Death of a Salesman: An Anatomy of Failure

Also Read

The play - a success

      Death of a Salesman is one of Miller’s early masterpieces. It shows Miller at his best in all respects. The basic question that Miller poses is that in this increasing industrialization and growing mutual alienation, “What values should man live by?” Man’s search for personal dignity in the face of the growing realization of his littleness, is one of the major concerns of the dramatist. Death of a Salesman tries to anatomize the failure of man to be himself; to leave his stamp as ‘something’ or ‘somebody’, to be a ‘success’ in life.

      The play was a grand success on the stage and got mutually diametrically opposite reviews from different quarters. The most relevant observation is made by J.M. Brown. Talking about Miller, he says: “His play is the most poignant statement of man as he must face himself to have come out of our theatre. It finds the stuffs of life so mixed with the stuffs of the stage that the two become one and indivisible”.

Something of ourselves in Willy

      Death of a Salesman treats the inner frailties, shortcomings of an individual, sympathetically. Miller is very rightly concerned with the dilemmas that are as timeless in drama as they are in life. Where life and art merge, a work of art gets at least a new lease of life, if not immortalized. Death of a Salesman is an intensely personal and modern tragedy: in apparent contradiction with the heroically classical tragedies of the yesteryear's. Its main character is an ordinary little man who has to face the agony of discovering and meeting his littleness face to face. Although he is a salesman who falls short of his own ideals and is defeated in almost every trial, all of us share his agony and grief—we see a little of ourselves in this little man.

Willy—a failure but true to his family

      Willy Loman is the father of two sons and is aged sixty-three. He has never had the courage or the adventurous spirit of his lucky brother Ben. Willy is not even as lucky as his elder brother Ben. Whose reality we know as Willy’s ideal and as a shadowy presence lurking in Willy’s memories or consciousness. He symbolizes success for Willy and presents a contrast to him. Willy Loman is no doubt foolish, confined and confused but he is unquestionably hardworking, loyal and sincere to his family and his firm. He has loved his sons and while they were growing up, has been rewarded by love returned by them. He loves his wife sincerely; looks up to her for support. He has been unfaithful to her only once and that too, when he was terribly lonely.

Willy is loving but indulgent

      Willy has lived with hopes and expectations. His hopes and aspirations are not fantastic. His anxiety, his care, his concern for his sons are not different from what a parent normally has for his children. He lives in illusions; that he has many friends, that he is a success and that his sons will be a success, too. He lives his life like an adolescent, unable to ‘know’ himself. He mixes up personality and profession, energy and protection. He has cared too much for his sons. He has more than ruined his sons—one has turned out to be only a woman-hunter, while the other has turned out to be a thief. His ideals have made his sons revolt against him.

Willy is very weak—realizes very late that he is a failure

      With the opening of the play, the audience comes to know Willy as a man who is very old, weak and tired. Fatigue makes it difficult for him to carry his simple cases; age and backache make him stoop. His mind has also got tired by now; it seeks solace and keeps wandering. This accounts for his lack of concentration and absent-mindedness, which makes car-driving risky for him. Age has now made him unfit for what he had been doing for years—driving from one town to the other for the sales. His sons realize his condition and start despising him for his worthlessness. His wife also knows the reality; but she stands by him, defends him and extends full support to him in his moments of weakness. She knows that he is better than most of others and is sincerely well-intentioned. But Willy himself realizes too late that he is a failure. It is only when he is ignored and dismissed unceremoniously by Howard, that he realizes that he has been a failure throughout. Brought to the climax of disappointment, Willy decides to commit suicide. So he smashes the car and gets himself killed. But Willy’s affection and care survive him—his death seems not an act of cowardice but of love and benevolence. He kills himself to make it possible for Biff to make a fresh start. Ironically enough he dies the day he makes the final payment of his house—when they own the house, there is no one to live in the house.

Influence of environment on an individual

      Death of a Salesman presents the past and present in concurrence. Miller believes that the past and the present do not come after one another but exist simultaneously. In this play, he shows them to be existing simultaneously. Willy is the central character, hence Miller’s major concern. But Miller is interested in tracing the sources that influence him and shape him—his past and his environment. The scene of action is Willy Loman’s mind and heart as is shaped and is being shaped in his home. Willy’s thoughts and actions are like ours; the only difference is that to him the past is as alive and vivid as the present—the past and the present keep merging in his thoughts—his mind is unable to keep them in separate compartments. Miller is fully aware of the forces that shape an individual and sometimes try to strangle him. He also knows fully well, that for mortals to survive spells of growing loneliness few open-eyed loyalties are required. Miller presents his hero passing through the torments of agonizing tensions of the family soothed by friendship, finally ending up in heartbreak due to shattered pride and lost confidence.

Everyone in his household—a failure and a misfit, hence the tragedy

      Willy’s tragedy is a huge tree shadowing smaller plants of smaller tragedies of that of Biff, Happy and Linda. The social aspect of Willy’s tragedy is nowhere brought out better than in Charley’s words in the Requiem:

      “No, You don’t understand. Willy was a salesman, And for a salesman, there is no rock bottom to the life. He don’t put a bolt to a nut, he don’t tell you the law or give you medicine. He’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back—that’s an earthquake. And then you get yourselves a couple of spots on your hat, and you’re finished. Nobody does blame this man. A salesman is got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory”.

      Drawing our attention to the pathetically heart-rending plight of a salesman that Willy was, Charley here speaks up for the countless common men of our times.

      We know that Biff is a failure through and through at the early age of thirty-four and Happy is no better. Linda can do no better than living from moment to moment making Willy survive through his problems and to keep on hoping against hope that things will be alright one day. But of course, the suprepae example of failure is our hero—Willy Loman. By trying to diagnose the cause of Willy’s in adjustability, Miller has tried to present, in the play, an anatomy of failure. The sanest dissection of Willy Loman’s failure comes from the author himself. “The trouble with Willy Loman is that he has tremendously powerful ideals in his terms, but if Willy Loman, for instance, had not had a very profound sense that his life as lived had left him hollow, he would have died contentedly polishing his car on some Sunday afternoon at a ripe old age. The fact is that he has values. The fact that they cannot be realized what is driving him mad, just as unfortunately, it is driving a lot of people mad...I think Willy Loman is seeking a kind of ecstasy in life, which the machine civilization deprives people of. He is looking for his selfhood, for his immortal soul, so to speak, and people who don’t know the intensity of that quest think he is odd, but a lot of salesmen in a life of work where ingenuity and individualism are acquired by the nature of the work, have a very intimate understanding of his problem”.

      At one place, Miller says: “Willy is a baby... Willy is naive enough to believe in the goodness of his mission... Willy is a victim... He believes that selling is the greatest thing he can do”.


      Talking about the theme of the play, Miller said that in Death of a Salesman, he was trying to set forth what happens when a man does not have a grip on the force of life and has no sense of values which will lead him to that kind of grip; but the implication was that there must be such a grasp of those forces, or else we’re doomed.

      As Willy Loman was, we can add—I think there cannot be a more fitting conclusion to this topic than this.

University Questions

To what extent would you regard Death of a Salesman as an anatomy of failure? Illustrate.
Give a critical appraisal of Death of a Salesman, particularly highlighting its emotional and intellectual appeal.
“Death of a Salesman is the most poignant statement of man as he must face himself’. Discuss.

Previous Post Next Post