Reflections on Arthur Millerís Death of a Salesman
Willie Loman is a classic case of a man who defines himself based on the what others consider him to be. This play is most famous because it deals with this existential question on several levels. In this review, I will focus on the central character of the play, Loman and how this character develops the playís theme. However, there are aspects of the theatrical production that are interesting for their cinematic importance. I will comment on these elements of the movie rendition of this play where appropriate. The other characters of this play are important not only in their relation to Willie Loman, the ill-fated salesman, but as tragic figures in their own right. However, I will not explore the underlying themes that Miller develops through the relationships between Loman and his son, Biff and Loman and his wife, Linda. Suffice it to say, that each minor characterís story contains a message about familial relations and the individuals within them, but these characters are more important from my perspective in their relationship to the fate of Willie Loman, the protagonist.
Who is Willie Loman?
The answer to that question is what the entire play seeks to explain. We are shown from the opening scene, a man, whose self-image is completely at the mercy of others. His customers are for Willie Loman the sole interpreters of his worth as a person. He shows this in his conversations with his wife about the nostalgic times when he was a salesman that was recognized as a capable man by all his clients. He begins a litany of reminiscences which set the tone of the playís plot. In his speeches to the other characters and his soliloquies, Loman is seeking to show himself and the outside world, his value a person, and thus gain what he wants most from this outside world: its approval. This is Millerís theme in a nutshell. Loman defines himself through the ideas, feelings and social reactions to him from those outside him. Miller builds a tragedy out of this theme. He leads his main character to the ultimate fate of suicide as a result of his view of life. In so doing, Miller also makes an anti-hero out of Loman. That is to say, Loman destroys not only himself, but those around him. His suicide at the playís conclusion, causes the greatest despair for his wife Linda, in particular who has the last word. "I made the last payment on the house today. Today, dear. And thereíll be nobody home." (Pg 1316) So, Loman is an anti-hero. He, unlike the heroes of classic tales, does not redeem himself or others, but undoes both himself and those around him. This is typical of the existential point of view the plays assumes. Lets examine why Willie Loman comes to this tragic end.
In the first act, the tone is set through a series of flashbacks involving Willie, his sons, Biff and Happy, and his wife, Linda. We see that Willie Loman lives for the adoration of not only his children and wife, but most of all, the buying public to whom he sells his wares. "You and Hap and I, and Iíll show you all the towns. America is full of beautiful towns and fine, upstanding people. And they know me, boys they know me up and down New England. The finest people. And when I bring you fellas up, thereíll be open sesame for all of us, Ďcause one thing, boys: I have friends. I can park my car in any street in New England, and the cops protect it like their own." (Pg 1257) Later in the same conversation with his sons he says: "Be liked and you will never want. You take me, for instance. I never have to wait in line to see a buyer." (Pg 1258) These quotes illustrate that Lomanís sense of meaning in his life is based on achieving the approval of the people he engages. With his family, the drive is the same but with a different focus. He needs the respect and esteem of his wife and sons. His final conversation with his older brother Ben, shows just how much he desires these sentiments from his son, Biff. "..that boy will be thunderstruck, Ben, because he never realized-I am known! Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey-I am known, Ben and heíll see it with his eyes once and for all." (Pg 1309 in reference to his own funeral) He hoped to gain these sentiments from them by having a successful career as a high-powered salesman. Yet, it is evident at the playís outset that he has been little more than a mediocre salesman, who is declining in his usefulness to his employer. He longs for the admiration and friendship of his buying customers to reinforce his sense of worth as a person. Yet, he has neither, and as the action unfolds, we come to see why. The use of flashbacks to enhance movement of the plot is excellent in the cinematic production. The cut-aways, in which Loman is alone with his brother, to whom he refers to as Uncle Ben allows Loman to convey his sense of despair and anxiety from the course his life has taken. In comparison to Ben, he is even more of a failure in his own eyes. Ben took chances, achieved fortune, while he, Willie Loman stuck to the safe and narrow road and achieve nothing, not even the approval of his family.
Also, these scenes give an element of ambiguity to the question: who is Willie Loman? Miller intended this uncertainity. He wants the viewer to ask himself this question. Perhaps even ask the question: Could Willie Loman be me? The viewer may well wonder if he is to see Loman as on the verge of madness or simply the victim of trying to be more than he could ever be. His failure at achievement could easily be seen as the of cause his nervous collapse. Or is he merely haunted by the failures and transgressions of his past? For instance, his sense of guilt before his son, Biff, when caught in the act of adultery is indicative of how Loman is determined by the views of those outside him. Biff has lost respect for him because of an incident in which he discovered his father was having an affair. Loman remembers Biffís denouncement of him during the dinner scene. "You fake! You phony little fake!" (Pg 1306) Biff drifted away after the encounter with his father, and never attempted to complete his schooling as the family had planned. Loman blames himself for his sonís decline after this incident. The memory of this lost of stature in his sonís eyes, forces him to reject his son and himself as a father. This is an important aspect of the play, because Biff is portrayed as the son that Loman hopes will redeem him. Biff is the son that Loman most identifies with himself. He views Biff as in some ways an extension of himself, who will prove to the outside world, that Willie Loman produced capable offspring. In this sense, it will prove to Willie Loman, he was a man of personal value, because his son achieved what he could not.
The vulnerable nature of Lomanís psyche is most evident in the scenes with Howard, his employer. The second act, Howard fires Loman in a one painful to watch scene. Itís painful not just because of the obvious loss of Lomanís job, but the viewer can see that he is trying to convince Howard of more than just to let him keep his job. He is trying to show Howard his worth as a man. "...Howard, and now I canít pay my insurance! You canít the orange and throw the peel away-a man is not a piece of fruit!" (Pg 1284)
His shame before his friend, Charley, when asking for money after losing his job is another example of his life being subject to the ideas of those outside of himself. In this scene, Loman senses Charleyís pity for him and finds the idea intolerable. He suggests for the first time in the play, the possibility of suicide. "After all the highways, and the trains, and the appointments, and the years, you end up worth more dead than alive." (Pg 1293) In the exchange with his friend, Loman struggles to show him, heís not accepting charity. He makes comments like "Iím keeping strict accounts" (Pg 1293) and "Iíll pay every penny back." (Pg 1292) Yet, he canít escape the reality of the state of affairs before Charley.
Then, there is his insatiable hunger to emulate the achievements of his brother, Ben that emigrated first to Alaska, then the African continent and became wealthy. He sees this brother as a model to be achieved. His departure, and its pivotal role in the play is reviewed through flashback sequences.
So, as I said before, Willie Loman could well be a man on the edge of a nervous breakdown, or just one driven to depression by his sense of failure in the eyes of others. In both cases, the result is the same: he is inexorably drawn to his own suicide because of this deluding image of himself. The viewer should note also that every character in the play in one way or another actually helps Willie Loman along to his inevitable death. Charley, with his generosity, increases Lomanís sense of his own worthlessness. Biff, with his denouncement of his father, destroys his delusion that his son admires and respects him. Howardís cruel termination of his employment is the final blow. Willie Loman begins to see after being fired that his life is without any meaning. He is finally ready to commit suicide.
Why must the salesman die?
This is the question that the play doesnít answer directly. Miller wants the viewer to understand what brings Loman to self-destruction, but not tell him why he destroys himself. He leaves that to the viewer to figure out. Each scene is really a preparation for the next to last one in which Loman completes the act of suicide. Willie Loman, feels that every action he initiated came to nothing. From Lomanís perspective the circumstances of his life at the playís end are as follow:
In spite of this depressing self-image, Loman fantasizes about escaping to a happier time. A time when he could have been someone important in the world, who would have made a fortune and obtained the admiration and respect of others. To achieve this final object of his desire, he decides to commit suicide. What is interesting here is he commits suicide by negligence. He simply follows his absent-minded fantasy to its logical conclusion. He goes to his death by forgetting all the things that kept him alive: his sense of responsibility to himself and others; his desire to be a man of consequence and to have the love and admiration of his family. This letting go is symbolized by an act of pure madness. He gets in his car and drives to his death. But, the viewer should notice, we canít be sure that Loman intends to kill himself in the this particular scene. We only know his fantasizing about escaping with his brother Ben induces the act. Did mental delusions about himself and his past kill Willie Loman? Or did Willie Loman delude himself into accepting suicide as his only option to a life of failure? Thus, Miller leaves it to the viewer to answer this question.
This is a play about a man who has lost his identity. He tries to find himself and who he is throughout the three acts of the play. In each scene, his finds that defining who you are by what others believe you to be, brings you closer to self-rejection. He does this through a series of nostalgic self-delusional fantasies involving his brother Ben. The play concludes with Lomanís suicide,in which Miller shows the viewer that such a delusion of a personís identity can only be pointless. This is the existential connection in the play. Miller argues through Loman and his suicide that the person who lives, governed by the ideas, feelings and reactions of those around him, lives a meaningless life.
author: Robleh Wais, 1997