Showing posts with label Death of a Salesman. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Death of a Salesman. Show all posts

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Father-son Relationship in Arthur Miller’s play 'Death of a Salesman'

In many literary works, family relationships are the key to the plot. It is also a common feature of the American plays written during the first half of the 20th century. Through a family’s interaction with one another, the reader is able decipher the conflicts of the story. Within a literary family, various characters play different roles in each other’s lives. In the Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman, the interaction between Willy Loman and his sons, Happy and Biff, allows Miller to comment on father-son relationships and the conflicts that arise from them.

Death of a Salesman gives us a pen picture of Willy Loman and his relationship with his sons Biff and Happy. Willy would like to be able to count on his two sons, but he knows he can’t. The older one is Biff who is a failure in his life, and the younger one Happy has a steady job. But nobody of them can meet the demand of Willy. Thus there are ups and downs in their relationship in different stages of their life. Though the father-son relationship was quite well at the beginning, it becomes soared with the passage of time and the gap is never bridged up.

As unfortunate as it is, there are many instances where a father favors one son over another, which leads to social conflicts within the less-favoured son. In most cases it is the oldest son that is being favoured while the younger son is ignored. Usually the father doesn’t even realize what is happening. He simply gets too caught up in the successes of his eldest son and he may even try to live out his life through his son’s experiences. Because Willy has dreams of grandeur for Biff, Miller subtly shows how Happy is overlooked.

Biff is the favourite son of Willy and when he was growing up, Biff had idolized his father and Willy had thought Biff could do no wrong. Willy believes and makes Biff believe that any one so confident, so gorgeous is certain to attain success in life. However, at one stage, there relationship collapsed. But Willy bears a good opinion regarding Biff and always believes that Biff has the ability to develop a business of his own.

During most father-son relationships, there are certain times where the father wants to become more of a "player" in his son’s life than his son believes is necessary. The reasons for this are numerous and can be demonstrated in different ways. Miller is able to give an example of this behavior through the actions of Willy Loman. When Biff comes home to recollect himself, Willy perceives it as failure. Since Willy desperately wants his oldest son, Biff, to succeed in every way possible, he tries to take matters into his own hands. "I’ll get him a job selling. He could be big in no time" (16). The reason that Biff came home is to find out what he wants in life. Because Willy gets in the way, matters become more complicated. Partly due to Willy’s persistence in Biff’s life, they have conflicting ideas as to what the American dream is. Willy believes that working on the road by selling is the greatest job a man could have (81). Biff, however, feels the most inspiring job a man could have is working outdoors (22).

When their two dreams collide, it becomes frustrating to Willy because he believes that his way is the right way. If a father becomes too involved in his son’s life, Miller believes friction will be the resultant factor. Thus, their relationship reaches such a point that Biff can not bear Willy. The frustration of Biff begins and he no more feels comfort with the presence of his father. He always tries to keep himself away from him and in a conversation with his brother Happy he says-“why does Dad mock me all the time?” When he finds that he is not fit for any job his criticism goes on towards his father’s upbringing- “You blew me so full of hot air I could never stand taking orders from anybody.”

Willy and Biff are often found passing a happy time, behaving with each other like friends. They share their dreams, hopes and aspirations. Willy tries to make Biff a prominent man in the country. He is so fond of Biff that he overlooks the latter’s bad habits. He totally ignores Biff’s habit of stealing; on the contrary, he seems to encourage it. In course of time, stealing becomes so habitual for Biff that it works as one of the principle causes of his downfall. Again, Willy also does not pay heed to Biff’s education. Willy thinks that education is not necessary for success. Willy does not show any interest in Bernard’s warning that Biff is doing bad in exams. On the contrary, both Willy and Biff humiliates Bernard and mocks at him. Thus, although Biff is a good football player and athlete, these qualities alone are not enough in the business world. Biff is, in fact, devoid of the good family training which his father might have given him.

However, the incident which is mainly responsible for the collapse of the father-son relationship is Willy’s love-making with a Boston girl. Biff travels to Boston to meet his father but he finds in the hotel room that his father is passing his time with a girl.  Biff goes to Boston to tell his father that he has failed his exam and Willy needs to talk to his teacher for Biff’s readmission. However, when Biff discovers his father’s betrayal to his mother, he loses his interest in education and job. Here also we find that Willy is largely responsible for Biff’s failure in securing a good career. Besides, the Boston incident sours the father-son relationship permanently.

Miller attempts to show the conflicts that occur as a result of a father not teaching his sons any morals. Willy ingrains in Biff’s head that a person can do anything as long as they are popular. Because of this belief, Biff develops an addiction to stealing. The reason he lost his job with Oliver was because he stole basketballs from him. He has trouble all his life because he steals. "I stole myself out of every good job since high school" (131). It is this reason that has caused all his problems with Willy, and Willy is to blame because he never told him differently. Happy also has a sour relationship with Willy because of the lack of values he has. Willy always tells them that being popular is the best quality to have. Happy meets some women at the restaurant where he and Biff are supposed to meet Willy. When Willy starts to fall apart on them, Happy tries to ignore him so that he won’t look bad in front of the women. "No, that’s not my father. He’s just a guy" (115). Willy never instils family pride in them. It is this reason that a gap exists in their relationship with him. Arthur Miller’s ability to have characters interact with one another allows him to comment on father-son relationships and the conflicts involved.
But Willy on his part always tries to do something for his boys and does never want to depend on them. He commits suicide as it will bring twenty thousand dollars of insurance which will help Biff to make a good fortune. And the son’s respect is shown after his death when Happy says-

“Willy Loman did not die in vain. He had a good dream. It’s only dream you can have-to come out number-one man.”

“Death of a Salesman” as a Morality Play and Willy Loman is the Everyman

Arthur Miller’s “Death of a salesman” can be read as a morality play written on a very contemporary theme. In a sense Willy Loman is the Everyman in a capitalistic society. For regardless of his excesses, virtually everyone can find a bit of themselves in the doomed protagonist of Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman." The play cannot attain the stature of a genuine tragedy because of its extreme social awareness nor can it be a social drama because it is fitting to call it a social tragedy and it is. Social tragedy is a modern kind of tragedy in which the conflict between the central protagonist and society is depicted and the protagonist becomes the victim of society’s ill-treatment. 
Arthur Miller in his drama “Death of a Salesman” depicts the conflict within the family and the conflict between protagonist and the society. He is misfit in the capitalist society. He is the victim of a social injustice and this social injustice causes his tragedy.

Willy Loman, the protagonist, has been working in a company for almost thirsty-six years. He introduces the firm in many cities. He often says to his colleagues that he is a vital man for the firm. It is only due to Willy's effort that the firm has been introduced in many cities of America.

Willy Loman in his life, keeping David Singleman’s charming personality as a model before him, dreams of success which is for a big house, a beautiful car and a good job which earns him a lot of money. But despite his head-long service for thirty-six years, he is unable to achieve his goals of success. He is misfit in the capitalistic society in which for being successful one has to be practical and hardworking, whereas, a dreamer like Willy Loman is sure to be a victim of failure. At the age of sixty three he is working on commission and his salary is so little that he cannot pay his installments of insurance and of other households. He often has to borrow money from Charley to pay his installments.

His own failure in achieving his goal of success and his son’s failure in getting settled is frustrating and maddening him. He is in the verge of mental collapse. He cannot concentrate on his car driving and smashes his car for two or three times. Willy makes up his mind to see his employer, Howard, and ask him to give him a non-traveling job in New York and to increase his salary.

He considers himself a vital man for the firm but he is not aware of the fact that in the capitalistic society a man is needed so long as a man can raise profit for the firm. The sooner he is incapable of raising benefit for the firm, the sooner he is fired out. Willy realizes the fact when instead of considering his plea on the humanitarian grounds, Howard fires him out. Howard totally ignores his forty years service for the firm. As Willy can no more raise benefit to the firm so he is no more wanted at all. Howard says:

“I cannot take blood from a stone.”

Willy realizes that he is not a vital man at all for the firm and speaks the beautiful line, a satire on capitalistic society, that these capitalistic profiteers eat the fruit and throw the peels away.

To conclude we can rightly say that “Death of a Salesman” is a modern social tragedy in which conflict between man and society has been depicted. Willy Loman, the protagonist, becomes the victim of social injustice which compels him to commit suicide.

Criticism of ' the American Dream' in 'Death of a Salesman' by Arthur Miller

To pass a laborious life and also die an inglorious death from frustration is the typical picture of the life of an individual in a third world country.But it is absolutely an unlikely happening for a citizen of America,the land of plenty and wealth.Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman presents a  very similar situation and thus indirectly poses a challenge to the American dream,that to be an American is to enjoy a life of plenty,equality and happiness. No American should get lost and die an unlamented death.

The American Dream' is based on the 'Declaration of Independence': 'We believe that all men are born with these inalienable rights - life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.' This 'dream' consists of a genuine and determined belief that in America, all things are possible to all men, regardless of birth or wealth; if you work hard enough you will achieve anything. However, Miller believes that people have been 'ultimately misguided' and Miller's play, Death of a Salesman, is a moving destruction of the whole myth.

The tragedy of Willy Loman, says Arthur Miller, is:

    “Willy gave his life, or sold it, in order to justify the waste of it…”

Willy represents Every low-man in America. Hence, it is a tragedy of every American. The play is really a challenge to the American Dream because it is the tragedy of a man troubled by the society. Willy believes in American myth that “Success is obtained by being well-liked”. His dream ends up in nightmare. So the play challenges to new American capitalistic concepts.

American dream means the dream of becoming rich overnight. The scale and merit of success is money, big house, a costly car and other material things. Nobility, truth, honesty are not merits. Values have been changed through this dream. Instead of hard work and courage, there is salesmanship. It implies fraud, the ability to sell a commodity regardless of its intrinsic uselessness. The goal of salesmanship is to earn a profit.

So, in these circumstances, man ceases to be man and spiritually he is hollow. He constantly wears a mask hiding his deceptive frauds. The only reality, the only goal is that of material success. The same situation happens with Willy Loman. By this way, Willy, to a large extent, represents Every Low-man in America. His fall, his death reflects the total break down of the concept of salesmanship, an integral part of America setup.

Willy believes that life’s problems can be solved by looking “Well-liked”. But he does not realizes the fact that the age in which he is living, the good looks does not matter, what matters is the wealth you have. By wealth you can buy anything. All relations are useless before almighty dollar. He receives his severest blows when he needs the greatest amount of love and care. He is unable to travel extensive. He makes a request to his young employer to relieve him of such a tiring burden and give him a comfortable job. But, for the capitalism businessman no moral or legal obligation can be biding. To him, Willy is commercially as useless as the peels of a fruit. So, he says:

    I can’t take blood from a stone.

In fact, “Death of a Salesman” is a red light for American society. It shows that all Americans adopt one million ideas and dream for success. Everyone wants to become the president of America, but when he fails to achieves his dreams, he becomes frustrated. Willy’s suicide is a caution for such modern values.

Eugene O’Neil comments on the failure of American dream in following lines:

    “I am going on the theory that the United States, instead of being the most successful country in the world, is the greatest failure”

In conclusion we can say that Miller in “Death of a Salesman” has tried to show the failure of American dream. Implicitly, he tells us tht man is not a machine, he has emotions too. Thus placing all the values on riches is wrong. The whole situation he sums up in Biff’s remark who says on his father’s death.

    “He had the wrong dream. All, all wrong.”

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Use of the Flashback as a Narrative Technique in 'Death of a Salesman'

In Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller uses the flashback as a dramatic technique to present past events during current events, or to provide background for the current narration. By giving material that occurred prior to the present event, the writer provides the reader with insight into a character's motivation and or background to a conflict. Following the trend of expressionism Arthur Miller’s in his “Death of a Salesman” depicts imaginary sequences and portrays for the audience the inner workings of the character’s mind and his emotions. Here he uses flashback to relate Willy Loman’s memories of the past. The play is largely a representation of what takes place in his mind during the last two days of his life. In fact, Willy’s reminiscences and imaginary sequences allow us to understand what happened in the past, and why things are how they are now in the present day.

Act 1, 1st flashback

The first flashback happens at a time when the reality is completely opposite. Every scene in this flashback is very ironical. Here we see his hope to be a successful business father (“ someday I’ll have my own business, and I’ll never have to leave home any more”), or tower like hope from his son( congratulate you on your initiative!) all turned into asses at present moment, as the Lomans are still wondering and trying to get the expected position in the society. Though Happy pretends that he is a would be merchandise manager, actually he is “one of the two assistants to the assistant”, whereas Bif is still planning to settle in business by getting a favour from Bill Oliver.

For Willy it is also very frustrating as his children idealize him. Everything that Willy says or does is perfect, and he is an authority figure within the scene. His dream about America as a land of opportunity ends in smokes. He thinks that Americans are the “finest people” and it is a land of beautiful town and cities. He promises to take the boys with him on business trips during the summer. He imagines a grand entrance with Biff and Happy carrying his sample cases into the stores. But the present situation shows that leaving in America is not a very fine experience, rather they fell like leaving in a box and it is filled with such people as Herbert or Bill Oliver.

The contrast between Biff and Bernard is also very clear in this flashback. To Willy, Bernard is a book worm, won’t get well in the business world as he is not well liked and he also make fun of him(B). To him only appearance works in the business world and he always try to judge Biff’s mistake from this point of view which results in a fatal way.

In the restaurant scene, learning that Biff stole Oliver’s pen temporarily brings Willy out of the past. Willy feels responsible for Biff’s actions, and he immediately moves back into the past to find justification for the theft. Biff states, “I didn’t exactly steal it [the pen]!” but it is impossible for Willy or the audience to believe this based on his previous record that includes stealing the football, as well as the building materials. Willy is partially to blame for Biff’s actions simply because he sanctioned his behavior every time before by not making Biff face the consequences. Therefore, because Willy taught Biff that he did not have to follow rules in high school, his behavior in the present is a reflection of his previous conditioning. As a result, Willy bears the primary responsibility for Biff’s present failure.

In Bernard’s case too, contrast is quite explicit, as he has become one of the country’s top lawyers. In previous scene, Willy had always predicted that Biff would surpass the “anemic” Bernard, due to strength and the fact that he was “well-liked.” This is yet another example of the failure of Willy’s predictions. Not only is Bernard more prosperous than Biff, but Willy is forced to borrow money from Bernard’s father, a man that he has always envied.

Act 1, 2nd flashback

The flashback also has an extra tension because they occur simultaneously with events in the present which works like a double exposure. For example, what we see in the 2nd flashback while Willy is playing card game with Charlie. Here we see how the flashback appear gradually, usurping the present bit by bit whereas he is actually taking to the remembered Ben and the real Charlie simultaneously. When Charlie finally realizes that Willy is absent-minded, he makes an exit. Here we see again Willy’s too much obsession of the past over present.

In this flashback we also see his fa├žade personality and his tendency to deny reality. Though he is not satisfied with his earnings, he reinvents his success by exaggerating his sales to Linda. It is only when Linda confronts him with the numbers that he is forced to admit his true commission.
Then we find his another journey into the dream world where he is engaged with Ben. It demonstrates Willy’s dependence upon his memories and the insecurity that prompts him to rearrange events and facts in an attempt to create order or success. Willy is insecure, and he traces his own insecurity to the absence of his father. Having been denied approval from his father, Willy is driven by a need to gain approval and recognition from everyone. This accounts for his “temporary” view of himself. Willy cannot be content with his life, job, or his marriage because he is continually evaluating himself based upon the success of others. As a result, Willy has created a cycle of eager acceptance and rejection of himself. So long as Willy is received favorably, he is momentarily content; however, these moments occur rarely within the play.
This flashback reminds us Willy’s so longed desire to be a successful business man. To him, Ben is a “great man”, an incarnate of success , an idle whom his sons should take as a role model. On the otherhand, his advise to Biff indicate Willy’s failure to follow the ‘jungle rule’ , i e, the very mechanism behind American consumer society.

So ,this flashback reveals his own inability to accept the truth about himself and the reality of the world he lives in. He knows that people criticize him because of his demeanor, and he realizes that people are no longer receptive to him. The fact that Willy acknowledges these things demonstrates that he knows the reality of the situation; however, his immediate contradictions prove his inability to accept the way things are. He denies his own failure as a salesman, along with his inability to be “well-liked,” because they are too painful. It is much easier for him to invent a reality in which he is successful, thereby creating order in a disordered existence.

Act 2, 1st flashback

The occurrence of 1st flashback in Act 2 makes it particularly effective for the placement of this Scene. Here Willy attempts to deal with what has happened with Howard and escape from it at the same time by reverting back to Ben.It seems that he is asking for advice from Ben. As he has always been successful, so he is the natural choice for advice. Willy wants Ben to analyze the current situation and tell him what to do. Instead, Ben offers Willy a job in Alaska—the same offer he made when he actually visited in the past—but Willy can no longer separate the past from the present; they are blending together.

The fact that Willy turns down the offer is very poignant in light of what happened in Scene 2. In the past, Willy refused Ben’s offer because he was determined to be a successful salesman, just like Dave Singleman. Now that he has been fired, he is overwhelmed by his feelings: regret, for not accepting Ben’s offer and moving to Alaska; shame, for losing his job; and despair, for having devoted his life to a company that could discard him so easily.

In this way, the audience can clearly see which events on stage are taking place in reality, and which are taking place inside of Willy’s mind. Miller originally titled the play The Inside of His Head, which illustrates that he intended to show the audience what happens in a man’s mind when his dreams are never realized, and when he lives in a world based on illusion. Miller’s method of flashing back and forth between the past and the present, and between the imaginary and the realistic, allows the audience to witness how a lifetime of disappointment, delusion, and failure have led to the current situation, and shows facets of each character that would not have been revealed if only the present-day occurrences had been portrayed. Because of the way the play is constructed, the audience can see what the characters have become and what experiences, thoughts, and emotions led them to their present state.

'Death of a Salesman' as a Modern Tragedy

In 'Death of a Salesman' Arthur Miller presents a tragedy which is different from  the classical and Shakespearean tragedies. On the basis of some unconventional rules Miller produces a tragedy, which is very modern in respects of the style as well as the subject matter. The play is mainly linked to Miller’s essay ‘Tragedy and the common man”, the Miller’s Poetics in which he redefines our notion of a tragedy. In fact he shows that a common man also can be the protagonist of a tragedy and his sufferings also touch our heart.

It does not only belong to the past ages

Tragedy is not only the property of the classical world or the Shakespearean world. Tragedy can belong to any age. But with the change of time the subject matter and the style also should be changed to fulfill the demand of the age. Arthur Miller does the very thing in the play. As we go through the play we see that he does not violet the properties of the universal grammar of a tragedy. The universal properties of a tragedy include the presentation of a serious action that is complete in itself and capable of evoking pity and terror in order to produce catharsis in the audience.

Other properties of a tragedy

Miller’s Death of a Salesman fulfills all of these requirements though in some unconventional ways. The dramatist also maintains the other properties such as the plot, character, thought, diction, song and spectacle.


The play has a modern setting. Though the play is set in 1949 , but the times of the play fluctuate between a point in 1942 and another time in 1928. But the shift of time is greatly handled and made convincing through flashbacks. Miller as child of the great depression dramatizes the traumatic years of the Second World War. The action of the play takes place largely inside the Loman home in Brooklyn, but other places in New York and Boston are used as well, including hotel rooms, Willy’s office, a restaurant, and Willy’s gravesite. So, the setting of the tragedy differs from the setting of a classical tragedy. The setting of the play is not a royal palace but the house of poor Willy.


As per as plot is concerned Miller is almost as perfect as the classical dramatists. Structurally the play is stretched tightly like Oedipus Rex. There are no digressions and Willy Loman marches inexorably from the beginning to his catastrophic doom. Like the classical tragedy his death is also not shown on the stage keeping violence offstage, while the Requiem section functions in the manner of a Greek chorus.

Song and spectacle

In a Greek tragedy the songs and spectacle added beauty to the play and helped create environment. Here the flute playing replaces the Greek choral songs and helps create the environment of the play. The spectacle does the same thing.

Tragic hero

But the most important factor in which the play differs from the classical tragedy is the presentation of the tragic hero. According to Miller an “average man” can be an apt subject for tragedy, as exaltation of tragic action is not only for the kings or the kingly but also a property of all men. Willy, an average man, is made the hero of the tragedy. As a hero he does not fully fit into the traditional pattern, but in some respects he comes out as a tragic hero.

Good and bad

At first, Willy is not thoroughly good or thoroughly bad. He lives his family very much and also wants to see his sons in great positions. But at the same time he has a secret relation with a woman. Thus he combines both the good and bad qualities. But once again the elements are very modern in nature. The extramarital affair is certainly a modern problem.

Not noble but human

Willy has not certainly that noble birth to put him on equal footing with such heroes as Oedipus or Hamlet, but still we respond to the sufferings of Willy as we do to Oedipus, Hamlet, Othello and Lear. We respond to them not because of their birth, but because we find a kinship between them and us and can share our humanity.

Tragic flaw

Like a traditional tragic hero Willy also has a tragic flaw, which brings upon his downfall. His flaw is identified as his obsession with his dream. He always give preference to face value and takes it granted for any kind of success in this world. This wrong conception leads him to the act of suicide. His “hubris”, his arrogance, lay in his thinking that he could reach the top in that society. He has become so much part of the system of false value in a materialistic world that he dare not even deign to think of himself as apart from it. He is all the time attempting to become a part of his society. Though it rejects him, he refuses to change his view and continues his struggle upstream. His unwillingness to submit passively to the established order and values takes him down. He has a set idea in his mind about how he wants to be and the way he wants his children to be and he doesn’t go beyond it. Though at an early age he had a chance to change and become like his brother Ben, but chose not to. He is a salesman and refuses to be anything else. So, Willy dies at the hands of his tragic flaws.

Tragic feeling

It is a debatable issue whether the fall of Willy arouses our pity and fear or not. About tragic feeling Miller says “tragic feeling is evoked in us when we are in the presence of a character who is ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure one thing – his sense of personal dignity”. Like the classical tragedy, the play also arouses our feelings of pity and fear. We cannot but feel pity for Willy. He was wrong in his approach to the life and his ability. But his fault does not deserve so harsh a punishment. We also become very fearful after seeing the tragedy of Willy. Willy not only represents the post-depression American middle-class society, but in a larger sense he is Everyman. In our daily life we cannot escape from the inescapable failures of life. After the successful production of the play in China, Miller himself said that Willy is everywhere. We feel for Willy more than a classical hero, because he is an ordinary person like most of us.We can share his feelings and understand his problems. So, the tragedy of Willy arouses our pity and fear in us.

So, we should keep in mind these considerations when we judge Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” as a modern tragedy.