Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman is a fine specimen of good literature which tends to ask important questions, rather than give ready-made answers. The author’s portrayal of a relationship between Willy Loman and his two sons is profoundly unsettling and discomforting. There is not a single moment in the play which lets the reader feel at ease. New questions are being raised while the old ones have not yet been answered. In his paper The Nature of Tragedy in Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman" Robert A. Martin writes that plays by Arthur Miller engage us directly in social, political, and moral questions, in questions that may be posted early in the plays themselves, and which continue to stimulate and engage us (Martin 97). And this is very true about Death of a Salesman. In a triangle of Willy, Biff, and Happy the focus of the reader’s sympathies keeps shifting all the time as new plot twists are being revealed. And seemingly trivial conflict of an aging father trying to get across to his sons over the generation gap turns into a penetrating investigation of the crash of the American Dream and masculine ideals of the post-war USA. In his paper "Death of a Salesman" and Postwar Masculine Malaise Grant Williams writes, that Arthur Millers Death of a Salesman running for 742 performances and taking with it all the major award captures much of the tone of the era, its anxieties, wishes, and hopes, as well its successes and failures (Williams 53). So, it can be argued that through the use of mirroring characters, flashbacks, foreshadowing, inner monologues, telling names, and symbolism the author manages to create a many-sided portrayal of a father-son relationship which can be read on three different levels: personal (as a psychological drama), social (as a depiction of the failure of the American Dream) and philosophical (as a reflection on the universal problem of generation-gap conflict and ethical heritage, idealization and truth-seeking).
The Theme of the Play Death of a Salesman
In his play, Arthur Miller conducts a complex study of the father and son relationship on many levels: structure, plot, and narration, characters, and symbols. When speaking about the structure, plot, and narration, one should first mention the title of the play: Death of a Salesman. Though the play is in the first place about family drama, Willy Loman is referred to in the title simply as a Salesman. So, he is initially seen by the reader, not as a Father or a Husband, but as a Salesman, his occupation has defined his whole life. But at the same time he is not the Salesman, the indefinite article places Willy in the faceless and nameless crowd: he is just one of the many. Some of the covers of the printed version of the play, theatrical and movie posters often depict a man standing with his back to the on-looker in the ray of light, a dark silhouette, a shadow, or even a body wearing a costume and carrying two suitcases, but without a head, these images are symbolic reflections of the title message: the story is going to be about a man without a face, a small man whose whole life was dominated by his job and who could not find his true identity, understand himself and get in charge of his life. Willy is a symbolic figure. In Personality Wins the Day: Death of a Salesman and Popular Sales Advice Literature Brenda Murphy calls Willy a metonymic representation of the contradictory beliefs and value systems that were at the heart of American business culture in the decade after World War II (Murphy 1). The title also contains the word death which is an element of the foreshadowing technique employed in the play. From the very beginning, the reader is aware of the fact that the main character is going to die at the end. This knowledge changes the way one sees the characters: in the face of death quarrels and bickering between the father and his sons seem absurd and out of place, while the important things are their awkward love for each other and desire to live up to each other ideals get more distinct.
Death of a Salesman Plot Structure
The structure of the play is clear and logical: there are two acts divided by nightfall. The first act includes the setting and rising action. The second act leads the reader to the climax and denouement. The two parts are very different in terms of tone and emotional coloring: the first one is building up from calm melancholy to hopeful optimism while the second part takes the reader down the emotional ladder: from the jovial mood of its very beginning to the gloom and despair of the denouement. This structure is very efficient in terms of piling up the tension. And it is also very important for the reader to understand why Willy commits suicide at the very end when he is almost cleared of all the debts, as well as to build a connection between his death and the attitude of his sons. The contrast makes things more distinct: white is brighter against a dark background and black becomes much better visible in a ray of light. A mouse can survive in a pool full of water for 24 hours, but if you take it out, let it dry, feed it and then throw it back into the pool again, it will get drowned. Hope is the last thing to die. But if you give somebody hope and then take it away from them, their life will be darker and more miserable than before. This is what Willy’s sons have done to him. They do not mean to ruin their dad’s life, in fact, they are trying to help him in a certain way. Linda asks them to be kind to their father and they make plans together, invite him for a lunch in a fancy restaurant. But in the critical moment their indifference, emotional carelessness, and selfishness lead Willy to despair and death. Even their own wise and forgiving mother cannot turn a blind eye to their cruelty, she says, You’re a pair of animals! Not one, not another living soul would have had the cruelty to walk out on the man in a restaurant! He was so humiliated he nearly limped when he came in (Miller). In fact, the waiter in the restaurant, Happys pal Stanley, treats the old man with more kindness and respect than his own sons: when Willy gives him a tip, as the old man turns, Stanley slips the money back into his jacket. He obviously feels some sympathy for the old salesman and is ashamed of how his sons have treated him: as Willy hurries out, Stanley watches him off and checks the other waiter who has been staring at Willy with a rough Well, what are you looking at? (Miller). The image of a waiter works as a foil to the characters of Biff and Happy. The mother’s indignation and the waiter’s compassion make the behavior of Willy’s sons look even crueler.
Death of a Salesman and Psychology
At the same time, though the overall structure of the play is quite clear and logical, resembling an arch, it also includes interesting narrative techniques which make the plot development more intriguing and help the reader get an insight into the relationship between father and sons on a deeper psychological level. First of all, the author introduces foreshadowing: he lets the reader know what to expect at the end of the play. At the very beginning, the title fulfills this function. Later on, in the text Lindas speech about her husband’s state plays the same role. She tells the boys about the first attempt at suicide, how their father drove to a little bridge, and then deliberately smashed the car into the railing, and it was only the shallowness of the water that saved him, and also about the other attempts and a length of rubber pipe which she found behind the fuse box and which Willy possibly intended to use to inhale the gas. The prop itself serves as a symbol of Willy’s death wish throughout the whole play. The reactions to it show different attitudes of Willy’s family members to his psychological problems and suicidal thoughts. Linda is sympathetic and understanding. Even talking about Willys desire to kill himself she tries to see the best in him and show that whatever he does is out of love for his sons, she says, He’s just a big stupid man to you, but I tell you there’s better in him than in many other people. I tell you, I know every thought in his mind. It sounds so old-fashioned and silly, but I tell you he put his whole life into you and you’ve turned your backs on him. Biff, I swear to God! Biff, his life is in your hands! (Miller). Biff, though at first, seems to be more hostile towards his father than the peacemaker Happy, now proves to be more sensitive and sympathetic: he promises his mother to change, stay at home and find a job. Happy is different he does not understand the old man and is not going to try, all he can say is just call his father names. This moment in the story and the symbol of a gas hose is a certain kind of litmus test paper that shows the true attitude of Willy’s sons to their old father.
What Do Flashbacks Mean in Death of a Salesman?
The author also widely uses flashbacks. First, there are flashbacks that show Biff and Happy’s youth. These fragments help the author to create a vivid contrast between the awe and respect which the boys felt for their father in the past and their current mixture of resentment and indifference. They also show the way that Willy Loman brought his boys up exposing the foundations of his future failure as a father. Willy is a dreamer and his whole way of thinking is influenced by the outside authorities: what is thought to be proper by the society or the people he respects, successful people, e.g. Uncle Ben. He ignores individual characters of the boys trying to bring them up in accordance with the masculine ideals of his youth: the most important thing for him is being well-liked, daring, and handsome. This is why he overlooks Biff’s neglect of study and his taking to stealing. He thinks that if you are good-looking, well-built, and courageous then all the doors will open for you. The motto Be well-liked! summarizes the advice that Willy Loman gives his sons:
Bernard can get the best marks in school, understand, but when he gets out in the business world, understand, you are going to be five times ahead of him. That’s why I thank Almighty God you’re both built like Adonises. Because the man who makes an appearance in the business world, the man who creates personal interest, is the man who gets ahead. Be liked and you will never want (Miller).
Willy compares his sons to Adonis, a beautiful Greek youth with whom Aphrodite fell in love. Adonis rejected her love being engaged in the usual pursuits of the youth and not ready to love. He was killed by a wild boar. He died young and childless, he never loved anyone but himself and his hunting dogs. This story is a mythological parallel to the lives of Willy’s sons who are both selfish and childish.
There is one more mythological allusion in another flashback fragment that helps better understand Willy’s attitude to his sons. When the old man is looking at Biff standing in the lamp-light, smoking, he remembers the old days when he felt so proud of his son’s achievement in sport:
Like a young god. Hercules something like that. And the sun, the sun all around him. Remember how he waved to me? Right up from the field, with the representatives of three colleges standing by? And the buyers I brought, and the cheers when he came out Loman, Loman, Loman! God Almighty, he’ll be great yet. A star like that, magnificent, can never really fade away! (Miller)
Willy compares his son to Hercules who could overcome his competitors with strength but not intellect. He is idealizing him without thinking about his real strong and weak sides. Placing such high hopes on his son, calling him a star, Willy never discusses even for a moment what Biff wants or is inclined to. By imposing his own false ideals on his sons Willy ruined their lives. Both Biff and Happy were idealized and spoilt as boys. They were taught to think highly of...
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