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Death Of Salesman Essay, Research Paper

Arthur Miller is one of the most renowned and important American playwrights to

ever live. His works include, among others, The Crucible and A View from the

Bridge. The plays he has written have been criticized for many things, but have

been praised for much more, including his magical development of the characters

and how his plays provide ?good theater?. In his plays, Miller rarely says

anything about his home life, but there are at least some autobiographical

?hints? in his plays. Arthur Miller is most noted for his continuing efforts

to devise suitable new ways to express new and different themes. His play Death

of a Salesman, a modern tragedy, follows along these lines. The themes in this

play are described and unfurled mostly through Willy Loman?s, the main

character in the play, thoughts and experiences. The story takes place mainly in

Brooklyn, New York, and it also has some ?flashback? scenes occurring in a

hotel room in Boston. Willy lives with his wife Linda and their two sons, Biff

and Happy in a small house, crowded and boxed in by large apartment buildings.

The three most important parts of Death of a Salesman are the characters and how

they develop throughout the play; the conflicts, with the most important ones

revolving around Willy; and the masterful use of symbolism and other literary

techniques which lead into the themes that Miller is trying to reveal. Arthur

Miller was born in Manhattan on October 17, 1915 to Isidore and Augusta Barnett

Miller. His father was a ladies coat manufacturer. Arthur Miller went to grammar

school in Harlem but then moved to Brooklyn because of his father?s losses in

the depression. In Brooklyn he went to James Madison and Abraham Lincoln High

Schools and was an average student there, but did not get accepted to college.

After high school, he worked for 2 ? years at an auto supply warehouse where he

saved $13 of his $15 a week paycheck. He began to read such classics as

Dostoevski and his growing knowledge led him to the University of Michigan.

While at the University of Michigan, Miller worked many jobs such as a mouse

tender at the University laboratory and as a night editor at the newspaper

Michigan Daily. He began to write plays at college and won 2 of the $500 Hopwood

Playwriting Awards. One of the two awarded plays No Villain (1936) won the

Theater?s Guild Award for 1938 and the prize of $1250 encouraged him to become

engaged with Mary Grace Slattery, whom he married in 1940. Miller briefly worked

with the Federal Theater Project and in 1944 he traveled to Army Camps across

Europe to gather material for a play he was doing. His first Broadway play, The

Man Who Had All the Luck, opened in 1944. Since then he has written 13 award

winning plays and more than 23 different noted books. He had two children with

Mary Grace Slattery, Jane and Robert, but divorced her and in 1956 married

Marilyn Monroe. He then divorced her later that decade, and, in 1962, married

Ingeborg Morath and had one child with her, named Rebecca. He now lives on 400

acres of land in Connecticut and spends his time gardening, mowing, planting

evergreens, and working as a carpenter. He still writes each day for four to six

hours. His father always told him to read. He once said, ?Until the age of

seventeen, I can safely say that I never read a book weightier than ?Tom Swift

and the Rover Boys?, but my father brought me into literature with

Dickens?(Nelson, Pg. 59). His father?s good-natured joking was used to

invent the character of Joe Keller?s genial side. After the Fall (1947) is a

play written by Miller where he sneaks in some small autobiographical notes. The

character traits exhibited by the main woman in the play indicate his mother?s

early encouragement to his literary promise. The Depression still troubles him

today, especially for the hard times that he went through as a child. In an

interview, he once said, It seems easy to tell how it was to live in those

years, but I have made several attempts to tell it and when I do try I know I

cannot quite touch that mysterious underwater, vile thing. (Welland, Pg. 38) His

parents could not afford college for him, so the Depression affected his life in

many ways. Miller hated the McCarthy Witch-hunt trials of the early 1950?s,

and once was called before that tribunal but was acquitted of all charges. His

play, The Crucible, is a very powerful allegory to the McCarthy trials. He has

used the American industry many times in his works and criticizes such social

aspects of American society as it?s bad moral values and people who put too

much importance on material wealth. Miller especially admired Henrik Ibsen, the

great Norwegian master of the ?well-made?, or tightly constructed, ordered

play. Miller was familiar with the works of Eugene O?Neill, Clifford Odets,

and Thornton Wilder as well as that of such European Experimentalists as

Bertholdt Brecht. All My Sons, Miller?s first drama to receive critical

acclaim seemed to largely follow Ibsen?s style and form, the theme and even

plot are based on some of Ibsen?s greatest works. Miller?s plays received a

broad audience and made the dialogue as plain as possible for the ?common

man? to understand. One critic, Euphemia Wyatt, once said, ?I think the

closest parallel to Death of a Salesman is Ibsen?s The Wild Duck, where every

action in the present works toward revelation of the past? (Welland, Pg. 38).

Miller believed that an ordinary person is able to serve well as a tragic hero

if he gives up everything in the pursuit of something he wants intensely.

Miller?s tragic heroes are usually confused. For example, Willy is confused

about success and happiness. His ?solution? to these problems of committing

suicide is a highly questionable one, at the least. But, Willy is planning on

committing suicide for the betterment of his family, which is an admirable

objective. He is willing to sacrifice everything he has, specifically his life,

for his convictions, which makes him, with using Miller?s definition, the

epitome of a perfect tragic hero. Miller used very creative and original formats

in almost all of his works. For example, he has Willy holding two conversations

at the same time, which shows the problems going on inside of his head. When

Willy is reminded of the Boston hotel room incident, he relives the event and

feels all the pain like it had just happened. ?His language is sometimes

considered banal and lacking emotional power? (Moss, 125). Some critics

believe that Miller has been too negative towards American society by showing

mostly only the worst of what people can do. Also, he has been criticized by

saying that he only shows the inhumane, mechanical workings of a business, never

the loyalty that a company shows to its hardest workers. Some critics say his

?common man? heroes are ?little? and in the worst case, just common

people. It has also been said that his heroes are not genuinely human enough to

qualify as tragic figures at all. He has also been criticized for using

untraditional techniques like the Act One ?Overture? in The Crucible and the

?Requiem? in Death of a Salesman. Miller always tries to find new forms of

style to explore new and different themes. Among these themes Miller takes into

effect the vital contemporary issues of his time. Even those who disagree with

his literary, political, or social views say that he does care about society and

tries to tie in morals with his works. Many also say his plays provide ?good

theater?, that his stories effect them emotionally, as well as mentally, and

that they ?stir the heart?. A critic who, while working for The New York

Times, once called Death of a Salesman ?one of the finest dramas in the whole

range of the American theater? (Corrigan, Pg. 94) and John Gassner saw it as

?one of the triumphs of American stage? (MacNicholas, Pg. 106). So, it can

be stated that Miller?s works command attention. Death of a Salesman won the

Pulitzer Prize, the Drama Critic?s Circle Award and many others when it opened

in 1949. Symbolism, foreshadowing and conflict are 3 of the many things that

Miller does best. All of these literary techniques have added a tremendous

amount to Death of a Salesman and many others of his works. The play begins when

Willy Loman, a salesman over 60, enters his house unexpectedly, and tells his

worried wife, Linda, that, on his way to appointments in New England, he kept

losing control of his car. She urges him to ask Howard Wagner, Willy?s young

boss, for easier work in town so he will not have to drive as far anymore,

?Willy, dear. Talk to them again. There?s no reason why you can?t work in

New York? (Miller, Act 1, Scene 1). She also happily states that their two

grown sons, Biff and Happy, are upstairs and sharing their old room. Willy is

concerned that Biff, 34 years old, just quit another job out west. The entire

conflict between Biff and Willy can be proven as starting at their meeting in

Boston. When Biff saw his father, the man he idolized, with another woman,

Biff’s faith in him was shattered. To Biff, Willy was a hero, but after this

scene, he denounces him as a fraud. When Biff gets home, he burns his University

of Virginia shoes, which represented all of Biff’s hopes and dreams. Biff no

longer has feelings for Willy as Linda says, "Biff, dear, if you don’t have

any feeling for him, then you can’t have any feeling for me"(Act 1, Scene

9). Linda believes that, since she loves Willy, Biff cannot come and just see

her because it would hurt Willy too much. Biff had believed in his father as

being a great man, and he realizes that he was wrong. When Linda asks Biff what

is wrong between him and his father, Biff recoils and says that it is not his

fault. Biff does not want to tell Linda that the whole problem is because of

Willy’s betrayal of her, so he just keeps it to himself and becomes the object

of her anger. Willy’s problem with society is that modern business is

impersonal. Even though "business is business"(Act 2, Scene 2), Willy

should have been treated like a human being, not just a faceless employee.

Howard, the owner of the business that Willy works for, believes that if an

employee does not bring in profits, than that they are expendable. He takes no

interest whatsoever in Willy’s past selling records, his association with his

father, or with pledges made years ago. Howard’s only concern is with the

efficient operation of his firm, and he represents the cold, practical

impersonality of modern business. Charley tries to tell Willy about this,

"Willy, when’re you gonna realize that them things don’t mean anything? You

named him Howard, but you can’t sell that. The only thing you got in this world

is what you can sell. And the funny thing is that you’re a salesman, and you

don’t know that"(Act 2, Scene 6). It was hard for Willy to hang onto his

personal dignity and to live with himself as being such a poor supplier of his

family’s needs. He was trapped in a situation and saw himself as a failure.

Society forgot Willy Loman existed and did not help him when he needed it, and

his mental state made it impossible for him to help himself. Willy believed that

he had to sell himself more than he had to sell his products. His whole outlook

on life was wrong; he believed in attributes that a good salesman would be

attractive, a good storyteller, well liked and that when he died everyone from

far and wide would go to his funeral. He got this idea from the story of Dave

Singleton, who represented, to Willy, the epitome of success as a salesman.

Willy is having mental problems, delusions of his long-dead brother Ben, whom he

has many advice-searching conversations with. Ben represented success to Willy

by Ben’s dignity, status and wealth, not his attributes, "There was a man

started with the clothes on his back and ended up with diamond mines"(Act

1, Scene 4). The lies he keeps telling other people and the dreams he has for

success actually begin to convince Willy that he was a great salesman who was

known everywhere he went, "…’cause one thing, boys: I have friends. I can

park my car in any street in New England and the cops protect it like their

own"(Act 1, Scene 3). His deteriorating condition is exposed many times,

but is most prominent when he is talking with both Charlie and Ben at the same

time. Another example of the conflict inside of Willy is his repeated references

to suicide. In Charley’s office, Willy says, "Funny, y’know? After all the

highways, and the trains, and the appointments, and the years, you end up worth

more dead than alive"(Act 2, Scene 6). Willy has already been contemplating

suicide, but this is the first, straight-out mention of it. He takes suicide to

be an honorable thing, something that would help his family greatly. His mental

condition makes him forget the fact that suicide is a cowardly option for

getting out of his responsibilities. The climax of the story is after Happy and

Biff return home from the dinner with Willy and the whole family has a big

argument. Biff tells Willy that he is sorry for hurting him and says, ?If I

strike oil I?ll send you a check. Meantime, forget I?m alive? (Act 2,

Scene 14). The father-son conflict between them ends in this conversation. It is

the most emotional part of the play and where Willy is relieved of some guilt.

The denouement of the play is when Willy realizes that Biff loves him and has

always loved him. Willy also believes that Biff could one day be a very wealthy

man, if only he had some money to start with. Willy believes that the twenty

thousand dollars that his life insurance policy is worth is enough. With these

thoughts, and his mental problems affecting his thinking, he takes his car and

commits suicide. The conclusion to Death of a Salesman takes place at Willy?s

funeral where only his closest friends show up. This only proves even more so

that Willy?s dreams were unrealistic. Biff offers Happy a chance to break away

from their father?s far-fetched dreams, but Happy does not take the offer.

Charley tries to comfort Linda, but she wants to be alone with Willy. They all



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