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America has long been known as the land of opportunity and the idea of the American Dream is rather appealing to most. Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman, addresses the ongoing conflicts within one family. However, he also uses the play to offer an indictment on the American capitalist system, and in it he exposes the potentially harmful and destructive myth built around the American Dream and the struggles to obtain it.
The setting in the story takes place in Boston, and New York City. In the beginning of the play the setting is described as a typical American household with a kitchen, living room, bedrooms, and over the bed, a silver authentic trophy stands. The description of Willy Loman’s home is used to illustrate the American capitalist dream of home ownership. In particular, the “silver authentic trophy” is symbolic of the competition within American capitalism.
However, the setting description also includes “a solid vault of apartment houses around the small, fragile seeming home” and “towering angular shapes behind it, surround it on all sides”. Willy’s home is surrounded by tall apartment buildings, he is trapped both literally and metaphorically. Miller uses the Lowman home to symbolize the tension between society and the individual, on the quest to fulfill the American Dream.
In the drama, Arthur Miller attempts to criticizes capitalism and societal values, which is seen in Willy Loman’s flashbacks with his children, Biff and Happy. Biff, Willy’s eldest son, holds out the football he stole and says, “Did you see the new football I got?”, and states that he “borrowed it from the locker room”. However, to readers the tone of this scene does not feel serious, because he laughs it off with Biff. In doing so, Biff subconsciously learns that it is okay to steal for his own personal gain.
The scene is significant because readers become aware of the parallel between the scene and capitalism, where people become tempted into immoral actions without having any regards for others. Later, in the restaurant, after Biffs visit to Bill Oliver, Biff nervously tells Happy “I-Hap, I took his fountain pen” readers are made aware of Biff’s constant stealing. He then goes on to say, “I don’t know. I just wanted to take something, I don’t know”. The repeated words “I don’t know”, suggest that Biff felt nervous and unsure of himself.
Biff’s difficulties explaining his actions to Happy suggest that stealing has become a subconscious impulse, which suggest that he is unable to stop himself from committing immoral-actions for financial gains. Miller uses this scene to questions whether or not money outweighs moral virtues in a capitalist society and criticizes societal values. Throughout the drama, sixty-three year old Willy Loman struggles to face the realities of new and aggressive modern society. Arthur Miller, Miller chooses to make his main character, Willy, a salesman, which is a symbol of capitalism.
In the second act of the drama, in his desperate meeting with Howard, Willy tells him the joy of being a salesman is being “remembered and loved and helped by so many different people”. He then goes on to say when the old remember salesman died “hundreds of salesman and buyers were at his funeral. Things were sad on a lotta trains for months after that”. Here, the word “and” is repeated, which suggest that Willy’s list of benefits is endless. This creates the idea that the life of a salesman is perfect.
This perfect deception of a salesman is later brought up when Willy tells Ben about his idea of committing suicide. He says “Ben, that funeral will be massive! They’ll come from Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire!”. However this image of Willy’s ideal salesman is later contrasted with a bleak image of the actual funeral after Willy’s suicide. Linda asks “Why didn’t any come? and “But where all the people he knew? Maybe they blamed him”.
Therefore, the contrast between Willy’s ideal image of a salesman’s life and the depressing truth suggest that the many components of a capitalist society are over-romanticized. Charley responds to Linda by saying “Naa. It’s a rough World, Linda. They wouldn’t blame him. Charley suggest that the relationships formed in business are shallow and that the state of business relationships depend upon status of the businesses involved. Ironically, one of Willy’s reasons for committing suicide is seen after Biff cries for him. Willy contemplates suicide and asks Ben “Can you image that magnificence with twenty thousand dollars in his pocket?”.
Readers become aware the Willy partly commits suicide for financial reasons. Arthur Miller criticizes the capitalist attitude when Willy comes to the resolution that financial prosperity is worth more than his own life. He also goes on to say “Imagine? When the mail comes he’ll be ahead of Bernard again! Again, Miller portrays the capitalistic idea that having more money than someone makes you better than them. Therefore, Miller takes a disapproving stance towards capitalism. The sense of helplessness in the face of the power of society suggests that society will make the financial decision of the fate of the individual. Yet, even though Miller criticizes capitalism, he does not tell readers any clear suggestions for correcting the problems of capitalism.
Indeed, Arthur Miller suggests that these problems are difficult to correct and are deeply rooted in society, as seen when Howard shows his recording device to Willy. Willy hears Howard’s son saying “It’s nine o’ clock, Bulova watch time. So I have to go to sleep”. Most readers would know that Bulova is a watch company.
Helge Normann Nilsen, Arthur of the critical essay “Marxism and the Early Plays of Arthur Miller” writes, “The capitalist also control most of the culture life of society and the media, spreading their conservative political views. No institution or aspect of society can escape this influence”. Therefore, the fact that Howard’s son has memorized part of a watch commercial shows that the advertising found in capitalist society is very persuasive, and even young members of society have been affected by it. In doing so, Miller suggest that capitalism problems are hard to correct because they are so deeply rooted in society.
Miller’s Death of a Salesman is about the life and troubles of an elderly salesman. However, upon further examination, readers realize that the dramas was written with the intentions of enlightening readers about critical issues in society.
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