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I originally wrote this review in 2003, and have chosen to publish it again.
Death of a Salesman is a play, written by the late, highly respected Arthur Miller. Miller was not a prolific playwright, and Death of a Salesman is one of his few but most famous works.
The genre of the play is essentially a tragedy although not in the typical sense. Miller wanted to challenge the typical literary device of tragedy which has always been a person of high stature falling out of power because of a fatal flaw. Death of a Salesman showed that tragedy can happen to anybody in the world, no matter what their social class, which is why the play centres on Willy Loman; a salesman. Indeed, the word 'Loman' is symbolic of a 'low man'. The play uses two different timeframes simultaneously, one based in the present, and one based in the past. Past flashbacks are often triggered in Willy's mind by symbols and motifs from the present, and often serve to develop the present situation and explain why characters are acting the way they are.
-Basic Plot- The story is about Willy Loman, who has been a salesman for all his life. He has spent the sixty years of his life chasing the 'American Dream', and accepting the competitive values of society. He is of the school of thought that academia is not what matters; instead, being popular and well liked, and good at sport is what is important. All his life, Willy has dreamt of being a popular salesman so that when he dies, people from across the country will flock to pay their last respects to him. In his job, he tries to sell not his wares, but his personality instead. At sixty years old, he still has not achieved what he wants and he is forced to take stock of his life and yet, is still in denial. When the play ends, the audience is left to question, is Willy a hero or a fool?
-Main Characters- - Willy Loman- The tragic hero of the story, he is insecure and self deluded. When reality causes Willy's illusions to begin to fail, his mental health begins to fail also, so that he becomes caught in two timeframes, remembering the past, and talking to characters from - - Biff Loman is Willy's eldest son. At thirty- four, he could be regarded as a failure, he has been fired from every job he has ever had. He has been brought up with Willy's values that it does not matter what you do as long as you are popular; therefore, his kleptomaniac tendencies have been encouraged over the years because he believes that people will always forgive him. Biff could have had a successful life; he was a football star, but failed maths because he was too busy with sports and so did not receive enough credits to graduate. He is eventually the one who recognises the flaws in Willy's ethics. - - Linda Loman is Willy's wife. She has always been loyal and loving to him and has, at times, been the person who has prevented Willy from seeking out his dreams, causing him to remain in the same rut as a salesman. - - Happy Loman is the youngest of Willy's two sons. Two years younger than Biff, Happy has always lived in Biff's shadow and the play constantly shows him trying to gain his father's approval and attention for himself. He never ends up challenging Willy's sense of self importance, ambition and blind servitude to society's expectations unlike Biff. - - Charley is Willy's neighbour. Wily has always looked down upon Charley because he is 'liked, but not well liked' and yet, it is Charley who owns a successful business and who is constantly lending Willy money. In fact, despite all of Willy's complaints about him, Charley is actually the protagonist's only friend. - - Bernard is the son of Charley and was Biff and Happy's friend in their childhood. He was always mocked by the Lomans for studying too much and being too 'anaemic' but it is Bernard in the end who is successful, as an important lawyer. - - Ben is Willy's older, recently deceased brother. When he was seventeen, he went into the jungle and came out rich after discovering diamonds and Ben is representative of what Willy aspires to. He constantly appears to Willy in his daydreams and is the person who pushes Willy to make his final, vital decisions in the play. - - The Woman was Willy's mistress when his sons were young. She constantly praises him and appeals to his fragile ego that has never achieved any of the American Dreams. When Biff accidentally finds out about the affair, he feels so let down that he refuses to retake maths at a summer school and so all dreams of becoming successful in college ends.
-Main themes- -The American Dream- Willy's interpretation of the American Dream, that being well liked and having personal attractiveness is what makes someone successful, is what ultimately stops him from ever having any success. His blind faith in an underdeveloped dream leads to a sharp psychological decline as he cannot accept that there is inconsistency between the dream and reality.
-Abandonment- There is constant abandonment in the play. Willy's father leaves him and Ben when they are very young with no money. Ben departs for Alaska, abandoning Willy after Willy declines the offer to go with him. Biff abandons Willy after discovering his adultery. Happy abandons his deluded father in the washroom in a restaurant at his hour of need so that he can impress a lady. -Betrayal- This is the third theme. Willy believes Biff to have betrayed his ambitions for him. Willy has an affair and betrays his wife's love. Biff feels that Willy has betrayed him with his lies of personal attractiveness.
-Symbolism and Motifs- Death of a Salesman is littered with symbols and motifs that constantly remind Willy of his past and often trigger flashbacks. For example, Linda is always darning stockings, and these remind Willy of his infidelity because he gave stockings to the woman he had an affair with. Diamonds represent wealth and therefore Willy's failure to become successful like his brother. Other symbols and motifs to look out for when reading/watching the play is the Wood/Forest motif, the Seeds symbol and the Rubber Hose symbol.
-Writing Style- As far as plays go, the speech in Death of a Salesman does veer more to the realistic end of the spectrum than the unrealistic (for example, like Shakespeare). It is obviously an American play, using a lot of colloquialisms from that country and ellipses and dashes are often used to make the speech seem more stunted and everyday like. Willy is fairly inarticulate and uses cliché phrases to express how he is feeling but this only serves to emphasise how this is a tragedy of a normal man. Vocabulary is naturalistic throughout, as is the rhythm and although the vocabulary and sentence structure is often simplistic, Miller was skilful enough to still make it powerful and effective. There are still hints at times, however, that this is a play and not a reality show, for example, when Linda says 'Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person.' Repetition is used for effect by the playwright.
Sometimes it gets confusing working out what is happening in the past and what is happening in the present because, in parts of the play, both are running at the same time. This is intentional however, for Miller is quoted saying, 'The play was begun with only one firm piece of knowledge, and this was that Loman was to destroy himself. How it would wander before it got to that point I did not know…the structure of the play was determined by what was needed to draw up his memories like a mass of tangled roots without end or beginning.' -Personal Response-
Personally, although I feel that Death of a Salesman is a very well written play, an intelligent criticism of the American dream that effectively uses many respected literary devices, it has never fully gripped me. Perhaps it is because there is no suspense in the play; the ending is given away in the title. It is a tragedy and the audience/reader knows it is, so there is always that ominous shadow that nothing is going to get better and so whenever there is hope and happiness, you know it will not last. I also do not find the premise of the story all that exciting. It is all very well making the play about a normal person, but when that everyday person does not have an interesting life, or nothing out of the ordinary happens to him, it is difficult to keep me interested. When I first saw this play, I had to miss about twenty minutes out of the middle and when I returned, I felt as if I had not missed anything. In my opinion, it is even slightly boring.
However, do not let this deter you too much from reading/watching the play. Firstly, you could be a person who enjoys tragedy. I am not someone like that. Secondly, there is a reason why it is one of the most popular plays in American literature. People like it, I am just not one of those people who it reached out to and drew in. It is certainly a milestone in modern literature and one that should be checked out, even if it is only to educate yourself further in literary classics. I may not like it, but I can see why it is such an important piece of work and Miller certainly knew his stuff.