Death of a Salesman

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Authors: Joyce Moss and George Wilson
Date: 1997
Literature and Its Times: Profiles of 300 Notable Literary Works and the Historical Events that Influenced Them
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Work overview
Pages: 7
Content Level: (Level 4)

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Death of a Salesman

by Arthur Miller

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THE LITERARY WORK

A play set in New York City and Boston in the late 1940s; produced and published in 1940

SYNOPSIS

Willy Loman, an aging salesman, struggles to avoid facing the failures of his past and the emptiness of the values by which he has lived and raised his two sons.

Considered America’s greatest living playwright, Arthur Miller was born in 1915 and raised in New York City. As a college student during the Great Depression of the 1930s, he grew deeply concerned with the social and economic injustices of capitalism. From the earliest plays he wrote as a student to his latest works in the 1990s, social and political pressures and their effects on human values and morality have remained Miller’s central concern. For most critics, his subtlest and most effective exploration of these themes to date occurs in his third major play, Death of a Salesman, long recognized as a classic of American theater.

Events in History at the Time of the play

Postwar prosperity

With the end of World War II in 1945, Americans began a period of unparalleled national prosperity. Gone were both the poverty of the Great Depression and the austerity of the war years, as industrial production, stimulated by the war, found newly invigorated domestic and foreign markets. For the first time in decades, Americans had not only money to spend—an unprecedented $140 billion in savings at war’s end—but also items on which to spend it. In the decade or so following the end of World War II, American businesses invested over $300 billion in new business materials and equipment, far surpassing such spending even in the “roaring” 1920s. The number of independent nonfarm businesses grew by about a third, to almost 5 million. Housing construction, too, expanded rapidly, averaging $13 billion per year in the period from 1946 to 1958.

Yet the economic outlook was not entirely rosy. Strikes and labor unrest gripped many major industries soon after the war’s end. And there were millions who, for one reason or another, did not share in the general prosperity. High inflation, brought about by the economic boom, prevented poorer Americans from saving any money. Small farmers were squeezed, too, because government agricultural policies worked to benefit their larger, corporate competitors. The large farms managed to keep wages low for migrant farm workers, who were perhaps the worst off of all economic groups. Next above them were sales clerks and menial workers such as gas station attendants. In Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman’s two sons, Biff, a farm worker, and Happy, a sales clerk, work at such occupations. Conditioned by the values of the affluent society around them, Happy hides the Page 110  |  Top of Articletrue nature of his occupation, viewing it as lowly and shameful.

Rise of consumer credit

The atmosphere of general prosperity in the postwar years made financial caution seem unnecessary to most Americans. Demand for consumer goods—especially automobiles—pushed prices higher, but as long as wages rose too, inflation seemed like a sign of a healthy economy. And when people’s desire to spend outstripped their ability to pay, new forms of consumer credit came to the rescue. Owing to government policies from the Depression and war years (such as the sale of bonds and the underwriting of loans), financial institutions found it more profitable and less risky than ever before to offer such credit.

Short-term consumer credit thus shot up from $8.5 billion to almost $45 billion between 1946 and 1958, much of that figure represented by automobiles, which for the first time now were routinely bought on credit instead of with cash. Long-term credit, represented by home mortgages, rose equally dramatically in the same period, from $23 billion to almost $120 billion. Willy Loman’s financial problems in Death of a Salesman stem largely from purchases he has made using credit, on which he must keep up the payments. Like many others, he has found credit to be deceptively expensive, for not only does it carry interest charges, but by increasing the demand for items it also raises their prices. Willy’s only relief is that after twenty-five years he has finally paid off his home mortgage.

Cold War anxieties

Willy’s morbid preoccupation with his finances reflects an anxious mood underlying this prosperous era. Accompanying the new scale of American spending was an enlargement of the nation’s role in the world, and both brought attendant problems. New-found international power and seeming confidence masked deeper insecurities at work in American society.

World War II had left America’s allies in Europe economically shattered. Her other major ally, the Soviet Union, was also weakened. In the war’s last days, however, American leaders realized that the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin held a tight enough grip on his country and its resources to keep it strong militarily, even in a time of deep economic troubles. Within a few short years after the war, the United States and the Soviet Union had squared off against each other as the two world “superpowers,” each trying to win influence over smaller nations at the expense of the other. Because the two represented contrary political and economic systems, this so-called “Cold War” was actually a conflict not only of interests, but also of ideologies: capitalist democracy against socialist totalitarianism.

The early stages of the Cold War took place in the late 1940s in the aftermath of World War II. Under President Truman, the United States faced a series of crises that set the stage for the next several decades. First, the Soviet Union used its military presence to install puppet communist governments in the eastern European countries it had occupied while driving back the Germans. Then, in 1947, after Soviet attempts to install similar governments in Greece and Turkey, Truman pledged support from the United States to governments facing externally orchestrated communist interference. This declaration, called the Truman Doctrine, led to the U.S. policy of “containment”—the attempt to prevent Soviet-style communism from winning any further territory. Truman put this policy into action in 1948-49, airlifting supplies into Soviet-encircled West Berlin, eventually forcing the Soviets to lift the blockade they had erected around the free sector of this divided German city.

At the same time in Washington, D.C., the House Un-American Activities Committee was hearing testimony from a self-confessed former communist, Whittaker Chambers. Chambers alleged that a young U.S. State Department official named Alger Hiss was a communist as well. The Hiss case soon became a widely publicized and bitterly contested political scandal. It was a forerunner of the anticommunist inquisition known as McCarthyism, named after Wisconsin senator Joseph McCarthy. In the early 1950s, McCarthy led a Senate crusade to find those within the U.S. government or military who might harbor communist sympathies.

An age of conformity

One important consequence of the war and its aftermath was that the role of institutions in American life expanded dramatically. Big government, born with the New Deal (President Franklin Roosevelt’s economic measures, devised in response to the Great Depression) and nourished by the war effort, now dominated American society as never before. Large corporations, too, some of whose rapid growth resulted from the consumer credit revolution described above, acquired a wider influence in Americans’ daily lives. From potato chips to electrical appliances, these corporations increasingly saw to it that Americans—whatever state they lived in—had access to the same nationally distributed consumer items. As well as Page 111  |  Top of Articlebuying products made by large corporations, more and more Americans also worked for them. Finally, mass culture, subtly promoted before and during the war by movies and radio, was boosted in the late 1940s by the spread of television.

The combined effect of all of these elements—big government, mass production, mass culture—was that American society began to place less value on its traditional ideal of individualism, and more on the goal of fitting in with other people. And in an affluent, consumer-oriented society, fitting in meant being accepted as a “success” by others. It followed that presenting the appearance of achievement grew more important in the minds of many than achievement itself. This emphasis on manipulation over concrete accomplishment did not go unnoticed by observers of American society. Historian Christopher Lasch writes of this era:

The seeming triumphs of American capitalism left social critics little to worry about except the decline of individualism and the menace of conformity. Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman, the salesman who wants no more out of life than to be “well liked,” symbolized the issues that troubled the postwar period.

(Lasch, p. 64)

Lasch cites an influential book published in 1950 called The Lonely Crowd, by David Ries-man, which argues that in the past people were more often motivated by strong ethical precepts. Presently they care more about others’ perceptions of them and calculate their behavior accordingly. Riesman calls these past and present behavior patterns “inner-directed” and “other-directed and”

The changing American Dream

What Riesman and similar critics noticed, among other developments, was the ongoing revision of a cherished national myth: the so-called “American Dream” of the self-made man. Part of the national self-image since colonial times, the American Dream had been enthusiastically elaborated upon in the previous century during the era of industrialists such as Andrew Carnegie and J. D. Rockefeller. Later in the 1920s, it was symbolized by Henry Ford, the highly popular car-maker whose success came from his development of the assembly line.

Also popular in that decade had been pamphlets, lectures, and correspondence courses geared toward careers in salesmanship, which was seen as a likely path to success that did not require special training or education. Such materials diverged from the more traditional version of the success myth as personified by Ford and others. These new methods provided strategies for success based not on the value of a product, but on the manipulative skills of the salesman. This tendency was epitomized in the next decade by Dale Carnegie’s hugely popular self-help book, How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936).

Willy Loman would have begun his career in the 1920s, the decade of the salesman. By the late 1940s, when the play is set, the increasing complexity of the job market had begun to demand a high degree of training and specialization. Lacking such training, Willy seems doomed to failure in a world where fitting in requires the ability to play a specific role in a large organization. His version of the American Dream has failed him.

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THE LONELY CROWD

David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd (1950) proved highly influential in defining American social attitudes in the postwar era. The title of Riesman’s book reflects his thesis that “other-directed” people, who rely on how others see them for their own self-image, lack a firm sense of identity: “If the other-directed people should discover … that indeed they no more assuage their loneliness in a crowd of peers than one can assuage one’s thirst by drinking sea water, then we might expect them to become more attentive to their own feelings and aspirations” (Riesman, p. 307). In Death of a Salesman, Willy is clearly other-directed:”Oh, I’ll knock ‘em dead next week. I’ll go to Hartford. I’m very well liked in Hartford. You know, the trouble is, Linda, people just don’t seem to take to me” (Miller, Death of a Salesman, p. 36). Willy’s confusion about how others see him leaves him feeling uncertain about himself; at the end of the play, Biff’s epitaph for Willy is that “He never knew who he was” (Death of a Salesman, p. 138).

The Play in Focus

The contents

Much of the play takes place in the mind of Willy Loman, a salesman nearing retirement, with the events occurring in Willy’s thoughts and memories. The major setting is the Loman house in New York City, a modest home surrounded by vague and slightly ominous taller buildings.

As the play opens, Willy returns home the same day he left on a selling trip that should have

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taken several days. Exhausted to the point of illness, he had veered off the road several times before giving up and coming home. His wife Linda, worried, tells him he really must get the company to let him stay in New York—after all, he’s sixty now. Willy says he will talk to Howard, the son of his old boss, who now runs the company. The couple’s two grown-up sons, Biff and Happy, are asleep upstairs, both home on a visit. Linda reproaches Willy for criticizing Biff that morning, after he arrived. Willy objects—he simply asked if Biff was making any money. Biff is thirty-four years old, Willy says. He shouldn’t still be working as a farmhand. He had such potential in high school. Vaguely irritable, Willy complains about feeling boxed in.

As he chats with Linda about the past, Willy’s irritability merges into disorientation. Hearing the voices, Biff and Happy get out of bed, worried that their father has had another car accident. Happy, two years younger but more settled than his brother, tells Biff that Willy has been mumbling to himself a lot lately—mostly about Biff and his future. Biff confides that he has wasted his life; Happy expresses his own frustration at having to take orders from people to whom he feels superior. He vents his resentment by seducing the wives of men who are above him at the store where he works, and by taking bribes from manufacturers who want orders from the store. Biff decides to make an appointment with Bill Oliver, a former employer who liked him (but from whom he stole a carton of basketballs), to see if he can get a loan to buy his own ranch.

Downstairs in the kitchen, Willy has drifted into a reverie about the past. In his memories, his boys are young and active and he himself is on the path to success. Biff is the star football player in high school, captain of the team, a young hero—especially compared to his friend Bernard, a good student who nevertheless lacks the charisma necessary to get ahead in the business world. Slowly, though, Willy’s memories seem to spin out of control: He made $200 on one trip to Providence and Boston—no, it was more like $70. Still, pretty good, at least until Linda began figuring in the debts: the car, the refrigerator, the washing machine… well, next week he’ll knock ’em dead. But he’s too fat, people don’t take him seriously; he talks too much, or maybe he’s just not dressing right. He remembers a woman he had an affair with while on the road, a woman whose laughter blends with Linda’s in his mind.

His neighbor Charley, Bernard’s father, comes over and the two play cards in the kitchen. Page 113  |  Top of ArticleCharley says he can’t sleep, but seems in fact to have come over out of concern for Willy’s state of mind. As they play cards, Willy carries on an imaginary conversation with his brother Ben (who appears on stage like the other remembered characters, though remaining invisible to Charley). Ben reminds Willy of how he, Ben, boldly went to Alaska and seized real estate opportunities there. Conversing with Ben, Willy loses track of the game, frightens Charley, and grows even more confused.

Charley exits, and Linda—a remembered Linda, carrying laundry—enters. Ben tells Willy and Linda about his bold and successful business ventures (which, in Willy’s mind, take place in a jungle in Africa, then switch back to Alaska). He also speaks of their father, “a great and a very wild-hearted man,” a renegade inventor who made more money with one invention than someone like Willy would make in a lifetime (Death of a Salesman, p. 49). A younger Biff then enters, and is told by Ben: “Never fight fair with a stranger, boy. You’ll never get out of the jungle that way” (Death of a Salesman, p. 49). Biff doesn’t seem to need the advice; he’s out stealing lumber from a building site to resell it, inspiring pride in Willy at his nerve. Willy, however, seeks reassurance from Ben that he’s raising his boys properly.

Willy emerges from his reverie as Linda, Biff, and Happy, who have heard him talking to himself, enter the kitchen. Willy exits, rambling. Biff is alarmed; Linda tells him this has been going on for some time. Linda presses Biff to show his father more respect when he’s home; Biff resists, saying Willy is a fake. Linda reveals that Willy’s car accidents have actually been suicide attempts, and that she has found other evidence (a length of rubber tubing hidden behind the gas water heater) that Willy plans to take his own life. By the time Willy returns, however, the boys are knee-deep in grand plans for the future. Willy will go to the boss, Howard, and ask to stay in New York, and Biff will approach Bill Oliver for a loan. Everything is going to be all right. But Biff has found Willy’s length of rubber tubing behind the gas water heater. As he ponders it, Act I closes.

Act II opens the next morning after the boys have gone out, Happy to work and Biff to meet with Bill Oliver. Linda tells Willy that the boys want him to meet them for dinner at a local restaurant. The scene switches to Howard’s office, and Willy enters. When Howard refuses Willy’s request, Willy persists, and Howard

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ends up firing him. Willy again slips into a reverie, holding imaginary conversations with Ben, Linda, Biff, and Happy. We see Biff as a high-school football player, a star who wins the big game at Ebbetts Field and receives offers from three colleges. When Willy comes out of it, he is at his neighbor Charley’s office. There we see Bernard—who, moments earlier (in Willy’s mind) was begging to carry Biffs helmet—as a successful young attorney. Charley lends Willy money and even offers him a job; Willy refuses.

At the restaurant, Biff tells Happy that Bill Oliver didn’t even recognize him—there will be no loan. Willy arrives and tells them he was fired. As Biff begins to tell Willy about Bill Oliver, Willy goes into another reverie; he recalls Biffs discovery that he was having an affair—a discovery that ultimately led Biff to lose interest in going to college. Biff has been aimless ever since. Biff and Happy leave Willy alone at the restaurant. Later, back home again, Biff forces Willy to acknowledge the truth about all of their lives, rather than continue the charade that each is successful and content. The others go up to bed. Alone downstairs, Willy again drifts off and sees Ben. He tells Ben that he’s got a life insurance plan for $20,000—just the amount Biff needs to set himself Page 114  |  Top of Articleup on a ranch. Willy goes out to the car and drives off recklessly.

The scene shifts to his funeral, where the only mourners are Linda, the boys, and Charley. Linda can’t understand why Willy did it—the debts were almost paid; all he needed was a little salary. But Charley says that a man always needs more, and that a salesman in particular needs to have a dream.

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SUICIDE

Willy Loman’s suicide is set in the late 1940s, a time in which the number of suicides in the United States was actually on the decline. The nation’s suicide rate fluctuated during this century, increasing during periods of economic hardship such as the Great Depression of the 1930s. As World War II approached, the rate dropped slowly and wavered in the 1940s between about 10 to 12 suicides per 100,000 Americans. The most likely candidates were white, male, and old rather than young. The playwright, Arthur Miller, had personal knowledge of three suicides, two of whom were salesmen, by the time he conceived the idea for his play. His character Willy Loman fits the statistics in a number of ways—he is white, older, male, and economically strapped. Studies furthermore show that men were more likely than women to end their lives violently and to leave little chance for botching the process. Loman kills himself violently in his automobile, although in New York City suicide by gas was recorded as the most common means.

Willy’s values

“The man who makes an appearance in the business world, the man who creates personal interest, is the man who gets ahead. Be liked and you will never want” (Death of a Salesman, p. 33). Thus Willy sums up his approach to business—and life—to his sons Biff and Happy. It is on appearances, above all else, that Willy’s values rest. For Willy, appearance has become reality: saying that something is so makes it so, insists the salesman, never understanding that he has sold himself a false bill of goods.

The implications of such a value system are played out in both Willy’s life and the lives of his sons. Willy inflates his earnings on each trip, though Linda has learned over the years how to arrive at a more accurate figure. Happy pretends to hold a higher position than he actually does; he turns out to be not the assistant buyer at his store, as he claims at first, but the assistant’s assistant. He routinely presents his life as glamorous and packed with romantic conquests, but admits his loneliness and frustration when talking alone with Biff. Willy, manipulating appearances, presents Biffs childhood stealing as zeal and initiative; in one breath he both boasts to Charley about the value of the lumber Biff has brought home and then indignantly denies that Biff is stealing. Biff ends up stealing himself “out of every good job since high school” (Death of a Salesman, p. 131). Told from childhood that the appearance of who he is—his winning personality—means he can get away with anything, he never focuses his talents in any direction, and cannot discipline himself to take orders from anyone.

By contrast, Charley and his son Bernard represent an approach based on reality instead of appearances. Bernard, for example, whom we see in Willy’s memories urging his friend Biff to study harder, has become a successful lawyer. Willy, stunned to hear that Bernard will be arguing a case before the Supreme Court, responds with bafflement that Bernard hasn’t talked about it. As Charley tells him, “He don’t have to—he’s gonna do it” (Death of a Salesman, p. 95). Unencumbered by grandiose unrealistic plans, Charley and Bernard actually accomplish things. Recognizing the limits that reality has placed on them, they are able to work effectively within those limits. For Willy, the world must be a place of boundless potential, of limitless promise; he dies without learning that it is not.

Sources

As has often been observed, the plot of Death of a Salesman recalls the structure of a classical Greek tragedy. Yet this observation is invariably followed by noting that Miller has broken with or even reversed the tragic formula by making Willy Loman a petty character rather than a noble one.

Tragic influences aside, Willy’s character was inspired in part by several actual salesmen whom Arthur Miller encountered while growing up in New York City in the 1920s and 1930s. When he was seventeen, just out of high school, Miller wrote a short story called “In Memoriam” about one of these real-life salesmen, whom he had met in the course of his summer job. The story, which Miller’s mother rediscovered after the play was produced, follows the salesman during a single day as he is badly treated by his customers and sells nothing. “I knew that he felt as though his life was ended,” Miller wrote in the story, “and that he was merely being pushed by outside Page 115  |  Top of Articleforces. And though his body went on as before his soul inside had crumpled and broken beyond repair” (Miller in Bloom, p. 115). At the end of the story the narrator hears of the salesman’s death; as the young author noted in the margins, the actual salesman on whom the story was based had committed suicide by jumping in front of a subway train.

Later, in college, Miller began but abandoned a play about a salesman and his family, based in part on two of his uncles who were salesmen, Manny Newman and Lee Balsam. Of his Uncle Manny’s house, Miller wrote, “It was a house without irony, trembling with resolutions and shouts of victories that had not yet taken place but surely would tomorrow” (Miller, Timebends, p. 122). As Miller recounts in his autobiography, Biff and Happy are partly based on Manny’s two boys, one of whom (like Biff) was a star athlete and the other (like Happy) a wolfish, seductive man.

Production and reception

Death of a Salesman was first produced in 1949, opening at the Locust Street Theater in Philadelphia on January 22, and on Broadway at the Morosco Theater on February 10. This seminal first production was directed by Elia Kazan, with whom Miller worked closely during rehearsal, and it starred Lee J. Cobb as Willy Loman, Arthur Kennedy as Biff, and Mildred Dunnock as Linda.a

The play was an immediate success with both critics and audiences, who quickly recognized it as the classic that it has proved to be. Among the awards garnered by the play that year were a Pulitzer Prize, the Drama Critics’ Circle Award, the Donaldson Award, and several Tony Awards (best play, best direction, best scene design, and best supporting actor). While critics have praised the play in lavish terms, Miller himself was especially affected by the audience’s reaction on opening night at the Morosco:

With the curtain down, some people stood to put their coats on and then sat again, some, especially men, were bent forward covering their faces, and others were openly weeping…. It seemed forever before someone remembered to applaud, and then there was no end to it. I was standing at the back and saw a distinguished-looking elderly man being led up the aisle; he was talking excitedly into the ear of what seemed to be his male secretary or assistant. This, I learned, was Bernard Gimbel, head of the department store chain, who that night gave an order that no one in his stores was to be fired for being overage.

(Miller, Timebends, p. 191)

For More Information

Bloom, Harold, ed. Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.” New York: Chelsea House, 1988.

Dublin, Louis I. Suicide: A Sociological and Statistical Study. New York: Ronald Press, 1963.

Lasch, Christopher. The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations. 1979. Reprint. New York: W. W. Norton, 1991.

Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. 1949. Reprint. New York: Penguin, 1976.

Miller, Arthur. Timebends: A Life. London: Methuen, 1987.

Riesman, David. The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character. 1950. Reprint. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1961.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2875100244