A Pessimistic Play: Death of a Salesman?

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      It is the right of every man to enjoy his life on the Earth. If anyone fails to derive enjoyment, it means that he has forfeited it because he has committed some unnatural offense or some misconduct or is psychologically maladjusted. It is also possible that someone might have tyrannically deprived him of his right to enjoy.

      Sense of responsibility with love in the air. We can justifiably expect the prevalence of love in the atmosphere of the human society and if man assumes his rightful place therein with an adequate sense of responsibility, who can prevent him from enjoying his well-deserved benefits and pleasures? A non-recognition of this fundamental principle leads to capitulation to false values rendering the man unable to recognize his place in society. Tragedy is the result thereof. Miller’s philosophy centers around this and the theme of his plays is also the same. It is the inability of Willy in Death of a Salesman to conform to this recognition of his place in society that brings the pessimistic output upon him.

      Conscience lost. Retention of the integrity of conscience is possible on an identification of oneself with the interests of the society as a whole. Being unaware of what constitutes human dignity leads one to become oblivious of the fundamental values and thence to loss of conscience. Willy suffers from this and his efforts to regain it ends in failure and then to the loss of life through suicide.

      Undue attachment to the myth of dream. Failing to gain success in life himself and observing the phenomenal success of others has rendered Willy incapable of thinking reasonably. On the one hand, he indulges in day-dreaming and wishful thinking. He makes himself think that he has gained a lot and tells others also the same in a swaggering vein. On the other hand, being face to face with loss and failure makes him dispirited. Biff has seen through his father’s unintentional deception. Willy rushes into a society to which he does not belong. ‘We should be mixing cement on some open plain—or be carpenters.’ Biff has detected that his father has a false dream of his position in life. Willy thinks that he is a well-liked salesman whom even cops are eager to protect. He aspires to move among higher circles but does not reach anywhere near.

      Sense of insecurity. A realm of void, a world of temporariness, a feeling of alienation haunts him throughout. He feels insecure and is haunted by loneliness and emptiness. Linda knows this but her love and sympathy prevents her from openly acknowledging it. 'He’s a human being and a terrible thing is happening to him’. So attention must be paid to him.

      Spiritual crisis. Amidst man-made distinctions he becomes a victim of the operation of inhuman laws of success in an adverse society. The atmosphere of the business world is highly competitive. How can weak old and infirm people like him survive therein? A charming personality has its own limitations. When profit becomes the sole aim and the only justification of existence, no one can be free from a spiritual crisis.

      Obsessed by his brother’s extraordinary success. Walking into the jungle when seventeen and walking out at twenty-one with diamonds and gems was the lot of his big brother. Willy wants to emulate him but cannot. He wants his sons to do that. He says: ‘That’s just the spirit I want to imbue them (his sons) with.’

      Linda’s inadvertence. A genuine love and respect for her husband makes Linda partially blind to his mediocrity as a salesman. She used to encourage him whenever Willy realized that his performance as a salesman was not up to the mark. ‘Next week you’ll do better’, she used to say. Without understanding the cause of his failure she tries to make it by verbal encouragement. Thereby she keeps him well supplied with myths of dreams and lots of wishful thinking. Thus inadvertently she becomes a contributing cause in his tragedy.

      Cruelty of the environment. Howard fires Willy ruthlessly. He does not want to retain him even on commission basis. He wants him to return even the samples supplied to him. This behavior may be symbolic of the cruelty of the society as a whole. This is a partial cause for the tragic end. Ben and Linda who encouraged Willy’s false conception of success might have been another cause. Willy’s fanatic allegiance to his dreams completes the process.

      Charley and Bernard. Charley and Bernard are characters counterbalancing Willy and Biff. Without any dreams of success, Charley has attained phenomenal success to the extent of regularly helping Willy monetarily’ without expecting anything in return. Charley is not clever in manual labor like Willy. He is not well-liked like Willy; still he gains better results in his endeavor. Willy cannot understand or appreciate why Charley gains practical success in life. Bernard is a book-worm and Willy does not want his son to be like him. But what is the reality? Bernard becomes an advocate of the Supreme Court and is outstandingly successful in life. In spite of Willy’s crazy talk, unreasonable hostility and ironical jokes and biting sarcasm, Charley continues to help him. Charley is an example of an industrious, genuine, sober gentleman with a farsighted interest in general welfare and humanistic ardor. Thus he and his son are examples of genuine success thanks to steady endeavor.

      No pessimistic approach. Miller has portrayed success and failure, gains and losses with perfect balance. Though the hero Willy is a monument of utter failure, pessimism cannot be said to constitute the keynote of the play. Success or failure is the result of ardent labor or absence thereof. Furthermore, success also depends upon one’s ability to clearly assess one’s ability and not indulge in day dreams encouraged by the false ideals of a society infested by the ‘success-myth.’ Moral lapses like thievery to which Biff turned his eager attention are the results of false values. A clear thinking will enable everyone to lead a life of balanced procedure to gain success and realize well-deserved joy in life.

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