relatively early one in his career, has been for me like going to the funeral of a man you wish you could have liked more. The occasion seals your opinion because you know there is no hope of change. Perhaps now that he is no longer around to sell and guard his own reputation, the double Miller will die away and only the mediocrity will remain.
Bert Cardullo is the film critic for The Hudson Review and the author of a number of articles and books on drama, including the forthcoming American Drama/Critics: Writings And Readings. He is spending the academic year 2005-2006 in Istanbul, Turkey, where he is a visiting professor of American studies.
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