Death of a Salesman as a Psychological Play
Arthur Miller warns us against interpreting Willy’s dilemma as purely social. Charley, he reminds us, is Willy’s counterbalance, and he is a man of humanity. His loyalty to Willy has a sincere, saintly quality. Though he gets furious at Willy, calls him stupid, proud and childish, he remains faithful to a man for whom he has affection. Despite his material success, which undoubtedly pleases him, he has never been corrupted by the myth of success, nor has he ever lost the sense of human relatedness.
Even more than the social theme, Death of a Salesman is a psychological play. It is a story of a family with its multiple loves and antagonism, its conflicting aims and yet total involvement. It is a drama that drives the audience to tears shortly after its beginning. The psychological setting of the play is particularly American, for America is largely a second and third generation country.
The first generation (Willy’s father) has been forced to break up the family in order to make a living. But, while Willy’s father was creative and he achieved something, he left behind a wife, a young son (who becomes fatherless), and an elder son driven to find success at the cost of love.
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Willy, the second generation, is his father’s victim. While he wants to love and do right by his sons, he is driven to use them as heirs to the kingdom that he believes must be built. Thus he must pass on to them not only love but the dream that is doomed to fail. He cannot relent even now, in the present time of the play, with his son thirty-four years old, a young man obviously not destined to achieve the greatness which Willy wants for him. Willy must still, at the expense of endless quarrels and his son’s hatred and contempt, give Biff detailed instructions in big-business morality:
“Tell him you were in the business in the west. Not farm work.”
“And if anything falls off the desk, don’t you pick it up. They have office boys for that.”
“And don’t undersell yourself. No less than fifteen thousand dollars.”
Willy must perpetuate the ideal which has now become hollow but which is his father’s legacy. Yet because Willy did remain at home with his mother and receive more in terms of love and human affection, he has come to know their value. For this reason he stays in New York with his wife Linda whom he loves, rather than go to the New Continent. He looks forward to being with his boys more than travelling. At the end of the play, he finally experiences a joyful peace in a momentary spiritual communion with Biff.
In recalling his father, Willy proudly says to Ben:
“Please tell about Dad. I want my boys to hear I want them to know the kind of stock they spring from.”
But his comment is filled with anguish:
“Dad left when I was such a baby and I never had a chance to talk to him and I still feel-kind of temporary about myself.”
Willy has searched for a father’s approval throughout his life. He has been living out his fantasy of what his father was and would have wanted. So too, Willy’s sons are confined by their father’s fantasy, even more hollow for them, and its fulfilment remains their means to gain his love. A revealing example of this is both Biff’s thievery and Willy’s approval. Biff’s thievery is almost a logical extension of Willy’s fantasy according to which one can “get away with it”, and, if one is attractive enough, one can steal a football and the football coach will condone the theft. Biff, even before his disillusionment in the final scene, has, at the age of seventeen, been destroyed by his acceptance of Willy’s dream.
Biff has always felt that to gain his father’s love he had to be the best-the most attractive and most popular boy, the football hero, and all-American. Yet somewhere he has known that his father loved him and that this love did not solely depend on appearance. All the same, because so much of their relationship has depended on Biff’s being something special (a kind of Adonis), Willy too has had to be god-like in Bill’s eyes. Rather than enjoy and appreciate the emotion they share, they have approached each other through the medium of their common fantasy. But with the incident in a Boston hotel, Biff’s flawless father fantasy has broken once and for all time. Biff has spent the next seventeen years of his life living in a twilight world, in the midst of the nightmare of stock-rooms, empty roads, continual smiles, and phony charm that, under the influence of his father, he has come to regard as necessary to both success and parental love.
Biff is the third generation, a representative of the sons of the middle class for whom the middle class dream has failed but for whom the only alternatives are various, all-embracing idealisms totally free from social structure. He is the beatnik, the hippie, and the radical, in whom one cannot help seeing that the potent part of idealism is rebellion against the father and the Father’s way of life but in whom a desperate longing for father-love remains.
Happy, the younger son, is less favoured both by Nature and by his father, perhaps as Willy was in comparison with Ben. Happy has escaped the closeness with his father that destroys Biff in social terms. Thus worshipping his father from afar, Happy has never fully come to realize the phony part of his father and his father’s dreams. He does have a longing for a life out of doors and a desire to get away from the crushing routine work, but because he has never known the weak points in his father, he has more fully than Biff accepted his father’s dream. He is not a social rebel, and he will carry on with the life of a salesman (and, perhaps, go on to the death of a salesman). He will seduce his boss’s wife because of some lonely desperation, as Willy sought consolation and support from his Boston woman. He will also prove his manliness with fast cars and fancy talk but, again like Willy, he will never really believe in his own manliness in any mature way. Just as Willy is called a kid throughout, and referred to as a kind of diminutive Willy by everyone except Ben, Happy has been trapped by the foolish American vision of the male that we come across in the magazine Playboy.
Linda, as the eternal wife and mother, the fixed point of affection both given and received, the woman who suffers and endures, is in many ways the earth mother who embodies the play’s ultimate moral value-love. But in the beautiful, ironic complexity of her creation, she is also the destroyer of Willy and the two sons. In her love, Linda has accepted Willy’s greatness and his dream. But, while in her admiration for Willy her love is powerful and moving, in her admiration for his dreams it is lethal. She encourages Willy’s dream, yet she will not let him leave her for the New Continent, the only place where the dream can be fulfilled. She wants to reconcile father and son, but she attempts this in the context of Willy’s false values. She cannot allow her sons to achieve that selfhood which involves a denial of these values.