Death of a Salesman is a 1949 play about Willy Loman whose life is a myriad of failures. Written by Arthur Miller, the play has won accolades including the coveted Tony Award for Best Play. Set in America, Arthur depicts the protagonist as a perpetual failure that misses all opportunities life brings in his way. In the first failure, Willy could not keep a business appointment that would have facilitated sales worth a lot of money. This does not augur well for his philosophy that society judges a man on the money he makes. His second failure is when Biff, his son, fails to live up to his expectations. Despite his popularity at school, Biff does not venture into business as his father expected. This essay will analyze Willy’s failure at a personal and cultural level and connect it with a twisted version of the American dream prevalent after World War 2.
Willy is optimistic about making it big in business but this does not happen. His brother, Ben, exacerbates his sense of failure when he opines, rather bluntly, that Willy cannot make as many sales as their father used to make. In the first Act, part 3, Willy’s business is taking a downturn. He can no longer provide for his family with the ease with which he used to in the past. He relishes a glorious past when he was popular and well-liked, at least according to his opinion. To compound his problems, he has been unable to buy himself a car despite putting many years into his business. He fails to honor a business appointment in Alaska because he could not drive there. This is a failure at a personal level.
For Willy, one failure unleashes a plethora of other failures. In Act 2 part 2, an argument with the boss leads to his dismissal. His only means of livelihood is cut short and he can no longer service his mortgage and pay insurance. His only hope of relevance and fame is by clinging to a friendship that does not recognize him. Willy dies a failure despite delusions of fame and grandeur. Arthur uses a stream of consciousness to give the readers a snippet of Willy’s funeral. Willy expected many people, high and mighty, to attend his requiem. Ironically, only his family members attend the funeral. His insurance company declines to cover any expenses because the death was not natural but suicide. Willy fails when alive, commits suicide, and remains a failure even in death.
Societies expect parents to provide for their children. Willy was not an exception in this pursuit. He was ready and eager to provide for his family. He had big dreams, especially for his son Biff whom he desired to be famous, wealthy, and a successful man in the future. Willy socializes his son to be famous and likable in school. Despite the perceived fame, Biff does not excel in school. He finds it hard to secure meaningful employment in business as his father had expected but instead becomes a farmworker. Willy attributes this failure to poor grades in mathematics. Biff rubs it in when he reminds his father in Act 2, part 7, rather curtly, that they are both ordinary men. Rather than pretend to be something that they are not, it was prudent for them to acknowledge their failure. This irks Willy a great deal. It confounds his sense of defeat, and with a combination of other events, leads him to commit suicide.
Death of a Salesman is an indictment of people’s perception and understanding of the American dream. To people like Willy, the American dream is about fame, pride, and ego. There is a pervasive misconception that being famous is synonymous with living the American dream. Willy’s inflated ego makes him blind to the fact that his son need not be famous to succeed in life. When his boss dismisses him from employment, Willy could not face his wife Linda and tell her the truth. Instead, he borrows money from a friend to keep his pride. He is not only proud but also deluded. When his son fails in school, he develops delusions that a great football career awaits him. He can picture American colleges competing for Biff’s signature even though he is an average player. His version of the American dream is twisted and irredeemably frivolous. It is all about ego and pride and no accompanying hard work and sweat to better one’s life, family, and society.
Arthur caricatured Willy as a deluded man who is a victim of American capitalism. The capitalistic economic system propagated in America is a diversion from the original ideals espoused by the founders of the nation. Willy’s egotistical nature depicts that the American dream of post-World War 2 was twisted and a blatant lie. However, its twisted nature had a historical foundation. World War 2 preceded the collapse of socialism. In essence, capitalism emerged as better than socialism. The twisted version of the American dream was therefore an attempt by Americans to repackage capitalism as the better and superior doctrine and ideology. Willy was a mere victim of a wider society rot that was entrenching itself in America’s psyche.