Death of a salesman is a play written by Arthur Miller in the year 1949. The entire plot it told from the perspective of the protagonist Willy Loman. As the last name alludes, Willy has never accomplished anything in his life and now is at the very end of it where he still hopes of making it big in the world. He is 63 years old and has the mind of a child. Willy literally lives in the glory days of the past where his mind tends to switch back and forth, from the present to the past.
From his name we learn how the reader is hanging on a cliff to see Willy “will he do it”. And His last name gives the feeling of him being a "low man," someone low on the social ladder and unlikely to succeed. He alternates between different perceptions of his life. Willy seems childlike and relies on others for support, even though he pretends to refuse the help given by his brother Ben when he’s asked to go to Africa. But in the end he fails to accomplish anything at all. Expressionism is defined as a style of play in which the playwright seeks to express emotional experience through their work.
Miller uses many motifs to show this, such as in the very beginning where the flute is played but even though Willy hears it he’s really not aware of it. This imparts to the reader a major characteristic of Willy. It is of the absent minded life that he leads. The flute is one of the many musical motifs in the play such as an indirect reference to Willy’s father. Also music is linked to many tragic elements and events which are present. Biff whistling in the elevator leads him to lose his job. In the past Willy has an affair with another women, when Biff finds this out their relationship sours.
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The appearance of the women who Willy has been having an affair with is introduced with sensual music. Willy’s wife Linda also has the habit of constantly humming; this appears as tragic because in order to escape the tensions of her life she developed this habit. Realism is defined as tendency to reveal or describe things as they are actually experienced. It attempts to capture real people doing everyday things. There is not much room for imagination because the author tends to revel what he sees in life. The events are sometimes connectable with that of every day man.
The novel is set place in the 1930’s during the Great economic depression which hit the United Sates. But more than the historical backdrop the common struggle for money is faced by all. Willy who works with a firm which fools him, refuses to pay him and in the end fires him after all he put in is a everyday experience. Willy wants his children to have a better life than he did so his decision to end his life so that Biff and Happy may have money is an extreme but an possible one in society. Biff and Willly drift apart as time goes by; this is because their ideas of happiness are completely different.
Willy viewed success as achieving money and power; Biff however viewed success in life as being happy and doing what he loved which is working and tilling the land and accomplishing something with his own hands. Many times the parent’s view of success is far different from the kind of success that the child sees. The seeds which Willy buys are an important part of the play. Willy is constantly troubled by the thought if he has raised his sons well. He worries that as a father he will be unable to provide for them. There are times Willy says "Nothing’s planted. I don’t have a thing in the ground".
This is an allusion to the belief that he has within himself that he has done nothing to provide for his sons. There is times where we see Willy regret his affair for example when he sees Linda stitching her old stockings. He is reminded of how during his affair he gave many stocking to the nameless women, and becomes guilt ridden that he can’t provide for his wife now. There are further events which use more of these two elements. As far as the setting is concerned, when we see the room of Willy and Linda, it becomes obvious that only the needs of Willy is taken in to concern.
Willy’s room contains only bed, chair and shelf holding Biff’s trophy, no items of Linda’s are shown. Much like Ahab’s white whale, realism is seen as the unachievable dream for Willy. No matter how hard he tries to achieve this it has long been a lost cause. In the end the protagonist realizes that his life has been an failure and that he doesn’t want the same to happen to his sons. They are both travelling down a path which will only end in failure. In order to avoid this Willy takes his own life so that he may be able to give the insurance money to his sons.
Here is a time where we see one action fulfilling both of the elements. For as Willy takes his life then he shows how much he loves his sons and how desperate he has become. His family was doing their best to survive from day to day. This is seen at many grass root levels of any society. Many people of our society live in denial as to cover up the worry that’s building up inside. Every time they feel they are getting ahead financially, a problem occurs and they find themselves right back where they started. Most people also have to deal with problems and conflicts within their family throughout their life.
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. 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>.
Death of a Salesman: The American Tragedy
Arthur Miller’s play “Death of a Salesman” is considered by many to be a modern tragedy. In “Poetics”, Aristotle offers his description of a tragedy, and Miller’s play meets these requirements. The American Dream that the protagonist, Willy Loman, spends his life chasing, is, in itself, tragic. And that his family had the same values, the same delusions that Willy did, helps to build the case for tragedy. Aristotle defined tragedy as such:
Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions. Tragedy, if one is to believe Aristotle, is something that causes fear and pity. In Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman”, Willy Loman fails at the American Dream.
This is a common occurrence in modern America, and readers can see themselves in Willy’s shoes, creating fear. They feel sorry for Willy, because ultimately, he is the same as them. His failure is their failure. Not just pitiable, this thought is nothing less than terrifying. According to current research, all human brains have dopamine receptors. Dopamine (DA) is the predominant catecholamine neurotransmitter in the mammalian brain, where it controls a variety of functions including locomotor activity, cognition, emotion, positive reinforcement, food intake and endocrine regulation.
If tragedy instills fear, an emotion, clearly a normal working DA is required. With the DA controlling emotions, such as fear and pity, it could be said that humans are hardwired to see all loss as tragic and the play, even as defined by Aristotle, is therefore a tragedy. Being able to see ones self failing, over and over again, is both pitiable and fearful. The average human can see themselves failing. Willy Loman’s failures and crushed dreams become their own. In his essay, “Tragedy and the Common Man”, Arthur Miller states: In this age few tragedies are written.
It has often been held that the lack is due to a paucity of heroes among us, or else that modern man has had the blood drawn out of his organs of belief by the skepticism of science, and the heroic attack on life cannot feed on an attitude of reserve and circumspection. For one reason or another, we are often held to be below tragedy-or tragedy above us. The inevitable conclusion is, of course, that the tragic mode is archaic, fit only for the very highly placed, the kings or the kingly, and where this admission is not made in so many words it is most often implied.
What he is saying is that, while outdated, tragedy still exists in some form, and no one is above or below it. Willy Loman wanted the American Dream. He wanted to be successful and he wanted his children to be successful. This dream perhaps, is the biggest tragedy of all. The play begins when Willy is old, a salesman no longer working on salary, but for commission. He can no longer afford to support his family. All of his contacts from decades of selling are dead. He is the only one left, and he is far from successful.
To Willy Loman, success is the equivalent of being well-liked. To modern man, success is having a house, a couple of cars, two point three children, Rover in the backyard and a white picket fence. There is no need to be well-liked as business can be done over the phone or via email while one is in his pajamas. Willy Loman was not well-liked. He had few friends and even less success. He struggled his life away, clawing for the next rung on the metaphorical ladder of life, and never reaching it. His sons were failures and destined to follow in his footsteps.
Senile or not, Willy lived the last of his years in a complete fantasy, believing that Biff and Happy were doing well for themselves, when in reality, Biff was working as a farm hand and Happy was living with a new girl every week. Happy tried to reassure his father that he was going to get married and be successful. Biff seemed to throw his hands up in despair. He was content doing the work that he was, but Willy still thought of him as a failure.
WILLY: How can he find himself on a farm? Is that a life? A farmhand?
In the beginning, when he was young, I thought, well, a young man, it’s good for him to tramp around, take a lot of different jobs. But it’s more than ten years now and he has yet to make thirty-five dollars a week!
LINDA: He’s finding himself, Willy.
WILLY: Not finding yourself at the age of thirty-four is a disgrace! (Penguin Plays, pp 16)
Biff himself tells his brother that their dad mocks him all the time. He feels inadequate and lost.
BIFF: …And whenever spring comes to where I am, I suddenly get the feeling, my God, I’m not getting’ anywhere!
What the hell am I doing, playing around with horses, twenty-eight dollars a week! I’m thirty-four years old, I oughta be makin’ my future. That’s when I come running home. And now, I get here, and I don’t know what to do with myself. (pp22) Happy, too, in a conversation with his Biff, in clearly not content with the direction his life has gone in.
HAPPY: …I don’t know what the hell I’m workin’ for. Sometimes I sit in my apartment—all alone. And I think of the rent I’m paying. And it’s crazy. But then, it’s what I always wanted. My own apartment, a car and plenty of women.
And still, goddammit, I’m lonely. (pp 23) The severely dysfunctional Loman family is a tragedy. Biff and Happy’s constant struggle to make the grade, to be well liked, to be successful; is a tragedy. Willy, barely able to separate past from present, truth from fantasy, has raised his boys to think that the more friends they have the more successful they will be. Willy Loman measures success in people, and he taught his sons to do the same. He is unable to understand what Biff’s problem is, though the reader finds out at a later time. The problem was Willy. Biff had it made.
He was well liked. He had three scholarships coming his way. He failed math, and before summer school started he went to visit Willy on one of the many business trips he took. He finds his father with another woman and leaves, foregoing summer school, the credit and the football scholarships. Albert A. Shea considered “Death of a Salesman” to be a scathing social commentary on capitalist America. Shea wrote: Arthur Miller casts a score of darts -- at advertising, credit selling, the family automobile; at the petty larceny and the subversive attitude toward sex characteristic of our time.
But his main attack is against the view that a man is a fool if he does not get something -- as much as possible -- for nothing more than a smile, being a good fellow and having good contacts. Perhaps Arthur Miller is not casting darts at the view that man is a fool to expect something for nothing. Miller is no doubt attacking the standard good old American Dream, called a dream because that is precisely what it is— “… something that somebody hopes, longs, or is ambitious for, usually something difficult to attain or far removed from present circumstances.”
A dream then, that seldom becomes a reality. These hopes themselves are tragic, because, as mentioned above, they are difficult to attain. For the Lomans, they are not difficult, they are impossible. The Book Rags website writes Willy Loman died a failure by his own standards. Biff considers Willy's life a failure because he had the wrong dreams. He spent too much time convincing himself he could be a successful salesman, when what he was clear he was skilled at working with his hands.
If he'd followed the right dreams, and confronted his abilities in a realistic and honest way, he may not have been a failure, and his life might not have ended this way. Even in death, Willy Loman's plans fail; no one shows at his funeral, and his life insurance policy doesn't cover suicide. And so, at the end of it all, the reader sees, at the same time the Lomans see, that Willy is a failure. His life has consisted of numerous stories and fabrications. He has lied to his wife about how much he has sold, about how many friends he has and even about silk stockings.
Willy is a perfect portrayal of the American husband in the fifties. He longs to provide for his family. He dreams about making it big. These are aspirations that he has passed on to at least one of his sons, Happy, who tells him “Pop, I told you I’m gonna retire you for life. ” (pp41) to which Willy responds: “You’ll retire me for life on seventy goddam dollars a week? And your women and your car and your apartment, and you’ll retire me for life! ” A summary on Homework Online offers this: Willy has lost at trying to live the American Dream and the play can be viewed as commentary about society.
Willy was a man who was worked all his life by the machinery of Democracy and Free Enterprise and was then spit mercilessly out, spent like a "piece of fruit. " Joyce Carol Oates read the play in the 1950’s and now writes: His occupation, for all its adversities, was “white collar,” and his class not the one into which I’d been born; I could not recognize anyone I knew intimately in him, and certainly I could not have recognized myself, nor foreseen a time decades later when it would strike me forcibly that, for all his delusions and intellectual limitations, about which Arthur Miller is unromantically clear-eyed, Willy Loman is all of us.
Indeed, Willy Loman is all of mankind, and that is perhaps the greatest tragedy of them all. Oates remarks that Willy Loman resembled none of the men in her family when she was fourteen or fifteen, and then she realized that all of the men in her family were Willy Loman, in their own way. Aristotle’s definition of tragedy being something that creates fear and pity. Willy is both our fear and our pity.
Perhaps Oates summarizes the tragic nature of Willy Loman better than anyone else:
In the intervening years, Willy Loman has become our quintessential American tragic hero, our domestic Lear, spiraling toward suicide as toward an act of selfless grace, his mad scene on the heath a frantic seed-planting episode by flashlight in the midst of which the once-proud, now disintegrating man confesses, “I’ve got nobody to talk to. ” His salesmanship, his family relations, his very life—all have been talk, optimistic and inflated sales rhetoric; yet, suddenly, in this powerful scene, Willy Loman realizes he has nobody to talk to; nobody to listen.
Perhaps the most memorable single remark in the play is the quiet observation that Willy Loman is “liked . . . but not well-liked. ” In America, this is not enough. Indeed, it is not enough in America.
1. Poetics by Aristotle. Trans. S. H. Butcher. 21 May 2004. The University of Adelaide Library. 30 November 2006. <etext. library. adelaide. edu. au/a/Aristotle/poetics/>.
2. Missale, Cristina, S. Russel Nash, Susan W. Robinson, Mohamed Jaber and Marc G. Caron. “Dopamine Receptors: From Structure to Function”. Physiological Review. 78. 1 (1998): 189-225.
3. “Tragedy and the Common Man”. The Literary Link. 7 October 2006. 8 December 2006. < http://theliterarylink. com/miller1. html>.
4. Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. New York: Penguin Books, 1949.
5. “Death of a Salesman” Book Rags. 8 December 2006. <www. bookrags. com/notes/das. html>.
6. “Death of a Salesman”. Homework Online 8 December 2006. 8 December 2006. <www. homework-online. com/doas/index. asp>.
7. Oates, Joyce Carol. “Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman: A Celebration”. Fall 1998. USFCA. 10 December 2006. <http://www. usfca. edu/~southerr/arthurmiller. html>.
Death of a Salesman - Write a critical appreciation of the Requiem
In Death of a Salesman Miller fuses the realist and expressionist styles with an ultimately realist purpose. Throughout the course of the play, we see the scenes of Willy Loman's last two days of life intertwined and overlapped with those of his memories and fantasies. This use of "daydream" scenes is an expressionistic device. However, it is not only these memory scenes which can be said to be expressionistic, as some of the expressionistic scenes in the play take place in the present, when Willy is not even there, and therefore cannot be said to be a result of his troubled mind.
One of these scenes is the Requiem, when the characters break the wall lines to come downstage, and the apron represents the graveyard. As Willy is already dead, this cannot be thought of as a "distortion of his mind. " This extension of expressionistic devices to non-memory scenes seems to suggest that we the audience see them through Willy's eyes. Brian Parker suggests that this technique "forces the audience to become Willy Loman's for the duration of the play. " We see in the requiem scene how Willy's dream of a large funeral, like Dave Singleman's, to prove to his boys how well-liked he was, proves to be just another false dream.
Above all, Willy seems to prize the emotional appeal of being popular, like Singleman, and it seems to be social standing that really motivates him. His prediction that his funeral would be well attended by all those who liked and respected him was a false hope and the belief that he was respected is clearly unfounded. Both of the boys feel his death was unnecessary. Happy's feeling that he could have "helped" Willy is just another empty Loman speech, devoid of any real meaning.
We see during the course of the play that Happy neglects to give Willy any help whatsoever, he abandons his father in the restaurant and as Linda points out in Act Two: - "Not one, not another living soul would have had the cruelty to walk out on that man in a restaurant. " Biff does not see his father as a failure, he realises that Willy "had the wrong dreams. All, all wrong. " While both boys have absorbed their father's ideas, Happy lives them and is determined to "beat that racket," Biff has now realised that he doesn't have to conform to a society which measures people in terms of popularity and material wealth.
Biff's declaration, "I know who I am," proves to us that he has realised his father's limitations, while Happy seems to have inherited his father's trait of self-delusion. Miller's characters speak with realism, as American people of this era actually did, and do not have long articulate speeches about their innermost feelings. At such an emotional time Charley's remark that Willy was " a happy man with a batch of cement" may seem inappropriate but we have to take into account that ordinary people do not speak in poetic language.
Charley's speech in this scene is one of the most memorable passages in the play. It serves as a kind of eulogy, which removes blame from Willy as an individual by explaining the gruelling demands and high expectations of his profession. Charley's admiration and respect for Willy is evident in the line "Nobody dast blame this man," and his speech demands that we should admire Willy for his drive and dream. Charley observes that a salesman's life is a constant upward struggle to sell himself and he supports his dreams on the power of his own image "riding on a smile and a shoeshine. What started out as a tribute to Willy becomes a generalisation towards all salesmen, Miller points out that there are many "low-men. "
Charley points out that when the salesman's advertising self-image fails to inspire smiles from customers, he is "finished" - in Willy's case this was psychologically, emotionally and physically as well as his career. According to Charley "a salesman is got to dream," this substitution of "is" for "has" seems to indicate a necessity for a salesman. Miller suggests that the salesman is "literally begotten with the sole purpose of dreaming".
Many writers of this era were concerned at the increasing emphasis on materialism and consumerism, such as Steinbeck. In many ways Willy has done everything that the American Dream "of unrestrained individualism and assured material success" outlines as the path to success. He has a home and a range of modern appliances; he has raised a family and journeyed forth into the business world full of hope and ambition. In spite of all this Willy has failed to receive the gains that the American Dream promises.
Miller's contempt for a society in which a man is worth more dead than alive is obvious. Death of a Salesman condemns the American Capitalist society, which throws people on the scrap heap as soon as they are unable to contribute to the financial gain of others. On the opening night of this play Miller recalls a woman angrily describing the play as a "time-bomb under American Capitalism. " We see how the Requiem does not allow this, that the Loman's are "free. " Miller rejects the view that this is a play designed to overthrow the social system of America.
He claims that aims rather to destroy "this pseudo life that thought to touch the clouds by standing on top of a refrigerator. " The American Dream and the way in which capitalist society measures people in terms of material success is once again condemned in Charley's line "No man only needs a little salary," suggesting that no man can live on money and materiality alone without an emotional or spiritual life to provide meaning. Linda's feeling that Willy is just "on another trip" suggests that Willy's hope for Biff to succeed with the insurance money will not be fulfilled.
One could even wonder whether or not the family received the insurance money as no mention is made of it, although this could also be interpreted as the money is of no real importance to them. It is bitterly ironic that a man, who kills himself because he feels a failure, fails in death. Linda's comment also seems to strip Willy's death of any of it's imagined dignity; the "trip" Willy has now undertaken, will end just as fruitlessly as the "trip" from which he has just returned from as the play opens.
Linda's statement "we're free" which is repeated three ways can be interpreted in three different ways, Willy is now free from earthly unhappiness. The couple are free from the need to earn money for the mortgage and, in another sense, the family is free to act without the pressure of Willy's dreams. In this scene we see no more of Willy's memories, there are no expressionistic devices such as Ben, who represents Willy's desire for success.
Ben's absence suggests that Willy has finally achieved the success that he so desperately wanted in life but could never realize. The expressionistic device of the flute motif that opens the play also ends it; we see how Miller parallels the structure of the play throughout. The haunting flute music, which symbolises Willy's pursuit of the American Dream of freedom and success, and the visual imprint of the "solid vault of apartment house", seem to suggest that nothing has really changed and Willy dies just as deluded as he lived.
Dramatic Technique in Death of a Salesman
Discuss the dramatic techniques in Death of a Salesman. From a technical point of view, Miller was welcomed by those involved in the practical craft of theatre. In his plays, we find challenge and convention, boldness and caution, daring technical experiment and poetic dialogues. In Death of a Salesman , his new dramatic techniques- unrealistic setting, music, lighting, etc. -all generated a sense of mutation of old forms and conventions. Death of a Salesman concentrates on Willy Loman, an exhausted middle aged salesman, who has failed to realize his dream of economic success and is presented as being on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
Failure also engulfs his wife Linda and two sons-Biff and Happy. The play is divided into three main parts, act 1, act 2 and the requiem. Each section takes place in the present day (spring 1949). Act 1-night time Act 2-various times the next day Act 3-several days later The play is largely a representation of what takes place in his mind during the last two days of his life. In fact, Willy’s reminiscences allow us to understand what happened in the past, and why things are how they are now in the present day.
Miller says: “The salesman image was from the beginning absorbed with the concept that nothing in life comes next but everything exists together and at the same time within us. ” The story is told on two different levels. There is a public storyline (realistic) which begins late one night and ends twenty-four hours later. Parallel with this, there is the private storyline (non-realistic) inside Willy’s mind, which like our own minds, does not always work logically and chronologically but mixes up memories and imaginings with what is actually taking place in the present.
Miller was interested in expressionism but didn’t want to abandon the conventions of realism. He used, like O Neill, a dramatic form that combined the subjectivity of expressionism with the illusion of objectivity afforded by realism. The firm reality of Ibsen’s method remained, but it was banded with the dream sequences or flashbacks of past life existing in the present. In All My Sons and Death of a Salesman, Miller adopts Ibsen’s ‘retrospective structure’ in which an explosive situation in the present is both explained and brought to a crisis by the gradual revelation of something which has happened in the past.
In theatre, expressionism has been defined as a mode of writing and production in which the aim is to depict inner meaning rather than outward appearance. For writers, this may imply the use of poetic or stylized language and symbolic characterization. For producers, it implies the use of non-realistic scenery and effects. In expressionistic plays like “Death of a Salesman”, the following effects are likely to be used: 1) The action may flow without interruption from one time period to another. More than one time period may co-exist.
In “Death of a Salesman” ,the audience see present and past action at the same time when Willy talks to Linda and sees the woman(past) in the same room, when he talks to Charley and Ben(his dead brother) at the same time. 2) The action may be presented as a dream or vision by one of the characters. In Death of a Salesman, this style is most obvious in the use of flashbacks or dream sequences . Much of the family’s history and past events are revealed through Willy’s flashbacks. This is done by narration, dream sequence and memories.
All these scenes, in which we have flashbacks, start in the present and then the character only visible to Willy appear. Most of the flashbacks take place during the summer after Biff’s senior year at high school when all the problems began. Biff saw his father with another woman and lost faith in him. Before this, his father was a hero to him, now he is a fraud. These flashbacks explain the current conflict between father and son. We see the second flashback while Willy is playing card game with Charley.
Here we see how the flashback appear gradually, usurping the present bit by bit . He is actually talking to the remembered Ben and the real Charlie simultaneously. When Charlie finally realizes that Willy is absent-minded, he makes an exit. Here we see Willy’s too much obsession of the past over present. Miller described Willy as literally at that terrible moment when the voice of the past is no longer distant but quite as loud as the voice of the present”. He didn’t see Willy’s internal sequences as flashbacks.
Miller says, “There are no flashbacks in this play but only a mobile concurrency of past and present …….. because in his desperation to justify his life Willy Loman has destroyed the boundaries between now and then. ” 3) The action may take place in more than one location simultaneously. In the kitchen when Willy starts talking to young Biff and Happy in the past, Linda enters the room and asks Willy about the car. 4) The Setting must be non-realistic or partly realistic. One part of the stage may be set with realistic scenery, such as the kitchen at
Brooklyn in Death of a Salesman ,but this may have an empty open stage area in front of it into which a single piece of furniture or other item may be brought to suggest a location, or the area may be left empty and used for variety of purposes, such as:In the empty space, Howard Wheels on a table with his wire recorder and his office is rapidly set up. To create a restaurant, Happy and the waiter bring on the chair-table the garden at Brooklyn. The play’s setting contributes to the understanding of the theme. In Death of a Salesman, the realistic set is the backyard of a middle class family.
We see Willy’s ‘small, fragile-seeming home’ with one dimensional roof, dwarfed by apartment blocks. Miller says: “An air of dream clings to the place, a dream rising out of reality”. The world outside Willy’s home seems oppressive and menacing, threatening to swallow up an economic failure like Willy. Here we see the use of stream of consciousness technique. The play begins and end in one basic setting, the Loman home and the flashbacks in stream of consciousness style presents Willy’s present dilemma that is closely connected to the past.
Harold Clurman says: “The play dramatizes Willy’s recollection of the past, and at times switches from a literal presentation of his memory to imaginary and semi-symbolic representation of his thought. ” Miller shows the contrast between Willy as a salesman and Willy as a man. Willy does not actually go back to the past. It is the past, as in a hallucination, that comes back to him. Each time when he is frustrated, guilty or accused by his sons, he will be in a dream and the past appears in his mind.
It shows Willy’s unconscious desire to avoid pain and to repair the bitterness, frustrations and humiliations of daily life at the present. In order to use this technique more smoothly, Miller chooses Linda and Charley, to present the whole, complete Willy: what he was, what he is, and what he will be. Broken biff says, “Will you let me go for Christ’s sake? Will you take that phony dream and burn it before something happens? ” The time shifts in the setting shows Willy’s stream of consciousness. The set is designed to minimize the boundaries between past and present.
When we see Willy’s present, the characters follow the rules of stage direction, entering only through the stage door to the left. When Willy visits his past, the characters openly move through walls. As Willy’s mental state deteriorates, the boundaries between past and present are destroyed and the two start to exist in parallel. So the stage setting expresses Willy’s divided consciousness as the reality of the house walls can be breached. The transparency of the setting represents the fragility of Willy’s hold on reality.
Miller sees Willy as living “at the terrible moment when the voice of the past is no longer distant but quite as loud as the voice of the present. ” Miller uses the lighting so that the scenes could change much faster and without the actors leaving the stage. The lighting reflects the basic mood of each act and shows the ‘mobile concurrency of past and present’. It keeps moving from one scene to another scene-The light on Willy and Linda‘s bedroom fades down when the scene ends and the light comes up on the boys bedroom for another scene. ‘A blue light of sky’ falls upon the house.
The surrounding area shows ‘an angry glow of orange’, symbolizing the anger of the helpless middle class people in a money minded society. The light in past scenes is brighter than the present scene. It means that past was far better for Willy than present. In an expressionistic drama, music and light might be used to indicate a character’s state of mind. Here music is a contrivance for the dissolution of time and distance limitations. Biff and Happy, dressed in high school football sweaters, are accompanied with the ‘gay music of the boys’.
The melody of flute at the beginning evokes the spacious area of old west, where Willy’s father, an inventor, sold flutes . It symbolizes a lost freedom and a lost ideal. When Willy claims to be ‘tired to the death’, the flute fades away, as if unable to cope with the pain of Willy. When Willy commits suicide, Miller says: “As the car speeds off, the music crashes down in a frenzy of sound, which becomes the soft pulsation of a single cello’s string. ” By using the form of confession, Miller makes us think about, who is to blame?
Why is biff at the age of thirty four a failure? Why biff and happy still wonder? Symbolism is another feature of expressionism. Linda’s mending of stocking, flute song displaced by childish nonsense from a wire recorder, wife’s praise erased by a whore’s laughter etc, are some beautiful symbols. Willy, the symbol of average American citizen, is trapped by the money-grabbing American society. The planting of seeds symbolize Willy’s meaningless attempt to leave something positive for his sons. One athletic trophy symbolizes the fragment of Loman family’s dream.
Here we see that the real characters like Biff, Happy, and Charley can’t fulfill Willy’s expectations. On the other hand, the imaginary presences or the characters from the past are ideal, heroic figures who embody Willy’s unfulfilled dream. Here we see subjective characterization. We find a strong imagery when Willy says, "the woods are burning. " Willy's brother Ben compares the process of success-building to entering a jungle. Ben says: "When I was I was seventeen, I walked into the jungle and when I was twenty-one I walked out... And by God I was rich! The jungle was the locale of Ben's success, but for Willy, the forest is burning and there is little time left. The burning woods image is symbolic of Willy's feeling that he cannot bear the pressure of time, debts, human relationships. Even the apartment buildings in his neighborhood are closing in on him. He wants to commit suicide. When Willy’s mind wanders back to the happy days of his sons’ youth, the entire house and surroundings become covered with leaves. The present time is marked by the disappearance of these leaves. After Willy’s death, “The leaves of day are appearing over everything”.
We find dialogues of typical New Yorkers, realistic, full of repetition, hesitations and contradictions. The language of stage direction, dialogue of the characters are very poetic. Willy says: “Funny you know? After all the highways, and the trains, and the appointments, and the years, you end up worth more dead than alive. ” The title, the use of the requiem and Willy’s dialogue everything foreshadow Willy’s death. We also find dramatic irony. Willy portrays himself as being at the top of his game in sales with countless admirers, after thirty years of experience.
The biggest irony lies in the fact that at his funeral, nobody except his family members and Charley were present. So the dramatic techniques in Death of a Salesman impresses us as a theatrical triumph and provides us a new example of modern tragedy Miller didn’t use either the timeswitch or the mixture of realist and expressionist technique simply for their own sakes . Actually, this was the best way to tell the story with the minimum of delay and repetition. Naturally, to be touched by the play and to realize it thoroughly are two different things.
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