Analysis of Death of a Salesman

“Death of a salesman” was staged in the year 1942. Arthur Miller, the American playwright shot to fame after composing this play which portrays the mental state of an aging salesman who lives his life based on pretensions. This play has been staged more than 700 times and has won many awards and is one of the most popular plays in the world. People can relate to the plot of the play even today since it deals with the fragility of human emotions and relationships. The whole play is about the life of Willy Loman and his family in twenty four hours. This day in their life summarizes the life they had lived till then which ends in a predictable climax.

Mental Turmoil Is the Undertone

The title of the play itself indicates how the climax would pan out but how and why, makes the script gripping. Willy Loman is depicted as a 63 year old who was a salesman for most of his life. His wife is Linda Loman and they have two grown up sons Biff Loman and Harold ‘Happy’ Loman. The play starts with a reunion of the family. Linda is concerned because Willy recently met with a car crash which disturbed his mental state of mind. Willy plans on asking his boss Howard Wagner for a job in the New York so he didn’t need to travel, which was a decision supported by Linda. Biff, who had worked as a farmhand, had returned home for a holiday, Happy had a small job too.

Willy is upset because Biff who was an excellent athlete in school did not amount to anything in his life. Willy was constantly overshadowed by his brother Ben and his success. Ben was a rich entrepreneur and a business tycoon in Africa. Although Ben is dead Willy frequently spoke to him in his hallucinations. His neighbor Charley and his son Bernard were doing well in life. This depressed Willy because Biff had not lived up to his expectations. According to Linda, Happy could have done more for the family. The scene opens with such a family reunion.  At this stage Willy is already talking to himself and succumbing to hallucinations. He talks to imaginary people and this is the first time the children get to see that side of their father.

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The whole family is worried and Linda tells her sons that this has been happening for a while and that they were in bad situation financially too. She admitted to Willy having suicidal tendencies as well. After hearing all this, Biff agrees to meet an old employer and make a business proposition. Willy and Biff set off from home the next day, hoping that things might change positively for the household. But things go awry. Willy loses his job and the employer Biff goes to see refuses to acknowledge Biff. So they meet Harold for dinner at a restaurant.

Happy wanted Biff to lie about his failure but Biff couldn’t do it. He tells his father the truth which in turn deteriorates Willy’s condition further and his hallucinations get worse. He drifts back into his past to the day Biff caught him cheating on his wife with another woman in Boston. He felt that Biff’s perception of him changed that day and it set him adrift. Biff leaves the restaurant and is followed by Harold who picked up two women at dinner. They leave their father behind. When they return home Linda tells them off for treating their father in such a manner. Biff goes to pacify Willy but their conversation heats up and turns into an argument. He tries to make his father understand the fact that he was an ordinary man who couldn’t live up to his father’s extraordinary dreams. Eventually Biff hugs Willy and tells him he loves him, which pacifies Willy to a certain extent. Willy eventually realizes that Biff forgave him for what he did.

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Willy kills himself that night by crashing his car intentionally so that Biff could use the insurance money to start his own business. Biff eventually changes his mind about being a businessman. Harold however follows in his father’s footsteps.

Poignant Characters

Although there are only a few characters in this play, each and every one of them has a strong role to play. Willy is a man flitting between the past and present. He is haunted by his overall failure in life and he projects his frustration onto his son. That feeling of guilt and infidelity after being caught by his son was something that always disturbed Willy. He wanted to see his children settle down in life. With so many aspirations and failures in reality his mental stability was disturbed.  Linda was the only person who saw life as it was and stood by Willy through thick and thin. She comes across as a strong woman who holds the family together.

Although Biff was upset with his father for cheating on his mother, he loved him. Biff lived a deluded life but realizes his mistake and wants to rectify it. Harold was happy following in his father’s footsteps and living the life his father lived.

Denial and Contradiction are the Themes

The plot of ‘The Death of a Salesman’ is tightly packed with a few important incidents. According to some analysts the name Willy sounds like the question ‘will he?’ which brought out his childlike personality and habit to depend on others  while Loman sounds like ‘low man’ or a person unlikely to find success – Miller however does not recognize this analysis. All good plays have key ingredients like – conflict, complication, suspense and denouement. The Death of a Salesman has all these ingredients in the right quantity which makes it such a success. The stage direction along with the music goes a long way in creating the ambience required for the story. Arthur Miller has given a lot of detail in his screen play on ways to create the mood for the play which can be enhanced by the director staging the play.

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Denial and contradiction are the main themes of this play. Living in constant denial and losing touch with reality, is what brings misfortune to the Loman household. When human turmoil is presented with such passion the story or play is bound to be a hit.