Literary Criticism of Death of a Salesman

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Selected Literary Criticism

1. Raymond Williams on social expressionism in Death of a Salesman: Death of a Salesman is an expressionist reconstruction of naturalist substance, and the result is no hybrid but a powerful particular form. The continuity from social expressionism remains clear, for I think in the end it is not Willy Loman as a man, but the image of the salesman, that predominates. The social figure sums up the theme referred to as alienation, for this is a man who from selling things has passed to selling himself, and has become, in effect, a commodity which like other commodities will at a certain point be economically discarded.

2. Tom F. Driver on individual versus social morality in Death of a Salesman No wonder Death of a Salesman cannot make up its mind whether the trouble is in Willy or in society. No wonder Willy is at one moment the pathetic object of our pity and the next is being defended as a hero of tragic dimensions. Miller is a playwright who wants morality without bothering to speak of a good in the light of which morality would make sense.

3. Robert Corrigan on the nature of crisis in Miller’s plays: The identity crisis, which is at the heart of the plays of Miller’s first period, is a crisis of consciousness. The generativity crisis is one of conscience. In such a condition, as Dr. Erikson describes it, the individual must face up to the fact that “I have done this and that; my acts have affected others in this or that way. Have I done well or ill?”

4. Eric Mottram on an expressionist play of degradation: Death of a Salesman takes up the battle of fathers and sons and removes the argument from the clearcut war case to the everyday case—Willy Loman destroying himself for business and family. The long run of this play on Broadway was remarkable considering its somber pathos which offers no release from tension and sadness. Basically it is an expressionist play of degradation.

5. Eric Mottram on cruelty of human nature: “Evil” is those social pressures which conflict with an equally vaguely defined individual integrity in the hero or heroine. But critical though he is of American, perhaps Western values, Miller finally has come to believe that “evil” is really the natural cruelty of human nature seen, not as a product of historical social structures, but as inevitable data.

6. Brian Parker on Miller’s realism: The realism in Death of a Salesman is fairly obvious, and reflects the influence on Miller of Henrik Ibsen, that is, of the middle phase, the great realist reformer. In All My Sons and Death of a Salesman Miller adopts Ibsen’s “retrospective” structure in which an explosive situation in the present is both explained and brought to a crisis by the gradual revelation of something which has happened in the past: in Death of a Salesman this is, of course, Willy Loman’s adultery, which by alienating his son, Biff, has destroyed the strongest value in Willy’s life. This structure is filled out with a detailed evocation of modern urban, lower-middle-class life: Miller documents a world of arch-supports, aspirin, spectacles, subways, time payments, advertising, Chevrolets, faulty refrigerators, life insurance, mortgages, and the adulation of high school football heroes.

7. Tom F. Driver on the art of the present tense: His writing, although it usually has an axe to grind, does not attempt to startle society with new ideas. Indeed, he does not believe that the theatre can promulgate entirely new ideas, because it must gather the assent of its audience as it moves along, and this is impossible with the radically new.

8. Raymond Williams on Miller’s themes: He has restored active social criticism to the drama, and has written on such contemporary themes as the social accountability of business, the forms of the success ethic, intolerance and thought control, the nature of modern work-relations. Yet he has written “about” these in such a way as to distinguish his work quite clearly from the ordinary sociological problem-play, for at his best he has seen these problems as living tissue, and his most successful characters are not merely “aspects of the way of life”, but individuals who are ends and values in themselves.

9. Tom F. Driver on the theatre of heightened consciousness: What Miller asks for is a theatre of “heightened consciousness”. He speaks of two passions in man, “the passion to feel” and “ the passion to know”. It is his conviction that we need, and can have, more of the latter. “Drama is akin to the other inventions of man in that it ought to help us to know more, and not merely to spend our feelings.” And in speaking of Death of a Salesmen he has the courage to mention its chief limitation when he asks, “but was there not another realm even higher, where feeling took awareness more openly by the hand and both equally ruled and were illuminated?”

10. Benjamin Nelson on use of flashback by Miller: Essentially the flashbacks fall into two categories, each defining a crucial facet of Willy’s life. One grouping comprises the events involving Willy and his brother Ben, who appears to Willy’s crumbling mind as a cold, righteous, self-assured deity, an objectification by contrast of Willy’s uncertainty and insecurity. In every confrontation with Ben, Willy is portrayed as the adoring, fearful, and supplicating child seeking guidance and assurance from the archetypal authoritarian father. Guidance is also the keynote of the second set of flashback but in these Willy is dispensing advice rather than seeking it. This series of episodes, which centres on Willy and his sons, shows Willy the father trying to substantiate his ecstatic belief in the success ideal by superimposing it upon his children.

11. Brian Parker on the most powerful value in the play: The most powerful positive value in the play is the value of family loyalty. There is no doubt of Willy’s love for his family, particularly for his son, Biff. It is the betrayal of this loyalty which ruins Willy’s life, rather than commercial failure, and it is in the name of family love that he finally kills himself, dying as a father, not as a salesman.

12. M.W. Steinberg on Miller’s concern with the social problem: This concern with the social problem, the social injustice and its effect on the lives of the characters, is found in Miller’s plays too. The economic basis of social mischief is as obvious in All My Sons as in Shaw’s Widowers Houses or Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People: in Death of a Salesman the common man is crushed by forces outside himself and by illusions, false ideals, spawned by those forces.

13. Brian Parker on Willy’s guilt in Death of a Salesmans: The form of the play, then, depends on the gradual admission by Willy to himself of his own guilt; it differs from the public exposes of Ibsen’s form in that Willy’s adultery is never openly discussed between him and Biff, and Linda and Happy never learn of it at all; the sole importance is that Willy himself should recognize it. Normal chronology is ignored, therefore; the order of events depends on the way that memories of the past swim up out of Willy’s memory because of their emotional association with things happening in the present.

14. Brian Parker on Willy’s philosophy: Willy’s philosophy is the personality cult of Dale Carnegie, the “win friends and influence people” theory which exploits human relations for purposes of gain. “He liked you and you will never want”, Willy advises his sons and his famous distinction between being ‘liked” and being “well-liked” seems to rest on whether or not the liking can be exploited for practical ends. Such using of friendliness falsifies it and invokes a law of diminishing returns, as Willy’s lonely funeral shows. The attitude also encourages empty dreams, reflected economically in advertising and time-payments; it is essentially parasitic, producing, building, planting nothing: and the logical extension of its unrestrained competition is Biff's downright theft.

15. M.W. Steinberg on the function of tragedy: Miller sees the human situations as the product of forces outside the individual person and the tragedy inherent in the situation as a consequence of the individual’s total onslaught against an order that degrades. The function of tragedy is the discovery of the moral law that supports this right. Basically the aesthetic position formulated in “Tragedy and the Common Man” is influenced, perhaps even determined, by Miller the social critic, and while the terms of this definition of tragedy are acceptable, they are also limited.

16. Brian Parker on Death of a Salesman—offers no sure values: Death of a Salesman, in fact, offers almost no sure values. Arthur Miller appears to recognize this when he says it is a contribution to the “steady” year-by-year documentation of the frustration of man, and he moves to a more positive position in his next play, The Crucible. But even in Death of a Salesman there is one positive gain: Biff at least comes out of the experience with enhanced self-knowledge.

17. Robert W. Corrigan on the type and function of Miller’s protagonist: Miller’s protagonist belongs to a strange breed. In every instance he is unimaginative, inarticulate and physically nondescript, if not downright unattractive. Yet, in spite of all these negative characteristics, Miller’s protagonists do engage our imagination and win our sympathies. I think this ambiguity stems from the fact that his own attitude towards his creations is so contradictory.

18. Robert W. Corrigan on sex in the plays of Arthur Miller: Yet, if sexuality is submerged in the plays of the first period, it is not dormant; in its repressed state, sex plays an important role in the action. In fact, it is always the cause of catastrophe.

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