Death of A Salesman: Tragedy of an Average American

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Death of a Salesman: Tragedy of an individual in competitive society

      No matter what the critics say, the fact remains that the modern reader identifies himself with tragedy more easily than perhaps with any other genre of literature. The appeal and dignity of tragedy remains undiminished since its vistas were first opened to us by the revered Aristotle. About his play, Death of a Salesman, Miller is humble enough to concede that it is not a deep tragedy. But tragedy it is. Another fact Miller feels that the tragedy of Willy Loman is that he gave his life, or sold it, in order to justify the waste of it. It is the tragedy of a man who did believe that he alone was not meeting the qualifications laid down for mankind by those clean, shaven frontiers, who inhabit the peaks of broadcasting and advertising offices. From those forests of canned goods, high up near the sky, he heard the thundering command to succeed as is ricocheted down the newspaper lined canyons of his city, heard not a human voice, but a wind of a voice to which no human voice can reply in kind, except to stare into the mirror at a failure.

Death of a Salesman: tragedy of modern America

      Death of a Salesman is tragedy of our time and our society. It is the tragedy of a man who is hollowed from within because he cannot adjust himself to the complacence, industry and competition that is rampant in modern America. Contemporaneity of time and situation razes the bounds of country—and character and brings the play in the class of universal tragedies. It is a tragedy in which the past and the present co-mingle and coexist in the expressionistic style, involving or rather centering around a middle-aged traveling salesman who keeps trying afresh throughout his life, The plight of innumerable Willies around us, in our own country and other countries, is too vivid to leave anything for the readers to imagine. Willy gets instantaneous sympathy of the audience. Willy Loman has been fed on the American myth that success lies in being well-liked and Willy has left no stone unturned to bring up his sons with this philosophy as the base.

Willy and his sons—failures

      But to his utter disappointment, Willy finds that things have not even inched towards the direction he had wanted them to have taken. He realizes that he himself and both his sons have been complete failures—not a grain more, not a grainless. Happy can do nothing, while Biff has not been able to understand himself, his aptitude or find himself. The past is to Willy, a natural refuge from the cruel onslaughts of the present. He immediately starts reminiscing about the good old days of the past to avoid the friction and harsh reality of unpaid bills and family friction. At a dramatic moment, Biff discovers Willy with’ some woman. Willy’s infidelity and insincerity towards Linda infuriate him to the flames of anger and throws him into an impenetrable darkness of hopelessness and helplessness—he seems to have broken down under the crushing weight of the shattering of his faith in his father and the image that he had created of him. This scene was shown to us only in Willy’s memories and immediately after it, comes the scene in the present. Biff is ready to leave home—an act which is suspended because the two fall into an argument. Unable to control himself, Biffin an emotion-chocked voice, points out almost brutally to Willy that Willy had built him and his sons’ lives on. Motivated by filial love, Willy is spurred on to commit suicide. Till the last minute we find Willy trying to stick to his standards and loyalties. In the Requiem, at Willy’s grave, Linda says “We’re free and clear”, emitting harsh rays of irony from every word. The sympathy, and understanding (though partial) and compliments that Willy gets in the Requiem is the only positive thing he gets out of his death—things which he strove for all his life and for which he would have died a thousand deaths.

Utility and accumulation: criterion and goal

      If we keep in mind, the main events of the play we see Willy moving from failure to failure with every event. Death of a Salesman has as its crux, the common American myth of being well-liked, of being commercially successful by having a lot of property—like a good house, a popular brand of car and a job fetching a handsome salary. There were times when enterprise, courage and hard work paid, but now, in Willy’s time, virtues have vanished and utility is the only criterion and accumulation, the only goal. It is salesmanship, it is the appearance that counts.

Willy’s death symbolic of the breakdown of the concept of salesmanship in America

      Thus in the whole scene of the American society, creeps in a new mentality and a different psychology. Man starts placing the highest value in the mechanical act of selling and getting richer (only materially), at the cost of other human values and human beings. To him, everyone is reduced to the level of a commodity; he is in his own eyes degenerates to the level of a saleable commodity. Man ceases to be man and spiritually he is just an embodiment of vague hollowness. Being thoroughly commercialized, he starts exploiting his own personality, using it as an instrument for enhancing his sales. He constantly wears a mask hiding his deceptive frauds. The only reality, the only goal is that of material success. Materialism acts the seductress, to whom man falls a prey or victim. This analyses the processes going on within an average American—this is what is happening to Willy. Willy, to a large extend is representative of the American everyman. In his fall, in his death, is reflected the total breakdown of the concept of salesmanship which is an integral part of American setup. The play is a typical American tragedy.

Americanness stretches out towards universality

      Miller, at one place says that Willy is not typically an average. American at least in one respect, in that he kills himself. Granted, but perhaps it is true that Willy is not a typical average American, only in this respect. Willy is typically a contemporary American at least in his plight if not in his end. When the audience sympathizes with Willy, it is not the particular person named Willy for whom the pity is evoked. The audience is, able to sympathize with and feel for Willy because his plight brings to mind the plight of all such poor miserable creatures, enmeshed in the cobweb of their own spun dreams and wrong notions. Willy’s tragedy appeals to us because it can be the story of any one of us not only of Americans. Willy is thus magnified from an American nonentity into a universal figure. His Americanness stretches out in the direction of universality. Willy, thus commands the pity, sympathy and interests of Americans, and this command crosses the boundaries of nations and works alike across the oceans and beyond the horizons. All professionals, all salesmen, all those who are forced to shun away their real selves, watch every nuance of his movement with empathetic concern and care.

Pursuit of success and commercialization of relationships

      Willy’s dreams are akin to those of any twentieth-century citizen. His sensitivity is the guarantee of his failure and the seeds of his doom are embedded in the very atmosphere of which he is physically a part, but, to which he does not really belong. Willy is not able to float in the direction of the current, like a dead fish and hence his tragic fate. He receives his severest blows when he needs the greatest amount of love and care. Willy has worked for his firm for thirty-five years. Now old and emaciated, he is unable to travel extensively. Hoping his case to be considered and decided in his favor, on humanitarian grounds, he makes a request to his young employer to relieve him of such a tiring burden, and give him a job around the place itself. But for the capitalist businessman no moral or legal obligation can be binding. To him Willy is commercially as useless as the skin of a fruit. So, he does not care to waste his sympathy and consideration on him. Instead, Willy loses whatever job he had. He does not get proper treatment either from his employer or from his sons; it is as if the two stools on which he stood, trying to reach out to his dreams were suddenly pulled out from beneath him. He needs sympathy and love; perhaps neglect and cruelty is the first step towards it.

Conclusion: sober accuracy of the play

      The darkness and grimness of human existence today is conveyed to the reader with daylight vividness and clarity. The truth of tortuous human existence is imparted to us with documentary accuracy through Death of a Salesman. But sanity and calm sobriety mark the usual continuum of the play, of course, dappled by intensely dramatic moments. “His play has an ascetic, slatelike hue, as if he were eschewing all exaggeration and extravagance; and With a sobriety that is not without humor, yet entirely free of frivolity, he issues the forthright commandment, Thou shalt not be a damn fool!”

      Thus we see that beneath the apparently calm and unruffled exterior of the play is concealed a life-like vivacity and verve. Miller comes very near to Hemingway in one respect. He conveys emotion without the display of emotion or even with apparent lack of it. His feigning of lack of emotion itself indicates of amplitude of emotion. True and intense grief is, in itself the greatest impediment in its display—in jerking off tears. In Miller’s play the situation is analogous.

University Questions

How far is Death of a Salesman a tragedy of an average American? Discuss.
Death of a Salesman is a challenge to the American dream. Discuss.
Death of a Salesman dramatizes the tragic consequences of the commercialization of human relationships in a business civilization. Discuss.
To what extent does Death of a Salesman present the success dream on the American stage? Discuss.
Death of a Salesman presents the paradox of failure in the land of success. Discuss critically with special reference to the play, the failure of the American dream.

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