Death of a Salesman is that rare thing: a modern play that is both a classic, and a tragedy. Many of the great plays of the twentieth century are comedies, social problem plays, or a combination of the two. Few are tragedies centred on one character who, in a sense, recalls the theatrical tradition that gave us Oedipus, King Lear, and Hamlet.
But how did Miller come to write a modern tragedy? What is Death of a Salesman about, and how should we analyse it? Before we come to these questions, it might be worth briefly recapping the plot of what is, in fact, a fairly simple story.
Death of a Salesman: summary
The salesman of the title is Willy Loman, a travelling salesman who is in his early sixties. He works on commission, so if he doesn’t make a sale, he doesn’t get paid. His job involves driving thousands of miles around the United States every year, trying to sell enough to put food on his family’s table. He wants to get a desk job so he doesn’t have to travel around any more: at 62 years of age, he is tired and worn out.
He is married to Linda. Their son, Biff, is in his thirties and usually unemployed, drifting from one temporary job to another, much to Willy’s displeasure. Willy’s younger son, Happy, has a steady job along and his own home, and is therefore a success by Willy’s standards.
However, Happy, despite his name, isn’t happy with the life he has, and would quite like to give up his job and go and work on a ranch out West. Willy, meanwhile, is similarly dreaming, but in his case of the past, rather than the future: he thinks back to when Biff and Happy were small children and Willy was a success as a salesman.
The Lomans’ neighbour, Charley, offers Willy a job to help make ends meet, but Willy starts to reminisce about his recently deceased brother, Uncle Ben, who was an adventurer (and young Willy’s hero). Linda tells her sons to pay their father some respect, even though he isn’t himself a ‘great man’.
It emerges that Willy has been claiming to work as a salesman but has lately been borrowing money as he can’t actually find work. His plan is to take his own life so his family will receive life insurance money and he will be able, with his death, to do what he cannot do for them while alive: provide for them. Biff agrees reluctantly to go back to his former boss and ask for a job so he can contribute to the family housekeeping.
Meanwhile, Willy asks his boss, Howard, for his desk job and an advance on his next pay packet, but Howard sacks Willy. Willy then goes to Charley and asks for a loan. That night, at dinner, Willy and Biff argue (Biff failed to get his own former job back when his old boss didn’t even recognise him), and it turns out that Biff once walked in on his father with another woman. Willy goes home, plants some seeds, and then – hearing his brother Ben calling for him to join him – he drives off and kills himself. At his funeral, only the family are present, despite Willy’s prediction that his funeral would be a big affair.
Death of a Salesman: analysis
Miller’s family had been relatively prosperous during the playwright’s childhood, but during the Great Depression of the 1930s, as with many other families, their economic situation became very precarious. This experience had a profound impact on Miller’s political standpoint, and this can be seen in much of his work for the theatre.
Death of a Salesman represented a decisive change of direction for the young playwright. His previous success as a playwright, All My Sons, was a social drama heavily influenced by Henrik Ibsen, but with his next play, Miller wished to attempt something new. The mixture of hard-hitting social realism and dreamlike sequences make Death of a Salesman an innovative and bold break with previous theatre, both by Miller and more widely.
In his essay ‘Tragedy and the Common Man’ (1949), which Miller wrote to justify his artistic decision to make an ordinary American man the subject of a theatrical tragedy, Miller argued that the modern world has grown increasingly sceptical, and is less inclined to believe in the idea of heroes. As a result, they don’t see how tragedy, with its tragic hero, can be relevant to the modern world. Miller argues, on the contrary, that the world is full of heroes. A hero is anybody who is willing to lay down his life in order to secure his ‘sense of personal dignity’. It doesn’t matter what your social status or background is.
Death of a Salesman is an example of this ethos: Loman, who cheated on his wife and lied to his family about his lack of work and his reliance on friends who lent him money, makes his last gesture a tragic but selfless act, which will ensure his family have money to survive when he is gone.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that Miller is somehow endorsing the hero’s final and decisive act. The emphasis should always be on the word ‘tragedy’: Loman’s death is a tragedy brought about partly by his own actions, but also by the desperate straits that he is plunged into through the harsh and unforgiving world of sales, where once he is unable to earn money, he needs some other means of acquiring it so he can put food on the table for his family.
But contrary to what we might expect, there is something positive and even affirmative about tragedy, as Arthur Miller views the art form. For Miller, in ‘Tragedy and the Common Man’, theatrical tragedy is driven by ‘Man’s total compunction to evaluate himself justly’. In the process of doing this, and attaining his dignity, the tragic hero often loses his life, but there is something affirmative about the events leading up to this final act, because the audience will be driven to evaluate what is wrong with society that it could destroy a man – a man willing to take a moral stand and evaluate himself justly – in the way that it has.
Does Willy Loman deserve to be pushed to take his own life just so his family can pay the bills? No, so there must be something within society that is at fault. Capitalism’s dog-eat-dog attitude is at least partly responsible, since it leads weary and worn-out men like Willy to dream of paying off their mortgage and having enough money, while simultaneously making the achievement of that task as difficult as possible. When a younger and better salesman comes along, men like Willy are almost always doomed.
But by placing this in front of the audience and dramatising it for them, Miller invites his audience to question the wrongs within modern American society. Thus people will gain a greater understanding of what is wrong with society, and will be able to improve it. The hero’s death is individually tragic but collectively offers society hope.
So it may be counter-intuitive to describe a tragedy like Death of a Salesman as ‘optimistic’, but in a sense, this is exactly what it is. Miller takes the classical idea of the tragic flaw, what Aristotle had called the hamartia, and updates this for a modern audience, too: the hero’s tragic flaw is redefined as the hero’s inherent unwillingness to remain passive in the face of what he conceives to be a challenge to his dignity and rightful status in society. There is something noble in his flaw, even though it will lead to his own destruction. So really, the flaw is not within the individual or hero as much as in society itself.
A key context for Death of a Salesman, like many great works of American literature from the early to mid-twentieth century, is the American Dream: that notion that the United States is a land of opportunity where anyone can make a success of their life and wind up stinking rich. Miller’s weaving of dream sequences in amongst the sordid and unsatisfactory reality of the Lomans’ lives deftly contrasts the American dream with the American reality.