Arthur Miller’s prized play Death of a Salesman tells the tragic story of a conflicted salesman, Willy Loman, who encounters personal failure and disappointment throughout his life. When faced with his numerous failures, Willy chooses to live in the past through memories and flash-backs to convince himself of his success. Loman symbolizes the idyllic American Dream of the time, where the promise of the perfect wife, a beautiful home, and a fruitful life seemed within every American’s reach. As the play unfolds, Willy’s search for financial success becomes the vehicle of his demise, and Arthur Miller exposes the failure of the Dream in contemporary society.
As a young boy, Biff, Willy’s oldest son, showed athletic promise and a charismatic personality that made Willy proud. When Biff’s friend Bernard comes over to help Biff with his math class, Willy criticizes Bernard by mocking him:
Bernard can get the best marks in school, y’understand, but when he gets out in the business world, y’understand, you are going to be five times ahead of him. That’s why I thank Almighty God you’re both built like Adonises. Because the man who makes an appearance in the business world, the man who creates personal interest, is the man who gets ahead. You take me, for instance. I never have to wait in line to see a buyer. "Willy Loman is here!" That’s all they have to know and I go right through (1.272).
Willy’s idea of success teaches his sons that popularity and charisma are often more important than being responsible or earning respect. Willy transmits this flawed idea to his boys and encourages them to ignore school and focus on popularity rather than hard work. Subsequently, Willy has the audacity to ask Bernard, the friend he sees only destined to be average, to cheat on Biff’s exam so he can graduate high school. Willy’s emphasis on superficial qualities and popularity becomes the mantra for his children, and when they’re grown, their view of the world is defined only by success and popularity, not by merit or personal accomplishment.
Willy gradually derails further the afternoon he asks his boss for a position better suited for him. To his chagrin, Willy is forced to face his boss’ rejection and eventual termination as he appeals in a fit of rage,
I’m talking about your father! There were promises made across this desk! I put thirty-four years into this firm, Howard, and now I can’t pay my insurance! You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away - a man is not a peace of fruit! (2.143).
Loman’s plea falls on deaf ears, and the desperate salesman is left with nothing after thirty-four years of loyal service. Willy’s self-worth and psychological sanity slowly deteriorate when he faces the disappointing reality of who he’s become - a salesman, an obsolete commodity and nothing more.
Originally, the American Dream at the time was built by hard-working men like Willy Loman seeking money and security for their families. Arthur Miller brilliantly criticizes the flaws of that Dream when Willy is left with nothing and must accept that profit and corporate greed have replaced morality, decency, and loyalty. As a result, Willy represents the years of dedication and earned pensions forgotten by the Dream. Financial profit, no matter the cost in human terms and consequences, adds to the inner-torture that fuels Willy’s impotence.
Willy becomes a victim of the American Dream, first by blindly adopting it and selling himself in the process, and secondly by perpetuating the love of money and neglecting the only valuable thing in his life: his family. Sadly, Willy believes that giving money is how fathers show their families love, and as a result, Biff and Happy’s feelings of grandeur and entitlement are reinforced by a father who neglects his greatest treasure.
Willy’s mental turmoil continues in the play when he finds an easy way to show his family love, and decides to sacrifice his life for monetary gain. He chooses suicide as a last recourse to fulfill his idea of financial security. Willy’s final lesson is not about earning $20,000 but defrauding the insurance company for his benefit. Despite his good intentions, Willy’s final act of desperation becomes an act of cowardice from a person unable to meet life’s challenges.
Originally, the American Dream promised equality and opportunity for society, but by the end of the play, only corruption and greed embody the Dream that Willy finds. Disposing of older workers without regard to the ethical casualties and making money the primary objective add sombre notes to the tragic final act.
By the end, the theme of Death of a Salesman explores the heartbreaking life of Willy Loman and exposes the failure of the American Dream through Willy’s struggle. Despite his good intentions, Willy escapes reality and lives his life through memories of the past. As he drives his car into traffic, the patriarch dashes down the streets convinced that success is still within his grasp. Willy’s life becomes a symbol of the fragmented American Dream that leaves only the ashes of tragedy for Willy and his family. As his final act concludes, Willy’s attempt to find the American Dream leaves his family in an empty world of sadness and a home without his smile.