Essay on Universal Themes and Characters in Death of a Salesman

Paper Type:  Essay
Pages:  4
Wordcount:  920 Words
Date:  2022-03-28


Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman" is a play produced in 1949. In the play, Willy Loman, an aging salesman, returns home from a sales trip confused and tired. Miller uses this play to demonstrate the death of the American Dream promise, which entails the protagonist's wish for respect, status and success. Notably, in "Death of a Salesman" the playwright incorporates universal themes and characters which transcend both racial and cultural boundaries.

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The American dream is one of the dominant themes in the play. As a universal theme, the American dream is one of which anyone, irrespective of their race or culture, can achieve. Indeed, the American dream promise does exist, and it includes the idea that anyone living in the United States can have both social and economic success by working hard. However, one of Willy's central beliefs is that being an attractive and well-liked individual is necessary for success in business. He wonders how, "in the greatest country in the world a young man like Biff, with such personal attractiveness gets lost" (Miller 6). Consequently, he ignores the understanding that success comes as a result of dedication and hard work, and for this reason, Willy considers Bernard unlikely to succeed due to his unattractiveness. Therefore, Willy has a misguided interpretation of the American Dream, which gives rise to his rapid mental decline after being unable to admit the difference between his life and the assumed Dream.

Markedly, due to the erroneous interpretation of the American Dream, John Lahr criticized that it was inappropriate to have Black actors entirely perform the play, "Death of a Salesman." Precisely, in his review, "Hard Sell," Lahr describes the play as "an all-black production" due to the performing actors' ethnicity (Lahr). Undoubtedly, back then, the American Dream for African Americans was different from what it is today. In support of this idea, August Wilson asserts that any attempt to portray the experiences, history and culture of African Americans as part of "the human condition through the specifics of white culture is to deny Blacks their own humanity and history" (Lahr).

Further, Lahr adds that "to replace the Jewish Willy Loman with an African-American is to change something elemental in the nature of the play's lament. Loman is driven crazy by America's obsession with winning... This sense of expectation and entitlement was simply not shared by the African American in 1949" (Lahr). Admittedly, Lahr is right in his assessment since some specifics, such as dignity, job, and salary, in Miller's play seem not to apply to the experience of African-Americans in the mid-twentieth century, which further underpins the idea that Black's view of the American Dream was different from that of Whites.

Also, abandonment is another universal theme in Miller's "Death of a Salesman." Unquestionably, abandonment is a human conditions that can apply to anyone regardless of racial or cultural differences. Ironically, in the play, Willy's love for his family inspires him to abandon them just as his father did when he was a young child, leaving Willy both spiritually and financially abandoned. Willy confesses that his "father lived many years in Alaska. He was an adventurous man... I thought I'd go out with my older brother and try to locate him" (Miller 60). Willy believed the American Dream would give him a better life but eventually, his hope changes to an altered reality of failure. He enforces his wish for a perfect life by bringing up his sons in a model manner. Remarkably, the determination that Willy had in achieving the American Dream can be considered as a tactic for coping with abandonment in his life.

Furthermore, betrayal is another significant theme depicted in "Death of a Salesman." According to Bigsby, some of Miller's "central themes include betrayal and denial," which are indeed universally experienced (10). Essentially, Willy betrays Linda, his wife, by cheating on her with a woman in a hotel an affair that Biff discovers making him view his father as a phony, in addition to serving as a betrayal to the whole family. Throughout the play, Willy is primarily obsessed with what he deems as a betrayal by Biff. In Willy's view, he has the right to expect the fulfilment of the promise inherent in Biff. As a result, when Biff abandons the ambitions that Wily had for him, Willy associates the rejection with "spite" and "Insult" and interprets it as a personal affront (Miller 100). Personally, I remember one of my friend's parents who like Willy would always stress the need for his son to take a particular career path in an attempt to make up for his own failed dream career.


Therefore, as demonstrated herein, Miller incorporates universal themes and characters which transcend both racial and cultural boundaries in the play. One of the dominant themes in the play is the American Dream which is widely interpreted as the idea that with determination and hard work, anyone can achieve success in life. Unfortunately, Willy associates the success attached to the American Dream with one's likeability, and this ultimately makes it difficult for him to achieve the success he anticipates. Additionally, other significant themes in the play that depict universality are abandonment and betrayal, which are depicted throughout the play and considered to have no racial or cultural boundaries.

Works Cited

Bigsby, Christopher. "Introduction." The Cambridge Companion to Arthur Miller, 2nd ed., Cambridge University Press.

Lahr, John. "Hard Sell." The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 18 June 2017,

Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. New York: The Pinguin Books.1998

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Essay on Universal Themes and Characters in Death of a Salesman. (2022, Mar 28). Retrieved from

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