Analysis of Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller

Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller

Analysis of ‘Death of a Salesman’ by Arthur Miller

Analysis of ‘Death of a Salesman’ by Arthur Miller – “Death of a salesman” was staged in the year 1942. Arthur Miller, the American playwright shot to fame after composing this play which portrays the mental state of an aging salesman who lives his life based on pretensions. This play has been staged more than 700 times and has won many awards and is one of the most popular plays in the world.

People can relate to the plot of the play even today since it deals with the fragility of human emotions and relationships. The whole play is about the life of Willy Loman and his family in twenty four hours. This day in their life summarizes the life they had lived till then which ends in a predictable climax.

Mental Turmoil Is the Undertone

The title of the play itself indicates how the climax would pan out but how and why, makes the script gripping. Willy Loman is depicted as a 63 year old who was a salesman for most of his life. His wife is Linda Loman and they have two grown up sons Biff Loman and Harold ‘Happy’ Loman. The play starts with a reunion of the family. Linda is concerned because Willy recently met with a car crash which disturbed his mental state of mind.

Willy plans on asking his boss Howard Wagner for a job in the New York so he didn’t need to travel, which was a decision supported by Linda. Biff, who had worked as a farmhand, had returned home for a holiday, Happy had a small job too.

Willy is upset because Biff who was an excellent athlete in school did not amount to anything in his life. Willy was constantly overshadowed by his brother Ben and his success. Ben was a rich entrepreneur and a business tycoon in Africa. Although Ben is dead Willy frequently spoke to him in his hallucinations. His neighbor Charley and his son Bernard were doing well in life.

This depressed Willy because Biff had not lived up to his expectations. According to Linda, Happy could have done more for the family. The scene opens with such a family reunion.  At this stage Willy is already talking to himself and succumbing to hallucinations. He talks to imaginary people and this is the first time the children get to see that side of their father.

The whole family is worried and Linda tells her sons that this has been happening for a while and that they were in bad situation financially too. She admitted to Willy having suicidal tendencies as well. After hearing all this, Biff agrees to meet an old employer and make a business proposition. Willy and Biff set off from home the next day, hoping that things might change positively for the household. But things go awry. Willy loses his job and the employer Biff goes to see refuses to acknowledge Biff. So they meet Harold for dinner at a restaurant.

Happy wanted Biff to lie about his failure but Biff couldn’t do it. He tells his father the truth which in turn deteriorates Willy’s condition further and his hallucinations get worse. Happy drifts back into his past to the day Biff caught him cheating on his wife with another woman in Boston. He felt that Biff’s perception of him changed that day and it set him adrift. Biff leaves the restaurant and is followed by Harold who picked up two women at dinner. They leave their father behind. When they return home Linda tells them off for treating their father in such a manner.

Analysis of ‘Death of a Salesman’ by Arthur Miller

Biff goes to pacify Willy but their conversation heats up and turns into an argument. He tries to make his father understand the fact that he was an ordinary man who couldn’t live up to his father’s extraordinary dreams. Eventually Biff hugs Willy and tells him he loves him, which pacifies Willy to a certain extent. Willy eventually realizes that Biff forgave him for what he did.

Willy kills himself that night by crashing his car intentionally so that Biff could use the insurance money to start his own business. Biff eventually changes his mind about being a businessman. Harold however follows in his father’s footsteps.

Poignant Characters

Although there are only a few characters in this play, each and every one of them has a strong role to play. Willy is a man flitting between the past and present. He is haunted by his overall failure in life and he projects his frustration onto his son. That feeling of guilt and infidelity after being caught by his son was something that always disturbed Willy. He wanted to see his children settle down in life. With so many aspirations and failures in reality his mental stability was disturbed.  Linda was the only person who saw life as it was and stood by Willy through thick and thin. She comes across as a strong woman who holds the family together.

Although Biff was upset with his father for cheating on his mother, he loved him. Biff lived a deluded life but realizes his mistake and wants to rectify it. Harold was happy following in his father’s footsteps and living the life his father lived.

Denial and Contradiction are the Themes

The plot of ‘The Death of a Salesman’ is tightly packed with a few important incidents. According to some analysts the name Willy sounds like the question ‘will he?’ which brought out his childlike personality and habit to depend on others  while Loman sounds like ‘low man’ or a person unlikely to find success – Miller however does not recognize this analysis. All good plays have key ingredients like – conflict, complication, suspense and denouement. The Death of a Salesman has all these ingredients in the right quantity which makes it such a success.

The stage direction along with the music goes a long way in creating the ambience required for the story. Arthur Miller has given a lot of detail in his screen play on ways to create the mood for the play which can be enhanced by the director staging the play.

Denial and contradiction are the main themes of this play. Living in constant denial and losing touch with reality, is what brings misfortune to the Loman household. When human turmoil is presented with such passion the story or play is bound to be a hit.

Key Facts

Here are some key facts about the play “Death of a Salesman” by Arthur Miller:

  1. Playwright: “Death of a Salesman” was written by American playwright Arthur Miller. Miller was born on October 17, 1915, in New York City and passed away on February 10, 2005, in Roxbury, Connecticut. He is considered one of the most influential playwrights of the 20th century.
  2. Publication: The play was first performed on Broadway at the Morosco Theatre in 1949. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play, cementing its place as a significant work in American theater.
  3. Genre: “Death of a Salesman” is a tragic play that falls under the genre of American drama. It combines elements of realism, symbolism, and psychological exploration to depict the struggles and disillusionment of the American Dream.
  4. Setting: The play is primarily set in Brooklyn, New York, and takes place during the late 1940s. It explores the domestic life of the Loman family and their interactions with the outside world.
  5. Protagonist: The central character and protagonist of the play is Willy Loman, a disillusioned traveling salesman in his sixties. Willy is a complex character who grapples with his fading career, fractured relationships, and a distorted perception of success.
  6. Themes: “Death of a Salesman” delves into various themes, including the American Dream, identity, success and failure, family dynamics, and the destructive nature of the capitalist society. The play critically examines the idealized notion of success and the toll it takes on individuals and their relationships.
  7. Structure: The play is divided into two acts and a requiem. It employs a non-linear narrative structure, blending present events with past memories and fantasies. This structure allows the audience to delve into Willy’s psyche and understand the causes of his unraveling.
  8. Characters: Alongside Willy Loman, other important characters include Willy’s wife Linda, his sons Biff and Happy, Willy’s neighbor Charley, and his sons Bernard and Ben. Each character contributes to the exploration of the play’s themes and provides insight into Willy’s life and struggles.
  9. Social Context: “Death of a Salesman” reflects the post-World War II era in America, characterized by economic growth, consumerism, and the pursuit of the American Dream. The play critiques the impact of this materialistic society on individuals and their values.
  10. Impact and Legacy: “Death of a Salesman” is widely regarded as one of the greatest plays of the 20th century. It continues to be performed globally and studied in literature and theater courses. The play’s examination of the human condition, the pursuit of success, and the complexities of family dynamics resonates with audiences across generations.

These key facts provide a foundation for understanding the context, themes, and significance of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.” The play’s exploration of the human struggle for meaning and fulfillment continues to captivate and provoke audiences, cementing its status as a timeless work of dramatic literature.

Major Characters

In the play “Death of a Salesman” by Arthur Miller, several major characters drive the narrative and explore the complexities of the American Dream, familial relationships, and the human condition. Here are the major characters:

  1. Willy Loman: Willy Loman is the central character and protagonist of the play. He is a traveling salesman in his sixties who is struggling with his fading career and a sense of disillusionment. Willy is haunted by his unrealized dreams and has a distorted perception of success. He represents the everyman, caught in the relentless pursuit of the American Dream.
  2. Linda Loman: Linda Loman is Willy’s devoted wife. She is a supportive and nurturing figure, but also serves as a voice of reason. Linda is caught between her love for Willy and the harsh realities they face as a family. She represents loyalty, self-sacrifice, and the enduring strength of familial bonds.
  3. Biff Loman: Biff is Willy and Linda’s elder son. He is a complex character who struggles with the expectations placed on him by his father and society. Biff is searching for his own identity and purpose, and his journey serves as a critique of the American Dream’s empty promises. He represents the disillusionment and longing for authenticity.
  4. Happy Loman: Happy is Willy and Linda’s younger son. He is ambitious, but also deeply influenced by his father’s distorted values. Happy strives for success and recognition, often resorting to deception and self-delusion. He represents the pursuit of the American Dream at any cost, even if it means sacrificing personal integrity.
  5. Charley: Charley is Willy’s neighbor and friend. He is a successful businessman who acts as a foil to Willy. Charley is practical, down-to-earth, and embodies the values of hard work and honesty. He serves as a contrast to Willy’s delusions and represents the alternative path to success.
  6. Bernard: Bernard is Charley’s son and a childhood friend of Biff. Unlike Biff, Bernard is studious and diligent, achieving academic success. He later becomes a successful lawyer. Bernard’s character highlights the consequences of different choices and the disparity between appearances and true potential.
  7. Ben: Ben is Willy’s deceased older brother. He appears in Willy’s memories and fantasies as a successful and adventurous figure. Ben represents the allure of the American Dream and the possibility of achieving great wealth. His presence underscores Willy’s constant comparison and unfulfilled aspirations.

These major characters interweave their stories, conflicts, and relationships, creating a powerful exploration of ambition, identity, and the disillusionment of the American Dream. Their interactions and struggles reflect the broader themes and social critiques present in the play.

Minor Characters

In addition to the major characters, “Death of a Salesman” by Arthur Miller features several minor characters who contribute to the overall narrative and provide additional perspectives on the themes explored in the play. Here are some of the notable minor characters:

  1. The Woman: The Woman is a character who appears in Willy’s memories and fantasies. She represents Willy’s infidelity and serves as a symbol of his illusions and the erosion of his moral compass.
  2. Howard Wagner: Howard Wagner is Willy’s young boss. He represents the changing face of business and the corporate world. Howard’s treatment of Willy highlights the disposable nature of aging employees and the lack of loyalty in a profit-driven society.
  3. Miss Forsythe and Letta: Miss Forsythe and Letta are young women whom Biff and Happy meet at a restaurant. They symbolize the fleeting nature of superficial relationships and the allure of escapism. Their presence highlights the shallow values prevalent in society.
  4. Uncle Ben: Uncle Ben is Willy’s deceased older brother, who appears in Willy’s memories and hallucinations. He embodies the American Dream as a successful and adventurous figure. Uncle Ben’s appearances provide contrast and emphasize Willy’s longing for financial success and recognition.
  5. Stanley: Stanley is a waiter at a restaurant where Happy and Biff meet Miss Forsythe and Letta. He represents the working class and serves as a reminder of the realities faced by those outside the pursuit of the American Dream. Stanley’s brief interaction sheds light on the disparities of social class and the struggles of the everyday worker.
  6. The Buyers: The Buyers are characters mentioned by Willy to inflate his own importance as a salesman. They symbolize the external validation and recognition that Willy desperately seeks. The buyers represent the elusive measure of success in Willy’s mind.
  7. Bernard’s Father: Bernard’s father is a minor character mentioned in the play. He is a successful lawyer, contrasting Willy’s belief that popularity and charisma are the keys to success. Bernard’s father represents the value of hard work and the rewards that come with it.

These minor characters provide depth to the play by highlighting various aspects of Willy Loman’s life, the societal pressures he faces, and the contrasting values prevalent in the world around him. Their interactions with the major characters contribute to the exploration of themes such as the American Dream, disillusionment, and the human struggle for identity and meaning.

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