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Arthur Miller’s American masterpiece Death of a Salesman, first presented on the stage in New York City in 1949, represents a successful literary attempt at blending the themes of social and personal tragedy within the same dramatic framework. Yet the story of Willy Loman is also one of false values sustained by almost every publicity agency in the national life of the United States. Thus, Willy Loman accepts at face value the over-publicized ideals of material success and blatant optimism, and therein lies his own personal tragedy. His downfall and final defeat illustrate not only the failure of a man but also the failure of a way of life, being a door-to-door salesman. Miller’s ability to project this story of his tragic, lower middle-class hero into the common experience of so many Americans, who sustain themselves and their families with illusions and ignore realities, makes Death of a Salesman one of the most significant plays in American theater within the last fifty years.
The character of Willy Loman, the themes of social and personal tragedy, and the overall commonality found within Miller’s play are prime territories for further exploration through the use of psychological criticism and literary deconstruction. In the realm of psychology, Willy Loman’s accomplishments and sources of pleasure appear to be simple and straight-forward, yet they do provide an excellent psychological foundation on his life, due to his leading a very average existence as a traveling salesman which he believes will enable him and his family to attain wealth and comfort. For twenty-five years, Willy has been working to pay off the mortgage on his modest home, and once that is accomplished, he will attain a sense of freedom, or the “American Dream”. This goal, in light of the economic/social conditions that existed at the time in which the play is set, presents a perfect picture of his ultimate aim in life, clearly outlined by dollar signs and a sense of ownership, two key points to personal success as far as Willy is concerned.
Psychologically, the key aspect which leads to Willy’s depression is his inability to face reality in the present. His life, it seems, is lived in the past and the future, and his declaration “You wait, kid, before it’s all over we’re gonna get a little place out in the country” (Miller 57) symbolizes his constant dwelling on some rather impractical dreams. As a salesman, Willy travels from state to state, staying in cheap motels while on the road peddling his goods. This increases the importance of his house because it is not only a place of habitation but a representation of fleeting stability, a concrete necessity that cannot be taken away once the last payment has been made. While discussing his sons with his wife, Willy boasts “And they’ll get married, and come for a weekend…” (Miller 62) which symbolizes his pride in his ownership of the house. Through all this, Willy has remained constant and vigilant, maintaining his unwavering belief that he is truly living the “American Dream.”
In addition, the competition that Willy encounters in his day-to-day selling activities is too tough for his modest talents, and the path he has chosen denies his true being at every step. He idolizes the “dream” beyond the truth in himself and becomes a romantic, a shadowy non-entity whose only happiness lies in looking forward to miracles, since reality constantly mocks him. His real ability for manual work outside of being a salesman seems trivial to him, for he tells his son Biff in Act II “Even your grandfather was more than a carpenter” (Miller 36). From this self-denial, Willy loses the sense of his own thought; he is a stranger to his own soul; he no longer knows what he thinks either of his sons or his automobile; he cannot tell who are his true friends; he is forever in a state of enthusiastic or depressed bewilderment.
As far as deconstruction is concerned, Death of a Salesman is a wide open expanse that can be dissected from many viewpoints. First of all, as Miller excavates the various layers of Willy Loman’s life, the reader becomes aware of the hollowness of his dreams and the extent to which his illusions protect him from being overwhelmed with guilt and regret. From this perspective, Willy’s innermost feelings and emotions related to his job as a salesman and his position as a family man could be deconstructed in order to reveal his true motivations. Secondly, Willy continues to profess his faith in the honor of his profession. This raises a pertinent question concerning Ben, Willy’s brother – is his life a credible alternative to the one Willy lives, or does Willy view it as only another version of the “American dream”?
Just as Willy refuses to acknowledge the consequences of not going to Alaska with Ben, so he refuses to accept the consequences of his affair with the unidentified woman in Boston. If Willy views his son Biff as he truly is, then Willy will have to admit to himself that Biff’s discovery of the affair might have undermined the inflated self-image Willy encouraged in Biff. Willy tells Biff that “I won’t take the rap for this, you hear? (Miller, 103), even as Biff insists that he does not blame his father for his own failures. As an area for deconstruction, this scenario raises many other questions associated with the true character of Willy Loman and how it relates to those around him.
Of course, the deepest insight into Willy Loman occurs when Charley asks “Willy, when are you going to grow up?” (Miller, 68), but this can also be applied to Charlie himself, for he states that “My salvation is that I never took any interest in anything” (Miller, 74), which shows that both characters are children at heart, for without desire, there is no reason to fear disappointment.
Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. 50th Anniversary Edition. Preface by Arthur Miller. New York: Penguin Books, 1999.
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