Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller: Themes

Failure of the American dream is the crucial theme of Death of a Salesman. By American dream we mean a promise of freedom and opportunity for all. Disciples of the American dream were firmly convinced that hard work is a way to accomplishing that dream. Americans came to believe that those who work hard are qualified to be disciples of the American dream.

Arthur Miller (1915-2005)

They came to believe more and more in a happy and prosperous life. Apart from this line of thinking they came to believe that once one is born as an American, one naturally deserves the credit of expecting happy and prosperous life. Money, Moloch and materialism became the famous mantra of those Americans who fanatically sang a song of the American dream. Lovers of American dream embraced such a formidable view that one is condemned to be successful in the material world. Once one is born as an American one has no right to fail in life. If failure emerges, suicide is far better than failure in life. One has to succeed at any cost.

This kind of creed behind American dream has been seen working in the life of Willy Loman. Willy Loman had a natural talent and temperament for Carpentry. But having seen the bright possibility of accomplishing the American dream from the field of business venture, Willy chose the occupation of a salesman. Mature and productive period of his life was spent in hard work. He had a golden hope to get settled comfortably in the later part of life. Contrary to this expectation, he was demoted and dismissed. He was financially ruined and had to ask for money to his friend. Moreover, he had great expectation from his son Biff, so, he loved him much, but did not show much care and love to Happy. Biff is filled with the thought of American dreams of his father. So, he did not know how to start a career from the bottom. He always wanted to start from the top. He moved from one job to another and even at the age of thirty five he was not settled. It was really painful for Willy to see both of his sons unsettled and insecure. Both of total failure. Willy was enduring one big burden of his failed life. But to see the total failure of his two sons were equally burdensome for him. Thus, he was overburdened with double failure. Crushed by utter frustration and extreme hopelessness Willy contemplated suicide. When his suicidal urge overpowered him, he committed suicide.

Fake existence

Willy Loman became a fanatical worshipper of the goddess of success. To him, success was life, and life has been just a success. He wants to make his dream a reality. In his striving towards accomplishing dream he not only became ambitious, he made his sons ambitious as well. His struggle for accomplishing a dream knew no limit because his dream was natural. But the outcome of his entire struggles turned out to be pretty humiliating. Throughout his life Willy encouraged his son Biff to accomplish the standard of the American dream. But to his utter disappointment, Biff appeared to be an immature and irresponsible boy who never succeeded in getting settled in a lucrative job. Happy, instead of being sincere in his occupation, became a taker of bribe. Happy brought notoriety by reducing those girls whom he had no real interest. At last when he was dismissed from his job, he was almost penniless. To give Linda the impression that he has been earning money Willy borrowed money from Charley; and he gave that money to Linda. Actually, he was borrowing, but he convinced Linda that the money, which he had actually borrowed, is his income. Willy was almost penniless. But he used to tell Charley that he has been keeping a strict account of whatever sum of money he has been borrowing from Charley. Willy was living a fake life full of illusion. Willy was egotistic, proud and unnecessarily over-assertive. His deep seated egoism and over-assertive boastfulness prevented him from embracing reality.  Blind to his realistic predicament he began to take shelter in the oasis of illusion. When Willy was a total failure, he did not admit his failure. To admit his failure was offensively painful and insulting to him. That is why he often used to avoid talking about his failure. To save himself from being insulted by any talk about his failure, he used to lie to himself, used to lie to others, used to fantasize and fool himself into a false vision of his own popularity. This erroneous view of himself or false pride gets in the way of Willy's relationships.

Nature versus City

Willy's love for music is a standing example of his being an admirer of Nature. In the play the music rings in loud tune when Willy's self goes close to his nature. This music is a symbol of Willy's nostalgic longing for natural rusticity has embodied in the relationship between Willy and music. It seems Willy is naturally inclined to love and admire nature. He is seen most happy only when he is in keeping with nature, or when he comes in touch and tune with nature. Willy's father had an instinctive habit to wander. He (Willy's father) had an extreme wanderlust. Willy's father was a wanderer, a pioneer, a maker of flutes, and a musician. Willy's older brother Ben was an adventurer who lived in Africa where he got rich on diamond mines and invested in Alaskan timber land. Willy's sons were strong and skillful athletes in high school. All of these people, including Willy himself, have an affinity for the outdoors, for physical skills, for a happy-go-lucky, carefree existence.

Early in his career as a salesman Willy would drive through the beautiful countryside with the front windshield of his car open. He would come home to his garden and the little house he was fixing up, and play with his sons. But soon the city closed in on them, tall apartment buildings blocking the light from reaching the garden. At the same time Willy's financial demands closed in on him, overpowering him with the necessity for making money. Biff says that men like them should be doing carpentry work out in the country.

Morality versus Immortality

The playwright Arthur Miller had somewhere else said that an individual's need to leave a thumbprint after death is as strong a need as hunger or thirst. We have been taught that hunger is our strong need. Similarly thirst is no less a need than hunger. By the same token an individual has another strong need. That is the need to leave a thumbprint after death. Every individual has an unconscious need to be remembered, to be immortal. Everybody likes to leave his/her imprint after his or her death. Nobody likes to be forgotten. This will to be immortal; this will to be remembered after death induces an individual to do something that brings at least a part of immortality. In this play Willy Loman contemplated suicide because his dream was crushed, his dream was shattered, he was dismissed, his dignity and prestige were eclipsed, he lost self-respect, he was neglected by his sons, he was forced to see a humiliating failure of his sons and he was forced to choose a fake existence. He searched for an outlet to his suicidal life. He had received neglect and mockery from his son Biff. At the last time of his life Biff expressed his unconditional love for his father. Willy felt happy at being loved by his son Biff. Willy felt as though his life is still worthwhile. Willy's heart was welled up with his responsible love for his family. He decided to leave something financially crucial to his family. He, thus, made an attempt to leave a legacy for Biff through suicide. Thinking that his family will earn the $20,000 of his insurance policy Willy committed suicide.

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