Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman is often referred to as a “tragedy of the common man” and also as a “great American tragedy.” The play premiered on Broadway in 1949 amidst the rabid anti-Communist hysteria of the day (which was even worse than the anti-Russian hysteria of today). Initially, Miller was spared persecution despite his very close ties to several fellow writers who were or had been members of the Communist Party (CPUSA). But then the play's theater director, Elia Kazan, testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and cowardly named quite a few Broadway and Hollywood celebrities as Communists (who were automatically accused of being Moscow's spies under the draconian Smith Act). An enraged Miller denounced the ongoing wave of arrests, trials, and convictions, as well as the widespread black-listing of “Communist” suspects in his very next play, The Crucible. Winner of the 1953 Tony Award for Best Play and Miller's most frequently staged play around the world, The Crucible is based on the real-life story of the Salem witch trials in Puritan-era Massachusetts, in which many completely innocent people were accused of witchcraft on the basis of outlandish evidence provided by a bunch of hysterical teenage girls. At least twenty of the accused, mostly women, were publicly executed as witches between 1692 and 1693.
What got Miller in trouble was that some prominent anti-Communist politicians (including FBI Director John Edgar Hoover) saw his allegorical drama The Crucible as a not-so-veiled attack upon the Red-baiting paranoia of McCarthyism. Miller was grilled by the FBI and HUAC, but chose to join the “Hollywood Ten” in refusing to “name names.” For his refusal to identify other “Communists,” the playwright was convicted for “contempt of Congress” and had his U.S. passport confiscated on the eve of the London premiere of The Crucible, which he had been officially invited to attend. Miller escaped the mandatory sentence of at lest a year in prison served by most other “unfriendly” witnesses only because Hollywood superstar Marylin Monroe (who was herself outraged by the McCarthyite witch-hunting) came to his rescue and married him in 1956. Intimidated by his wife's enormous popularity and star appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals reversed his conviction in 1958.
Tragedy of the Common Man
The Death of a Salesman is indeed a “tragedy of the common man.” It is about a typical low-income American—a most ordinary traveling salesman named Willy Loman (allegorically meaning the “low man”). Now in his early sixties, he is totally worn out by his itinerant job and is suffering from burn-out and depression brought on by the thirty-six years he has spent on the road selling his firm's over-priced and poor-quality merchandise, himself, and the so-called American Dream to his Northeast customers. He complains to his wife Linda about his last, involuntarily abandoned business trip to New England, “I'm tired to death. I couldn't make it. I just couldn't make it, Linda.... I suddenly couldn't drive anymore. The car kept going off onto the shoulder, y'now?... Suddenly I realize I'm goin' sixty miles an hour and I don't remember the last five minutes. I'm—I can't seem to—keep my mind to it” (Miller 1.8-9, 14-15, 18-20).
The American Dream has been the most frequently advertised (especially on TV) propaganda myth about America's lifestyle/work-ethnic of rugged individualism, self-reliance, financial success, and the opportunity to make something out of oneself through hard work, thrift, business acumen, and perseverance. The American Dream is an emblem of the private-enterprise system which has supposedly made America the “land of unlimited opportunities,” where “only the sky's the limit” to what an enterprising and hard-driving individual can accomplish. Picture perfect families and homes, a husband who is a successful and respected businessman, a happy stay-at-home wife, and several ambitious and hard-working children all epitomize this ideal created in the postwar era mostly through television. But Willy's hopes, dreams, and aspirations about becoming an American Dream-style success fully capable of supporting his family have failed disastrously. His family has always been, as they say, “a paycheck away from welfare,” but now he has not been paid a salary for weeks. Willy has trouble paying his bills and survives only thanks to the money he “borrows” every week from his neighbor and friend Charley. Physically and mentally exhausted by his incessant traveling and driving, he finally asks his boss Howard Wagner to transfer him to a desk job at the company's New York City office. Even though Loman has slaved for Wagner Company for nearly four decades, his boss refuses and instead fires him for unsatisfactory job performance. Suddenly deprived of any job income, Willy is sinking fast into psychotic delirium, as he contemplates ever more frantically the possibility of killing himself. He has a secret plan to make his suicide look like an accident, so that his sons, Biff and Happy (Harold), could collect the money from his life insurance and use it for a business startup of their own.
Perhaps The Death of Willy Loman's American Dream would have been a more appropriate title for this darkly pessimistic drama which is about the tragic failure of the American Dream for our traveling salesman. Miller's tragedy is clearly an indictment of American capitalism and its systemic failure at the human level. Willy has worked hard all his adult life while raising a family. He has paid his dues to society, including paying all his bills and taxes on time. He owns a car (not everyone did in those days) and even makes the final mortgage payment on the family house on the very eve of his suicide. But Willy suddenly finds himself both unemployed and unemployable (given his advancing age and deteriorating mental health). He is also years away from either Social Security or a private pension, if he has any pension at all. “In the greatest country in the world,” as he calls it on stage (1.94), Loman is without any savings or prospects for a new job in the overcrowded labor market: “There's more people. That's what is ruining this country! Population is getting out of control. The competition is maddening” (1.128-129). Like most other American wives at that time, Linda is yet to join the future massive entry of cash-needy women into the job market.
Willy is so paranoid and desperate about his darkening future prospects that he is thinking about cheating the heartless system by committing insurance fraud through a suicide disguised as an accident. Obviously, the private-enterprise system (that is, all the Howard Wagners of this country combined) appears to be far more interested in the marketing of commodities and the huge profits derived from it, rather than in the human beings who produce those commodities or sell them to others for a living. The “tragedy of the common man” turns into a “great American tragedy” when economic gain (“progress”) and private profit (“cost-effectiveness”) triumph over the needs and dignity of the little man. But isn't it “Man,” rather than the “Law of demand and supply and market equilibrium” in the free-market economy, that is supposed to be “the measure of all things” (in the words of the ancient Greek philosopher Protagoras)?
This tragic drama is set in the late 1940's when the American Dream was alive and well for many Americans, despite the Great Depression. But each of our main characters sees it quite differently from the others. At age 63 and following several suicide attempts, Willy is still a firm believer in the American Dream but has transferred all his hopes and aspirations to his sons. When he was much younger, his dream was that “Someday I'll have my own business, and I'll never have to leave home anymore” (1.417-419). Willy's dream reminds one of what feminist journalist and progressive writer Louise Bryant tells her illustrious husband John Reed (the only American buried inside the Kremlin in Moscow) in Warren Beatty's famous movie Reds (1981)—that what most ordinary Americans want from life is to become as rich as their bosses, so that they wouldn't have to work another day. Aged 34, Biff's hopes for the future involve life in the countryside: “If I could get ten thousand or even seven or eight thousand dollars I could buy a beautiful ranch” (1.329-330). He tells his brother Happy, “...maybe we could buy a ranch. Raise cattle, use our muscles....” (270-271). At 32, Happy's only goal is to “...wait for the merchandise manager to die. And suppose I get to be merchandise manager? He’s a good friend of mine, and he just built a terrific estate on Long Island. And he lived there about two months and sold it, and now he’s building another one. He can’t enjoy it once it’s finished. And I know that’s just what I would do. I don’t know what the hell I’m workin’ for. Sometimes I sit in my apartment—all alone. And I think of the rent I’m paying. And it’s crazy. But then, it’s what I always wanted. My own apartment, a car, and plenty of women. And still, goddammit, I’m lonely” (1.258-261, 263-266). Although suffering from younger-brother syndrome and lack of fatherly attention, Happy proves to be the only successful family member. But he finds true happiness only in pleasing his father by trying to meet his high expectations of him. In fact, his job-related success seems not to be enough for Happy, so the American Dream would probably never make him really happy. Almost sixty, Linda has no dreams of her own beyond saving her suicidal husband's life: “I don't know what to do. I live from day to day...” (1.1072-1073). She clearly represents the sober-minded, realistic side of the family.
Willy's neighbor and charitable friend Charley and especially his bookish son Bernard, who—like his father—is “liked, but he's not well liked,” according to Biff (1.479), seem to have both achieved the American Dream—unlike any of the Lomans. Willy used to pompously assure Biff that “Bernard can get the best marks in school, y’understand, but when he gets out in the business world, y’understand, you are going to be five times ahead of him.... Because the man who makes an appearance in the business world, the man who creates personal interest, is the man who gets ahead. Be liked and you will never want. You take me, for instance. I never have to wait in line to see a buyer” (1.482-487). But Bernard grows up to become a very successful lawyer. He gets married and has two sons—unlike the aimless drifter Biff and the “philandering bum” Happy. The last time we see him, Bernard is preparing to argue an important legal case before the U.S. Supreme Court. He has achieved the American Dream to an extent that Willy and his two wayward boys could only dream of.
Willy and Charley are a study in contrasts, especially where dreams (and daydreaming) are concerned. Except for his occasional infidelities (with prostitutes) on the road, Willy lives in a dream world, in which he rarely distinguishes reality from his fantasies. Unlike Charley, whose only dream mentioned early in the play is “a trip to California” (1.687), Willy is full of all kinds of ambitious dreams which usually turn into daydreaming. He lives in a fantasy world to such an extent that people—Willy once complains to Linda—“seem to laugh at me” (1.553). As Charley eulogizes Willy at his funeral, “A salesman is got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory” (Requiem 33-34). Willy supposedly had what his still worshipful son Happy calls “a good dream.” Happy defends Willy's failed aspirations, saying, "I'm gonna show you and everybody else that Willy Loman did not die in vain. He had a good dream. It's the only dream you can have—to come out number-one man. He fought it out here, and this is where I'm gonna win it for him” (Requiem 42-43). In contrast, a deeply disappointed and resentful Biff believes that his Dad engaged only in foolish and impractical fantasies: “He had the wrong dreams. All, all wrong” (Requiem 24), which is why all his grand hopes and aspirations for himself and for his two boys have failed so miserably.
In fact, Willy fails in almost everything he has hoped to achieve. Even the family house is fully paid for only when he is already dead (since Linda makes the final mortgage payment on the day of his funeral). Having dreamed all his working life that he is somebody important at Wagner Company for having opened new markets in New England for the firm's sales, he is fired most unceremoniously after slaving for the Wagners for 36 years. Even though far less ambitious and hard-driven than Willy, Charley seems, by contrast, to end at the top of corporate management; otherwise he would not have been able to offer Willy a job or give him a “loan” every week. After Willy grooms for years his two boys, especially the high school's football team captain Biff, for big-time success either in sports or in the business world, it is nerdy Bernard who has a very successful career as a powerful lawyer, even though Charley shows very little interest in his son's schooling, preferring instead to play cards with Willy in his spare time.
Illusions and Dreams
Did Willy have false hopes, chasing after something that was simply unattainable? If a humane and charitable man and good friend like Charley had been his boss, Willy might have had a chance to make it to retirement. Yet, Willy could not accept Charley's job offer not only because of pride, but also because he was both physically and mentally too exhausted at that point to start another job in a new place with new people. Unfortunately for Willy, his boss was Howard “Business is business” Wagner, who could not care less about his employees. In fact, Howard seemed to care far more about his new wire recorder than he did about poor Willy, even though the latter had slaved for the Wagner family for more than a third of a century. In fact, Howard had not paid Willy a salary for the past five weeks or so: “it's business, kid, and everybody's gotta pull his own weight” (2.210). And as we know, most, if not all, of our bosses are exactly like Howard Wagner. All they care about is the bottom line, rather than those slaving for them. Little surprise that while in Willy Loman's day the average CEO earned no more than 40 times the salary of their lowest-paid employee, today the gap in pay has grown to more than 700 fold!
Then, there is the question of how realistic Willy's hopes and expectations were to begin with. The reason why Biff is so disgruntled is because he realizes how futile the American Dream's “rat race” is when you don't have a good education or a rich, influential and well-connected Daddy (like Howard Wagner's wealthy father): “I spent six or seven years after high school trying to work myself up. Shipping clerk, salesman, business of one kind or another. And it's a measly manner of existence. To get on that subway on the hot morning in summer. To devote your whole life to keeping stock, or making phone calls, or selling or buying. To suffer fifty weeks of the year for the sake of a two-week vacation.... And always to have to get ahead of the next fella” (1.227-233). Finally Biff admits to his rather oblivious Dad, “Pop, I’m nothing!” We supposedly live in “the richest country in the world” (with the world's highest number of billionaires and multimillionaires) and yet it is the egalitarian Swedes and even the unpretentious Brazilians who enjoy by law 41 paid vacation days per year, not us!
Willy idealizes country life, farming, and forestry (“God, timberland! Me and my boys in those great outdoors!”), compared to the ugliness and corruption of urban life (in Brooklyn, New York). Willy tells Linda, “Before it's all over we're gonna get a little place out in the country, and I'll raise some vegetables, a couple of chickens....” But Biff has worked for quite a while as a farm hand and a cowboy (jobs in which many Americans have similarly wasted away their youth) until he despairs of the hardness, hopelessness, and abject poverty of life on the farm (or what Karl Marx called “the idiocy of rural life”). He complains to Happy: “...I've had twenty or thirty different kinds of jobs since I left home before the war, and it always turns out the same. I just realized it lately. In Nebraska when I herded cattle, and the Dakotas, and Arizona, and now in Texas.... And whenever spring comes to where I am, I suddenly get the feeling, my God, I'm not gettin' anywhere! What the hell am I doing, playing around with horses, twenty-eight dollars a week! I'm thirty-four years old, I oughta be makin' my future” (1.234-246). Life at the top only very rarely starts at the bottom of society—contrary to all the myths and legends of the American Dream.
This play is clearly an indictment of the American capitalist system. In fact, it is Miller himself who referred to it as a “tragedy of the common man.” It is about the emptiness of the so-called American Dream—that is, the failure of American capitalism at the human level. The free-enterprise system is interested in the product seen only as a commodity as well as in the profit derived from it, but not in the human beings who produce or sell it to others. American capitalism is based on social Darwinism's “survival of the fittest” applied to human society, forgetting that in Charles Darwin's theory of “natural selection” it is not the best and brightest or the strongest who survive, but those who can fast adapt to all changes in the surrounding environment. Very often these are the successful people whose sales skills are best appreciated and needed by our commercialized society, but even more often the winners are those who are lucky or more cunning and brutal than the others in the “rat race.” The free-enterprise system is supposed to be one of “limitless opportunities,” where “only the sky is the limit.” But, as Willy Loman demonstrates, the American Dream is just a myth—part of capitalism's self-justifying ideology. Man is obviously not “the measure of all things,” economic gain and private profit are. In spite of all the democratic rhetoric and myth-making propaganda, we still live in an old-fashioned, deeply unequal and class-divided society justified and defended by its own founding myths and legends. That's why Miller's dream-dominated drama has been often noted for its so-called “expressive” or “subjective” realism.
“Take that phony dream and burn it”
Willy’s personal philosophy means a very blind acceptance of the hollow, selfish and materialistic nature of the American Dream. The play's title is yet another swipe at modern capitalism. Being a salesman, Willy in many ways represents American commercialism. The fact that he gets chewed up and spit out by the free-enterprise system is a commentary on the heartlessness of capitalism itself. The drama should have been perhaps called The Death of the American Dream. In his mind, Willy hears his dead brother Ben saying that “the jungle is dark but full of diamonds.” This jungle metaphor is continually repeated throughout the play. The American Dream holds the promise that if one believes in it and tries hard enough he or she will succeed and will be rewarded with the ultimate prize: fortune and happiness. But Arthur Miller’s drama reveals the true reality behind this textbook dream. America in 1948 was experiencing an economic boom, but Miller shows the deep psychological scars from the roller-coaster business cycle on struggling ordinary individuals and families like Willy, Linda and their two sons. The play is a realistic parable, in which the life and death of Willy shows the empty promises and disappointments of the American Dream. Personal magnetism, making an impression, having useful contacts, being “well liked”: these comprise Willy's “secret” of success. Throughout the entire play, he preaches to his sons that in order to be successful, you must be “well-liked,” know everyone, and work hard in selling yourself. But, unsurprisingly, Willy does not like himself, his job, his life, or the American Dream which is forced upon him by society. One can see that Willy feels trapped by this dream which he feels society has imposed on him (and others) and has obligated him to fulfill. Society has made him believe that the American Dream is “the only dream” and that no other alternative dream is possible. Because of this self-driven compulsion, Willy has abandoned his old dream of a much simpler life in the countryside, where he could support himself and his family by productive farming and frugal living from the land.
The American Dream is thus the main theme in this play. The American Dream used to stand for self-reliance, financial independence, and the ability to make something of oneself through hard work, perseverance and innovation. But the American Dream seems to have failed completely in the play, as Willy Loman is not achieving success at all. Willy finds himself in a desperate situation where he is struggling even to pay his bills. As mentioned above, he has had a big dream of owning a business and never having to leave home again. This is his only aim in life but unfortunately all his dreams remain unfulfilled because his boss does not care one bit for him in spite of his long and loyal service to the company. Wagner has paid Willy no salary for weeks and ultimately fires him from his job. Now Willy has to “borrow” money from Charley every week for his family to survive. Biff and Happy are also after the American Dream, but at present Biff is jobless while Happy is employed but unhappy with his boring job. The brothers want to own their own businesses, just like their father has been dreaming about, but this goal remains elusive for either of them, as they cannot even move out of their parents' home. Especially for Biff, his parents' home is the ultimate haven to which he runs to whenever life gets too hard to handle.
The American Dream is based on the hopeful belief that in America, all things are possible to all men, regardless of birth, social rank or personal wealth: if you work hard enough you can achieve anything you want. You can lift yourself from abject poverty to become a very rich man. However, Miller implies that the Lomans' dreams are ultimately misplaced. The American Dream has been rooted in the pioneering spirit of the 19th century immigrants, most of whom came to America because of the promise of a new and better life and, in particular, the opportunity to own land. But land eventually ran out and very crowded cities grew instead in which shocking inequalities arose in income, wealth and social status. The American Dream has changed from offering a promise to everybody into becoming a chimera for most people, as the name itself implies. At the end of the play, Willy believes that the only path to the success of his family is through his own death. For him, the American Dream has turned into a nightmare.
Death of a Salesman is the story of the failure of a very ordinary working-class American. Although not all Americans are salesmen, most share Willy’s dream of commercial success. They are pursuing the American Dream while also participating in the conspiracy of silence surrounding the fact that failures far outnumber successes. Miller conflates his archetypal tragic hero with the common American man and the product is the anti-hero Willy Loman. He is a simple salesman who constantly aspires to become “great” and a “number-one man.” But he has failed in his chosen career as a traveling salesman and becomes an embittered, despondent old man who considers himself a failure but is incapable of openly admitting it to others. Willy in fact destroys himself trying to achieve the American Dream. The drama of the play lies not so much in its Greek-tragedy plot, but in Willy's deluded self-perception and distorted recollections of the events unfolding on stage as the audience witnesses the gradual unraveling and tragic demise of this helpless “low man.” Willy is a dreamer, one that desperately continues to follow his self-destructive dreams and illusions until it is too late. In creating his anti-hero, Miller presents the viewer with a tragic human figure of quintessentially universal proportions.
In today’s America, the American Dream is equated with becoming very rich or at least being financially secure. People follow this obsession with wealth, fame and fortune their entire life and usually never stop to think if they are really happy struggling on the road to success and material gain. Most will live through thick and thin with their belief in the American Dream still intact, but often resulting in unhappiness, heartbreak, depression and even suicide. The individual is hypnotized by society’s idolization and celebration of the people who have reached the pinnacle of financial success (like Willy's dead bother Ben). In the play, Willy thinks that if a person has the right personality and is “well liked,” it should be easy to achieve success rather than through very hard work, a lot of chicanery and also sheer luck. Even Willy’s dream of success for his favorite son Biff who was “very well liked” in high school actually comes to naught. From an itinerant farm worker Biff turns into a jobless drifter currently living with his parents. It is equally ironic that the American Dream that Willy strives for everyday is the very same dream that his younger and financially more secure son Happy is so dissatisfied with.
Ultimately, Willy Loman believed that he would find business success and prosperity through his likable personality. But the hopeless pursuit of his dysfunctional dreams only led to his tragic downfall and suicidal death because the American Dream represents a misguided ideal for Willy and millions like him about how to be successful and happy in life. According to Arthur Miller, the American Dream is basically dead in today's socially polarized and brutally competitive society.
Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman, in J. Ellen Gainor et al. Eds. The Norton Anthology of Drama, 2nd shorter edition. New York, London: W. W. Norton & Company. 2014, pp. 1263-1334. Print.