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The Ideology of Capitalism in The Death of a Salesman

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After the Second World War, writers started to use their platform as a way to voice their opinions and concerns with the world. Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller which was performed in 1949 tells the tragedy of Willy Loman who gave his life to the pursuit of the American Dream. The main ideologies seen during this time was the rise of capitalism and with it, the idea that success dictates a man’s worth. People strongly believed in the idea of rugged individualism where hard work and respect can help you achieve your goals. It is these ideas that Death of a Salesman appeals to. Arthur Miller uses a range of generic conventions to reinforce and criticise the values of capitalism and success.

The use of setting offers the idea that ordinary life in a capitalist society is oppressive. The opening of Death of a Salesman depicts Willy Loman arriving home from his work as a travelling salesman. The elements of setting and stage directions work together to convey an oppressive atmosphere, linking to the criticism of life in a capitalist society. The opening line of ‘before us is the salesman’s house’ creates connotations of an oppressive mood, conveying a claustrophobic environment in which Willy lives. Willy’s house is also overshadowed by ‘towering, angular shapes’ with buildings that ‘surround it on all sides’. These elements use a sonorous narrative voice which take advantage of the atmosphere by using words like surround and towering with negative connotations to enhance the readers’ emotions and make the setting seem vivid. These elements also imply that Willy has a restricted life and that he is trapped in a harsh, unforgiving environment. Furthermore, the surrounding buildings are also described as being a ‘solid vault’ creating connotations in the reader’s mind of an inescapable prison. These elements work seemingly with the ‘angry glow of orange’ lighting which illuminates the stage. This creates an overall unpleasant setting for the play to take place in and creates an image of ordinary life in a capitalist system being unsettling.

Characterisation can encourage and endorse the ideology of capitalism. This characterisation mainly through the character Charley and the use of conflict can help to reinforce the ideas held in a hegemonic economic system. Throughout the play, Charley embodies a radically opposite approach to life in general when compared to Willy Loman. Thus, the relationship between the two men can be viewed as a confrontation. This can be seen symbolically through the card games they play. When Willy stops Charley’s hand saying ‘If you don’t know how to play … I’m through,’ it becomes apparent to the readers of the underlying feeling of rivalry and competition between the two neighbours. This competition is also reflective of the society in which they live where they have to compete to be the best. This existential gap between the two characters is also seen metaphorically with the commodities that they own. ‘Charley bought a General Electric and it’s still good’ while Willy’s refrigerator ‘consumes belts like a goddam maniac’. This comparison shows how everything in Charley’s life appears to be smoothly running while much Willy owns has been broken down and needs repairing, thus further pointing out how Charley is at ease with the capitalist society in which he lives.

As the play progresses, the generic conventions of conflict and characterisation continue to endorse the capitalist ideology. As Willy’s world continues to collapse, Charley tries to help Willy offering him a job and giving him money to take home. This behaviour shows that capitalists do not have to be dehumanized human beings. Charley’s behaviour as he continues to function in the capitalist society shows how he has not lost his capacity to sympathize with those who have not succeeded. Throughout the play, Charley continues to help and aid Willy asking if ‘everything all right?’ when he starts to act in the past as well as offering him a job so he ‘don’t have to go on this way’. Charley’s continued sympathy and compassion towards Willy while still succeeding the capitalist society makes it evident to the readers how the capitalist system endorses success both personally and financially. Thus, it is evident to the reader that life in a capitalist society can be prosperous without causing a depletion of character.

The play endorses the idea of success dictating a person’s wealth. This can be seen through the generic convention of characterisation. The character of Bernard is displayed throughout the play as the logical extension of his father, Charley, and his values. During his first appearance, Bernard is described by the stage directions as ‘earnest and loyal’. He is solely focused on studying as he tries to help Biff with his schooling however his modesty can also be seen as a reflection of the rivalry between the neighbours, causing Bernard to come across a more timid character trying to avoid the trials and tribulations of his father and Willy. This attitude is also reflected throughout his character as his work ethic can be read to function as a curative against the extremes of the Loman family. This becomes evident as Bernard tries to help Biff saying ‘He’s got to study, Uncle Willy’ allowing the readers to see how he is a hard working character despite the bad influences around him. When we next see Bernard as a grown man, it becomes evident that he is much closer to the myth of the American Dream that preoccupies Willy than to the world of business, and that he embodies the ideal of social success. His success according to normative expectations is triumphant as he is married with two sons while the Loman sons have turned into lonely outcasts unable to establish emotional and long-term relationships. Moreover, Bernard is no longer seen as submissive as he has become a ‘self-assured young man’. This description suggests that it was indeed possible to attain a level of success in a capitalist society while remaining an honest human being.

On a first glance, Death of a Salesman can be read as a text which discusses personal issues. However, when looked at deeper, it can be seen that Arthur Miller has employed a range of generic conventions such as conflict, characterisation and setting to reflect on the capitalist ideology and the value system of success which stems from it. 

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The Ideology Of Capitalism In The Death Of A Salesman. (2021, December 16). GradesFixer. Retrieved September 22, 2022, from
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