Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is, as the title suggests, a play about the many contours of death as it comes to define one man’s life: the death of Willy Loman, of Willy’s dreams, of Biff’s respect for his father, and of the American Dream. The most profound death that occurs in the play, though, is the death of hope, represented most powerfully by the audience’s recognition that Willy takes his own life in a staged car accident, a final exit that he hopes will leave his family “free and clear” (450) of the debts that have mounted. Despite Charley’s famous speech in which he attempts to rescue Willy’s memory from the “rough world” (448) that had seemed to overrun it in recent years – “Willy Loman did not die in vain,” he proclaims (449) – this is very much a play that ends not with hope or freedom, but with an overwhelming sense of despair, loss, and hopelessness. In the end, this is not a play about freedom or about” a good dream” (449) or even about the life of a salesman. In the end, this is a play about suicide, about Willy’s perpetual struggle to keep hope in the face of ever more painful defeats and his decision, when the final blow is struck, to give up the battle once and for all.The play opens with a subtle but powerful foreshadowing of Willy’s final decision. Arriving home late one night, Willy announces himself to his wife, Linda, with his opening words of the play: “It’s all right,” he says when he startles her awake, “I came back” (358). Linda immediately raises questions that suggest that Willy’s driving has become an issue of late. “You didn’t smash the car, did you?” (359). Although Willy reassures her that the car is fine, he does admit that “the ca kept going off onto the shoulder” of the road, in large part, he admits, because he is “tired to the death.” But it is more than a physical tiredness that is plaguing Willy, it is a tiredness with the world that leaves him unable to see clearly or with confidence: “No, it’s me, it’s me. Suddenly I realize I’m goin’ sixty miles an hour and I don’t remember the last five minutes. I’m – I can’t seem to – keep my mind on it” (359). His mood turns more ominous as the conversation unfolds. “I have such thoughts,” he thinks aloud, “I have such strange thoughts” (360).This growing awareness of Willy’s “strange thoughts” and erratic behavior behind the wheel of his car is reinforced when the scene shifts to Happy and Biff upstairs, in conversation about their father. Expressing his concern with his father’s safety on the road, Happy faces his brother’s reasoning that “ His eyes are going” (363), which is as much an excuse as it is an explanation. Happy, not given to easy answers, pushes a bit deeper toward the real issue, his father’s emotional well being. “No, I’ve driven with him. He sees all right. He just doesn’t keep his mind on it” (364). The conversation closes permanently when Happy continues to push, countering his brother’s second suggestion that perhaps Willy is color blind with the statement that “he’s got the finest eye for color in the business” (364). Unwilling to continue further down this line of question, Biff closes down, sitting down on his bed and announcing with finality that he is “going to sleep” (364).But going to sleep will not solve the problems that trouble Willy, which is what their mother reminds the boys later in the first act when she confesses to them the details of about their father’s numerous “car accidents.” “The insurance inspector came,” she explains. “He said that they have evidence. That all these accidents in the last year—weren’t—weren’t—accidents.” There was a witness, she explains, who says that “he wasn’t’ driving fast at all, and that he didn’t skid. She says he came to that little bridge, and then deliberately smashed into the railing, and it was only the shallowness of the water that saved him” (392). Willy’s troubles take hold of the conversation as Linda, unlike her sons, remains determined not to flinch in the face of the obviousness of his declining emotional state. And “[l]ast month… oh, boys it’s so hard to say a thing like this!” she continues,”…I was looking for a fuse. The lights blew out, and I went down the cellar. And behind the fuse box-it happened to fall out- was a length of rubber pipe just short. There’s a little attachment on the end of it. I knew right away. And sure enough, on the bottom of the water heater there’s a new nipple on the gas pipe” (392). At this moment, the drama changes; the doubt has disappeared to reveal the truth about Willy. What is tragic about these revelations is not so much that they come too late for his family to react, but how his family reacts to the knowledge of Willy’s decline. Linda challenges her son, claiming, naively, that she “know[s] every thought” in her husband’s mind, having lived with him from “day to day” (393). She then puts Willy’s life into Biff’s “hands,” who in turn makes a promise he knows that he cannot possibly keep: “It’s all settled now,” he postures. “I’ve been remiss. I know that, Mom. But now I’ll stay, and I swear to you, I’ll apply myself” (393).Following Biff’s later collapse (and breaking of his promise to his mother) and the emotional admission that he is “nothing,” Willy has seen and heard too much. Conversing with his dead brother, reliving past glories, resurrecting past dreams, and, inevitably, he gives himself over to the strange voices and dangerous thoughts that have been running through his head for some time. With the collapse of his beloved Biff comes the collapse of the Dream; Willy spirals out of control, lost in delusion and nostalgia and hurt. In his final moments he, too, comes to know the truth: that being free and clear means more than having wealth or the status that comes with being the “number-one man” (449). His final words to his son – “Put him – put him to bed” (445) – and to his wife — “I gotta go, baby. By! By!” (445) – shows little true depth to his concerns, and an ambiguous sense of responsibility, at best. He brightens only when he thinks ahead to what he still believes will be the long-term gains, the iteration of the Dream, that will come with his death. “Imagine when the mail comes he’ll be ahead of Bernard again!” (447), he says to no one in particular, but to everyone at the same time.Realizing that being free and clear of this world, of the dreams that have defined him for so long and of the failures that have tormented him, Willy calls to Ben to guide him to his own new territory: “Ben! Ben, where do I.? Ben, how do I…?” (447). Kissing his wife good night, reassuring her that all is well, Willy gets into his car and succeeds, finally, in completing what he had set out to do earlier on the bridge and in the basement. Although Willy has contemplated and even attempted suicide or a long time, he only makes his final decision after the final and most dramatic collapse of the Dream around which he has secured both his reality and those of his sons.In this certainty that the insurance money will give Biff the incentive and the footing to make a new start is the final gesture in a series of futile decisions that have made up Willy’s life. Oblivious to the fact that his own son no longer carries the dream, Willy turns a deaf ear to his admonitions to “take that phony dream and burn it before something happens” (445). Rather than love or grief, Biff comes to the famous requiem scene densely coded with bitterness, and remaining silent while the mourners “celebrate” his father’s life; indeed, his only contribution to the memorializing is the repeated requests to his mother to leave, and the resonant lead into Charley’s famous speech: “He had all the wrong dreams,” Biff observes, “All, all, wrong” and “He never knew who he was” (449). These words resonate through the closing of the play, that demand attention, and that remind us, ultimately, that in the world of Willy Loman the most telling death is of hope for a better future that extends beyond the world of dreams.
Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman Essay
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