Death of a Salesman is a 1949 play authored by Arthur Miller. The play is presented in three acts, two acts and a requiem, with Willy Loham as the main character. At sixty-three, Willy who has been a travelling salesman all his life still has nothing to show for it and lives at the edge of poverty. Willy and his two adult sons Biff and Happy have a constant belief that life has been cheating them and insist that they will be compensated someday. Linda, Willy’s wife has been living in denial that Willy has always been trying to protect them from a financial collapse.
With his age catching up, Willy is exhausted after spending his years making sales trips for the company. He has however yet to reach a level of success that would permit him to stop working and still afford his family a livelihood. Willy is disappointed with his son’s inability to find a serious form of employment. Tired, argumentative and confused, Willy loves his son and attempts to infuse into him a salesman’s self-confidence and enthusiastic optimism.
Through a series of flashbacks and memories, the author makes known the philosophy of salesmanship that has led to his not so successful state. Compared to their neighbor Charley and his son Bernard, Willy and Biff have concentrated on improving their athletic rather than studious nature. Willy believes that a good appearance is much more important than good academic grades. Indeed, Willy supports his son’s cheating in school and he himself cheats on his wife by having an affair with a woman from Boston. Linda informs Biff and happy that their father, Willy, is contemplating suicide. They try to cheer their father up by promising to do business together.
In Act II, Willy requests his boss for a non-travelling job but is fired instead. The reason for his firing is that he has been unable to deliver with his sales. Confused, he approaches his friend Charles for another loan. He also meets Bernard who is by now an effective lawyer. In the evening, he meets his two sons, Biff and Happy, at a restaurant and inevitably informs them about his awful news. Unwilling to disappoint his father further, Biff neglects telling his father who he thinks would do with some uplifting news about the fact that he was unable to secure a loan that would have facilitated their new startup. The scene opens up to years before when Biff comes to Boston to after failing in Mathematics. This failure has since prevented him from graduating from high school. At this point, Biff discovers his father’s extra-marital affair.
In the present, Biff and Happy return to the house and are reproached for leaving their father at the restaurant. In the meantime, Willy is planting an imaginary garden and talking to his brother Ben who made a fortune in diamonds while he was still a young man. Biff also tries to explain to his father about the loan he had failed to obtain and his resolution to leave so as never to disappoint his father ever again. Willy thinks that Biff’s spite for him has contributed to his failure. When Biff starts to cry, however, he feels he was mistaken about what Biff feels about him. Inspired but disoriented, Willy kills himself in a car accident hoping that his insurance would help to provide for Biff’s startup. He also thinks that the attendance to his funeral would serve to prove his popularity.
In a very short third act, The Requiem, almost nobody attends his funeral. Linda is seen crying at Willy’s funeral and asking him why he would do such a thing. Biff too is subdued while happy is impressed by Will’s good dream.
The major theme in Death of a Salesman is the theme of the American Dream. Having been written in 1949, the American dream was fresh in the minds of many. The American dream is however displayed using the various perspectives of the characters. Will is the man who thinks that the America dream can only be achieved by gaining popularity from others. When Biff tells the father that he had made fun of their mathematics teacher by speaking with a lisp, the father asks him if the others had liked. To him, it is anything for popularity. However, his version of the American dream seems to fail every time with Biff becoming a ranch hand and he having nothing to show.
Ben is the kind of person who moves from rags to riches. He brags that he had gone to the forest when he was seventeen and returned when he was twenty-one and rich. Linda sees him as a sign of wildness and danger. He even proves himself when he trips his nephew and points at his eye with an umbrella. His character implies that one is able to move from rags to riches but one must be ruthless and wild.
Biff is drawn towards two dreams. One is to follow his father’s dream of sales and business while his other dream involves his love for nature. He argues that his father should have been a carpenter. This is because he was good with his hands. Instead, he pursued an empty life, the wrong “dream.”
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