Death of a Salesman and Postwar Masculine Malaise

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Author: Grant Williams
Date: 2013
From: Arthur Miller Journal(Vol. 8, Issue 1)
Reprint In: Children's Literature Review(Vol. 195)
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 6,602 words

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[(essay date 2013) In the following essay, Williams contends that the idea of masculinity after World War II was in transition, “a troubled concept with no one identifiable definition or normative example. It is less that Willy fails to live up to one ideal and, instead, that a consistent conception of masculinity is not defined.” He argues that an important reason for the play’s power was that Willy served “as an almost sacrificial figure for masculinity,” his death preparing the way for new concepts “bound up with postwar idealism and strength.”]

In 1949, cultural historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. tapped into a discontent with his work, The Vital Center. Commenting on life and the political landscape in the middle of the twentieth century he wrote, “We live on from day to day, persisting mechanically in the routine of a morality and a social pattern which has been switched off but which continues to run from its earlier momentum. Our lives are empty of belief. They are lives of quiet desperation” (244). This bleak outlook on American life—bereft of hope and filled with a dread uncertainty—tends to belie the more popular image of postwar America, gliding confidently into the economic boom of the 1950s. Instead, Schlesinger identifies something dead at the center of our culture. Even though America was growing, seismic cultural eruptions were having a lasting impact on the country, affecting everyone. These changes did more than prompt a baby boom; they represented a sea change in customs and traditions. While it is true that many people prospered and lived more materially satisfying lives during this time, it is also the case that many lives were altered, upended, or ruined as these changes took place. Historian William Chafe describes the economic situation as much more dire than is commonly thought, stating that “in 1947, 34 percent of all families earned less than $3,000 … [and] between one-fifth and one-fourth of the nation could not survive on the income they earned” (137). The immediate postwar years, then, were a period of anxiety for many Americans.

Appearing onstage the same year as Schlesinger’s study, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman—running for 742 performances and taking with it all the major awards—captures much of the tone of this era, its anxieties, wishes, and hopes as well its successes and failures. Unlike what he did with his first Broadway hit, All My Sons, Miller is not directly writing about the current cultural events in his day.1 Indeed, very little of the play seems to outwardly situate this story of generational conflict in postwar America as Miller simply states that the action of his play takes place in the “New York and Boston of today.” However, given the chronological investigation of the play done by theatre scholar June Schlueter, Miller leaves plenty of evidence for his play to be historicized. Willy was probably born in 1886, living through the panic of 1893, traveling with his father across the country, and facing the Great Depression in his adult years. For the audiences of Salesman Willy would have evoked this older generation—including, possibly, their parents—that survived the Depression, and were now being cast off in this rapidly changing economy. Indeed, one of the most persistent fears in the postwar period was that the country would sink into a depression. Thus, Willy recalled an important and fearful character for those watching.

As a man in the twilight of his life in this time period, Willy is having an identity conflict between the generation before him—that of his father, as well as Ben—and the one represented by his children. However, inherent in this generational tension, I would argue, is not only the conflict of the postwar era, but a portrayal of American masculine identity at a crossroads. Ben’s invocation to Willy to go west and make a fortune—an obvious reference to Manifest Destiny—is contrasted both with Howard’s masculine business model and Bernard’s future as a lawyer in front of the Supreme Court, symbolizing newer routes to the American Dream. The Loman men represent something different from these other models—an uneasy middle ground—unable to succeed as adventurers or businessmen. Studying the politics of this time period demonstrates that the Lomans’ struggle stands in for the anxiety of masculine competency. While Willy’s conflict seems to be solely “inside of his head,”2 its origins reflect the conflicts felt by masculine society at large, a major factor in the success of this play. It is my belief that, for the audiences of Salesman, Willy allayed masculine anxieties by serving as an almost sacrificial figure for masculinity: the failure, whose diminishment of authority insures the perpetuation of the dominant masculinity, a new identity bound up with postwar idealism and strength.

Most studies of gender with this play have stressed that Willy fails to live up to an accepted view of American masculine identity. What I intend to demonstrate, however, is that masculinity in Salesman emerges as a troubled concept with no one identifiable definition or normative example. It is less that Willy fails to live up to one ideal and, instead, that a consistent conception of masculinity is not defined. This uncertainty breeds a sense of confusion in Willy, largely demonstrated by his increasing paranoia, delusions, and disorientation. It is my argument that it is not so much that Willy fails for not succeeding in the American Dream, as he simply does not know how to understand what that dream is.

In trying to decipher between masculine representations, it is essential to understand how the concepts of masculinity and gender are defined in relation to identity. One of the strategies listed by gender theorist R. W. Connell in explaining masculinity, is the idea of an essentialist definition, whereby masculinity is determined by “pick[ing] a feature that defines the core of the masculine, and hang[ing] an account of men’s lives on that” (Masculinities 68). This is to say that features or traits are assigned masculine significance and from this dominant conceptions of masculinity are drawn. Connell is quick to note that an inherent weakness with trying to define masculinity by essentialist ideas is that “the choice of the essence is quite arbitrary” (69). Since there is no single defined way of understanding gender, I believe, many interpretations of Salesman have not taken in the whole picture. Instead of essentializing masculinity, Connell explains how gender is “a way in which social practice is ordered” (71), a process by which everyday life is organized. Masculinity, within that process, “is simultaneously a place in gender relations, the practices through which men and women engage that place in gender, and the effects of these practices in bodily experience, personality and culture” (71). Next to dominant forms of masculinity are a myriad of subordinate masculinities that fail to match up for any number of reasons. Given this definition, it is less that one essentialist idea is espoused by a culture, but that at different times, certain masculine ideals are upheld and perpetuated over others. These ideals are the essential traits that make up a representation of the acceptable or dominant masculine type(s) for society.

Miller reveals that while Willy leads a life of quiet desperation, all of the male cultural archetypes around him appear to be succeeding. Miller’s main technique in demonstrating this is by showing contrasting foils to the Lomans. The first foil is seen with Willy’s neighbor, Charley. Throughout the entire play, Willy attacks Charley for not being as much of a man as he, saying, “A man who can’t handle his tools is not a man” (44). However, Charley is actually making money, and even supporting Willy’s family by providing them the money to pay bills. His son Bernard, who, in childhood, acted as a foil to the more popular Biff, is now a lawyer, about to present a case in front of the Supreme Court. Another contrast is seen with Willy’s boss, Howard and his father “old man Wagner.” Despite the fact that his father seemed to be something of a benevolent father figure-type for Willy, Howard is a stand-in for those in charge—the masculine representation of the Man who reveals an utterly callous attitude in dismissing Willy after years of service. Howard possesses cutthroat, business tactics that demonstrate his success, starkly highlighting Willy’s failure.

The most important foil to Willy, however, is seen with his own father and brother. Willy’s father is not actually in the play, and is barely even a memory for Willy, but is linked indelibly to his identity. He states desperately to Ben, “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” (51). Without knowing what his father thought of him or without being able to receive the attention he so desperately needed from that masculine figure, Willy has always felt half-formed, even impermanent. While following in his father’s footsteps by being a type of salesman, he was never able to figure out how his father was able to make a living for himself, succeeding where Willy cannot. Ultimately, Willy fails to instill rugged and successful qualities into his children because they were not instilled in him. Instead, Willy makes his children just like him—men confused by which masculine model to embody.

Though serving a similar function as Willy’s father, Ben has different masculine characteristics. His most important thematic purpose is to serve as surrogate father to Willy, being described by Miller in his notebooks as a “a heavy-set man. Pompous, the father.”3 I believe, though, that there are distinct differences between the two. Where Willy’s father represented the pioneer/frontiersman mythos of the American man, Ben represents the next step, the conqueror/settler—Willy’s father was finding new frontiers, Ben was aggressively settling them, and reaping a profit as well. His exploits are extravagant—walking into a jungle at 17 and emerging rich, living in Africa, having seven children. His is a heightened version of masculinity, serving to underline Willy’s own shortcomings. Kazan recognized this, detailing his conception of Ben as “the embodiment of Success, Authority, Daring, Manliness, Enterprise, Fearlessness, Self-sufficiency” (Rowe 44)—indispensable traits for the ideal American man. One of Ben’s most important characteristics is his confidence, a steely resolve that seems to encapsulate a brawny masculinity, as Willy says, “The man knew what he wanted and went out and got it! (41). The essentialist conception of Ben is a type of masculinity that represents brute strength, confidence, and will to succeed.

There is, however, a father figure-type for Willy who acts as an opposing counter to his own and Ben, a positive example that is not actually seen in the play—Dave Singleman, the old, popular, and well-liked drummer. His charm and popularity has had as much impact on Willy as Ben, standing in for the salesman role model.4 Most critics have located Willy’s identity struggle as being torn between these masculine ideals. Carla McDonough largely affirms this sentiment in her invaluable study of masculinity in drama when she describes the plight of Willy as being

… caught between two models of manhood—the independent explorer in the wilderness as represented by his father and Ben, and the community man tied into both the capitalist enterprise and the family wherein he must be husband, father, and provider.(30)5
However, as we dig further into what ideal masculine type is represented in Miller’s work, differing, often clashing, characteristics are brought forth. What we find is that there is actually no one single dominant type. It is my assumption that Willy is not so much caught between two masculine ideals, but between a myriad of masculine qualities.

The hyper-masculinity of Ben alone is linked to several of the cultural references—representations of archetypal male figures—made throughout the play. The inclusion of these cultural types into the play strongly hints towards defining dominant conceptions of manhood. The earliest allusion comes in Willy’s first remembrance of the past, returning from a sales trip bearing a gift for the boys in the back of his car: a punching bag with Gene Tunney’s signature on it. Tunney was the world heavyweight-boxing champion from 1926-1928, who defeated Jack Dempsey twice, retiring before he was ever beaten. For the Loman men and probably much of the audience, Tunney represents an unstoppable male force. Another sports figure is referenced later in the play—in speaking about Biff’s athletic prowess—Red Grange, the famous football ultra-athlete who defined the masculine nature of sports, standing as a role model for the children and men of the era. So, in addition to the pioneer/conqueror mythos of American masculinity, Willy also adds athletic excellence to his conception of the dominant type.

However, there is another interesting cultural referent that reveals a different side of dominant masculinity than previously analyzed. In his scene with Howard, Willy tells of the praises heaped on him by Wagner for his excellent sales in 1928—sales Howard denies Willy ever having made.6 However, it is during this exchange that Willy references politician Al Smith. While Howard cuts his speech off, Willy is presumably referencing Smith’s failed bid for presidency in 1928 when he lost to Herbert Hoover. Linked to Tammany Hall politics, Smith was a Catholic Democrat and governor of New York and was known as a reformer who famously opposed the powerful newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. While Smith did stand up to individuals like Hearst and went all the way to a presidential race, there is an aspect of failure attached to him. If Gene Tunney is an extension of Ben’s masculinity, we can see Willy, even as he is lying about his success as a salesman, largely identifying with Al Smith—a defeated presidential candidate in the same year.

However, Salesman resists easy identifications with characters and masculine types. Just as it might seem that one character is, or was, a positive force in Willy’s life, Miller complicates it. While his father could be a positive early role model in Willy’s life, it is important to note that that father left the family to pursue fortune in Alaska—a type of abandonment that has deeply scarred Willy. Miller also adds an element of danger to the character of Ben, seen in his unexpected violence to Biff, followed by his injunction to “Never fight fair with a stranger, boy” (49), which not only guarantees an audience’s distrust of him, but demonstrates his outsider status to the family. His menacing presence is a deliberate counter to the affability that Willy sees as so important. This practice of complicating the importance of these figures to Willy demonstrates the competing versions of masculinity at play here.

The largest counter to the aggressive and hypermasculine traits of Ben is clearly Dave Singleman. Willy recounts that he was the type of seller who could go “at the age of eighty-four, into twenty or thirty different cities, and pick up a phone, and be remembered and loved and helped by so many different people” (81). For Willy, the myth of Singleman is one that combines different masculine types, but still follows an essentialist type: that of being personable and well liked. Singleman supports his family through the sale of goods, a trait that is shared by Willy’s father. The world that Singleman existed in lies in stark contrast to the conquering and dangerous world of Ben; Singleman was definitely a pioneer-type, like Willy’s father, but used affability instead of aggressive violence to explore new territory. Willy explains to Howard how, in Willy’s younger days—the days of Singleman—business was built on personality with friendship playing a large part. As he says, “There was respect, and comradeship, and gratitude in it” (81). The masculine world of Ben lacks these very qualities, being instead a world of harsh, conquering rugged men. While Willy’s naiveté had led him to believe that the world of Singleman was kinder, he is now finding out, at the end, that it could be just as harsh as the one in which his brother lived.

Willy’s dream of embodying the ideal of the affable salesman pioneer is quickly debunked by his sheer inability to successfully sell or be liked. Ironically, it is not just in the present, with Willy sloping across the stage carrying full sample cases that we see him as a failure. Miller makes it clear that Willy was also a failure in the past. In his first reverie into the past—which one can place in 1928, the supposed height of his success—Willy’s sons welcome him home as a champion. He then proceeds to tell Linda of his success on the road, “five hundred gross in Providence and seven hundred gross in Boston” (35). This number unfortunately dwindles down to two hundred gross for the whole trip, as Willy becomes honest about his sales. Tellingly, his excuses for why he failed reveal a problem with simply being liked, pointing towards an inability to meet his own criteria for masculine success. “You know, the trouble is, Linda,” he confesses, “people don’t seem to take to me” (36). He claims that they laugh at him, “they just pass me by. I’m not noticed” (36). In his next delivery he claims that it is his garrulousness; “A man oughta come in with a few words” (37). He finally confesses a story that exposes an irascible temperament: “I’m fat. I’m very—foolish to look at … a salesman I know, as I was going in to see the buyer I heard him say something about—walrus. And I—I cracked him right across the face” (37). Willy’s violence here reveals an utterly unlikable quality, highlighting discrepancies between his beliefs and his actions. Moreover, his entire exchange with Linda reveals confusion as to how he is supposed to act and just why he is not liked.

Willy’s pioneer conception of himself, as if he were following in the footsteps of his father and Singleman, is debunked by Linda when she rebukes her sons at their disregard of their father’s plight. She tells them, “He drives seven hundred miles, and when he gets there no one knows him any more, no one welcomes him” (57). Willy’s present reality is that the frontier has already been settled and he is merely lost. If he ever was the pioneer for that territory—which is doubtful—he has long been forgotten. From the episode with the Woman in Boston, we can glean that Willy attempted to secure an advantage over other sellers by starting intimate relationships with the secretaries. Considering he wasn’t well liked by other men, he had to use other means in order be important to his buyers. Ultimately, this tactic cost him a great deal. In his production notebook, Elia Kazan sums up this idea of Willy losing leverage when he writes, Willy “is torn between an absolute need to believe he is ‘vital in New England’ and an absolute knowledge that he is not” (Rowe 45; emphasis in original).

Although he mostly serves a sinister purpose in this play, Willy’s boss Howard is actually another very important masculine figure who complicates the notion of there being just one or two normative types. In a play that relies on a small, tight cast, the inclusion of Howard in such a lengthy, pivotal scene indicates his significance as a male figure. Directly after Willy is fired, Charley lectures Willy about how unimportant it is to be liked in the business world, referencing J. P. Morgan, whose impressiveness was his money and the way he handled it, not his geniality. Howard, then, in his deft and brusque manner with Willy exemplifies this cold, calculating business type who refuses to respect and honor a man who has devoted his whole life to the company. Moreover, Howard represents success, a character type so different from the failing Willy Loman. However, Miller refuses to merely vilify Howard and instead demonstrates his human side as a devoted family man. As the scene starts, we see Howard playing back for Willy the recorded voices of his family on his brand-new wire recorder. He brags about his son’s learning, his daughter’s devotion, and his wife’s demure, charming shyness contrasted to her husband’s outgoing and commanding personality. This moment reveals a reinforcement of Howard as the man of the house, highlighting Willy’s own inadequacy at home. One assumes from listening to the wire recorder that everything is ordered and in place at Howard’s house with gender and familial roles respected and honored. Unlike Willy, Howard is a successful man at both work and home.

Willy draws a great deal of identity from his sons, especially Biff. The stage directions reveal that on the mantle above Willy’s bed is a silver athletic trophy. It is not stated where this comes from, but we are left to assume that the trophy is Biff’s from his days playing football. Further, the references to his boys as Adonis and Hercules, in addition to the cultural references made to Red Grange and Gene Tunney, leave us to imagine that Willy inspired them with tales of athletic prowess as indicators of masculine exemplarity. The more that Biff achieved these hypermasculine goals, the more Willy could identify himself as possessing some degree of masculine excellence. When those traits in Biff started to disappear, so too did Willy’s self-confidence.

However, it is not just success on the playing field that the boys were encouraged to succeed in; the bedroom was also a proving ground for their masculinity. In their first scene together, Biff and Happy speak of the “five hundred women [who] would like to know what was said in this room” (20), revealing that virility is intimately tied up to their identities. Brenda Murphy uncovers in her work on Salesman, that the original scripted version of Salesman has additional dialogue from Willy’s first remembrance. In this cut scene from both the performance and the published edition, Biff and Happy recount a camping trip with some fellow boys, in which Biff had a romantic exchange with an older woman in her tent. Willy laughs delightedly and expresses keen interest and pride in Biff’s heroics, with the stage directions describing him as “Teeming with sensuous happiness.7 This points to the fact that Willy drew a great deal of identity from sexuality and virility, obviously realized in the play by the Woman in Boston. It seems clear that Willy instilled this in his sons as well.

While Willy might be constantly pursuing multiple essentialist types throughout the play, there is no reason to conclude that he was destined for failure. Despite growing up without a dominant male figure in his life, Willy found other means of support: a career, a wife, a family, and a home. He can build his own stoop, fix the roof, and his son was a star quarterback with scholarships to universities. All of this is consistent with images of success and the American Dream. The goals and dreams that Willy pursued were (and still are) important to many American men. His failure as a man is not simply because of an adulterous affair, it goes much deeper than that. The reason Willy resonates so much with his audiences is because of his uncertainty as a man. The play becomes less a failing of one man, and, instead, of everyman. In his essay on the play, A. Howard Fuller taps into this universality when he declares, “Nearly everyone who sees it can discover some quality displayed by Willy and his sons that exists in himself and in friends and relatives” (79). What strikes me about this quote is that as much as this play is often viewed as an allegorical tale, its universality seems to be solely contingent upon male empathy and identification.

This is likely one of the reasons for the success of this play. Scholar Michael Kimmel, writing in Manhood in America, notes that there were not only hopeful feelings in the postwar climate for men, but also anxiety. While the immediate end to the war provided a boon to masculine self-conception: “Men had been able to prove on the battlefield what they had found difficult to prove at the workplace and in their homes—that they were providers and protectors … When the war took on the tone of a moral crusade … the virtuous tenor of military manhood was enhanced,” this soon changed as “reentry proved more difficult than many men had anticipated” (Manhood 147). Moving from war hero to domestic provider in a changing economic world bred much anxiety. So while the economy was able to handle the return of so many soldiers, the veterans themselves faced a lot of challenges adjusting to life back home, seen so explicitly in the Academy-award winning 1947 film, The Best Years of Our Lives, where three soldiers return to their home town as heroes only to find themselves dissociated from everyone they knew before they left to fight. Referencing Salesman directly, Kimmel states that men faced a masculine identity crisis: “Men had to achieve identities that weren’t too conforming to the march of the gray flannel suits lest they lose their souls; but they couldn’t be too nonconforming lest they leave family and workplace responsibilities behind” (155). Unfortunately, this left a very unclear idea about acceptable masculine goals for many men in society. Miller’s play, then, is perched right at that point of societal anxieties that were only going to increase in time.

Many authors writing on this era highlight the uncertainty felt just after V-J Day—victory, but at what cost? Although the war was over, what occurred at Hiroshima and Nagasaki engendered a fear of the devastation of nuclear warfare. It wasn’t just the bomb, though, that loomed large in the cultural imagination. At the time of Salesman’s opening, Truman was putting together his own New Deal-type legislation, modestly labeled ‘Fair Deal,’ which hoped to bolster those areas of the economy that had begun to falter, including problems for the workingman. However, with the conservative Eightieth Congress running the legislative branch, more pro-business legislation was passed than anything resembling help for the workers in the country. This period also saw the passing of the Taft-Hartley Act, a piece of legislation that positioned the government against the rights and needs of the workers of the country. Also at this time, lawyers, including a young Richard Nixon, were readying evidence in a trial against Alger Hiss on perjury for denying espionage charges in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee—an event that symbolized the opening salvo of McCarthyism and the Red Scare. Fears of Moscow and the internal spread of communism were only worsened when it was revealed that the U.S.S.R. had successfully tested their first atomic bomb and that Chiang Kaishek’s China had fallen to communism, already questioning the efficacy of the Truman Doctrine. Combating both domestic and foreign fears, the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Council were born, leading to an increased sense of paranoia that was seemingly confirmed “by the arrest, trial, and conviction of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg” (Chafe 100).

Because of or simply tangential with legislature against unions, it seemed that the country was moving from an industrial economy to a service economy, with more jobs in clerical and other related positions than in the factories. With the rise of the service industry, the GI Bill providing college education to millions of Americans, as well as the “flight” from the cities by white, more affluent citizens into the suburbs, the world under which the American workingman had existed was changing drastically. The situation of Willy Loman—the workingman—would clearly have resonated in this struggle.

At the same time that conditions were drastically changing in the workplace, there was also a paradigmatic shift occurring in the home. Related to cold war politics, this change shifted the social standing of the man in his home. Elaine Tyler May provides probably the best overview of what became known as domestic containment. In her work, Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War, May demonstrates how “public policy and political ideology [were] brought to bear on the study of private life, locating the family within the larger political culture, not outside it” (10). As both external and internal communist subversion was feared by the country, not only did the borders of respectable, capitalist nations need to be secured, but so too did the family—making the family a microcosm of the society that needed protection from outside sources. Essentially mirroring the cold war politics of the day, the domestic version of containment ensured that “the ‘sphere of influence’ was the home. Within its walls, potentially dangerous social forces of the new age might be tamed, where they could contribute to the secure and fulfilling life to which postwar men and women aspired” (14). With this emphasis on the security and comfort of the home came a new emphasis and role for women in society, the homemaker.

Much of this drive to establish women’s interests within the home was a cultural need to justify women’s move out of the workplace that had become necessary during the war period. While women had established themselves as a viable work force, with twelve million returning soldiers and a fear of a slagging economy, those women needed somewhere to go. Offering up the idea of domestic containment, coupled with a fear of a communist threat in society ensured a respectable place for women. However, this move also bred uncertainty among men. Elaine Tyler May notes that while most studies of the period concentrate on the plight of women, many critical critics of the day, such as David Riesman and William Whyte “considered homemakers to be emancipated and men to be oppressed” (20). Shifting of the masculine roles in the household put more expectations on the man at the same time that the world of business was also changing his role. What this shift manifested was a seeming loss of independence in both the workplace and at home. Man’s role in this changing period, then, was shifting constantly in an effort to find the right place for him.

As Willy evidences, this postwar masculinity crisis was especially influencing not only those older Americans who had weathered the Great Depression and the home front during the war, but also those returning millions of American soldiers. These massive changes were drastically unsettling and, to some, bordered on emasculation. Given America’s international posture and the stances the government was taking on organized labor, Chafe is correct when he states that “[m]achismo, patriotism, belief in God, opposition to social agitation, hatred of the Reds … were the definitions of true Americanism” (103). I would argue, more specifically, that these characteristics were, and to some degree still are, the definition of the ideal American masculine type. It seems, though, that there is an apparent contradiction in masculine identity, between the mindset engendered with the victory of World War II and the changing domestic roles in the home and workplace on the other side, the friction of these two drastically complicating man’s self-conception. American male identity seemed to be remarkably similar to the perception of the bomb, instilling both confidence and fear, marking the era as remarkably contradictory.

Willy Loman’s value to his work and his family becomes not only inefficient but also unnecessary; he was a man who neither served in the war nor had sons who did; a man who was caught between the pioneer mythos of his father and the conquering mythos of his brother; a man who never knew what he wanted, and who, as Charley says, simply “had the wrong dreams” (138). At the end, all Willy manages to do is, through his present discontent, reflect back on all of the choices and events of his life that led him to this point. Miller’s work plays on the idea that individuals write their own history. All events of one’s life are seemingly narrativized around certain, similar ideas. Essentially, we become written into our own history with all of our events crystallizing around certain themes, remembrances, even traumas. Willy Loman has become the sum of his failings, from his affair with the Woman in Boston to his refusal to follow Uncle Ben to Alaska. He reads the theme of failure and betrayal in every action and event in his life. While he hardly ever acknowledges any of his own failings, the irony is there that Willy has figuratively dug his own grave. It is principally with the idea of masculine identity that Willy experiences the most disorientation leading to his present circumstances. With no solid role model or cultural ideal from which to pattern his life, which Willy desperately needs, he is left to guess at who and what to be. We find him even seeking the approval of his mystical brother on the eve of his own suicide, the ultimate empty gesture of giving. It can be seen that Willy’s tragedy is that he never knew himself; my addition is that he never knew himself as a man, and just what that manhood should mean.

While acknowledging that the idea of tragic flaw plays into Willy’s downfall, Miller, in his essay “Tragedy and the Common Man”, implies that other forces are at play against Willy. He states, that the “tragic feeling is evoked in us when we are in the presence of a character who is ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure one thing—his sense of personal dignity … the underlying struggle is that of the individual attempting to gain his ‘rightful’ position in his society.” This rightful position of the workingman in 1949, for Miller it would seem, should be higher. This is a man who has given much of his life to his work and is now being rejected and cast off. What we see through the action of the play is a diminishment of Willy as a masculine authority. As Kazan states in his notes, “by the end of the play, there is no one there for him to reach out to and he is living entirely within himself. The people watching this spectacle are horrified. The man simply isn’t with them any more” (Rowe 48-9). In this way, I would argue, Willy represents the mood, the feeling in 1949 of transition: the transition from industry to service, the transition from upwardly mobile man to domestic man, the transition from a leader of men, such as a Ben or even a Dave Singleman, to just another face in the crowd, a follower. The ultimate fear being that one will simply become irrelevant and disappear. The interesting idea here is that Miller wrote a play about a poor working class failure that succeeded resoundingly well for a predominantly middle and upper class audience.

This ultimately emphasizes Connell’s idea of subordinated masculinities and an overall uneasiness about American masculinity at the start of the Cold War. David Savran characterizes “Cold War masculinity to be both a gruesome exercise in nuclear ‘chicken’ and a charade, both a deadly earnest con game and a dirty joke” (Communists 19). The masculine types men were drawing on in this time period were rich and often contradictory. Even some of the most celebrated male film stars of the era, Humphrey Bogart, John Wayne, and Jimmy Stewart offered drastically diverging views of American masculinity. This was the world in which Willy Loman found himself, alternating between pioneer, businessman, and family man leading to confusion about which type to emulate and follow. There were simply too many types in a country reeling from devastation, trying to define itself. Ultimately, Salesman reveals masculinity at an uncertain crossroads, a turning point in postwar America. We see, in this play, that Willy and his sons all exist on the periphery, gendered outcasts who neither know their masculine role nor their place in society, subordinated by the dominant forms of masculinity.


1. Both Biff and Stanley mention the war, but Miller avoids any direct discussion of the time period, its culture and politics.

2. This is a reference to one of Arthur Miller’s first titles for the play.

3. Quoted in Murphy, 9. Miller’s notebooks are located at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin.

4. It is telling that three of the most important father figures to Willy do not appear in the play, vanished like Willy is about to do.

5. See also, Savran’s Cowboys, Communists, and Queers, 33-35 and Bigsby’s Arthur Miller: A Critical Study, 100-123. Neither of these authors explicitly states that there are only two options for Willy, but much of their criticism of the play deals with binaries in the way that McDonough does.

6. Ironically, this is the year Tunney retired from boxing and the same year that Willy remembers in relation to his old Chevy, the same car where the windows would come down and the car that Biff simonizes so well in Willy’s reverie. By putting together the timeline of the story, this is also the year that Biff finds Willy with the woman in Boston and fails to go to college—seemingly the most pivotal point in Willy’s remembrances. The year 1928, then, becomes a monumental moment in the past both for conceptions of masculinity and for Willy’s own sense of failure.

7. This is from Brenda Murphy’s Miller: Death of a Salesman 47. She drew it from Miller’s original script (37-39), which is located at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin. Murphy postulates that these lines, along with a number of others, that would reveal a more negative opinion of women on Biff’s part, were cut as they would have lessened an audience’s sympathy for Biff.

Works Cited

Bigsby, C. W. E. Arthur Miller: A Critical Study. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005.

Chafe, William H. Unfinished Journey: America since World War II. 7th ed. New York: Oxford UP, 2011.

Connell, R. W. Masculinities. Berkeley: U of California P, 1995.

Fuller, A. Howard. “A Salesman Is Everybody”. Fortune 34 (May 1949): 79-80).

Kazan, Elia. Elia Kazan: A Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988.

Kimmel, Michael S. The Gendered Society. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford UP, 2008.

Kimmel, Michael S. Manhood in America: A Cultural History. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford UP, 2006.

May, Elaine Taylor. Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era. New York: Basic Books, 1988.

McDonough, Carla J. Staging Masculinity: Male Identity in Contemporary American Drama. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 1997.

Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman: Certain Private Conversations in Two Acts and a Requiem. New York: Viking Compass, 1958.

Miller, Arthur. “Tragedy and the Common Man”. New York Times 27 Feb. 1949, sec. 2: 1, 3.

Murphy, Brenda. Miller: Death of a Salesman. Cambridge, Cambridge UP, 1995.

Riesman, David. The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character. New Haven: Yale UP, 1950.

Rowe, Kenneth, Thorpe. Theater in Your Head. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1960.

Savran, David. Communists, Cowboys, and Queers: The Politics of Masculinity in the Work of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1992.

Schlessinger, Jr., Arthur M. The Vital Center: The Politics of Freedom. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1949.

Schlueter, June. “Plays and Playwrights: 1945-1970”. The Cambridge History of American Theatre, Vol. III: Post-World War II to the 1990s. Eds. Don B. Wilmeth and Christopher Bigsby. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000: 294-330.

Whyte, William H. Organization Man. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1956.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420118697