Autobiographical Criticism on Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller
Death of a Salesman, a play by Arthur Miller, won its author the fame of a classical American playwright. The story of the poor salesman Willy Loman who somehow failed to attain the American Dream proved close to the feelings and opinions of many Americans, responding to their own doubts and frustrations.
Arthur Miller who was able to clothe their yearnings in words so eloquently did not completely invent the story from scratch. Instead, he derived the characters and ideas largely from his own experience and family background, mirroring the experience of the average American family in the challenging times of the Great Depression.
1. Miller’s Family Background Reflected in the Play
In a sense, almost every artistic work is autobiographical in some ways because authors prefer to portray events and people they have a more or less close knowledge of.
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However, in Death of a Salesman Arthur Miller uses more autobiographical hints than it usually happens in an artistic production.
The autobiographical allusions start with the geographical placement of the action that for the most part takes place in Brooklyn, New York. Miller himself was born on October 17, 1915 in Manhattan. Starting his education at a school in Harlem, he was forced to move to Brooklyn with his family after their financial condition declined in the time of the Depression.
His father, Isidore Miller, kept a business that produced ladies coats, and suffered heavy losses in the Depression Era. The family moved to “small frame house in Brooklyn, which is said to the model for the Brooklyn home in Death of a Salesman” (Kuusankosken kaupunginkirjasto 2003). The house where the Loman family lives is small and crushed, crowded with people and uncomfortable. The place reflects the feelings the Miller family undoubtedly felt, getting into their little Brooklyn abode.
Following this move, Arthur Miller went to James Madison and Abraham Lincoln High Schools in Brooklyn. Although young Miller was no worse than other students academically, he did not make it to college because his parents were not able to afford his tuition.
This story demonstrates that poverty and financial difficulty was not unknown to the Millers. Like Willy Loman, Miller’s parents failed to have the money that could keep them content for a lifetime. They, too, were failed by the American dream that was fulfilled by Willy’s brother Ben who “walked into a jungle and comes out, the age of twenty-one, and he’s rich” (Act 1).
It is the limitations placed on the man by financial problems that Miller reflects in his work Death of a Salesman. The book repeats the struggle for survival that was bravely fought by so many American families in the tough times following the economic crisis in the US. This was not a struggle of the rich; this was the struggle of the ordinary man whose name like that of Willy Loman “was never in the paper” (Act 1).
When Miller was born, the family was relatively well-off; however, the economic crisis that destroyed Isidore Miller’s business also destroyed their economic comfort. A sharp decline in fortune proved difficult for the family, causing tensions between parents. To Miller, this traumatic experience left behind “a lifelong sensitivity to the individual’s helplessness in the face of large and incomprehensible social forces, as well as to the impact of such helplessness on one’s sense of self and family relationships” (Pearson Education, 2001).
2. Characters’ Prototypes
The struggle to get to college is reflected in the story of Biff, Willy Loman’s older son. His father is concerned that Biff has not accomplished anything in life and is eager to see his son Biff move on where he himself has failed.
Biff was at one time an excellent athlete, a star of the local football team who had great prospects to obtain a college scholarship. However, failing math because of the stress associated with discovery of his father’s marital infidelity, Biff begins to drift the currents of life, failing in almost any job he takes.
Biff’s story parallels Miller’s biography in several ways. The playwright was of course more successful in life. College did not remain an unattainable dream as he was able to graduate the University of Michigan. His path there was, however, very difficult as he was rejected the first time he applied.
Moreover, in school Arthur Miller was also “a talented athlete and mediocre student”, just like Biff (Wikipedia, 2006). The economic difficulties experienced by Miller’s family in his formative years also unite him with Biff. Finally, the disillusionment with his parents’ ideas makes the fictional character and his author even more similar. In the time of his youth the author surely felt that he, like Biff Loman was “a dime a dozen” (Act 2).
The autobiographical nature of the play was admitted by the playwright himself. Arthur Miller acknowledged that the image of Willy Loman is in his play a symbol of the whole generation of his parents. He also stated that the image of Loman was “specifically based on an unliked uncle, who provided many of Loman’s characteristics and obsessions” (Asher 2005). In this light it also becomes clear that the playwright associated himself with the children’s generations and perhaps was best represented by Biff, the elder son of the failed salesman.
Linda Loman, however, can hardly be matched with Guffy Loman, the playwright’s mother, proving that any great artist reshapes the reality through imagination. Her faithful, supportive character and understanding and pity for Willy represent perhaps the ideal of a woman Miller longed for. Guffy Loman, on the contrary, had little understanding for her husband whom she regarded as being beneath her intellectually. She had been forced into this marriage by her family in her youth.
“A spirited young woman with intellectual and cultural interests”, she found little response in her family and even had to employ a student from Columbia University to conduct discussions of literature with her (Pearson Education, 2001). With such incompatible backgrounds, tensions between the husband and wife were inevitable and exacerbated with the end of the relative prosperity. Unlike Linda Loman, Miller’s mother was much less supportive of her husband when difficult times set in.
3. Influences outside the Family
In addition to the family that in many ways contained the controversies and problems experienced by the Lomans, Miller’s experience in the early years that led him to the creation of his masterpiece, Death of a Salesman, was shaped by other issues.
Thus, in his earlier years he had to take many menial jobs to make both ends meet that exposed him to the difficulties of life in the capitalist system. In particular, one of his first jobs was employment in the garment district. In this position, Miller could see for himself “the precarious and bruising lives of salesmen, influenced his masterpiece Death of a Salesman” (Pearson Education, 2001).
The truthful picture of the profession was at odds with the glorious description Willy gives in his talk with Howard remembering a time in his youth when he realized that “selling was the greatest career a man could want: ’Cause what could be more satisfying than to be able to go, at the age of eighty-four, into twenty or thirty different cities, and pick up a phone, and be remembered and loved and helped by so many different people?” (Act 2). The play shows a different side of the salesman’s profession, putting its difficulties in the foreground.
The broader economic context in which the playwright lived also influenced his work. The nation in the 1930s was reaping in full measure the downside of the capitalist mode of production, with its sharp swings from boom to recession.
Young Miller, whose family was affected no less than the average Americans, observed with disappointment the government’s attempts to tame the crisis. From this experience stems his dissatisfaction with capitalism that shines through in many of his works.
This disappointment also surfaces in Death of a Salesman. Willy Loman fails not only because of his personal inadequacies. He fails also because the system does not provide for people like him any way to success. Willy is an amicable and cheerful personality, sentimental at times as when he remembers that he actually named his boss Howard.
He is human, but weak, but the system denies him any support. His wife Linda points out the cruelty committed toward her husband with the words: “He’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him” (Act 1). To his boss Howard, Willy is just a cog in the machine that is useful as long as it can be effective – in this case, make money for the company through sales.
Death of a Salesman is a story of a small man who is failed by the capitalist system. After devoting all his life to the achievement of the American Dream, he finds that he is worth more dead than alive. The same thing happened to millions of Americans throughout the nation in the times of the Great Depression that Miller was able to observe in his youth.
The influence of the quick downward shift in socioeconomic status experienced by the Millers in the childhood can hardly be overrated for the playwright’s work. In his individual perception different from that of his relatives, this negative change created a desire “to move on, to metamorphose” (Kuusankosken kaupunginkirjasto 2003).
This desire to metamorphose is reflected in Biff’s idea to move to a ranch and start a new life in greater simplicity and away from the turmoil of the city that failed him just as much as his father. This drive to simpler life is reflected also in Willy’s obsession: “Nothing’s planted. I don’t have a thing in the ground” (Act 2). Unlike Willy Loman, Biff can eventually find his way in this world if he takes the courage to make his first step. The same metamorphosis was experienced by Miller when he broke away from New York and moved to the Midwest to study.
4. Death of a Salesman and Miller’s Jewish Identity
An interesting perspective on the autobiographical nature of Death of a Salesman is offered by Ami Eden (2004) who explores the interrelationship between the ethnic background of the author and that of his characters. Arthur Miller was of Jewish descent, a fact that is said to be reflected in many of his works. His very first novel, Focus, written in 1945, was dedicated to the problems associated with anti-Semitism.
In Death of a Salesman, the issue of anti-Semitism does not surface, but the problems and challenges associated with being Jewish in America remain, although in a submerged fashion. Eden (2004) claims that in the play, Miller “manages to suggest that the key to the Loman family’s salvation is an escape from their ethnic ghetto”.
In a broader sense, this can be interpreted as a break-up with the closed existence in a stuffy little world in which Willy Loman failed to realize his potential because he was treated as a cog in the machine. This breakthrough occurs already in the next generation. Biff, the more concerned and the smarter of the two sons, concludes that he will leave the city and move toward a simpler life.
The critics tend to understand this call for forward movement as “a swipe at the American economic system”, although it can be interpreted more narrowly in the light of Miller’s own biography (Eden 2004).
The playwright’s move to Ann Arbor to study at the University of Michigan helped him get away from economic problems associated with the Depression, also leading him “to break free of what he viewed as the stifling dynamics and values of his Jewish family life” (Eden 2004). This drive is exemplified in Biff’s desire to get out of the city: he is unwilling “to suffer for fifty weeks a year for the sake of a two week vacation? when all you really desire is to be outdoors with your shirt off” (Act 1).
Miller himself recognized that the Jewish identity did play a role in the description of the characters in Death of a Salesman as the Loman family were Jews “light years away from a… Jewish identity” (Eden 2004).
The biographers of Arthur Miller contend that in his childhood he was not systematically exposed in any significant ways to the Jewish traditions or culture. However, like most people, he was aware of his ethnic origin and the cultural associations with it.
The fact that he could connect his identity to the emotional crisis and the need to escape from it stemmed in the first place from his mother’s impact. His mother, Gussie Miller, as Miller himself wrote in his autobiography, “despised the mean-spirited, money-mad ‘cloakies,’ Jews who cared for nothing but business” (Eden 2004).
This attitude resulted in the constant criticism of Miller’s father and was not in any way contributing to peace in the family. This circumstance could have contributed to Miller’s general disappointment with his cultural tradition, a fact that found expression in Death of a Salesman.
Death of a Salesman, one of the most famous plays by Arthur Miller, contains a variety of autobiographical allusions. The story that happens in the family of the Lomans is in many ways reminiscent of the playwright’s own family history.
The misfortunes befalling the fathers’ generations, accompanying struggles of their sons – all this resembles in many ways the climate in the Miller household as does the geographic setting. The play also reflects the influences outside of the family setting experienced by the playwright in his childhood and youth. Finally, the touches that remind of his Jewish background are also connected with the author’s biography.
Arthur Miller. Wikipedia. 19 Apr. 06 < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_Miller>.
Asher, Levi. Death of a Salesman. Feb 20, 2005. 19 Apr. 06 <http://www.litkicks.com/BeatPages/msg.jsp?what=Salesman>.
Eden, Ami. “World in Which Everything Hurts: Judaism and Jewish identity in the work of Arthur Miller.” Forward (July 30, 2004). 19 Apr. 06 <http://www.myjewishlearning.com/culture/literature/Overview_Jewish_American_Literature/Into_The_Literary_Mainstream/Miller/Eden1.htm>.
Kuusankosken kaupunginkirjasto. Arthur Miller (1915-2005). 2003. 19 Apr. 06 <http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/amiller.htm.
Pearson Education. Biography: Arthur Miller. 2001. 19 Apr. 06 <http://occawlonline.pearsoned.com/bookbind/pubbooks/kennedycompact_awl/chapter32/objectives/deluxe-content.html>.