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Nothing More Than a Dream: Death of a Salesman Analysis

Angela is an avid reader who studied English Literature in college. She has a passion for the written word and loves literature.

Death of a Salesman is a tragic tale about Willy Loman, a man who desperately seeks success in a country known for its limitless opportunities. Unfortunately, few can attain such lofty goals.

In his journey, Willy loses sight of what is important and becomes completely blinded by the riches that he would have been able to attain. Being a modern-day tragedy, Death of a Salesman reveals the tragic side of the American Dream.

Wikipedia, a company started as a result of one person’s American dream, defines the American dream as “a… freedom that allows all citizens and all residents of the United States to pursue their goals in life through hard work and free choice” (Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia 2009).

It is true that in America, we have the freedom to pursue our goals no matter how lofty they may seem, but in reality, few can attain the great successes seen by a select few. The majority of people find that the American dream is merely a dream and nothing else. Either people do not strive for such lofty goals or are unable to due to life events and bad choices.

Willy Loman is among the majority. Although, unlike the majority, the American dream has become a hindrance to Willy’s life because of his love of money, his low self-esteem, and his blinding hero-worshipping of three successful men.

Willy Loman

Choosing Money over Love

The American dream brings hope to many, but some people become so clouded by the result of their goals that they lose sight of what is truly important. One critical essay denotes the significance of the materialistic American dream clashing with the individual. The article claims that this clash is “the downfall of Willy Loman, a salesman whose misguided notions of success result in disillusionment.” (Marowski, Danil G.; Matuz, Roger; Pollock, Sean R, 247).

In Willy’s case, his goal is so strongly motivated by the love of money; he neglects his family. As Janet Witalec, a critic of Miller, points out, his love for money “keeps him from acknowledging the value of human experience—the comforts of personal relationships, family and friends, and love” (Witalec, 145). He thinks money provides satisfaction. Because he focuses on financial success, he often ignores the more important things in life.

It is clear that Willy truly loves his family, although he is very misguided. Despite his desperate desire to be rich, he makes sacrifices because he recognizes the importance of his wife and children. For instance, he chooses to support his family rather than go on adventures with Ben and become rich. Willy’s heart knows what is most important, but his love for money shadows over him. He feels a sense of shame that he has not attained the same riches as his brother and his father. Although he is aware that his family is most important, money preoccupies most of his thoughts.

In the end, it is this preoccupation with financial matters that defeats him. Because Loman places a high significance on money, he misinterprets what he should do “when [he] realizes that his true value lies in being a good father,” as Witalec explains. Instead of giving his sons his time and energy, “he chooses to sacrifice himself in order to give his sons the material wealth he has always desired” (Witalec, 145).

In one respect, he realizes that he should be looking towards his relationship with his sons, but his love for money still blinds him. He thinks the way to bless his sons is by giving them riches in the only way he knows how. He believes he is doing the right thing for his family by committing suicide and ultimately giving his children the twenty-thousand dollars from his life insurance. As a result, he misses out on life itself and takes one of the most valuable things away from his family: himself.

Arthur Miller

A Fractured Mind

In Willy’s fractured mind, there are fragments of truths where he realizes the importance of family over money. For instance, as his wife tells him that they almost have the house paid off, he states, “…work a lifetime to pay off a house. You finally own it, and there’s nobody to live in it” (Miller, 2330). Here he realizes that he has worked very hard to get the material things he has in life. Now that he has gained it, his children are adults and are no longer running around the house.

His wife reiterates this statement later, although she says it with a different tone. When Willy makes this statement, he is speaking with bitterness over the years he had to work, and the times he missed out on with his sons, whereas Lynda says this with sadness because now that she officially owns her house, she is entirely alone. In this, Lynda is the real victim, because she would have rather have her husband than own the home.

Unfortunately, Willy does not understand how much she values him, because he’s to blinded by his insecurities and self-absorption. To him, Loman sees her as his “foundation and… support” (Miller, 2331), but he only looks at the benefit she gives to him and not the benefit he gives to her. As a result, Loman misses out on the fulfillment of the symbiotic relationship that marriage provides. Although Willy says, “You know the trouble is, Linda, people don’t seem to take to me” (Miller, 2340), it is true that he doesn’t “take to” himself. If only he understood the love his wife had for him, and her willingness to stick up for him like when she says, “I won’t have anyone making him feel unwanted and low and blue” (Miller, 2350), he may have been able to see the worth in himself as his wife does.

Rather than realizing his worth within his wife’s life, he continuously tries to seek importance in the world. Even when he assesses himself, he looks to physical characteristics such as appearance and personality, as seen when he says, “I’m fat. I’m very—foolish to look at, Linda,” “I joke too much!” and “I’m not dressing to advantage” (Miller, 2341). These are characteristics that the world judges each other on, whereas a person’s real treasure is in the things not seen, such as love. Willy wants so badly to be “well-liked,” that he often overlooks the fact that he is loved, even though his wife continually reminds him.

Self-Absorption

Self-absorption is the main reason for this inability because he only sees life from his point-of-view. He makes decisions without fully understanding the repercussions that his actions will have on others' lives and, consequently, his own.

One of his greatest selfish decisions is his affair. Although Witalec argues that Willie truly believes he cheats “out of loneliness for his wife, Linda. But [in fact]… he is driven by feelings of inadequacy and failure to seek himself outside of himself, in the eyes of others. ‘The Woman’ makes him feel that he is an important salesman and a powerful man” (Witalec, 234).

Willy only looks at the benefit he will get from his decisions. In the case of his affair, his benefits are words of affirmation and sensual pleasure. Unfortunately, because Biff discovers the affair, Willy becomes acutely aware of the immense pain that results.

In a criticism written by Marowski and colleagues, it expresses this betrayal by declaring that, “the trust Biff had given Willy now seems misplaced. Indeed, according to the flashbacks within the play, the young Biff and Happy had nearly idolized Willy, so this betrayal, while Biff is yet an adolescent, is particularly poignant.” (Marowski). The affair results in a strained relationship with his son, and though Biff never tells the secret, the family dynamic is forever changed. Ironically, what makes Willy feel like a successful salesman causes him to feel insecurities regarding his fatherhood and other aspects of his life as well.

His most significant insecurity is that he is never as successful as he feels he should be. It is, as Witalec says, “his vision of success [that] perpetuates crippling feelings of inferiority and inadequacy [which ultimately]… drive him to destroy himself” (Witalec, 236). He creates his view of success based on three men that he idolizes: his father, his older brother Ben, and old Dave Singleman. These men represent who he wants to emulate.

Willy’s father is the least represented in the play because his father abandons him at a very early age. Though Willy’s father is rarely mentioned, there is a sense that his memory is always present. Whenever Willy is experiencing a flashback, Miller represents his father’s memory through a flute playing offstage. His father’s flute playing is one of the few sensory memories that Willy has of him (Witalec, 148).

The only times his father is present is during conversations with his brother Ben. Ben describes his father as a “Great inventor… With one gadget he made more in a week than a man like [Willy] could make in a lifetime.” (Miller, 2347). Although it is clear that Willy feels a sense of pride for his father when Ben boasts this, it is important to note that his brother is also insulting him. Rather than encouraging Willy to be successful like his father, he is stating that he is not capable. Since this statement is coming from someone who Willy idolizes, he is more apt to believe that it is true; he cannot make that much money.

Willy’s idolization of Ben also hinders Willy in his quest for the American dream. In Willy’s mind, Ben is the personification of the American dream. He symbolizes the riches that he could attain. Willy covets the qualities in Ben that makes him successful, such as toughness and unscrupulousness. (Witalec, 148) Although Willy does not realize he has his strengths and tries too hard to emulate his brother. Willy, unlike his brother, is honest. Although he makes some bad choices, such as infidelity, he chooses to work hard and take care of his family.

As shown earlier, he also does not recognize another one of his great strengths, which is Linda, his own personal cheerleader. Ben does not have a person in his life that encourages him and loves him. Willy neglects to notice.

Arthur Miller

Arthur Miller

Willy Makes a Right Decision

Because Willy chooses to support his family and work honestly, he is unable to attain the same level of success as his brother Ben. On the other hand, Dave Singleman embodies a realistic success. He represents “getting ahead by being ‘well-liked’” (Witalec, 148). Willy boasts that Singleman is so well-liked that “when he died, hundreds of salesmen and buyers were at his funeral” (Miller, 2363). Therefore, Willy strives for the success that Singleman has.

Willy is not entirely blind, for he does see that he is aging, and his chances of having success like Singleman is getting less likely. Heyen another critic of Miller mentions as the play progresses “Willy saw the truth. He knew he didn’t have Ben’s courage…, Dave Singleman’s personality, his own father’s fortitude, and ingenuity. But Willy chose, and… chose to continue dreaming even unto death” (Heyen, 49-50). He then turns his hope for success to his children. In Willy’s eyes, he dies an honorable death, because he is fulfilling his dream in the only way he knows how, by providing for his children financially and giving them a chance at the American dream.

Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman is one of the most tragic characters from a twentieth-century play. He dreams of a life that he never can attain, yet witnesses many people around him achieve their goals with ease. Due to his “tunnel-vision,” Loman overlooks the things in life that can bring happiness like doing the things he enjoys like gardening or, more importantly, spending quality time with the one person who has devoted her heart and life to him. Although he may not have become as rich as the men he idolizes, he does share one thing with them- his self-absorption and utter disregard for the needs of other people. Though Willy may feel he ends his life with purpose, he does so without fully understanding the creation of the American dream. The dream is meant to bring hope, not despair, life, not death, unification, not separation.

Works Cited

"An overview of Death of a Salesman for Drama for Students." Drama for Students. Detroit: Gale. Literature Resource Center. Gale. GRAND VALLEY STATE UNIV. 13 Apr. 2009 <http://go.galegroup.com.ezproxy.gvsu.edu/ps/start.do?p=LitRC&u=lom_gvalleysu>.

Heyen, William. "Death of a Salesman and the American Dream." In Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, edited by Harold Bloom, 47-58. New York: Chelsea House Publication, 1988.

Marowski, Danil G.; Matuz, Roger; Pollock, Sean R;. Arthur Miller (1915-). Vol. 47. Detroit: Gale Research, 1988.

The Norton Anthology: American Literature. Vol. E, in Death of a Salesman, by Arthur Miller, edited by Nina Baym, 2327-2392. NewYork: Norton and Company, 1949.

Witalec, Janet. Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller. Vol. 179. Detroit: Gale, 2004.

Questions & Answers

Question: What is Biff's dream in "Death of a Salesman"?

Answer: Unlike his father, Biff does not have a strong desire to fulfill the American dream. He wants the exact opposite of what his dad so desires, because he has seen how striving for the American dream has ruined his father. Instead, he wants away from the office and be outside.

Question: What is the overall dream that is described throughout the play "Death of a Salesman"?

Answer: The theme of the play is regarding the American dream; how someone can start from meager means and make vast fortunes. This shows both the good and bad of this dream and how different men view this goal very differently.

Question: What challenges does Willy face in "Death of a Salesman"?

Answer: Willy is always comparing himself to his hugely successful older brother who became wealthy very young. He often tries to justify why he, himself, has not found the same amount of success, although he does not see things as they really are or were. He made many bad choices, including cheating on his wife. This really hurt his oldest son who found out. Willy blames himself for his son's failures and questions whether he truly loves him. Seeing himself as a failure served as somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy, and he never truly found success.

Question: What is the premise of "Death of a Salesman"?

Answer: The author has done a really good job of portraying the negative aspects of striving for the American dream. They elaborate on what causes one not to achieve their goals, such as cheating (like both Biff and Willy do), pride (when Willy is too prideful to take the job), and losing sight of reality.

Question: Is "Death of a Salesman" a story about "death," "a salesman," or both?

Answer: I will go with none of the above. It's about pride.

Question: How does Willy Loman's dream reflect the American dream in "Death of a Salesman"?

Answer: Willy wants to become wealthy like his brother Ben, despite having grown up from meager means. The American dream is an idea that no matter how poor one person starts, in America they can achieve greatness and wealth.

Question: What is Willy Loman's dream in "Death of a Salesman"?

Answer: Willy wants to become rich like his brother Ben. He wants to have a perfect family and live the American dream.

Question: What challenges does Biff face in "Death of a Salesman"?

Answer: Early on, Biff sees Willy, his father, cheating on his mother. This causes him to stop trying, as this deeply hurt him. He does not like watching his father strive so hard and fail at the American dream that he begins to resent the idea of the American dream and hates working in an office. Even before all this, he struggled in school and was failing math. So from the beginning, he did not see himself as successful at anything except football. Without passing math, he was unable to continue with his football dreams. Seeing himself as a failure, he made bad choices, including stealing from his boss. Fortunately, Biff does show growth as the play goes on.

Question: What are the differences and similarities of Biff and Willy Loman in "Death of a Salesman"?

Answer: Willy is very driven in his career path. He wants to find control and be able to provide more for his family; whereas Biff is an idealist who wants freedom and to be an artist, yet the men are very similar. Both Willy and Biff have been less successful than their brothers and as a result are very insecure. Though they both love one another, they don't understand each other. Willy feels cheated by his father, and assumes Biff feels the same way despite Biff telling him otherwise.

Question: What is the mood and tone of the play, "Death of a Salesman"?

Answer: The play is a very somber story, giving a somewhat dark tone, due to the hopelessness that Willy feels. Due to Willy's constant negative emotions, the mood remains downtrodden and sad. It's a sincere play that focuses on Willy's plight and misguided notions of what is most important in life.

© 2010 Angela Michelle Schultz

Comments

Mahdi on June 07, 2019:

Amesome. I really enjoyed. I think that it can help me to pass the exam.

mijanur on April 03, 2019:

awesome..

Dave Deschmidt on December 18, 2017:

Thank you so much. This will save me for my english essay.

FlourishAnyway from USA on April 14, 2013:

Very thorough analysis. There are so many Willy Lomans yet today.

Rachid Djau on December 16, 2012:

very good analysis... thank you so much

Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on July 16, 2010:

Thanks for reading it! I appreciate you stopping by!

yalenova on July 16, 2010:

I enjoyed reading your story. Thanks

Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on June 24, 2010:

It really is a powerful story. I think it's quite the fascinating tale, and somewhat true to life just a little overdramatized, but that's what it is a dramatization of life... so what can you expect.

Maria Giunta from Sydney, Australia on June 23, 2010:

I saw this play many years ago and found it mildly depressing but so true to how many 'money' orientated people see life. I love your analysis of what is essentially a very powerful story.

Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on May 31, 2010:

I'm glad you enjoyed it. I don't actually remember the explicatives. Although, mine might have been an edited version. The first time I read it was when I was in high school. Also, I tend to change strong explicatives with milder language when I am reading it.

Pamela Dapples from Just Arizona Now on May 31, 2010:

That is a very thorough analysis you did there! And it's excellent. I enjoyed it much more than the book. Actually, I only read half the book. It was in 1995 while I was in a B.A. program. It was mandatory reading, but there were so many expletives. I decided against reading it and had to hope it wouldn't be a big part of the final exam or I'd be risking my grade point. I can see (if the author had omitted the expletives) there's a lot of good in it. In many stories, plays and sadly in real life, we see where parents put too much importance on their standing in the world. They spend their time on unimportant avenues and daily hobbies rather than giving love and time to their children.

Great writing, Angela_Michele.

Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on March 24, 2010:

It is a very interesting and slightly disturbing play. I think it's best if you get a chance to see the play, but I know I enjoyed it when I read it.

Jamiehousehusband from Derbyshire, UK on March 24, 2010:

Thanks for this - a very good analysis and a moral tale that applies very much in todays' world. I love reading so will definitely look out for this.

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