Death of a Salesman. Our final drama! What did you notice/think/find important?
Filed under Drama 4: Death of a Salesman
Death of a Salesman tells the tragic, albeit confusing story of Willy Loman and the lead up to his suicide. Willy Loman is an aged salesman – a unsuccessful one at that – who cannot comfortably provide for his family anymore. Despite his failures in the sales industry, he does not even consider leaving it, because he sees it as the only way to realize the American Dream. We soon realize, however, that is has a perverse interpretation of the American dream. While the true idea is that anyone can achieve financial success and upward social mobility through hard work, despite their initial socioeconomic circumstances, Willy has come to believe that the fulfillment of the Dream is only possible when one is outwardly charismatic and well-liked – that which would automatically bring about success.
Willy believes that being liked is more important than actual hard work, and he will only settle for things that he thinks are symbols of “success”, even though he might be failing at them. For instance, he seems to hold the job of being a salesman in higher regard, and he will not move to another job (say, carpentering, because he is evidently quite adept at it) because he doesn’t see it as a job a “successful” person would have. Ironically, it is in this less “successful” career that Willy seems more likely to attain financial stability.
Ultimately, it is misconceptions of how success should be attained and what success is that inhibits him from attaining it at all. What’s even more tragic is that in this story, his misinterpretation not only ruins his own chances at a full life, but that of both his sons as well. Biff is comfortable working at the farm, but because of his father’s inability to accept this as valid success, becomes both unsatisfied and a kleptomaniac. Happy, on the other hand, is comfortable working in a job he thinks his father approves of, but has highly questionable moral standards.
However, failures in their lives aren’t limited to their careers – they have seeped into their familial relations as well. In essence, as the play progresses, we see that the true harmful effects of Willy’s beliefs go much further than it initially seems. Willy has constant squabbles with Biff, Happy is living a rather immoral life, and Willy’s wife becomes the victim of his infidelity. Willy even ends up in a conflict with himself. Clearly, relationships between these people have been weakened greatly – a large consequence of Willy’s ideals.
It also shows the kind of impact parents can make on their children, especially when the child is at an impressionable age. Biff’s impulsive stealing, for instance, can be partly attributed to wanting to fulfill Willy’s expectations of material success. Willy falls prey to his own believes – though he has had trouble paying for household expenses, he keeps up a front, making it seem to his family that he is successful and comfortably able to sustain the family – a fulfillment of the American Dream. Biff’s general “failure” is caused by his father as well – seeing Willy with the Woman, Biff becomes disillusioned, gives up summer school, passes off college, and basically ruins the prospects of attaining a white-collar job. His father’s mistakes sets off a chain of events that compromises Biff’s ability to gain “success”.
The play also points out that sometimes, criticism is in order. Even though Linda is a very kind woman who is loyal to her husband despite his philandering and clear mental disintegration, she isn’t being a positive impact on him either. What Willy probably would have benefited from was some kind of intervention – no matter how harsh – from someone he trusts. Someone should have tried to shake him out of his illusions much earlier. It could have been Linda or Charley. Either way, stronger action could have saved his mental state, and his life.
Another thing I found interesting/meaningful in this play is the use of seeds as a symbol, as they portray so many things about Willy Loman and his conflicts in one image. It’s interesting that Willy tries to plant the seeds at night as a way to feel that he has “a thing in the ground”. Firstly, it clearly reflects his mental state. Secondly, it reflects how his efforts to achieve his Dream, like his efforts to plant the seeds, are futile because the circumstances just don’t support it (his Dream can’t be achieved because he simply doesn’t have the skills in sales, and the seeds can’t grow because it’s nighttime).
Fortunately, there is still hope for the characters as the play closes. The most emotional scene in this play, the one in which Biff tearfully embraces the father, telling his father that he will finally be true to himself (that he cannot and will never be a “great man”) and that his father should do the same. From this scene and from how Biff says at the funeral that he does not intend to be a businessman, we see that Biff has broken out of the poisonous cage that his father’s distorted ideals have constructed – at least we have hope that one Loman will get out of this tragedy with a chance at a full and fulfilling life. I can’t say the same about Happy though, who seems very comfortable with the distorted ideals he inherited from his father. If there were ever a Death of a Salesman 2, I have a pretty good guess has to who the main character will be…
On a final note, I would really like to see this play live. It would be interesting how the scenes in which Willy is confused and between the past and the present are played out, and to see if the lighting and the props are presented the way I imagine them to be after reading the text.
I’ve always been captivated by the idea of the American Dream. From the beginning, the American continent was often equated with boundless opportunity. Early Americana is characterized as a land of economic potential, where a man from even the most modest of origins to raise to great wealth through diligence, where everyone deserve a new car, fancy appliances, and a big house with a white picket fence. The definition of success was being whittled down into a rigid set of parameters.
Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” explores the futility of self-deception, examines the definition of success in early America and the danger of suppressing one’s own inclinations to meet the expectations of others. Ultimately, all of these force me to look at where I am right now, reflect, and understand what I want to achieve in my life. Willy’s dismal failure results from delusions and a false sense of entitlement, but those are symptoms of a much-understated problem – his attempt to be something that he is not. His collapse is neutralized by Biff’s self-awakening that questions the strict definitions of success that ultimately led to Willy’s downfall. Essentially, it might be Biff who is the most important character as he is the only one capable of change. His willingness to face himself and pursue and alternative to the ‘conventional’ American Dream, I can see the freedom and self-fulfillment that people obsessed with social status can rarely achieve.
Willy’s definition of success is carrying a business suit and a briefcase. To him, owning a nicer car or house than the neighbors was of paramount importance – he embraces these material foals, believing that good looks and charisma are all it takes to “end with diamonds”. Like many contemporary American, he lives beyond his means in order to project the illusion of the definition of success. Wealth and upward mobility, or at least its appearance, are what he always wanted to pursue. Despite his grandiose claims, there’s a sense that he doesn’t belong in the business world – he confesses that people laugh at him and that he talks too much. Running beneath all of these are his talents for working with his hands from installing plumbing, putting up ceiling, everything involving his motor skills. Biff probably summarizes the situation correctly when he said that they don’t belong in “this nuthouse of a city” and that he should be mixing cement on some open plain or to be a carpenter. Unfortunately, working with his hands does not fill his definition of success or “the American Dream”. He tells Biff that even his grandfather was better than a carpenter. Willy is so trapped in his desire to impress others, to achieve social status and be well-liked, so much so that he ahs to suppress his own inclinations and forced himself to a certain mold that doesn’t necessarily fit his character. He beats his head against the door of corporate America and scorn the idea of working on a farm. Incidentally, it is important to note what Biff said in his funeral – “There is more of him in that front stoop than all the sales he made”.
At the end of the play, Bill’s epiphany comments strongly on the ‘one-size-fits-all’ notions of the American Dream. After trying to squeeze himself into his father’s (and America’s) definition of success, he finally admits that he doesn’t fit in that world. He realizes that all he wants is to know who he is and he will be the happiest working as a ranch hand. Perhaps Willy would have found the same peace if he’d traded his suit and shoeshine for a job that utilized his real talents.
What I like about this play is the way it exposes the pitfalls of conforming to someone else’s definition of success. Willy tries so hard to be something he is not that he can no longer face. I think we all can relate to Willy – our Asian parents with their expectations, and our personal definition of success (popularity, appearance, intelligence, etc). We totter through this world of lies, permanently lost behind a façade. However, we have to be able to be like Biff, break through the deceptions and restraints to find happiness waiting. Like him, we have to be able to find happiness in what we are truly passionate about, and develop that passion. We have to contemplate alternative paths to happiness and see that a certain thing is not the only marker of success.
Death of a salesman – what an interesting, yet depressing play. It is not difficult to recognize why this particular work by Arthur Miller was deemed ‘the best American drama’ of all time. Aside from its subtle criticisms of capitalism, the play highlights the futility and the dangers of pursuing the ‘American dream’. The play was written in 1949, thus, contextually speaking, the play is set in Post-War America. World War 2 had just ended in 1941, and during this period, tensions were growing between the USA and the USSR, causing the establishment of the ‘iron curtain’ between the capitalists and the communists. At this time, America became the world’s leading economic powerhouse while nations in Europe were still in ruins after the gruesome years in battle.
Context set aside, death of a salesman tells the story of an ambitious, but delusional Willy Loman. From the beginning of the play, Miller makes it clear that Loman has always desired a good life for himself. He imagined that he would one day become successful, live on plenty without a worry, and have successful sons to take care of him once he grew old. The play begins by showing how all those expectations have been shattered. After years of being a salesman, Loman is drowning in debt and lost ability to sell anything in general. At the age of 34, Willy’s son, Biff, is unemployed, living with his parents and is known to be a kleptomaniac.
A few things stood out to me about this play. The first would be Willy’s inability to accept his shortcomings, causing him to disregard Biff’s talents in construction work because it was seen as a ‘lowly’ occupation. Throughout the whole play it becomes clear that all Willy truly cares about is self image, constantly stressing the importance of the packaging, character, even if there’s really no substance underneath all of it. Willy becomes the symbol of the people crushed by the capitalistic system, where he compares himself to an orange when he gets fired from the job that he has dedicated his life to. In many ways, this play acts as a strong critic towards the absence of the safety net during this time period, inflicting pain and distress towards those who no longer had the strength and ability to work. The whole play is generally filled with a tone of gloom, an atmosphere of hopelessness and dejection.
The second thing that stood out was Willy’s treatment of his wife, Linda. I would consider myself somewhat of a feminist, in the sense that I believe that husbands should respect their wives, and women should have the opportunity to pursue their desires and dreams as equally as men. In this play, Willy is abhorrently rude to Linda. It is arguable that this attitude developed as a result of Willy’s brewing emotions of guilt as a result of his affair with the secretary. It is Linda who seems to be at a lost, stripped off the happiness she should have been able to have in life. Linda defends Willy a myriad of times in front of Biff and Happy, but Willy never reciprocates that sense of commitment and love that Linda constantly shows. This became another key reason why it was difficult for me to sympathize with Willy, the so called ‘tragic hero’.
Overall, death of a salesman does a terrific job in pinpointing the dangers of fervently pursuing a senseless American dream and highlights the importance of family, dedication to marriage, acceptance and the overwhelming need for contentment in order to live… Well, a content life. At the end, this play reminds us that it really isn’t all about the money, money, money….. (Price Tag – Jessie J song playing in the background….) 😀
For the last drama that we’re learning in class to close off the year, we were given the privilege of reading about the tragic life story of Willy Loman, the “ideal salesman”. What the “ideal” salesman means would actually be according to his own accord. Because as he had lived his life the way that he always had thought to be the right way, he had naturally expected the same from his son. Biff, the son that he was extremely proud of, almost as expected, fails to deliver. The whole play itself comprises of scene after scene of either present day or within Willy’s imagination – all ironically full of disappointment.
As the story was started with Willy’s return home, he was met by the disappointment that he felt for the failed business trip that he just came home from. He then continues with critiquing his son, Biff, who was due to return from his job at the ranch the next day. He mentions how he feels disappointed at Biff’s shortcomings, despite his incredulous talent. He feels that Biff was made for so much more, even though Biff himself refuses to believe it. With Willy’s little ramblings and jib jabbers on his own, I had personally already developed my own opinion that Willy, despite his talks of potential and dreams, was a little bit different. Different in a good or bad way, I have yet to discover. But sooner than I thought, I was graced into Willy’s first daydream, which comprised of his younger self, seeing his young sons who looked up at him incredibly. The play then continues on with flashbacks and dreams of Willy’s that either seem unrealistic, or down right pathetic. For example, the dream that was of Willy’s and The Woman, imagining how he felt so accomplished that he was able to “sell” himself to her, and have her like him in return. It baffles me how much feeling “liked” or “accepted” or “wanted” meant so much to Willy that he was willing to cheat on his wife with her.
As I had previously mentioned, I had always felt that Willy was different, or a little bit out of it, meaning he was a little bit crazy. I guess this was why I kind of tolerated all the things he did and said, because I had already realized that he was not like any other man – he had been through more disappointment in his life than any of the other characters. I had actually noticed the underlying theme of the “American Dream” at the end of the story, with Biff’s explosive argument with Willy, and Willy’s bitter acceptance that had eventually led to his demise. The American Dream being if anyone was good-looking, hard working, and well liked, then he deserved success and would eventually be handed it. Which is exactly why he had always been pushing Biff to be a pleasant person, and asking him to follow in his footsteps in becoming a salesman that was successful. However, what I would identify to be the real tragedy would be the fact that because of the dream and the illusion of achieving it, Willy failed to notice the things around him, and he continued to strive for something that did not actually seem tangibly possible, especially viewing the situation from his current old age.
The ending of the play was the actually expected. Well, actually it was not. I mean, if it were only to judge from the story itself without viewing the title, I would not have guessed that the ending to that story would be Willy’s plunging himself to his death in order for his insurance to be able to pay off the debts that he had. I would have thought that after the climax that he and Biff reached towards the end in their argument to bring forth a happy ending – like most stories. However the unexpected ending the Death of a Salesman presented was one that I was actually quite intrigued by, making this to be one of the best plays that we have studied so far. I had also thoroughly enjoyed the video, which I think was a bonus to the play itself. I think it was a good read and a great play to end our year with!
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