Death of a Salesman: A Critical Analysis

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Death of a Salesman: A Critical Appreciation

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      Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is one of the few modern plays that can rightly claim to be something substantial and powerful. It is not only an analysis of success-worship and self-delusion in a materialistic society, it is replete with many formal features of a demonstration—much debate, much retrospective exposition and analysis, and a final, pointed, summation in the cemetery scene. The basic question that is the author’s concern is, what are the values that a man might live by. Though the play marks a movement away from the conventionally realistic plays, like those plays, in this play, too, the nuances of characterization and the tangled threads of human motivation constitute the dramatic texture.

Awareness of Social Realities

      In Death of a Salesman Miller extricates himself very skilfully from falling off in the ordinary flatlands of moralization and thesis drama. His play is a consummation, or rather an epitome of whatever has been attempted in that part of the theatre, that is known for its awareness and criticism of social realities. Generally, the American playwrights focussed on the milieu rather than on the character even, when they managed to transcend political agitation or special pleading. Miller achieves the impossible—the successful bridging of the gap between a social situation and human drama. The two elements are inextricably fused in each other in Death of a Salesman.

Common Man’s Tragedy

      In Death of a Salesman the author has been able to present to us, a common man’s tragedy. As its author himself says, it is an exceptionally good example of the so-called middle-class tragedy. “It depicts the fate and the final ending of a commonplace man in a commonplace environment.” This play belongs to the category of plays that generally fall short of tragedy and settle tears at a lower level of pathos, a drama which evokes sympathy and tears instead of the exaltation of mind and spirit through effective impeccable suffering. But Miller has skillfully managed to help his play from falling into any of these categories. This ultimately is the proof of his dramatic powers.

Story of a Flesh and Blood Human Being

      In this play, Miller has tried to analyze Willy Loman, a flesh and blood human being. But Willy does not remain a mere common man. He rises to a stature higher than that of an average common man. Its hero is as prone to committing errors and living his life on illusions as any of us—as any of his clan. In his mammon worshipping society, Willy lives constantly under the illusion that success is bound to come if one can win people by personal attractiveness, Willy believes that if one cannot sell, one is worth nothing. This is the idea that he has been trying to put into his son’s head. Willy also has an extra-marital affair, a diversion that seems to be the ‘in thing’ with traveling salesmen. But inspite of all this, Willy is not a complete nonentity. He is not quite commonplace in his common placeness. He maintains his faith—(whatever it might be) with a tenacity that is only a little short of heroic. When Willy’s faith crumbles, it takes the toll of Willy’s morale, Willy crumbles with it.

Willy Pursues a Mirage

      Willy pursues a very common mirage. This pursuit is the pursuit of success which is what everyone of his clan is pursuing. But Willy’s extraordinary fervor and enthusiasm exalt it to a high, sublime level. There is an element of the sublime in his naivete. There is nothing remarkable in his disappointment in his sons: Willy himself is responsible for most of their vices and shortcomings. But Willy’s emotional intensity imparts a tragic dimension to Willy’s grief in this case. His love for Biff was too intense and his hopes for him, too high. The final outcome of a scrutiny of the play and its comparison with other plays is that Willy is heroic because he feels intensity of emotion, though his thinking is limited and narrow. And it is because of this, that he not only fills the dramatic scene substantially, but adds substantiality to his realistically and vividly portrayed wife and sons. The play and these characters gain weight from the magnitude of his flawed relations with his wife and sons—the magnitude being Within him.

Technical Dexterity

      Miller’s technical virtuosity is a substantial support to Miller’s fame. In this play, as in other plays, he has a flair for taut construction. Though this virtue is not of primary importance, in Miller’s play this becomes a virtue of first hand importance. It gives, to the author both the skill and the confidence to break through conventional patterns of realism. Though the play constantly oscillates between the past and the present dimensions of time—yet the overall impression it leaves on the readers or the audience, is that of effortless and inevitable cohesion and unity. The play is the summation of a man’s life. This would, normally be in the horizontal form if, presented as a chronicle. But in Miller’s skillful hands it becomes a spiraling affair. It starts with Willy Loman returning home, from an unsuccessful business trip. He can no longer place confidence in himself. His story ends with his committing suicide in order to leave money for his family and to make up for his personal failure. The past constantly weaves together other episodes of the play, from the first to the final point. Past and present, run together like parallel lines. Each illuminating the other; "without each other, both as separate entities would be incomprehensible and meaningless.

An American Tragedy

      Death of a Salesman is subtitled “certain private conversations in Two Acts and a Requiem”. It has all the qualities required in a play for it to be a success at the theatre. While the spectacle of the play unfolds itself on the stage it builds up a massive dramatic power on the strength of its particular details and sprinkles an area of general relevance around it. The tragedy of Willy Loman is empowered further, as it symbolizes the tragedy inherent in the American way of life.

The Play: A Coherent Whole

      The play is a private conversation at one level and a public conversation, if read at another level. It is actually a mixture of both. The essence and the majesty of Willy’s grief lie in the presence of many questions, not in disparate collection but in a complex, and multiple identity. The play is a coherent whole and nowhere does it become inconsistent. It is controlled by a writer and theatrician who firmly knew what he wanted and how to achieve it. The language is disciplined, poetic without being unrealistic. Miller has coalesced the literary and the theatrical arts: never does he seem to lose hold over his artifice. As with all fine drama in the naturalistic mode, it manages to make its characters more eloquent, more articulate and more substantial than real people who maintain their credibility.

A Classical Tragedy

      When Miller wrote the play, he had the classical tragedy in his mind. He had always wanted to produce something intellectually artistic. Despite his self-consciousness, Miller comes very near to achieving success in his aim. We do not believe that Willy was inevitably doomed to his fate because of certain factors beyond his control. The first and immediate impression of the play is not that. Yet Willy’s tragedy is legitimate even in the classical sense. More than half the cause of his doom is his situation, circumstances and milieu. Like the heroes, Willy is unable to cope up with his circumstances but that does not justify it. Willy also contributes his share to his own unmaking and to the making of his tragedy.

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