Death of a salesman

Themes:    The American Dream:  personal realities based on one’s historical and social context

People often personalise and customise their own special dreams, goals and illusions based on the social, cultural and political views and values of the day.

In this regard, Willy Loman, fashions his own personal vision based on the American Dream – the myth of the popular, well-liked, influential salesman. It includes the ability to climb ladders, make a name and fortune for oneself, irrespective of background and origins, and prosper. His dream revolves around the nee do attract another’s respect and become one’s own personal star.

The American Dream, like the Australian Dream, is about success and fortune.

Willy exaggerates his reputation, status and popularity. He boasts to Biff that he is greeted by mayors in the major cities such as Providence and that he is well known, “they know me up and down New England” (24). As a measure of his status and reputation, he can park “my car in any street in New England and the cops protect it like their own” (24). He imagines that his funeral will be massive. “they’ll come from Maine, Mas, Vermont New Hampshire”

In this regard, our definition of ourselves depends on how we ‘measure up’ against other people. Miller illustrates this notion through Willy’s internal thoughts of how someone’s “gotta break [their] neck to see a star in this yard”. Miller makes use of this motif and couples it with the moon and stars to contrastingly display how insignificant Willy is, compared with his large, unattainable dreams.

Willy’s obsession to become the self-made man like David Singleman who is “remembered and loved and helped by…many different people” and to have “respect and comradeship and gratitude”, demonstrates the dangers of losing touch with reality. Willy persistently claims to be “vital in New England” when in fact he is about to lose his job, and acknowledges that “business is tough, it’s murderous, but not for me of course!”,

(What does Willy remember?) Memories can remind us of defining moments and choices that have a big impact upon our path in life. (Symbolically, Miller’s stage directions about the unbroken lines of the past and the “broken boundaries” between the past and the present, suggests that the past does intervene in unexpected ways into our lived realities. As Gerard Edelmann would say, all presents are “remembered pasts”

Most significantly, Willy remembers how he was about to follow his brother Ben and his father to Alaska, “And I was almost decided to go, when I met a salesman in the Parker House.” As we know, Dave Singleman with his “green velvet slippers” could command an audience and still make a very respectable living at 84 years of age. In this regard, both Dave and Ben are characters who loom large in Willy’s past imaginings.

Willy also judges material success according to his brother’s, Ben’s successful adventure, in Alaska.

As Miller also suggests Willy’s past decisions clearly influence the choices he makes. Ben is the reminder of just how much Willy has lost. Ben explains, “I walked into the jungle, I was seventeen. When I walked out I was twenty-one. And by God, I was rich!” (41)
The dangers of illusions: American dream : Willy increasingly invents illusions to mask his failure.

Willy boasts to Biff that he is greeted by mayors in the major cities such as Providence and that he is well known, “they know me up and down New England” (24). As a measure of his status and reputation, he states that he can park “my car in any street in New England and the cops protect it like their own” (24). He imagines that his funeral will be massive. He tells Ben, “they’ll come from Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire”. (100) He rejects Charley’s offers because he is not “well liked” (23)

The more one starts to believe in a shaky and false reality, the more unstable one becomes.

If one becomes too obsessed with a very impractical dream, and if it starts to alter one’s grip on life, then it can become dangerous. Arthur Miller shows that the more illusory and fake the dream becomes, the bigger Willy’s fall. The metaphoric car crashes symbolises his unstable personality .

Willy’s constant denial of his insecure job and financial situation ultimately leads to tension in his family and erodes his confidence and authority.

Even Biff says, “The man don’t know who we are! The man is gonna know! … We never told the truth for ten minutes in this house”

Arthur Miller presents Willy’s car crash as a metaphor of his instability as a result of the inability to accept the disparity between his dreams and his own life. Furthermore, Biff labels Willy as a “phony old fake” which implies that Willy is consciously choosing to avoid the real circumstances of his life in favour of a more comfortable but impractical illusion of the eluding American Dream.  Through Willy’s consequences due to losing touch with reality, Miller suggests that there must be a balance between what is real and what is not to avoid harm to oneself and others around them.

When Willy discovers the payments required for car repair, he jumps effortlessly from an illusion that the Studebaker “is the greatest car ever built” to a furious swipe at the “goddam Studebaker” in order to protect the illusion that the family is in good financial shape.

In Timebends, Arthur Miller’s autobiography, the author wonders at the critics’ “heavy-handed symbolism” as they interpreted the surname “Low-man” as a man of low status or class.  In this case the playwright notes that the name that had lodged deep in his subconscious really meant a “terror stricken man calling into the void for help that will never come.” Lohmann was a character in Fritz Lang’s film, The Testament of Dr Mabuse, which Miller had seen five years prior to the writing the play. The Chief of the Surete in Paris, whose name is Lohmann, is baffled at the indiscriminate and unpredictable spate of fires and explosions in Paris. A young detective tracking down an elusive perpetrator places calls to the chief in various settings without response.  He is calling in the dark, to Lohmann, the surete, who does not respond. (Timebends, pp 178-179).

Internal sources:
Sometimes people find themselves living in a world created by other people.’

Willy fashions /models / rearranges his life and his goals based on the views and values associated with Ben and Dave..  (those who have “achieved” the Dream

Willy believes that Ben has the “ultimate life”, and strives to follow in the dream of being a successful salesman. Miller displays Willy’s struggle in upholding these beliefs through the creation of sub-realities aimed at protecting his unrealistic goals of living the American dream.

Willy exclaims, “[he] was rich! That’s just the spirit I want to imbue [my sons] with!”
Biff fashions his life on parental expectations.  And tries to be the ultimate sports star

Biff – rejects the American Dream

“Unto thine own self be true”: In this regard, Arthur Miller highlights the difficulties  associated with breaking away from a reality conditioned by our parents.  But Biff’s story shows that we must indeed try live in our own real and authentic world if we are to gain some happiness.

As a father, Willy constantly tries to shape Biff’s future in the likeness of his own.  Biff, however, discards the American Dream of opportunity and wealth that consumes Willy as he recognizes that Willy’s “phony dream” will only lead to disappointment and failure.

Biff is torn between living up to the father’s ideals about status, wealth and personality and his magnet towards the farm-life, herding horses.

Biff rejects the American dream of opportunity and wealth (cult of personality) that consumes Willy. He rejects a system where people feel a need to “get ahead of the next fella”. All he wants to do is “be outdoors, with your shirt off”. (16) He enjoys herding cattle in Nebraska, and the Dakotas”. He states there is “nothing more inspiring – or beautiful than the sight of a mare and a new colt” (16).
His tragedy is that he is “mixed up very bad”. Biff feels disappointed that he can only earn a paltry $28 dollars a week, which he knows marks him as a material failure. He cannot be fulfilled or feel satisfied because he has been pumped full of “false pride” and false values. He feels a failure because he is not participating in the materialistic rat race.

Miller reveals that often we need to resist from the dominant reality as it does not necessarily come into realistic terms in life.

See Death of a Salesman and Memories

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