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Death of a Salesman: A Still-Relevant Mirror Held Up to the American Dream-Turned-Nightmare
By Chris RobideauxIn his 1949 play Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller strikes at the heart of the American condition, and explores the themes and subjects of disappointed expectations, the climb of wealth and status-seeking, the demands of "success," the causality of competitive drives, and the effects of all these on the human soul and psyche. It's nearly impossible to examine this story as the isolated experiences of the main character, Willy Loman, for this is a metonymy or microcosm of the uniquely American--and capitalist--experience, which is a showcasing of the shadow side, or underbelly of the American Dream, and its disruption, or destruction of "happy life," or "real life".
We see, also, that as early as the 1940s, the "American Dream" was already quickly traveling south, not unlike the confused wanderings of the central character, who misses out on his home life due to being on the road for decades, and the false promises of chasing the golden carrots of his company hierarchy, and capitalism, from a salesman's idiosyncratic perspective. And sales, as a profession, speaks loudly about failed dreams in this Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning play. It also examines confused delusions, and how the human spirit is sold along with the endless gadgetry and props of America's materialist obsessions and hypocrises. The inability to be honest with one's self is also a central theme of the story as well. From this follows the inability to be honest with others--namely one's (Willy Loman's) closest loved ones.
The play expertly essays and excoriates the dark underpinnings and ugliness of the shadow side of American life. Willie Loman cheats, lies, lusts, deceives, and blindly rages--and in relation to none moreso than himself. The story certainly strikes a deep nerve in the heart and soul of every American--especially Middle America and the working class. But it must be especially smiting to the middle class. The psychological palate of the story exists somewhere between proletarian grit and bourgeois pride and dutifulness, along with the singularly American sense of responsibility and reward. The American sense of entitlement, which spawns jealousy and mockery of others who are different, or who have more of a "leg up" in life (evidenced by Willy and Biff's making fun of next door neighbors Charlie and his "worm" of a son Bernard, who we would identify today as an intellectual, or "nerd"), along with violence, vituperation, and scornfulness cast upon the Loman children (who have their parent's ideas of success and failure projected upon them), and finally a long, slow descent into psychosis (Loman talks to himself in a dissociative, delusional manner throughout the play) and ultimately death denote Willie Loman's tragic character arc.
A competitive kind of schizophrenia is shown, or implied, in Death of a Salesman to plague those in Middle America struggling to get on top of the heap and outdo the next guy, let alone survive. This idea is personified in Willy's boasting of his sales numbers, and Biff's superimposed dreams of becoming a football star--though his brother Happy proclaims "You're a poet, Biff". Indeed, America is a society fraught with innumerable self-defeating maladies, with a core of religious-materialist schizophrenia plaguing it. How can the Puritanical and noble ideals of our forefathers jibe with virulent notions of hard-driving (and hard-driven) material success and pretense of social status? Willy Loman goes on at a Bible's length about his car, refrigerator, home and mortgage, etc., but never once displays the natural gratitude and insight necessary to truly value what it is one has in life--whether material, existential, emotional, or otherwise.
Another thing the play seems to suggest is that America's real war is a war with itself and its own
Miller on DEATH OF A SALESMAN
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