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Death of a Salesman Themes
Find out the main themes and what they mean.
Selling and the American Dream
The distinguished American novelist, Joyce Carol Oates, has said of Death of a Salesman: “Arthur Miller has written the tragedy that illuminates the dark side of American success - which is to say the dark side of us.”
Willy buys into the dream but it destroys him, and to an extent, has already destroyed his sons. He is a salesman; a salesman must keep selling. There must always be new things to consume, even if you don’t want them – and this amidst what Miller called “the biggest boom in the history of the world.” Willy exhorts his sons to “polish the car so careful...Get the chamois to the hubcaps,” – as if the presentation of material things is the key to success. Similarly he proudly tells them “I can park my car in any street in New England, and the cops protect it like their own.” The underside of this purposeful momentum is Linda’s comment that Willy “drives 700 miles, and when he gets there, no one knows him any more, no one welcomes him.” it’s Linda who reminds Willy that “the fan-belt broke”, that they owe on the carburettor, and how much they still have to pay on the washing machine, the refrigerator and the vacuum cleaner.
In his confrontation with Howard Wagner, when Willy wants to be taken off selling, he appeals on the basis of older values – “I was with the firm when your father used to carry you in here in his arms...There were promises made across this desk,” but his “reward” is to be sacked! There’s no room for sentimentality in this world. The “contacts” he boasts of to his brother are no longer operative. In the longest speech in the play, Willy exalts the life of Dave Singleman (perhaps a pun on single-minded) who made him realise “that selling was the greatest career a man could want,” but the stage directions tell us Howard is barely interested and has not looked at him.
Willy believes, thinking of his brother Ben, whose diamond watch he has pawned, that “that’s the wonder, the wonder of this country, that a man can end with diamonds here on the basis of being liked.” Ben however, (who apparently “walked into the jungle” and four years later came out rich) shows a better understanding than his brother of the ruthlessness that’s needed for success. When he play-fights with Biff, he trips his nephew and stands over him, the point of his umbrella poised over Biff’s eye. The symbolism of blindness, of “an eye for an eye”- the law of the jungle, is apparent.
When Happy picks up the girl in the restaurant, he tells her he’s spending “company money.” She replies “That’s a charming product to be selling, isn’t it?” His philosophical comment – “Selling is selling,” – is followed by a question: “You don’t happen to sell, do you?” She says she doesn’t but in fact what she sells is herself. She is a “chippy”, and, unlike Willy, she still has a “product” to sell.
Willy’s compulsion to compete – with his own father who, according to Ben “made more in a week than a man like you could make in a lifetime,”; with Ben himself; with Dave Singleman – leave him with no inner resources to deal with the failure of his life. In the end all that’s left is suicide, because he’s worth more dead than alive. Miller has commented: “Where’s Willy in all this? He’s competed himself to death.”
Biff’s very name suggests an exaggerated form of masculinity, associated with sport, cars, the conquest of women, with fist-fighting as a kind of masculine play. Willy feels Biff’s muscles, telling him: “You’re coming home this afternoon captain of the All-Scholastic Championship Team of the City of New York.” In fact Willy later admits that Biff’s “life ended after that Ebbets Field Game” – not however acknowledging the connection to his own adultery.
When Linda is concerned that Biff might “flunk math”, Willy retorts: “You want him to be a worm like Bernard?” He makes a similar unfavourable comparison with Bernard’s father, Charley, saying “A man who can’t handle tools is not a man.” When Ben challenges Biff to a “fight” Willy is enthused. “Go to it, Biff! Go ahead, show him!” he exhorts his son. It is Linda who questions such behaviour – “Why must he fight, dear?” But Willy says to his sons: “I thank Almighty God you’re both built like Adonises.” He equates “being a man” with a kind of classical heroism that scarcely fits into the post-war world.
Willy is sure that Bill Oliver – “very big sporting goods man...wants Biff very badly.” He doesn’t see the irony of someone who aspired to be a sporting hero, selling equipment for others to play. In fact Oliver barely speaks to Biff, and Biff, who steals Oliver’s pen in a pathetic form of retribution, and who has been in prison for theft, accuses his father of being to blame for their delusions: “I never got anywhere because you blew me so full of hot air I could never stand taking orders from anybody!”
Happy’s version of this is his apparently uncontrollable sex drive, which leads him to seduce women from “an overdeveloped sense of competition”. Happy’s dilemma combines the themes of salesmanship and masculinity. “I just keep knockin’ them over and it doesn’t mean anything,” he says. He can’t stop himself acquiring women, albeit temporarily, even though it gives him no real pleasure. Willy’s liaison with “The Woman” – unnamed - involves a similar pointlessness
Biff’s self-realisation at the end of the play does suggest a different notion of masculinity. After telling his father he’s “nothing” he breaks down, sobbing, holding on to Willy, who dumbly fumbles for Biff’s face. This unspoken recognition of real love is very different from the adolescent posing we have seen previously.
Another version of selfhood is shown by Willy’s desire to plant seeds. This is connected to his sense of how his neighbourhood is changing. He complains to Linda about “the way they boxed us in here...There’s not a breath of fresh air...The grass don’t grow any more.” Linda echoes that when Willy wants to buy some seeds, saying “not enough sun gets back there. Nothing’ll grow any more.”
In Act Two, Biff is horrified to see his father talking to himself and “planting the garden.” In fact there is more intensity than Biff is aware of. Willy is “talking” to Ben, his brother, about the idea of killing himself, to realise the $20,000 insurance policy- thereby financing his sons’ careers.
Willy is embarrassed to be caught planting by his son. It is in a sense Willy’s equivalent to the diamonds his brother has found. “The jungle is dark but full of diamonds, Willy,” his brother tells him, but nothing grows from diamonds. Willy’s desire to plant something that will grow, even in the harshest urban environment, is an unconscious urge for permanence amidst the temporary fashions of selling. What he almost acknowledges at the end of the play is that the real seeds he has planted are his sons - if he would only take that phony dream and burn it in Biff’s words.