Death of a Salesman as a Social Play
Is the play primarily a socio-political criticism of American culture, or does Willy Loman fall far enough to be a tragic figure? According to Miller himself, either of these two views is too simple, and each destroys the possibility of the other. Certainly a play cannot be both tragic and social, for the two forms conflict in purpose. Social drama treats the little man as victim and arouses pity but no terror (for man is too little and passive to be a tragic figure). Tragedy, on the other hand, destroys the possibility of social drama, since the tragic catharsis reconciles us to, or persuades us to disregard, precisely those material conditions which the social drama calls our attention to and protests against.
“The brilliance of Death of a Salesman lies precisely in its reconciliation of these apparent contrarieties. Miller has created a sort of narrative poem whose overall purpose can be understood only by a consideration of its poetic as well as narrative elements. Death of a Salesman remains unequalled in its brilliant and original fusion of realistic and poetic techniques, its richness of visual and verbal texture, and its wide range of emotional impact.”
In Death of a Salesman, “Miller finds the appropriate concrete symbols for the social realities of his time and place. He achieves through a series of emotional confrontations among the members of a single family an emotionally valid psychological statement about the particular conflicts of the American family, as well as the universal psychological family struggle. And by placing all these events within the context of one man’s thoughts, rambling over his past and present life, he achieves an internal drama of a man’s epic journey to self-knowledge through experience. The entire play is, in this sense, a recognition scene.”
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On the social level, Willy is a victim of the “American dream” which is personified in all its confusion by three different figures. First, there is Ben, Willy’s brother, the self-made man who went into the capitalist) jungle and came out rich. Ben is the totally self-assured man who knew what he wanted and would brook no ethical interference with his designs for material success. Ben’s motto is:
“Never fight fair with a stranger.”
(This is the advice that Ben gives to Biff after throwing the boy down on the ground in a mock boxing fight). For Ben, ruggedness, rather than personality or personal integrity, is the key to success.
But the American dream is also symbolized by Dave Singleman, the salesman, who lived on trains and in strange cities, and who, by virtue of some dazzling, irresistible personal lovableness, built his fame and fortune. Finally, the American dream is symbolized, in its most noble embodiment, by Willy’s father, who not only ventured into a pioneer’s wilderness with no security or assurance of success, but who was also a creator. (He made flutes and high music).
Willy is a victim of this merciless social system which drives people to frantic, all-consuming dreams of success. Willy is doomed not only by the grandiose nature of these dreams but also by their inherent contradictoriness. As a social victim, Willy is given his elegy in the last scene by his friend and neighbor, Charley, who ironically, has succeeded within the American system by a kind of indifference and lack of dream. Charley points out that a salesman must “dream” of great things if he is to travel the territory “way out there in the blue.” But Charley also points out that a salesman is a man who really has no trade like the carpenter, lawyer, or doctor, so that when the bright smile that has brought him begins to fade, he must fall, though there is no rock bottom”.
The play seems to condemn a system that promises and indeed demands total commitment to success without regard to human values. It is a system that, as Willy says to Howard, will “eat the orange and throw the peel away.” Miller, in this sense, does attack the society that says:
“Business is business”
It is a society in which the cruel inhuman son (Howard) can replace his kindly father (Wagner) and say to a long time employee (Willy) who gave him his Christian Name:
“Look, kid, I’m busy this morning!”
It is a system symbolized ultimately in the play by the car, that strange American obsession, which Willy and his sons polish, love, and cherish as a manifestation of their manly glory. But the car is something that wears out and breaks down. Soon enough, unless one can afford a newer machine, one has to drive the old car with a damaged carburetor. Willy’s old Studebaker is the symbol of an outlived usefulness.
The road is also part of this symbol. The road which Willy’s father travelled in a covered wagon, by sheer ruggedness, individuality and courage, becomes early in Willy’s life the road to territories not ever opened; but it ultimately becomes the hellish road beside which the woods burn, and it no longer leads anywhere. In the end, the road, which had idealistic as well as realistic meaning for his father, is for Willy merely a journey devoid of significance. Meaning in Willy’s life lies in the scenery beside the road in the beautiful elms and the hills, in the creative sense of a spiritualized Nature.