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Death of Salesman

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The Great American Disillusionment in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman

Conjecture clouds an American man’s pursuit of success, leading to unfortunate ends in Arthur Miller's timeless production, Death of a Salesman. A post-depression era drama, Death of a Salesman challenges its audience to analyze universal components of the American Dream. Most people consider success a collision of past effort, future goals, and an appreciation for the present. Miller's character Willy Loman is convinced attractiveness, popularity, and physical prowess is all any man needs for prosperity.

In the beginning, Miller introduces Willy's flawed insight linking personal attractiveness to success. Act I opens with a conversation between Willy and his wife, Linda. While discussing their son, Biff, Willy wonders how, “a young man with such – personal attractiveness, gets lost” (Miller 1237). Proudly, Willy continues his high praise asking Linda if she remembers how they all used to follow Biff around in high school and, “When he smiled … their faces lit up” (1237). As critic, Chester E. Eisinger points out, Willy so thoroughly indoctrinates his sons with his dreams of success they, are victims of illusions” (Eisinger 101). They invent, “impossible schemes for making money,” (101). Willy’s corruption, “prevents his sons from achieving a mature manhood” (101). Willy even stoops to dishonesty and self-destruction in his efforts to appear successful. His appreciation for physical appearance extends to his belief that he must appear to be the ultimate salesman.

Miller then illustrates Willy's belief that popularity or being well liked opens all doors to prosperity in life. When Biff is in high school, Bernard tries to warn Willy he, “heard Mr. Birnbaum say that if [Biff] don’t start studyin’ math, he’s gonna flunk [and] …won’t graduate” (Miller 1246). Then Willy tells Bernard not to be, “a pest,” and calls him, “an anemic” (1246). Biff tells Willy that Bernard is, “liked, but he’s not well liked” (1247). Willy tells Biff, “I thank Almighty God you’re both built like Adonises…[Bernard can] get the best marks in school…but…the man who makes an appearance [and] …creates personal interest, is the man who gets ahead. Be liked and you will never want” (1247). Critic, Chester E. Eisinger asserts, “Willy’s character under pressure to succeed eats away… [at] the Loman family” (Eisinger 101). The “easy morality of their father… makes Biff a thief and drives Happy to… sensualism and self-aggrandizing lies,” Eisinger adds (101). Willy overstates sales totals and embellishes his regional popularity to convince his family and others that he continues to be an asset to his company; yet his company of thirty-six years took away his salary five weeks ago.

In addition, Miller presents Willy's overvaluation of physical prowess in his relentless endeavor for notoriety. When Linda tells Willy that Biff is, “too rough with the girls [and]…the mothers are afraid of him,” Willy explodes asking if she, “wants him to be a worm like Bernard?” (Miller 1251). Willy tells his brother Ben that he is bringing up his boys to be, “rugged, well liked, all-around” (1256). Ben begins to box with Biff, trips him and holds his umbrella over Biff’s eye. When everyone is shocked, Ben tells Biff that he should, “Never fight fair with a stranger” (1256). Willy then wants to show off his building abilities to his brother and encourages Biff to go to the building site and steal some sand. Charley warns, “the watchman’ll put the cops on them,” as Willy boasts about the lumber he had the boys steal the week before,

“worth all-kinds a money” (1257). When Willy questions the way he is raising the boys, Ben tells him he’s being, “first-rate” with the boys and that they are, “manly chaps!” (1257). Although Willy wants his boys’ lives to be better than his has been; he raises them with emphasis on all the wrong ideals. He leads them to believe they will prosper just because of their looks, personalities, and physiques.

Ultimately, Willy’s disillusionment with attractiveness, popularity, and physical prowess causes his fracture with reality when success remains beyond reach. Exhausted and unable to drive the distances expected of him, Willy goes to his boss to ask for a local position. Howard shows no emotion or empathy when he fires Willy, telling Willy that he needs, “a good long rest,” to come back when he feels better and, “we’ll see if we can work something out” (Miller 1274). In an interview with William R Ferris, Arthur Miller explains, “a lot of people give a lot of their lives to a company… when they are no longer needed… they’re tossed aside” (Ferris 1). Miller further emphasizes, “security is an illusion which some people are fortunate enough not to outlive” (2). As Willy relives his past he realizes all he should have done differently. Willy’s reality crashes down around him when Bernard questions what, “happened in Boston?” (Miller 1280). That evening at dinner, Willy’s mind takes him fifteen years in the past to where Biff made a surprise trip to Boston and walked in on Willy and another woman. Willy acts as if nothing is wrong and tells Biff, “she’s just a buyer… get my suits… I gave you an order… you mustn’t overemphasize a thing like this” (1295). Biff is crushed, accusing his father, “you gave her Mama’s stockings!” (1295). Now, Biff tells Willy, “you blew me so full of hot air I could never stand taking orders from anybody!” (1302). Biff cries to Willy, “take that phony dream and burn it before something happens” (1303). Willy realizes his son’s love him even after all of

his illusions that attractiveness, popularity, and physical prowess would earn them success. Still, he kills himself so his life insurance money will go for Biff’s future; one last illusion of grandeur.

Works Cited

Eisinger, Chester E. "CRITICAL READINGS: Focus on Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman: The Wrong Dreams." Critical Insights: Death of a Salesman (2010): 93-105. Literary Reference Center Plus. Web. 13 Apr. 2012.

Ferris, William R. "A Conversation with Arthur Miller." Humanities 22.2 (n.d.): 4. Literary Reference Center Plus. Web. 13 Apr. 2012.

Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. Literature: The Human Experience. 10th ed. Abcarian, Klotz, and Cohen, eds. Boston: Bedford. 2010. 1234-1307. Print.

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