This play is considered one of the most successful plays written by Arthur Miller. ‘Death of a Salesman’ remains popular though it provokes numerous discussions among critics as well as among ordinary people who read or watched this play. The countless studies related to the play are provoked by the variety of themes the author reveals in his work and the complexity of questions he rises. As a result, often it is just impossible to give a definite answer and come to an absolute agreement with all critics who discuss Death of Salesman. Nonetheless, it is possible to evaluate different positions and come to a certain conclusion as for this play and its main themes by analysis of different critical works related to this play.
First of all, I should point out that this is a play that deals with a severe problem that is particularly significant for American critics as well as ordinary citizens. This problem is the problem of a traditional American dream, which is obviously ruined by the author of the play.
In fact, it is quite evident that in Miller’s interpretation the famous American dream is just a kind of myth that is eventually ruined with the ruin of the main character of the play Willy, who “believes wholeheartedly in what he considers the promise of the American Dream” (Carson 1982, p.253). He is a typical American Dream hunter because he sincerely believes that “’well-liked’ and ‘personally attractive’ man in business will indubitably and deservedly acquire the material comforts offered by modern American life” (Carson 1982, p.285). Obviously, it is his conceptual believes since he looks for financial success constantly and even when he realizes that he fails to achieve the financial success, he fails to realize the American Dream, he counts hopefully for his sons who, according to him should realize this dream.
At the same time, I should point out that, despite his failures he blindly believes in the American Dream. In this respect, it should be pointed out that “his fixation with superficial qualities of attractiveness and likeability is at odds with a more gritty, more rewarding understanding of the American Dream that identifies hard work without complaint as the key to success” (Bigsby 1997, p.288). In such interpretation, Willy’s view on the American Dream seem to be primitive, or at least childish since he believes that it is just a question of time and good luck and the same idea he conveys to his sons who are not really ready to work hard, especially Biff but, instead they “believe opportunity will fall into their laps” (Bigsby 1997, p.293).
Naturally, such attitude and perception of the American Dream and corresponding lifestyle cannot lead to any positive result but failure. This is why “Willy’s blind faith in his stunted version of the American Dream leads to his rapid psychological decline when he is unable to accept the disparity between the dream and his own life” (Helterman 1999, p.577). The psychological trauma is enforced and provoked by problems in his professional life because he lost his job and had to borrow money to survive. As a result, his problems are extrapolated on a psychological level that eventually leads to tragic consequences, namely to his suicide.
However, it should be pointed out that Willy has a lot of problems during his life and the last problems were just a last straw that ruined his dream. In fact, his entire life just “ charts a course from one abandonment to the next leaving him in greater despair each time” (Helterman 1999, p.578). This is in actuality he turns to be alone with his dream and his problems as well. It should be pointed out that his father left him and his brother Ben at very young age. Soon Ben also went to Alaska, living him “to lose himself in a warped vision of the American Dream” (Bloom and Golding 1988, p.173). In such circumstances, it is quite natural that Willy has been feeling aloneness since a very young age and consequently, he “develops a feeling of abandonment, which makes him want his family to conform to the American Dream” (Bloom and Golding 1988, p.198). It is why it seems to be natural that his childish view on the dream sustained till his adulthood and remain unchanged because there was no one who could change his view on the life and the American Dream.In such a situation, his natural “efforts to raise perfect sons” (Bloom 1995, p.304) are doomed to failure because he is not perfect himself and his ideals are obviously erroneous. As a result, his efforts as a wise father “reflect his inability to understand reality” (Bloom 1995, p.352). Basically his hopes are related to Biff whom he considers to be the most reliable in the realization of the American Dream and “the embodiment of promise” (Siebold 1998, p.235), which actually fails and actually it is Biff who really “shatters Willy’s illusions and, along with Happy, abandons the deluded, babbling Willy in the washroom” (Siebold 1998, p.256). At the same time, it should be pointed out that it has not happened suddenly since gradually “Biff’s ongoing inability to succeed in business furthers his estrangement from Willy” (Murphy 1995, p.329). Thus, Willy remains abandoned at the end of his life, as he used to be at its beginning.
Naturally, in such circumstances, it is possible to speak about a kind of betrayal that many critics point out as one of the main themes of the play. In this respect, it should said that Biff’s behaviour is considered to be the most significant and tragic betrayal Willy suffered in his life, and it is not surprising that it is remarked that “Willy’s primary obsession throughout the play is what he considers to be Biff’s betrayal of his ambitions for him” (Comgan 1969, p.364). But at this point, it is necessary to underline that it is rather Willy’s problem because it was his ambitions that remained unrealized and Biff, in all probability, simply wanted to live his own life. On the other hand, it is also Willy’s problem as a father because he turned to be unable to convince his son of his own beliefs.
Unfortunately, Willy does not realize this fact and he “believes that he has every right to expect Biff to fulfill the promise inherent in him” (Comgan 1969, p.403). However, it seems to be quite natural that Biff is different from his father and he rejects the ideals of his father but Willy does not want to realize his own mistakes and “takes this rejection as personal affront” (Siebold 1998, p.267). In fact, Willy does not understand his son and believes that “Biff’s betrayal stems from Biff’s discovery of Willy’s affair with the woman” (Murphy 1995, p.342). But in actuality, it rather looks like the evidence of the fact that it was not only Willy who was betrayed but he betrayed too. As a result, “Biff feels that Willy has betrayed him with his unending stream of ego-stroking lies” (Siebold 1998, p.279).
Thus, it is possible to say that Willy’s erroneous views lead him to failure and suicide since his “tendency to mythologize people contributes to his deluded understanding of the world” (Martin and Centola 1993, p.432). In such a way, the author managed to convey to readers the idea of the failure of the American Dream, at least in its simplified form, since such basic concepts as ‘personal attractiveness’, or ‘well-likenesses’ turn to be useless in the realization of the dream and seem to be “the very incarnation of the American Dream” (Martin and Centola 1993, p.435).
In conclusion, it should be said that the themes raised by the author of the Death of a Salesman are very important and still very arguable but what can be said for sure is that this play will remain popular as long as the myth about the American Dream exists.