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A wise and possibly very cynical man once said “Nothing fails like success.” Even if one is not familiar with Gerald Nachman, or the other rebel comedians of his time, we can all appreciate the clever irony in this quotation. In the complex and often very materialistic world we live in the question of how to measure success, prominence, and self worth is certainly a relevant one. This is the very question Authur Miller addresses in his 1949 play, Death of a Salesman. In the process of relating the events of Willy Loman’s tragic life, Miller uses motifs such as space and location to give his readers insight into his characters, their successes or failures, and their ideas of self worth. Willy Loman’s Brooklyn home, Africa, Alaska, and the American West all help explain why Willy Loman fails while others prosper and can help reveal what characters such as Biff, Willy, and Ben value and how they determine success.
Act one of the play opens in Willy Loman’s Brooklyn home. The stage direction notes, “We are aware of towering, angular shapes behind [the house], surrounding it on all sides. Only the blue light of the sky falls upon the house and forestage; the surrounding area shows an angry flow of orange. As more light appears, we see a solid vault of apartment houses around the small, fragile-seeming home. An air of the dream clings to the place, a dream rising out of reality” (Miller, 2111). Willy and Linda first purchased the house years ago and when there was room to spread out and even a nice garden to grow vegetables. Since then, however, the house has been encased in a “solid vault of apartment houses” and Willy’s grand aspirations of wealth, prosperity, and popularity have been locked up, blocked off, and cast in an angry orange light by the surrounding buildings (Miller, 2111). Willy complains, “The street is lined with cars. There’s not a breath of fresh air in the neighborhood. The grass don’t grow any more, you can’t raise a carrot in the back yard. They should’ve had a law against apartment houses” (Miller, 2115). His attempts to grow vegetables symbolize his efforts to provide for his family and his desire to reap some reward for his efforts. As it is, Willy has remained in the same position in his job for years and he can barely afford to put food on the table. An air of Willy’s American dream still clings to the place, but it is surrounded by the unpleasant reality that has been built up over the years.
Unlike the comfortable suburban setting in which the Loman’s first settled, Willy’s father and brother Ben spent most of their lives in remote, exotic locales like Alaska and Africa. These wild, untamed regions are like the capitalist jungle that is the American economy. It is here that one must compete if they are to achieve prominence and wealth in the economic world. This jungle is clearly not suited for everyone. Referring to Willy’s brother Ben, Irving Jacobson notes, “In the world of finance he was as much a pioneer, a ‘great and wild-hearted man,’ as his father” (Jacobson, 250). He could travel to Alaska, South Dakota, Africa, and back to New York and make his way just fine in each place because he was indifferent to human warmth, social relationships, or family ties. “His spheres of action related to things and quantities rather than people; even his seven sons seemed more like commodities than members of a family” (Jacobson, 250). Willy Loman is not the same kind of wild, ruthless, and savvy businessman that his brother is and is either unwilling to take the same drastic measures or fails to understand the rules of the jungle. In Willy Loman’s warped perception of reality he believes that one’s personal appearance and other’s perception of them are the keys to success. He continually refers to Dave Singleman, a salesman who was so well liked that customers and friends came from all over the country for his funeral. Willy asks, “‘Cause what could be more satisfying than to be able to go, at the age of eight-four, into twenty or thirty different cities, and pick up a phone, and be remembered and loved and helped by so many different people?” (Miller, 2146). It was after meeting Singleman that Willy decided not to go Alaska with his brother and became a salesman instead. This decision in many ways seals his financial fate for the rest of his career.
While Ben willingly ventures into the heart of the jungle and Willy is beaten down as the jungle grows up around him, a third character, Biff, seems to want to remove himself from the jungle altogether. As Jacobson writes, “Unlike his father and brother, Biff does not emulate the images of prominent men but rejects the years he has spent riding subways, keeping stock, buying and selling, feeling it ridiculous to spend a year in suffering for the sake of a two-week vacation” (253). For years Biff remained lost and confused about his future. Feeling connected to his father, but also betrayed by his father’s infidelity to his mother, and his constant distortions of the truth. Biff says, “I don’t know… I just can’t take hold, Mom. I can’t take hold of some kind of life (Miller, 2134). Despite his father’s harsh rebuke, Biff finds happiness ranching on his own in the rural West. “Screw the business world,” he says, “I don’t care what they think! They’ve laughed at Dad for years, and you know why? Because we don’t belong in this nuthouse of a city! We should be mixing cement on some open plain, or – or carpenters” (Miller, 2137). Jacobson notes that “Because [Willy] habitually deflects consciousness of his own failure by focusing attention on his sons, Loman cannot accept Biff’s way of life in the West on its own terms but tries to reabsorb him into a business-oriented culture” (254).
In an effort to compromise between their own desires and their father’s expectations, the Loman brothers consider a joint venture in the West. Their short-lived dream of a Loman ranch is an attempt to synthesize the rural and the urban; the serious and the pleasurable. Here Biff hopes to have the opportunity to do the kind of work he enjoys while gaining the prominence to once again win his father’s approval. The plan ultimately dies with the realization that they cannot come up with the money necessary to start up the ranch. Biff realizes that such compromise is not always possible. Choosing to live a life of simplicity and fulfillment often means sacrificing prominence and wealth.
Each one of these characters has different value systems and different criteria for evaluating success and prominence. For Willy Loman, success is defined by personal appearance and personal relationships; therefore he is attracted to the American suburb with close families, two car garages, and backyard barbeques. His fixation with material wealth has drawn him close to the commercial world of the city, but being unable to compete and survive in the urban jungle, Loman lives out his life trapped in his own harsh reality. Unlike his brother, Ben is bold, aggressive, ruthless, and conniving enough to blaze a path in the jungle. Treating every person and every relationship in his life like a quantity or a commodity, Ben’s entire value system is based on little more than dollars and cents. Of all the characters in the play, Biff seems to be the most likely protagonist. Trapped by his father’s expectations and confused about his future, Biff is labeled an underachiever. A revelation in Bill Oliver’s office, however, could prove to be the key to free Biff from his father’s lies and warped sense of reality. There is hope for Biff at the end of the play. He seems intent on following his dreams of a simple and humble life out west. It is unclear, however, whether Biff’s journey west will truly set him on the road to lifelong happiness and fulfillment, or if it is simply an impulsive attempt to escape his father’s pressure. If there were to be a sequel to Death of a Salesman written it would likely entail Biff traveling west and arriving at the realization that true happiness and self worth is achieved not through personal appearances or perceptions, nor through material posessions, but through hard work and perseverance.
Baym, Nina. ed. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2003.
Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2003. 2111-2176.
Jacobson, Irving. “Family Dreams in Death of a Salesman.” American Literature Vol. 47, No. 2. Duke University Press, 1975. 247-258.
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