During the 1940s, American society became increasingly consumerist and more competitive than ever before. Arthur Miller’s play ‘Death of a Salesman’ questions the values upon which this society is based and the way in which these contribute to the destruction of a man such as Willy Loman. He is very critical of a society which he seems to see as being destructive in many ways. The idea of the ‘American Dream’ made people believe that any man living in America could, with personality and dedication, become very successful. Miller has launched a somewhat scathing attack on the very notion of this dream. He highlights the many flaws within it; how such an idea can mislead good men like Willy, who devotes his entire life to being successful. The emphasis on being an owner of goods, the competitive nature of society, the callousness of the business world, the American Dream and the way in which success is measured are all criticised in ‘Death of a Salesman’.
Miller criticises the general way of the business world. Howard, the young boss of Willy’s company, represents the ruthless and impersonal nature of capitalistic enterprise. When Willy goes to ask Howard if he can be transferred to a job in New York, Howard refuses to help him even though Willy has been working for the company for a long time and was good friends with his father. When Willy asks why he cannot be reassigned, Howard replies, ‘it’s a business, kid, and everybody’s gotta pull his own weight,’ thus demonstrating Howard’s cold indifference to Willy’s situation. Willy failed to live the American Dream; he worked all his life and was then spat mercilessly out, spent like a ‘piece of fruit.’ Willy remembers the ‘comradeship and gratitude’ that used to exist in the business world, but sees that it is no longer like that, everything is now ‘cut and dried,’ with ‘no chance for bringing friendship to bear.’ As Linda says, Willy ‘works hard for a company for thirty-six years… and now in his old age they take his salary away’ she is appalled by such ungrateful treatment. We are shown how harsh the business world is- there is no place for sympathy.
Miller also shows that society in general had become far too competitive. Willy feels he has to compete with others by buying new goods, even when he cannot really afford them. This competitive spirit manages to seep into the personal lives of some characters. An example of this is when Happy admits to having an affair with a colleague’s fiance? and the only explanation he has for his behaviour is his ‘over-developed sense of competition’. Biff sees that they are pressured to ‘always get ahead of the next fella,’ and Willy believes that the ‘maddening’ competition is ‘what’s ruining this country.’ Miller presents his criticisms on stage well- the stage directions at the beginning of the play emphasise the competition which Willy faces. His small house is ‘frail’ and surrounded, ‘boxed in’ by a solid vault of apartments which tower menacingly over his from all sides. The competition is presented as fierce from the very start- the buildings around the Lomans’ house are described as ‘angular shapes’ which would look particularly threatening on stage and the lighting, an ‘angry glow of orange’ creates the same impression of an impending threat.
The social aspects of American society are also criticised by Miller- mainly the fact that success is only measured in material terms. A man is not valued for what he is, but what he owns. Biff seems to reject this materialistic sense of success. He has been living on a cattle ranch, enjoying a leisurely life (but even so, the sub-conscious drive to become something bigger and better than most men has brought him home, another example of the competitive spirit.) We are shown this when he says, “(When spring comes out West) I suddenly get the feeling, my God, I’m not getting anywhere… I oughta be makin’ my future.” Although he enjoyed working on the ranch enormously, he still doesn’t feel he has succeeded. The conflict between what Biff really enjoys and this vision of ‘success’ remains a struggle for him until the end of the play. Biff and Happy have always been shown that a business career is the only way to achieve success, yet Happy has taken this course and it is made obvious that he his neither happy or successful. Biff asks him “You’re a success, aren’t you? Are you content?” and poor Happy replies, “Hell no!” He has what he has ‘always wanted,’ and society would probably see him as successful. He owns an apartment and a car but still he tells Biff he is a lonely man. By this Miller shows that Willy’s idea of success, similar to the life Happy leads, is really not at all valid. In addition, the consumer way of life is also criticised. Miller seems to object to such great importance being placed on mere goods. This is evident in a flashback to a conversation with Linds concerning the fridge. Willy buys new goods, and when they break down and he has to pay more money to repair them. The washing machine breaking down represents Willy’s mind, which is doing the same thing. We are shown his insanity by the appearances of Uncle Ben, a figure of Willy’s imagination. We are told that the washing machine is not a well known brand, and Willy is not a well known man (only his family, Bernard and Charley attend his funeral).
Miller shows us that the American Dream and the way of American society is or can be very destructive. Willy’s pursuit of success has not only affected his sense of his own worth but has dominated or even ruined the lives of his wife Linda and his sons Biff and Happy. Willy was trying to live up to what society was expecting of him and this is what destroyed him. Miller shows how destructive the dream is by the gradual breakdown of Willy’s mind. The flashbacks and lapses of time are perhaps confusing. I think that it is intended to be this way- it puts you in the mind of Willy Loman, where things are confused and it is difficult to distinguish past from present and reality from fantasy. His insanity is also shown by him continuously contradicting himself, for instance he calls Biff a ‘lazy bum’ and then soon after he tells Linda that Biff is hardworking, and that ‘there’s one thing about Biff- he’s not lazy,’ highlighting his confusion.
In conclusion, Arthur Miller’s ‘Death of a Salesman’ is a damning criticism of American society in the 1940s. Willy Loman is a man whose dreams and expectations are shattered by the false values of the society he put his faith in. . At the end of the play, Willy’s suicide demonstrates the enormous strength of the dream- he even gives up his life for the ‘twenty thousand dollar proposition’ in order for Biff to be ‘successful.’
Bibliography: i have used 2 sentances from my teacher’s guidelines for this essay.