At the very start of Arthur Miller’s play, Death of a Salesman, the reader is conscious of impending tragedy because of the obvious implications of the title. Again, the word ‘requiem’ in the sub-title, which means a solemn chant for the repose of the dead, warns of grief.
Act I is filled with references to financial success and failure and money matters. Willy Loman is cut out of a salary and is struggling to support his wife on sales commissions. The cost of domestic necessities is often catalogued by Linda. Biff is out of a job. Willy’s hero is his brother Ben, who supposedly made a fortune in the African jungles. This focus on money is Miller’s subtle criticism of the American frenzy for material wealth.
Miller’s drama sharply points out the failure of the ‘American Dream.’ The three men are caught in joyless lives and have not experienced any fulfillment. Loman dreams that “Someday I’ll have my own business, and I’ll never have to leave home again” (Miller, 1273). This does not happen and he is trapped in the life of a travelling salesman. The man who once believed in the promise of America, where “The greatest things can happen” (1283), is now reduced to failure. He is ‘boxed in’ in a crowded neighborhood of apartments and feels stifled. He also regrets not going to Alaska with his brother. Biff too has “Lotta dreams and plans” (1268) but is unable to survive the cut-throat competition of the business world. Biff tells his brother, “Hap, the trouble is we weren’t brought up to grub for money” (1270). Happy, although more successful than his father and brother, is a philanderer and admits, “I’m Lonely.” The American Dream is a mirage for all the Loman men.
Miller highlights the pathos of the Loman’s failure by inserting a series of flashbacks into Act I. The action moves between the present and the past. The reader is made aware of past dreams and present failure through this device.
Willy Loman is not a very sympathetic character. At the very outset Miller announces Willy’s “mercurial nature, his temper, his massive dreams and little cruelties” (1263). He does not like being contradicted. He sounds extremely sanctimonious as he spouts advice such as “Never leave a job till your’re finished” (1272), and “Be liked and you will never want” (1275). He encourages the boys to steal sand and lumber, calling them “fearless characters” (1284). He has unrealistic expectations for Biff and wants to live vicariously through his son. He is extremely critical, rude to his wife, and a liar who cheats on her. Although it is evident that he is at a crisis in his life and “a terrible thing is happening to him” (1287), the reader does not empathize with Willy or feel sorry for him. On the contrary, it is easy to see why Willy is compelled to admit, “people don’t seem to take to me” (1276).
Linda is the character who appeals to me in Act I. In spite of Willy’s rudeness and lies, she continues to love him. Linda makes excuses for her husband. She loves him deeply and is staunchly loyal to him. She declares to her son, “He’s not the finest character that ever lived” but demands their loyalty to him as a proof of their love for her. It is Linda who is holding the Loman family together.
At the end of Act I, the reader is intimate with each member of the Loman family. Miller leaves the reader expectantly looking forward to the developments to come.
Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. Title of Collection. Ed. Editors Name(s).
City of Publication: Publisher, Year. 1262- . Print.