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Theme Analysis: Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman”

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Arthur Miller’s Death of Salesman Being one of the most notable works in modern literature, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman presents various themes that revolve around one’s perception of the American Dream. This paper intends to focus on analyzing how Miller employed dramatic elements including character, conflict and setting to express the themes of the play. Moreover, this paper provides a discussion of how the literary concepts of catharsis, hubris and hamartia figure in Miller’s masterpiece.
Use of Dramatic Elements to Express Themes
The theme of the play centers on the concept of the great American Dream and how one views the reality and illusion relative to this idea. In terms of character, Miller primarily expressed his theme through his depiction of the Lomans, particularly Willy Loman, who is the head of the family. Through Willy, the audience sees how the family thinks of living and achieving the elusive American Dream. In this play, Miller has effectively depicted Willy as the father who strongly influenced his family in erroneously perceiving that one can make it big in the modern world with good looks and people’s validation alone.
As Willy says, “… [W]hat 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 by so many different people?” (Miller, “Death of a Salesman”, Act II). The playwright reveals that the main character perceives the attainment of American Dream as being well-liked. Willy derives great pleasure in having people remember and love him. He becomes obsessed with the superficial notion that being well-liked and attractive guarantees material success in the modern American life (“Sparknotes”).
Apart from characters, Miller also utilized the element of conflict to unearth the concept of betrayal that is also one of the themes of the play. The betrayal of Willy’s dreams as his son Biff fails to realize his aspirations becomes evident with how Miller handled the father-son conflict (“Sparknotes”). Furthermore, Miller crafted the play such that the conflict, which is experienced by the Lomans that stems from their inability to recognize illusion from reality, brings about another theme pertaining to the characters’ failure to undergo self-analysis. Miller exposed this theme as Willy and his sons fail to closely examine themselves. They continue to blindly follow their idea of the American Dream without pondering what is truly happening to them and the changes in the society (“Homework Online”).
On the aspect of setting, the playwright adopted the 20th century industrial society. This setting goes to show that the mains character is indeed stuck and lost in the era of modern technology (“Sparknotes”). This setting helps establish the confusion of Willy with regard to the attainment of the American Dream given the advent of a new age. He finds it difficult to adapt to the fact that in an industrialized society, as exhibited in the setting of the play, good looks and prominence do not guarantee success.
Catharsis, Hubris and Hamartia
In the play, the audience witnesses how the main characters reach catharsis during the dramatic confrontation between Willy and Biff. In this vivid scene, Miller moves the audience and stimulated their emotions as he illustrates how Biff struggles to free himself of the shackles of the dreams imposed by his father. With Biff’s powerful lines, “I saw the things that I love in this world. The work and the food and the time to sit and smoke. And I looked at the pen and I thought, what the hell am I grabbing this for? Why am I trying to become what I don’t want to be…when all I want is out there, waiting for me the minute I say who I am,” (Miller, “Death of a Salesman,” Act II). During this cathartic scene, Biff is finally able to express what he has bottled up for years of repression.
This confrontation results from the hubris of Willy. At the onset, he already disregards Biff’s dreams and instead equated his aspirations with that of his son’s. With this, Biff is adversely affected and becomes the emotional wreck that he is. Willy aligns his unfulfilled dreams with Biff’s and this, in a way, alienated Biff from what he truly wants.
The hubris of Willy can also be considered as his hamartia. This tragic flaw brought misery not only to Willy himself but to the entire Loman family as well. In the end, Willy’s internal weakness of failing to conceive the true meaning of the American Dream and his inclination to force this erroneous perception upon his children only led to the downfall of Willy and his family.
Works Cited
Homework Online. 19 April 2006
Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. 19 April 2006
Sparknotes. 19 April 2006

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