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“The jagged edges of a shattered dream.” Do you find that the play leaves you with such an impression?
Death of a Salesman tells the story of a man confronting failure in the success-driven society of America and shows the tragic trajectory which eventually leads to his suicide. Willy Loman is a symbolic icon of the failing America; he represents those that have striven for success but, in struggling to do so, have instead achieved failure in its most bitter form. Arthur Miller’s tragic drama is a probing portrait of the typical American psyche portraying an extreme craving for success and superior status in a world otherwise fruitless. To some extent, therefore, Death of Salesman is concerned with the ‘jagged edges of a shattered dream’ but on another more tragic and bitter level, it also evokes the decline of a man into lunacy and the subsequent effect this has on those around him, particularly his family.
Miller amalgamates the archetypal tragic hero with the mundane American citizen. The result is the anti-hero, Willy Loman. He is a simple salesman who constantly aspires to become ‘great’. Nevertheless, Willy has a waning career as a salesman and is an aging man who considers himself to be a failure but is incapable of consciously admitting it. As a result, the drama of the play lies not so much in its events, but in Willy’s deluded perception and recollection of them as the audience gradually witness the tragic demise of a helpless man.
In creating Willy Loman, Miller presents the audience with a tragic figure of human proportions. Miller characterises the ordinary man (the ‘low man’) and ennobles his achievements. Willy’s son, Biff, calls his father a ‘prince’, evoking a possible comparison with Shakespeare’s Hamlet, prince of Denmark.. Thus, the play appeals greatly to the audience because it elevates an ordinary American to heroic status. Death of a Salesman seems to conform to the ‘tragic’ tradition that there is an anti-hero whose state of hamartia causes him to suffer. The audience is compelled to genuinely sympathise with Willy’s demise largely because he is an ordinary man who is subject to the same temptations as the rest of us.
Miller uses many characters to contrast the difference between success and failure in the American system. Willy Loman is a deluded salesman whose vivid imagination is far greater than his sales ability. Linda, Willy’s wife, honorably stands by her husband even in the absence of fundamental realism. To some extent she acknowledges Willy’s aspirations but, naively, she also accepts them. Consequently, Linda is not part of the solution but rather part of the problem with this dysfunctional family and their inability to face reality. In restraining Willy from his quest for wealth in the Alaska, the ‘New Continent’, ironically the only realm where the “dream” can be fulfilled, Linda destroys any hope the family has of achieving ‘greatness’. Even so, Linda symbolically embodies the play’s ultimate value: love. In her innocent love of Willy, Linda accepts her husband’s falsehood, his dream, but, in her admiration of his dream, she is lethal. Linda encourages Willy and, in doing so, allows her sons, Biff and Happy, to follow their father’s fallacious direction in life.
Willy’s close friend Charlie on the other hand, despite his seemingly ordinary lifestyle, enjoys far better success compared to the Lomans. Charlie differs to his friend considerably: he is financially secure whereas Willy can barely afford to pay the next gas bill. Similarly, Charlie never indoctrinated his son, Bernard, with the same enthusiasm as Willy. Subsequently, Charlie stands for different beliefs to Willy and, ironically, ends up far more successful. He is a voice of reason for his friend but is only useful if Willy follows his advice. Instead, Willy’s proud and stubborn nature ensures that he will never accept Charlie’s many generous job proposals. The Dream, as Willy perceives it, is still within grasp of the Lomans thus an ordinary job would not fulfil the true expectations Willy holds of either himself or Biff. Ironically, these job proposals are the one gate left open to Willy and his hopes of becoming ‘great’.
According to Biff, his friend, the ‘anemic’ Bernard, is not ‘well liked’. However not ‘well liked’ he may be, Bernard, through constant persistence, has grown up to be an eminent lawyer. He appears to be proof enough of the “system’s” effectiveness and affirms the proposition that success is achieved through persistent application of one’s talents.
Whilst everyone around Willy experiences success and wealth, the Lomans themselves struggle financially. The play romanticises the pioneering dream but never makes it genuinely available to Willy and his family. Willy reveres success. He wants to be successful, to be “great”, but his dream is never fulfilled. Indeed, he feels the only way he can actually fulfil his dream is to commit suicide so that his family may subsequently live off his life insurance.
It seems Willy’s dead brother, Ben, is the only member of the Loman family who has ever achieved something “great” when he proclaims, ‘-when I was seventeen I walked into the jungle, and when I was twenty-one I walked out. And by God I was rich.’ Ben is idealised by Willy since he fulfilled the genuine American Dream: to start out with nothing and eventually become rich through effort and hard work. Ironically, this wealth is achieved outside America suggesting that there is little left available for the ordinary individual within the country’s own boundaries. Instead, one must look elsewhere for true “greatness”, underlining the fact that, for the majority, the much sought after American Dream’ is a myth. The play is ambiguous in its attitude toward the business-success dream, but certainly does not rebuke it openly. Nevertheless, when Charlie declares, ‘Nobody dast blame this man’, Miller hints at the responsibility of the state influenced ‘Everyone should have a dream’ campaign behind Willy’s death, suggesting that the salesman was driven too far, pressurising himself into suicide. Miller also seems to judge America in hinting that there is far greater success to be found outside of its land. Indeed, it seems there is a lot of room for failure (and ruin) as well as ‘greatness’ in America. Hence, Willy is a foolish and ineffectual man for whom we feel pity.
Willy detaches himself from reality, living in a life of idealism and dreams that never materialise. One example of Willy’s deluded perception of reality lies in his constant disgruntlement with the American car industry. In truth, Willy has always scorned his cars. Even in the 1930s when, according to Willy, the Chevy was at its prime, the Chevy is still insulted by its owner! These, and other such instances in the play, evoke a prime flaw in Willy’s character: he is never, fully content with what he possesses at present. Instead, he lives in a deluded world where imagination and past experiences collude and, frequently, appear as far more desirable eras. As a result, Willy continually finds aspects of his life ‘remarkable’ but never actually realises that as a salesman and a father, he is a failure. This lack of understanding eventually leads to his tragic death; a death he could not escape for he brought it on himself.In killing himself, Willy finally becomes a man of purpose and reason. He had been trying to make a gift that would crown all those striving years; in this instant, all those lies he told, all those dreams and vivid exaggerations would now be given form and point. In American Society the only option open to Willy as such was to be a salesman. Tragically, he eventually feels he must, symbolically, trade his own life for his family’s wellbeing whereby they will hopefully experience a life of greatness without, ironically, himself present.
Death of a Salesman has a form that allows for the simultaneity of past and present, enabling the events in Willy’s life to proceed from the fragmented logic of his own experiences. Thus, while Miller ensures that the audience experience Willy’s perception of reality, it also recognises it as objectively real. Indeed, Miller’s juxtaposition of incidents from Willy’s internal and external experience brings the audience to sympathise with Willy. Consequently, the audience is able to share the nightmare experience of the protagonist and eventually deduce their own opinions of the death of a salesman.
Miller said of Death of a Salesman that it was ‘a slippery play to categorize because nobody in it stops to make a speech objectively stating the great issues which I believe it embodies’. Subsequently, no single character acts as Miller’s mouthpiece, nor does any one speech offer a direct reflection of his opinions. And, although there are no genuine soliloquies in the play, Miller’s juxtaposition of events from the anti-hero’s past and present enable the playwright to illustrate Willy’s insanity with similar effectiveness. Consequently, this expressionistic device allows the audience to genuinely symphathise with Willy’s jaded state of mind and allow them to eventually deduce their own opinion of Willy’s character.
Death of a Salesman may also be interpreted as an allegorical representation of America. Willy’s garden can be perceived as a microcosm of American society as tower blocks continued to be raised around him. This suggests that, for the ‘ordinary’ person, the literally ‘Lo-man’ in comparison to the skyscrapers, life has become overshadowed at the cost of capitalism. The audience is left with the image of the garden that will never grow; the ordinary person has been left behind and even rejected by wealthy capitalists. With everyone succeeding except Willy, Miller also suggests that there is far more success outside America. Indeed, there are nothing but fruitless hopes and ‘shattered dreams’ to be found within the nation. And, in one last vain effort, Willy attempts to ‘grow’ something for his family in his buying of seeds to plant in the garden. Nevertheless, even Willy has come to realise that his life is a failure when he declares, Oh, I’d better hurry-Nothing’s planted. I don’t have a thing in the ground.’
Nevertheless, it seems that Miller’s intention in writing about the death of a salesman, a seemingly mundane occurrence in twentieth-century society, was to express the playwright’s own vision of American Society and the nature of individuality. Death of a Salesman may be interpreted as being solely a play about the failing America and the ‘jagged edges of a shattered dream’ but it does, nevertheless, engage Miller’s belief that ‘the common man is as apt a subject for tragedy as kings are’.
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