Plot Construction: Death of a Salesman

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The story of an exhausted man

      Death of a Salesman is a common story told uniquely. It is the story of a salesman who is now in the dusk of his lifetime. The hero, Willy Loman, is a salesman living in Brooklyn but traveling extensively for his job. In his sixties (he is about sixty-three), he is completely exhausted both physically and mentally and is on the verge of collapse. He can no longer fulfill the demands of his profession which in turn demands that he cannot be true to himself. His wife Linda is his sole support. Yet despite her lovingly loyal encouragement, he realizes that he has not been successful. There are of course flashes of courage and bravery at times; but it is just like occasional lightning in a life behind which the shadows of self-destructive instinct loom large. Willy feels hollow and terribly lonely. He is sixty-three and has no substantial achievements to his credit. This feeling continually gnaws him from within—his depression and anguish is increased manifold when he sees that failure seems to have become a family inheritance. Even his sons are not able to fulfill what he had aspired for. Happy is a happy-go-lucky person. He is shallow and vain and cares little for things that are beyond the obvious. Greater hopes and expectations lead to intenser disappointments. Willy had pinned most of his hopes and faith on his elder son Biff who is, we see, nothing more than a petty thief, and at the age of thirty-four, he is still loafing around and has not yet discovered himself. Biff's return to his father’s house is the event that precipitates the action of the drama.

The story originating in Willy’s mind

      The story is narrated through what appears to be the flashback technique. There is a subtle difference. In the play, Willy is almost lifted back to the situations and places he remembers. He does not only recall them, as we recall our past. He feels the past to be present; he can and does live the past as intensely as the present. He not only remembers his past, he also reacts and feels as he would have done in the past. He can literally visualize it and at moments enacts his own part; forgetting that he might be appearing totally incomprehensible and ridiculous to the onlookers, who have no hint of what goes on in his mind. The entire action of the play originates from Willy’s mind. In fact, the technique of the play is not an orderly disclosure of Willy’s mind but a dissection and display of Willy’s mind. In this process we can trace the roots of his family’s deterioration. Willy has an unflinching faith in his concept of success which he almost sublimates. Willy’s life has been a constant strive—an effort to instill his own values in his sons. Willy has preached to them, the gospel of salesmanship—an impressive personality, a smile in his stock, a quick joke and a jazzy appearance. This, he preaches is the only- key to success and fortune. In his attempt to foster its gaudy concept in his sons, Willy cooly overlooks their drawbacks. The rosy hue of his dreams and the fresh dew of his concepts, makes him unwittingly an instrument in the ruining of his sons’s lives.

Willy and his sons ruined

      Happy has no inclination or the will to think on his own. He follows his father’s advice and ends up a frustrated man. He is never able to comprehend, why his life is devoid of any real ‘life’ or worth. Biff is living out his life moment to moment, accumulating frustration and gloom. His drifting aimlessly is not a result of having illusions; instead it is a result of their traumatic and sudden shattering. As a teenager, Biff suddenly appears on the scene when his father was engaged in a clandestine affair with a woman. Biff was stunned—so that his image of his father and his dreams shattered and collapsed that very moment. In a hysterical outbreak coupled by tortuous agony, Biff instantly labels Willy, a fake and a liar. He flees and shuts himself in the armor of escape and self-pity. Willy can never reconcile to the situation and loses his respect forever. It is only in an emotional scene towards the end, that they reconcile; Biff at last gets a ray of understanding into his father’s character and plight.

Biff gains knowledge

      Willy had to witness what he had been trying to avoid all along—the gradual disintegration of his family. Biff and Happy had come home and Willy seizes his chance. He makes a final attempt to hold together his family which he sees crumbling away to pieces. He again brings back Biff to his vision. Both Biff and Willy visit their prospective and current employers and both the visits end on a similar note-that of failure. Willy asks for an increase in his pay and a change in the nature of his job and is fired instead. Biff spends or rather wastes a whole day, trying to get a glimpse of the man he had pinned his hopes on. While running away breathlessly from the latter office, provoked by some inexplicable instict, he steals his pen. It is at this point that Biff realizes that Willy's dreams had been fanatically exaggerated and funny. He decides to free himself from the maze of these dreams and ideas and to learn to accept himself with his limitations and faults.

Willy-his death an atonement

      Biff's attempt to communicate this knowledge to his father, turns out to be the climactic scene of the play. But Biff is a failure here, too. When he tries to communicate his insight to his father, he is overwhelmed by his concern for his pitiable father. He breaks down and weeps on Willy's shoulders. Willy is exalted and exhilarated at the revelation that his son loves him. He again falls in a fit of his son's adulation. He drives off in his car, with a decision to kill himself, so that Biff might launch himself on a new start with the twenty thousand dollars he would get as insurance money. Willy kills himself out of sheer love and concern for his family. He thinks that his suicide acts as an atonement of his failures in the past and an affirmation of his ideals and concepts.

Requiem-an attempt to evaluate Willy

      The Requiem serves as an epilogue to the play, as well as to Willy's death. Willy's grave is the scene of the Requiem, with which the play closes. The scene is glaringly contrasted to the scene which Willy had always associated with the death of a salesman. The mourning is conspicuous because of the small gathering. It includes only his wife, his sons, his neighbor Charley and Charley's son Bernard. All the people naturally to analyze, sympathize and eulogize Willy Loman-his present life and death. The scene ends on a note of tense silence while her sons help a sobbing Linda, away from the grave.

The play-basically a family drama

      Like most of Miller's other plays, this play involves both the Circles; the inner one of the family, as well as the outer one of the society. Both the circles interact and react to each other. But here, Miller's main concern is family relationships; or to be more precise, father son relationships. This is the crux of the play and the social concern is subservient to this. Willy tries to live and die for the improvement of the family and providing them more and more facilities. Ironically, it is only in the father’s degradation that there is chance for his sons’s salvation.

Conclusion: Technique—a blend of realism and expressionism

      Critics have agreed that structurally, Death of a Salesman is an achievement of remarkable originality. Miller believes that there is concurrence of the past and the present in every individual. To comprehend an individual as a dramatic entity, one must be aware of his past as well as his present. In real life there are relationships between causes and events, motives and action, between despair and friction hence illustration replaces exposition. The structure is nothing pure—it is a hybrid of realism and expressionism as advanced by Ernst Toller and other German expressionists. The play, though rooted in realistic conventions, extends its frontiers of realism to fantasy of dream-play and poetic drama. The form seems to be tailor-made for the portrayal of the protagonist’s psychological nuances. Under this structure, chronology breaks down. By this method, the dramatist has tried to penetrate the levels of consciousness of the protagonist. Thus we find Willy’s life caught between fact and fiction expressed beautifully through the plot.

University Question

What is the significance of the particular type of the plot construction of Death of a Salesman?

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