What Are the Main Themes In Death of a Salesman?
‘Death of a Salesman’ is dominated by the theme of failure and the protagonist Willy Loman is certainly the main exemplifier of this.The complexity of this play, however, makes it difficult to label with such a generalised comment.I would not disagree that the action of the play centres around failure but I feel that some comfort is offered through other characters such as Charley, Bernard, Howard and Ben.
Willy Loman has undeniably failed in every aspect of his life. He has been defeated in business, he is a poor father and a poor husband.
As Dukore says ‘The inadequacies of what he buys mirror the inadequacies in his sales, which in turn reflect his inadequacies as a parent’. Willy is not a success in business, despite describing himself as a ‘big-shot’ to his sons. He dedicates a lot of time to his work and has been employed by the same firm for 34 years, however, he has to borrow money from his neighbour Charley as a means of survival as he is cruelly cast off by his ruthless boss, Howard. Willy unsurprisingly finds this humiliating and difficult to believe, ‘you can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away – a man is not a piece of fruit’.
Willy has no status as a businessman and he confesses that ‘the trouble is, Linda, people don’t seem to take to me’. Willy believes in the fantasy of the American Dream which suggests that wealth and an attractive personality alone can make him happy. We even see Willy being patronised when his boss addresses Willy as ‘kid’, representing that Willy is still seen as a kid in the business world. Willy is a failure at home and his sons, Biff and Happy, ‘both seem condemned to repeat their father’s failure and relive his self-deception’.
We see this as Biff steals a fountain pen from Bill Oliver as if the family are trying to grab onto any bit of success that they can find. Willy has brought his children up telling them that all they need is to be well liked to succeed. Happy rates success by how many girls he can seduce and he describes his relationships as ‘like bowling or something. I just keep knockin’ them over and it doesn’t mean anything’. Willy repeatedly sends contradicting messages to his sons desperately trying to find something to help them to become successes. Willy also fails as a husband.
He had an affair which is only known to Biff, but Willy’s guilt is represented through the stockings that Willy gave to his mistress. He has cheated Linda as she still has no knowledge of his affair. The play shows ‘a man’s destruction through the tearing away of his protective covering of lies and self deceit’ as Willy is constantly lying to himself and to his family about who he really is. Willy shares his faith in the American Dream with other fictional characters including Lennie and George in John Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’ and others of Miller’s characters like Marco and Rodolpho from Miller’s play ‘A View From The Bridge’.
Similar to this play, ‘Death of a Salesman’ could be described as a modern Greek tragedy. Miller is very interested in this style of writing and applying it to a modern audience. ‘Death of a Salesman’ could be described as a tragedy as it addresses many of the elements that Aristotle outlined. This play gives unity of time, place and action and we only see the last 24 hours of Willy’s life. Again fitting in with Aristotle’s ideas, the protagonist is flawed and this is Willy’s determination and commitment to the American dream, and the play encourages the audience to feel catharsis at the catastrophe.
Miller has, however, deliberately rejected Aristotle’s idea of status and has made Willy an ‘un-heroic hero’. Miller wanted to show the ‘tragedy of a common man’. Even Willy’s name ‘Loman’ shows us that he is exactly that – a ‘low-man’ and is similar to Elmer Rice’s ‘Mr Zero’ in his play ‘The Adding Machine’ but Willy also seems to be an everyman and Miller said that ‘everyone knows Willy Loman’ because as well as showing the destruction of one man.
Despite its realistic trappings, ‘Death of a Salesman’ is universal, thus a more vivid dramatisation of a modern everyman’ – Willy is also representing the destruction of everyone who has bought in to the American dream, and in this way the play could also be called a political play. The mixture of traditional tragedy and Miller’s own unique brand of drama allows the audience to recognise the protagonists’ flaws in themselves. Willy’s energy is certainly wasted as he spends the majority of his time at work, without anything to show for it.
This could contribute to his failure as a husband and a father as dedicating more time to these things may help to repair broken relationships. Willy is so committed to the American Dream that everything else in his life seems to be breaking around him including household items like the fridge and the car. This symbolises Willy’s race against age and limiting factors to be a success, and he fails to do this. We learn in the play that Willy is good at practical work and this work is admired by Charley, ‘That’s a piece of work. To put up a ceiling is a mystery to me.
How do you do it? ‘ Willy obviously has a skill but this skill is not used. Willy would be happier working in the country using his hands but he works in the city to try and satisfy his value of success which is to be working in the city and people have said of Willy that he has been ‘dwarfed by his surroundings’ which I would agree with. Willy is in an environment in which he cannot survive and this idea is represented by the seeds that we see Willy desperately trying to plant at the end of the play. Like Willy, the seeds cannot grow in the environment that they are in.
Willy wastes his energy as he ‘fears the present and romanticises the past’ and his confusion of past and present is shown in the play through retrospective exposition. Willy spends a lot of his time talking to characters of the past instead of focussing on the present and facing up to his problems. The original title of the play was ‘The Inside of His Head’ and this was because through the play we are seeing exactly what is happening inside Willy’s head which is a mass of contradictions. He misplaces his energy in the past whilst still living in the present and this is what essentially causes Willy’s eventual suicide.
We see Happy also failing in the play as he is still a strong believer and follower of the American Dream to the end. He mirrors his father as he is still lying to himself about this fantasy and he refuses to admit that he is a failure. During The Requiem, Happy still insists that ‘He had a good dream. It’s the only dream you can have – to come out number-one man’. Happy is still fooling himself and he has learnt very little even after this tragic experience, and this offers no comfort to the audience, it merely demonstrates how Willy’s failure still lives on in Happy and shows Happy’s wasted energy.
Other characters in the play, however, are successful showing that not everyone in the play fails, and in contrast to Willy’s downfall we hear the story of Bernard, Biff’s school friend who succeeds due to hard work and becomes a lawyer. He shares our pity for Willy. The audience also meet Charley, Bernard’s father who is a very compassionate, benevolent and caring man who is also a success in business and we see through Charley and Bernard that you do not have to be ruthless to be successful. There are, however, ruthless characters such as Bill Oliver, Biff’s former boss, and Howard Wagner who was Willy’s boss.
These men are ruthless businessmen as we see through Howard’s dismissal of Willy and Bill Oliver’s unwillingness to speak to Biff about business propositions. Both Bill Oliver and Howard Wagner understand the business world – something which Willy fails to do. They both acknowledge that to succeed they need to be brutal and this is what we see Howard do. It could be said that Howard is a cruel man for dismissing Willy, however, for his business to survive it would seem the obvious thing to do as Willy no longer credited the company. I would disagree that Miller offers no comfort to his audience.
By the end of the play, Biff admits to his father that ‘I’m a dozen, and so are you’ and instructs his father to ‘take that phony dream and burn it before something happens’. Biff’s turns his back on the American Dream and this is certainly comfort to the audience because he has found himself and knows who he is unlike his brother, and his father. There is a lot of failure in this tragedy. The focus of the play is Willy Loman who does fail and it would also be true to say that Willy does misplace his energy and there is little comfort due to the emotion of Willy’s suicide.
Miller said that ‘Most human enterprises disappoint’ and this view is certainly shown throughout the play and through Willy’s life. Bernard and Howard, however, are very successful due to hard work and if nothing else this is comfort to the audience as they represent a type of success which isn’t based around being ‘well liked’. Biff’s enlightenment at the end of the play is also comforting as there is now some hope of success beyond the American Dream and hope that Biff’s energy will be used in a more constructive way.