Death of a Salesman: Analysis
Death of a Salesman is a play about Willy Lowman, an increasingly delusional, ageing man who finds himself dealing with the crushing realisation that the American Dream is dead as he succumbs to the weight of his own unattainable expectations. In the play, a huge gap exists between the grandiose life that Willy always expected himself to live and reality. The play depicts the end of his life, as he struggles to escape the failures in his life that are ultimately caused by his own pride.
The most obvious central conflict is between Willy and his eldest son, Biff. Willy is doing everything in his power to live in his world of his delusions, despite the immense damage that it’s doing to his family. After discovering his fathers affair with “The Woman” Biff choses to be his own person, and to live outside of delusion. Biff wants to live a life away from the failures of his father while Willy insists on maintaining the lies. This conflict makes Willy the antagonist of the play.
This is made even clearer when every member of Willy’s family does everything in their power to keep the peace and keep Willy believing his lies. Willy’s other son, Happy, is in many ways a carbon copy of Willy. Despite the fact that he is failing at work and is sleeping with his employers girlfriends, Happy seems to have bought whole-heartedly into the myth of the American Dream. Happy’s character is in many ways a reflection of who Willy used to be: he hopes to live up to his own expectations and find success. Unfortunately, given the themes of failure and abandonment that can be seen throughout this play, it seems likely that Happy will meet the same fate as his father.
Linda is the most stable character in this play. She does everything in her power to keep things together and indulge Willy in his delusions. She realises the trouble that her husband is in, and her unconditional love for him leaves her trapped. Linda ultimately runs the family by herself. Towards the end of the play she makes it very clear to both of her sons that Willy is her top priority, kicking them out of the house.
Throughout the play, each character comes to the difficult realisation that the life that they imagine for themselves will never come to pass. Willy finally crumbles under the weight of his own unrealistic expectations, which leads to his death. The rest of the family’s fates are tied up with Willy’s, and the promise that Biff and Happy once showed, declines over the years until there is nothing left.
The entire play is built on the lies the Lowman family tells to each other, the world, and to themselves. Willy lies to himself about being a great man who is just about to hit the big time. Linda lies to herself by going along with the disfunctional family life. Happy is constantly saying that he’s going to get married, and exaggerates his position at work to fall more in line with Willy’s vision. Up until the end of the play, Biff occasionally buys into his father’s conception of who he is, and lies to himself by thinking that being a salesman will make him happy.
“I saw the things that I love in this world. The work and the food and the time to sit and smoke. And I looked at the pen and I thought, what the hell am I grabbing this for? Why am I trying to become what I don’t want to be . . . when all I want is out there, waiting for me the minute I say I know who I am.”
In this moment, he is able to see what it is he really cares about in life, something that Willy isn’t able to do even until his death.
Biff is interesting as a character because he is the only member of the Lowman family who is able to find and acknowledge the fact that he is an ordinary man. I think the key difference between Willy and Biff is made clear in a number of ways. How Biff fantasises about the open west and seeing the sky and complains that the view has been obscured by the encroaching city, as his father dreams of the jungle. This is deeply symbolic of the relationship both of these characters have with reality, and their wishes for freedom and/or obscurement.
Willy describes his sons as Hercules and Adonis, mythologising them. Biff is a former high school football star, who was described as being attractive, and having lots of friends and love interests as a teenager, but has since been beaten down by reality. Biff is most happy when he is working with his hands, and seemingly his most fulfilling career opportunity has been working as a farm hand. This reality is in stark contrast to the mythology.
On Arthur Miller
Elements of Arthur Miller’s life appear everywhere throughout his work. Miller was born to a wealthy immigrant family who had managed to create a thriving business that collapsed at the start of the great depression. Given the fact that Arthur Miller knew from personal experience both what it was like to have “made it” in America, as well as what it was like to fail and be trapped at the bottom, Willy’s jealousy and desperation to succeed financially are heartbreakingly real. Knowing Miller’s experiences, it is easy to empathise with his distaste for the American dream.
Death of a Salesman is an American classic for good reason, but it’s still a difficult play to get through… When the house of cards collapses, he falls with it, and it’s hard to read because all of it is so preventable. If he’d held it together enough to ask for help, or accepted the job that Charley offered, or told the truth to Linda so she could find a way to help him, then maybe his death could have been prevented.