Arthur Miller’s play “Death of a Salesman” examines the final two days in the life of an ordinary man named Willy Loman as he begins losing his sanity and finally commits suicide. Although the time period of the play spans only two days, because of Willy’s failing memory and the distracted way in which Arthur Miller chooses to portray this interaction of memory and the present, the reader, or the viewer, has the opportunity to get to know Willy and his perceptions regarding his relationships pretty well. “Willy Loman is clearly not the usual tragic hero; he is lower middle class and none too clever. The world he inhabits is that of amoral, capitalistic big business rather than one with any clear moral value” (Abbotson, 2000, p. 25), which prevents him from making a meaningful connection with his family in his time of crisis. Critic Harold Bloom has written that Willy Loman “Has confused himself into the belief that without success he does not deserve to be loved… [that] Loman fails to see that familial love never can be deserved, or undeserved, but only is, or is not.” This tragic flaw prevents Willy from finding the comfort in family that family is supposed to provide, it creates a schism between Willy and his beloved oldest son Biff by whom Willy measures his success as a father and it creates a situation in which Willy feels compelled to do the only thing he feels he has left for his family, which is to die.
A great deal of what his family knows about Willy is based upon the image he feels he must portray of himself, therefore preventing his family from knowing the true Willy Loman and isolating him in a world of his own creation. Bloom notes early danger signs revealed during a memory when we “detect the seed of later difficulties as Willy tries to impress his boys by exaggerating the importance and prestige of his job” (1996, p. 15). Through this exaggeration, the reader is made to understand that “Loman has a faulty vision of what makes a person successful, which makes him flawed, but regardless of the opposition and the ultimate cost to himself, he refuses to give up that vision, which makes him, in Miller’s eyes, a tragic hero” (Abbotson, 2000, p. 25). As he is finally brought to the realization that his slipping memory means he cannot work anymore, Willy finds himself grasping for a foundation within his family that cannot now be developed because of the way he has kept his true self hidden behind appearances. “Because material success seems so necessary to Willy, he believes that his sons cannot love him if he is not successful. Love becomes an item to be bought rather than something to be freely given” (Brockett, 1969). Likewise, his relationship with his wife only serves to remind him of how much he owes her, “you’re my foundation and my support” (18) even when he just finished belittling her ideas.
In the cut-throat business world through which he has worked his whole life, the only refuge Willy had from the instability of his work was in his family, but his misunderstanding of how this world works instead causes a rift between himself and his son, the symbolism of success at home for Willy. “Willy Loman … lives by corrupt values because that is all he knows; thus he kills the whole purpose which the family held for him, the love of Biff” (Newman, 1958). This complete lack of communication that prevents the two men from regaining the close relationship they once had is caused by Willy, although he doesn’t recognize it, as can be seen in Act 2 when he refuses to listen to Biff’s ideas. By leading the questions, Willy inadvertently leads his son down a path of conversation that was more appropriate for the father and son of yesteryear rather than the father and adult son of the present. This communication style upset Biff and frustrated his attempts to discuss what was really on his mind, which was also evident to Willy. Because of his inability to recognize and appreciate the change that has taken place in the relationship as his son grew up, Willy is now no longer able to connect with Biff, causing him to conclude that he has failed as a father.
Success in business is absolutely essential for Willy’s survival for reasons other than money, so his failure sets up a situation providing only one winning way out. As has been shown, material success was necessary to ‘purchase’ the love of his sons and provide for the support of his wife, which to Willy were true hallmarks of success. Having achieved this state, Willy would then be able to prove his role as the patriarch of the family: “The Home is the only realm where Willy can be the father, the patriarchal authority, so he invests it with sanctity” (Stanton, p. 135) which provides him with the feeling of importance he cannot attain in the business world. As a further means of asserting his patriarchal status, Willy continually works to build himself up in his son’s eyes, advising them in ways that would make them be like him. However, the realization that he has reached the end of his career without having achieved the proper support for his wife serves to severely threaten Willy’s patriarchal position. The renewed rift between himself and Biff only remind him of the various ways in which he has failed as a father. “It is only when Willy understands that Biff loves him, even though both are failures, that he achieves a degree of insight. It is too late to change the course of events, but he goes to his death more nearly at peace than at any time in the play” (Brockett, 1969). Willy’s suicide, then, demonstrates both the incredible love he had for his family as well as his belief in the American ideal system and what his role in that system should be.
Throughout the play, there was little option for Willy to do anything other than what he did within the context of his personality and understanding. His absolute belief in the American ideal in which a father lived by certain principles to provide his family with their basic needs was inextricably tied to his ideas of his status within the family unit itself. From this perspective, the only way to attain familial success was to first obtain business success. Upon realizing he had not achieved business success, Willy was forced to acknowledge he had not achieved familial success. His suicide in the belief that the family would receive the $20,000 life insurance benefit was the only way in which Willy could achieve the type of success he’d dreamed of within his capabilities. By clearing away the problem of business success through his provision of the insurance money, Willy was finally able to come to the understanding that his son had loved him all along, regardless of whether he had achieved the magic material number and die with a sense of peace. The final tragic error in his line of thinking was the caveat in all insurance policies in which the benefit is not paid if death is achieved through suicide.
Abbotson, Susan C. Student Companion to Arthur Miller. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000.
Bloom, Harold. Bloom’s Notes: Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Broomall, PA: Chelsea House Publications, 1996.
Brockett, Oscar G. “An Introduction to Death of a Salesman.” The Theatre: An Introduction. 2nd Ed. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969.
Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. New York: Viking Press, 1949.
Newman, William J. “The Role of the Family in Miller’s Plays.” Book Reviews: The Plays of Arthur Miller. Twentieth Century, Vol. 164, N. 981, November 1958.
Stanton, Kay. “Women and the American Dream of Death of a Salesman.” Feminist Readings of Modern American Drama. Jane Schlueter (Ed.). Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1989.