A Play of Losses and Gains: Death of a Salesman

Also Read

Miller’s theme—man’s attempt to maintain concord and harmony through a sense of propriety

      In most of Miller’s writings, the fact that emerges as a dominant and running theme throughout is, that the ultimate end of a normal man’s endeavors are the assumption of his rightful place in a world that is bound by love, and a universal sense of responsibility. A defeatist’s attitude on the part of man generally leads to heart-rending individual tragedies. When a man stumbles and fails to recognize his place in society or when he gives it up in favor of false values, he is bound to end up in tragedy. Miller hints as his ideal, of a world, where the individual is a naturally political, naturally private, naturally engaged emerged person. When Miller talked of such world, Miller had in mind, the Greek polls where the people “were engaged, they could not imagine the good life excepting as it brought each person into close contact with civic matters....The preoccupation of the Greek drama with ultimate law, with the Grand Design, so to speak, was therefore an expression of the basic assumption of the people, who could not yet conceive, luckily, that any man could no longer prosper unless his polls prospered. The individual was at one with this society; his conflicts with it were, in our terms, like family conflicts, the opposing sides of which nevertheless shared a mutuality of feeling and responsibility”.

Miller’s tragedies are about misfits

      Miller’s tragedies are about people who are not at home in society. They have sinned against it; they have refused to accept their proper place in the society or they have been refused their due. These people are misfits because of some faults that they possess, coupled by the complex and complicated nature of the society that they are members of.

      According to Miller, “the best we have been able to do is to speak of a duty to society and this implies sacrifice or self-deprivation. To think of an individual fulfilling his subjective needs through social action....is difficult for us to imagine.” To live a proper, healthy existence, it is necessary to maintain a healthy guilt-free conscience and the retention of the integrity of one’s conscience is possible, Miller says, only if one is a part of the world of “feeling and responsibility” for others. The symptoms marking loss of conscience are a terrible unconsciousness, rather an unawareness of human dignity. The traditional pity and fear associated with the catharsis in a tragedy are best generated by witnessing a spectacle of lives of people who, by some chance have lost their conscience, and isolated fall out of the “Grand Design”. Miller was perhaps haunted by this phenomenon of modern society, and makes it the central theme of this plays like All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, and A View from the Bridge.

Willy gives up his conscience

      Death of a Salesman is the story of man who is sandwiched between the values of the society and his persona norms. What he basically is, what he basically wants is diametrically opposite to what the society expects him to be. Thus Willy Loman is a man who gives up his conscience to win for himself a place that can never be his; he is not the proper person to be trying for it. Biff has perhaps penetrated to the core of this reality when he says: “They’ve laughed at Dad for years, and you know why? Because we don’t belong in this nuthouse of a city. We should be mixing cement on some open plain or—or carpenter”. Thus we realize that Willy is a victim of

a) his own dreams that are beyond his reach.

b) the society that has fed him with wrong values and as a result of these.

c) a conscience which he has tried to barter for his place in this society.

      The imprints of the ideas that dominated the Gatsbys and the Babbits are reflected in Willy Loman’s loss of conscience in his fanatic pursuit of ‘success’.

Ben—exemplification of the American dream—from rag to riches

      Standing on the periphery of the mystique of success, an amazed Willy watches his brother to go out into the jungle as a poor man who comes out rich. Ben is the constant reminder and exemplification of success to him,—a story of someone who has reached ‘from rags to riches.’ There are moments of realization when Willy knows that he is not being true to himself when he teaches false values to his sons. At times he admits that he feels ‘temporary’ about himself. In his bewilderment, in his confusion and in his lonely estrangement from himself, he seeks Ben’s advice. In answer to Willy’s frustrated pleadings, Ben can only present his own example to Willy, to emu! ate—‘William, when I walked into the jungle, I was seventeen. When I walked out I was twenty-one, And by God, I was rich”. This is the spirit Willy wants to instill in his sons.

      Willy’s cerebral development has taught him to regard material security as the foremost and topmost requirement. This shows the great crushing influence of the society on an individual; it can make an otherwise instinctive love and sympathy seeking individual regard worldly values highest, and in the process, making him forget his initial values, making him sell his conscience in an effort to remain at one with society. In the world of commercialism, competition and utilitarianism, Willy forgets that no individual, not even Willy can live on food alone. It is the heart that needs feedings. It is emotional fulfillment that every sensitive individual craves for. It might be secondary to the requirements of the stomach; but the richest people are not necessarily the happiest; complacent he may be, but happy they aren’t. Moreover, he thinks that the key to success lies in an attractive personality—one should not only be liked, but well-liked, he difierentiates. When a person starts thinking in these terms, when he starts emphasizing the form more than the content, the body more than the soul—Kit indicates a decadent loss of faith in conscience.

Willy’s loss of conscience

      We have seen that conscience stands nowhere in Willy’s considerations; it is completely wiped out of his vision. Now let us try and find for ourselves the possible factors responsible for this. A major factor is Willy’s own dreams. The very nature of Willy’s dreams takes for granted or as its hypothesis, that there be no qualms of conscience in the pursuit of these dreams. Second important cause is Willy’s wife Linda. She is a good, devoted, loyal wife and is of course good intentioned. But in the name of devotion and cheering him up, unwittingly she does Willy more harm than good. If there was any person who could have made Willy come out of his shell of illusions and face reality as it is, it was Lindayes, Linda alone. But Linda does not take up the challenge. She did not consider it her duty. She did not even understand her husband, instead of encouraging Willy to be his real self, to be true to himself and take up the profession of carpenting, plumbing or bricklaying. If she had wanted, she could have helped Willy preserve his innate human values. But Linda is a typical woman. Once she has got a bit of economic security, she is always afraid that she might lose hold even on that. She does not have an adventurous spirit. Guiding Willy on negative lines, she encourages him to remain as he is. Thirdly, the seeds of this loss of conscience are there in environment itself. The very forces working on Willy have taken a turn which makes loss of conscience inevitable. Like Joe Keller in All My Sons, Willy's fault is that of pursuing a god too far in the wrong direction. His loss of conscience leads Willy to a loss of identity. So we see that Willy’s tragedy is mainly due to his environment, with a special contribution by Ben and Linda who feed wrong notions of success to Willy. The rest if of course, Willy’s own fault, devoting himself almost fanatically to his hands (which is what he is cut out for), he opts to make salesmanship his goal. Willy never finds himself and instead of working wonders with his hands (which is what he is cut out for), he opts to make salesmanship his goal. It has been very aptly saying that for him only rank, height of power, the sense of having won... was real - the galaxy thrust up into the sky by projectors on the roof of the city he believed were real stars”. For Joe Keller, the highest good is the family; Willy Loman chooses to pursue ‘success’ as his highest good. This triggers off the tragedy and the catastrophe occurs when the realization explodes on the protagonist that he had magnified his ideal disproportionately. But it is too late—this is the tragic realization that comes with the catastrophe.

Conclusion: final impression—not that of pessimism and loss

      Miller asserts that though shot through and through with irony and other tragic elements, the play Death of a Salesman is not totally pessimistic. Besides, being the story of loss of conscience, it also encompasses an effort to restore his identity, on the part of the protagonist. Willy’s effort do not culminate in death; his death marks launching of his effort in full swing by his son, Biff. Earlier, had idolized his father while Willy had constantly ted him with own wrong values. But Biff's sentimentality and idealizing, vanish away to unknown horizons when he discovers his father with the woman. In fact, Biff is the only one who really discovers Willy; he sees him as no one else does, divested of any sort of blinkers. Determination and courage and the will and the wish to discover his real self without any pretensions make him shoot off in new directions. So the end is just a starting—and startings are never pessimistic but they are always full of hope, promise and optimism.

University Questions

How can you regard Death of a Salesman as, a drama of losses and gains?
To what extent can the problem of retaining the integrity of one’s conscience be considered as central to Death of a Salesman?
"Willy Loman is characterized by his fanatic allegiance to a dream at the expense of his conscience.’ Discuss the implications of this remark.
Does the loss of conscience, form the basic theme of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman?

Previous Post Next Post