Learning The Limits Of Our Values In Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman”
Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, set in 1940s New York, shows us the limits of our moral, social and economic values, values still carried out today. This play is intemporal – by looking into the past and learning about the unfortunate life of the Lomans ( literally low-man), it helps us understand the failures of our beliefs and their consequences for the present and the future. It delivers a bleak conception of American society which beats an overpowering fear of failure into the hearts of its members. In the play, the capitalist world provides no hope or comfort to individuals who are considered “weak” and “different”. It raises and diffuses false ideas about success and manages to destroy any individual who does not fit into society’s definition of a “member”. Willy, the sixty year old father, pursues an unreachable dream of becoming the number one salesman in his firm. Linda, his wife, is more lucid on the situation but never stops his delusions, keeping alive his obsession. Happy and Biff, their sons, differ in every way – one blindly follows the step of his father whereas the other one bravely chooses to step away and pursue a simpler life where he feels accomplished. Through the very strong personality of each of his characters, Arthur Miller denounces how the American dream has failed and left individuals socially disoriented by portraying society’s dehumanisation of the individual and the dominance of industries. Willy’s wrong dreams emphasise the sadness of his wasted life. The addition of the Requiem and the use of stage directions and symbols help the audience understand the tragedy of the Lomans who are crushed under society’s rules.
In his play, Arthur Miller condemns capitalist values and delivers a fierce criticism of American society by offering a very bleak vision of modernity and industrialisation which dehumanises and destroys entire families. Men work for powerful, competitive, self-interested firms with high expectations, and there is no place left for creativity, individuality or diversity: men simply have to fit in desperately and maintain their place until they die. Willy at some point in the play understands how society works:
“…after all the highways, and the trains, and the appointments, and the years, you end up worth more dead than alive.”
This quote conveys how capitalism grabs everything a man can give to society, every piece of strength and work, and leaves him with no money, no compensation and no worth. Man is not at the centre of society’s preoccupations now, and in the end it feels like it is better to die than to live in a world that exhausts and enslaves men. In addition, Howard, Willy’s boss, is more preoccupied and interested in his new recording machine than the case of Willy: when Willy tries to interrupt him and ask him a favour, Howard aggressively responds “Sh, for God’s sake!“. Howard represents the firm and the capitalist values, and showing no interest in Willy conveys how the business world doesn’t give much importance to individuals but praises machines. The reader feels outraged by capitalism’s destructive effects on individuals and starts to see how bleak society can be.
With his character Willy, a fragile man who lives for the American dream, Miller illustrates the negative effects of a corrupted society which formats its members and leads them to the fear of failure, the fear of weakness and the fear of being different and not loved. Placing the emphasis on characterisation, the author conveys how Willy stays deeply attached to society’s values even if his firm puts him under pressure, and how his obsession with success leads him towards madness. He has been imbued with the desire to be popular, and he thinks money, a good job and a charismatic attitude can make people love him.
“And when I saw that, I realized that selling was the greatest career a man could want. ’Cause what could be more satisfying than to be able to go, at the age of eighty-four, into twenty or thirty different cities, and pick up a phone, and be remembered and loved and helped by so many different people?”
Here, we can see how society has moulded Willy into wanting to be popular and loved “by so many people”, as if it was the most important thing in the world, before freedom, family and happiness. Willy doesn’t feel comfortable in his job, but he keeps on believing it is the only way to achieve a “valuable” life. He wants to be “remembered”, something nearly every man aspires to: it reflects the idea of death and the fear of not being useful, of not achieving anything in the world, of being like everybody, like “nobody”. People like Willy tend to forget that the individual’s happiness, virtue and love are worth more than success.
By adding the Requiem at the end of the play, Miller emphasises the bleakness of the Lomans‘ story and presents how Willy’s values have been distorted by society to the extent that it pushes him to commit suicide for nothing. Willy dies with the absolute certainty that the insurance will leave money to his family, still believing wealth is a priority. No one comes to the funeral, showing how capitalism has completely overshadowed human relations. Linda is now free from payment, but left alone in her grief. Biff clearly understands that Willy has been completely perverted: “He had the wrong dreams.” Biff is not going to follow his father’s path, which offers some sort of hope to the audience as he will not repeat his father’s mistakes. He understands that what society has bleakly and imposingly taught them to believe in is wrong, whereas Happy doesn’t: “He had a good dream. It’s the only dream you can have –to come out number-one man.” Happy still believes success and popularity are the two dreams any man should have, which is appalling for the audience. With the characters of Willy and of his sons, offering an interesting contrast between Biff and Happy, Miller illustrates how a corrupt and bleak society has turned men into believers in the American Dream and has led them to disillusionment, failure and unhappiness.
Stage directions and setting are extremely important to understand under what conditions the Lomans lived: they demonstrate how a man like Willy and his family are crushed under this harsh, cruel and demanding society, which leaves little space for them to flourish. We can see how society has compressed the Lomans since the beginning of the play when Miller describes their small house surrounded by “towering, angular shapes”. This image describes the huge and modern buildings, looking dangerously at the small house as if they were ready to smash it. This is a metaphor to present capitalism and big firms oppressing Willy and his family who are not meant for the city life, but rather prefer the simple life and countryside. They like to work with their hands, and Willy is not very charismatic – this may be the reason why he is not good at his job and why his firm rejects him, just as society crushes any man who doesn’t fit in. The last line of the play depicts the “darkening stage“, which conveys to the audience an impression of defeat and gloom, and emphasises the tragedy of the Lomans who cannot cope with modernisation. The “hard towers” that “rise into sharp focus” picture society as menacingly triumphant, becoming more and more concrete and overtaking individuals and families.
The abundant use of symbols help the reader visualise the negative effects of the corrupted society Miller is describing. When Howard tells Willy he is fired, he finally perceives the reality of the capitalist world and says:
“You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away – a man is not a piece of fruit!”
This metaphor depicts how firms dehumanize individuals and take all their “substance” and strength away, as if they eat a fruit and throw “the peel away”; they use the man until there is no more left to use. It conveys how society doesn’t work and doesn’t care for its people, leaving them to die after taking everything they had, and it convinces the reader that society is bleak. Just before getting fired, Willy talks to his wife and tells her that he wants to plant seeds in the garden. The seeds symbolize the hope for prosperity and success that Willy desperately wants to achieve after working so hard all those years. They reflect on his failure as he declares: “Nothing’s planted. I don’t have a thing in the ground” and Linda adding “Nothing’ll grow anymore.” It shows how, even unconsciously, they are aware of their misfortune and despair as neither Willy nor his sons achieved anything. Neither Willy nor his sons grew seeds in the garden: they were “infertile” and “unfruitful” because of society’s high expectations and low consideration of their family. The reader feels sorry for the family as well as discouraged and scandalized by society’s harshness.
In Death of a Salesman, society is depicted as bleak and harmful towards individuals. It has indoctrinated false ideals in people and rejected those who are not considered part of its definition of “success”. Arthur Miller conveys how capitalism dehumanises men through the character of Willy, imbued with false dreams and values, leading him to a tragic death. The addition of the Requiem adds to the sadness of Willy’s destiny, and the stage directions as well as the symbols portray the despair and the oppression of the Lomans in the capitalist world. It has succeeded in showing how the American Dream has turned people against their own nature, believing that their difference cannot be cultivated or tolerated. America has not always been a country striving for equality, freedom, happiness and rights: it has also experienced darker times.
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