Death of a Salesman: as A Family Drama

Also Read

      Many critics have said that Death of a Salesman is concerned primarily with father-son conflict, while others see the play as a family drama. Some feel that Miller wanted to depict the role of the family in modem society.

      While discussing this issue, as also while discussing some other issues, it is always better for us to first familiarise ourselves with Miller’s theories and his views on the subject.

      In his essay, The Family in Modern Drama, Miller discusses the role of family in modern drama.

Miller—family is a unit of society

      Miller regards family as a polls, a unit of society. Family to him is not merely a means to depict the emotional bonds between the members of a family and their relations. Miller says: “Sentimentalism is perfectly all right, but it is nowhere near a great challenge, and to pursue it is not going to bring us closer to the fated mission of drama.” Miller thinks that the problem confronting mankind is: “How many men make for himself a home in that vastness of strangers and how may he transform that vastness into a home?” In his plays, Miller makes an attempt to answer the question: “How can man develop for himself a transitional polis that may bridge the gap between the private home of the family and the public home of that new unity towards which he believes the world to be moving?”

      Miller believes, what Eliot proves with conviction in his Four Quartets.

One starts from family

      Miller sees, observes, believes and demonstrates that one starts from home: home is the starting point for every individual. The job of the playwright is not that of an architect but that of a reporter. He should undertake not the planning of a new society, or a Utopia but should take upon himself the task of informing the uninformed about the present. It is in drama’s “capacity to open up the present.” While writing A View from the Bridge, he observed: “It is true to say, I think that the language of the family is the language of the private life in prose. The language of society, the language of the public life, is verse.”

Family—‘a siege to the fortress of unrelatedness’

      Miller does not regard the family as an isolated, individual microcosm, justified by its very existence. It serves a very important psychological function. Miller sees it as something “laying siege to the fortress of unrelatedness.” He relates the family to a larger group, the society, in bonds that are both inescapable and life-giving mutually.

Hidden motive in the play: the guilt of the younger brother

      According to Daniel Schneider, the basic hidden motivation in Death of a Salesman is, ‘the guilt of a younger brother for his hatred of his elder brother, for Willy Loman is also a younger brother ’ This is the dream of a younger, unpreferred son. No other analysis, it seems to me, can account for the increasing frequency of the vision of Ben, Willy’s older and envied brother. In a sense, every first son “strikes it rich in a younger son’s eyes.”

      This statement is an exaggeration, an overstatement of what might be found in the play, if examined with eyes that are looking for it, and it alone. It fails to apply to Happy Loman. He is well aware of the advantage he has over his elder brother, Biff Loman. Nor is this explanation of Beirs vision to Willy, acceptable. Ben is Willy’s ideal, what he would like to be, what perhaps he would have been. Willy’s dream of Ben is not so simple to be dimissed so easily. Moreover, we are interested in Willy as a father, not in the role of a brother. The son’s (Biff’s) disillusionment with his father is so shattering because prior to this, he had given him (Willy) excessive reverence. For his sons, Willy is not just a man, but a god in decay.

The family: not a centripetal, but a centrifugal force

      O’Neill and Miller have ‘the family’ as their forte. But there is a difference. O’Neill’s plays centre around the problems of obedience. respect, lack of filial affection within a family. Arthur Miller’s plays move a step further. In these plays we witness the disintegration or at least a threat of disintegration to the family, which is generally a result of the symptoms explored in O’Neill’s plays.

      In the Loman household, jealousy, disapproval and transferred guilt rock the family ties. In Miller’s plays the family is not a centripetal force but a centrifugal one. That is why, to the American individualistic mind, the disintegration of the family is not painful. A dramatist cannot extract tears from the audience on this account. Miller also shows this and asserts American individualism. Miller’s plays are generally based on a clear-cut thesis: “The individual who can survive the inevitable disintegration of the family and who can find for himself, another role in the larger social group can become “at home in the world.”

Sex—a wicked influence

      Henry Popkins feels that in this play, as in Miller’s other plays, there is an implicit indictment of sex as a wicked influence. But this does not hold good. What is criticized in Miller’s plays is sex in its anti-family and anti-social forms. Willy’s affairs with the woman in Boston, Happy’s seduction of the executive’s fiancees are some of the perversions of sex, and pose a danger to his own integrity and that of this family. Nevertheless, Miller treats sex in a very casual and matter of fact manner. He is not obsessed with it.

A family drama

      Death of a Salesman is not the tragedy of Willy alone. It is the tragedy of the family, that of Linda, the mother, and that of Biff, the son. The play in its theme, comes near King Lear. Both plays try to explore the ‘unnaturalness between the child and the parent’. The bond crack’d between son and the father’. Biff idolizes his father and looks up to him for ideals, but there he finds filth and corruption (adultery) and is shocked into severing the bond of filial affection and respect. Once trust has been betrayed, shame and disapproval come in way of a real reconciliation.

Father and son—achieve self-knowledge

      In this process of discovery and shock, both father and son get some amount of self-knowledge. But Willy is making an attempt to achieve self-fulfillment by making his son turn out a loyal and worthy son. He is obsessed with it and will not accept his failure. He finally commits suicide not only as an escape from shame and exposure; it is his last attempt to maintain the family’s integrity and stamp it with his confidence. Thus, the two major characters of the play, are like irreconcilable opposites—they want to do good to each other but their directions are contraposed. In their final compromise is the meeting of two opposite poles.

Other family relationships

      One of the other family relationships that come within the periphery of the dramatist’s range is that of the husband and the wife. A wife should love her husband and that Linda also does. But a wife must understand her husband too; here Linda is a terrible failure. She does not understand her husband. She sympathizes with him and supports him without really knowing what his dreams are and why are they such.

      There is also another son in the family, Happy Loman. His attitude towards his father and his family is quite different from that of Biff Loman. He is not very concerned about his family. He ignores his aging father who needs affection. Happy is a vagabond and a womanizer. He even refuses to acknowledge Willy as his father for the sake of winning over a new girl in the restaurant.

The play as a family drama: only secondarily

      Some people regard the play as Biff's tragedy while others regard it essentially as Linda’s tragedy. Yet we should keep in mind that the play is about the last terrible day of a man and lies on facts, reality and fantasy, the achievement and the potential— all of which inundate his last days, killing him finally. Miller did not intend the play to be a family drama primarily.


      If the play has to be interpreted as a family drama, it is only secondarily so. The main purpose of the playwright, as he himself had said was to show ‘what happens to a man when he loses the grip of the forces of life,’ when he cherishes wrong values, fed and nourished by society, when he fails to comprehend himself and the hostility of his environment. The family is just a part of this environment.

University Questions

Discuss Miller’s views on the role of family in modern drama, with particular reference to Death of a Salesman.
Discuss loyalty to family as a theme dramatized by Arthur Miller devoting all or most of your discussion to any of his plays.
Miller always sees the family, as “related to the larger group, the society, giving ways.” Discuss with reference to Death of a Salesman.
“In the Miller family, the force is ’not centripetal but centrifugal”. Discuss.
Discuss Death of a Salesman as a family drama.

Previous Post Next Post