Positive & Negative Values in Death of a Salesman

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      Critics are really hard workers. They create things out of nothingness, and can raze a whole artifice to the ground within no time. They are constantly going around with magnifying glasses looking for some fault or the other, making mountains out of mole-hills.

Critics—no moral in the play

      Continuous efforts have provided critics with objection on—lack of moral values in the play. They feel that there are no moral values in the play. According to some critics, the play neither rises to the heights of a tragedy nor does it infuse the reader or the audience with any positive moral values. These critics maintain that the play aspires high but manages to reach only the common heights of melodrama; it depicts a society, devoid of any moral values and the failure of any kind of value in this society—hence pessimism and an amoral attitude seem to be the outcome. Some critics take all modern drama to be their domain and complain that “the apparent lack of positive moral values” is a common characteristic of all modern drama. These critics seem to be living in the eighteenth century when overt didacticism was the order of the day. A work of art ceases to be artistic when everything is stated explicitly. Obscurity, open-endings and covert morals have a charm of their own. The author should, in a good work of art, meet the reader halfway in any interpretation of the work. Conrad said something very simple and unique, to this effect: “A bad story has a moral while a good story is a moral”. Moreover, one should not always expect the author to stand in the pulpit and preach to his readers. Do we always like to derive morals from works of art? Do we always like to peruse a work of art in the serious, sober moralistic attitude of a Dinah Morris. Do not we, sometimes want to be ourselves, humane, a little naughty, vain and frivolous like Hetty Sorrel at times?

Miller—explicit moral; no criterion for greatness

      Miller is very clear and lucid in the expression of his views. Replying to queries by the interviewer, Philip Gelb, he says that he disagrees with such a criticism. Miller said: “Not only modern drama, but literature in general, and this goes back a long, long distance in history, posits the idea of value, of right and wrong, good and bad, high and low, not so much by setting forth these values as such, but by showing, so to speak, the wages of sin”. Speaking of Death of a Salesman in particular, Miller says: “..in Death of a Salesman we are shown a man who dies for the want of some positive, viable human value, the play implies, and it could not have been written without the author’s consciousness, that audience did believe something different. In other words, by showing what happens when there are no values, I at least, assume that the audience will be compelled and propelled toward a more intense quest for values that are missing. I am assuming always that we have a kind of civilized sharing of what we would like to see occur within us and in the world; and I think that the drama, at least, mine, is not so much an attack but an exposition, so to speak, of the want of value, and you can only do this if the audience itself is constantly trying to supply what is missing”.

      Then linking up modern drama to its great literary heritage of Greek Literature, Miller says:

      “...I don’t say that’s a new thing. The Greeks did the same thing. They may have had a chorus which overtly stated that this is what happens when Zeus’ laws are broken or abrogated, but that is not what made their plays great.”

      So we see that Miller lays little or no emphasis on explicit didacticism or preaching of moral values. Miller is very conscious of having traveled a distance from the literary heritage, no matter how glorious or prestigious it might have been.

Bachman—play morally a negative witness

      Let us see what some other critics say. John Bachman is a bit liberal and concedes that the play is moral, but in a very limited sense. He agrees that the dramatist is concerned about moral values. He says that Death of a Salesman is moral to the extent that it is a negative witness. To this charge, Miller reacted in the following manner: “We have come to a kind of belated recognition that the great faith in social amelioration or a transforming force of the human soul leaves something to be wanting. In other words, we originally, in the late nineteenth century, posed the idea that science would, so to speak, cure the soul of man by the eradication of poverty. We have eradicated poverty in large parts— well in small parts of the world—but in significant parts of the world—and we were just as mean and ornery as we ever were. So that the social solution of the evil in man has failed—it seems so, anyway—and we are now left with a kind of bashful unwillingness to state that we still believe in life and we still believe there is a conceivable standard of values. My feeling is though we are in a transition stage between a mechanistic concept of man and an amalgam of both the rationalistic and what you call the mystical or spiritualistic concept of him. I don’t think either that man is without will or that society is impotent to change his deepest, most private self conceptions. I think that the work of art, the great work of art, is going to be that work which finds space for the two forces to operate. So far, I will admit, the bulk of literature, not only on the stage but elsewhere is an exposition of man’s failure: his failure to assert his sense of civilized life”.

Controversy: does Willy have values?

      Willy’s character and his stature as a tragic hero are also very controversial topics. Willy is often denied the stature of a tragic character because he does not seem to cherish any moral values or ideals. John Beaufort feels that Willy is a sad character, a vicious character who cannot figure in dramatic tragedy because “he never starts with any ideals to begin with”. But such an interpretation of the play and of Willy’s character can only be the outcome of a superficial reading of the play; of seeing only the given. For a thorough understanding of the play it is necessary that the meaning of the play be read between the lines and new realms of meanings and implications be explored. Miller knows what he wants to say in the play, and explicating it he says: “The trouble with Willy Loman is that he has tremendously powerful ideals. We are not accustomed to speaking of ideals in his terms but if Willy Loman, for instance, had not had a very profound sense that his life as lived had left him hollow, he would have died contentedly polishing his car on some Sunday afternoon at a ripe old age. The fact is that he has values. The fact that they cannot be realized is what is driving him mad, just as unfortunately it is driving a lot of other people mad. The truly valueless man, the man without ideals, is always perfectly at home anywhere because there cannot be conflict between nothing and something. Whatever negative qualities there are in the society or in the environment don't bother him because they are not in conflict with any positive sense that he may have”.

      Then talking of Willy’s quest and the nature of his job as a salesman, Miller goes on to say: “I think Willy Loman is seeking for a kind of ecstasy in life which the machine civilization deprives people of. He is looking for his self-hood, for his immortal soul, so to speak, and people who don’t know the intensity of that quest think he is odd but a lot of salesman in a line of work where ingenuity and individualism are acquired by the nature of the work, have a very intimate understanding of his problem; more so, I think, than literary critics who probably need strive less, after a certain point. A salesman is a kind of creative person. It is possibly idiotic to say so in a literary program, but they are; they have to get up in the morning and conceive a plan of attack and use all kinds of ingenuity all day long just like a writer does”.

      Critics have often bracketed Willy Loman as an ‘American Everyman’. His plight, the forces working on him, his reactions are typically that of an average American. But Miller does not accept this either. He concedes that Willy’s plight, the forces working on him might be that of an average American (as they can be of any citizen of a country subjected to a rapid industrialization), but Willy’s reactions are definitely not average and common. Miller feels: “If Willy Loman represented the whole mass of American civilization today, I think the country would be in a terrible state. I just can’t accept Willy Loman as the average American citizen”. Elaborating and accounting for his views, Miller says:

      “It’s obvious that Willy can’t be an average American man at least from one point of view, he kills himself. That’s a rare thing in society, although it is more common than one could wish and it’s beside the point. As a matter of fact, that standard of ‘averageness’ is not valid. It is neither tells whether the character is a truthful character as a character, or a valid one. I can’t help adding that is the standard of socialist realism—which of course wasn’t invented by socialists. It is the idea that a character in a play or in a book cannot be taken seriously unless he reflects some statistical average, plus his ability to announce the official aims of the society; and it is ridiculous. Hamlet isn’t a typical Elizabethan, either. Horatio probably is. What is the difference? It has no point unless you are talking about, not literature, but patriotism. I did not write Death of a Salesman to announce some new American man, or an old American man. Willy Loman is, I think,
a person who embodies in himself some of the most terrible conflicts running through the streets of America today”.

Conclusion: Play not pessimistic—Willy Loman is there because I could see beyond him

      Some critics propagate the view that Miller wrote Death of a Salesman to give vent to his fury, ire and antagonism to the American system of life. They feel that Miller had thus said that despair and death was the natural outcome of the system. But Miller brushes aside the possibility of any such thesis. He says that he cannot write anything if he is unhappy:

      “A lot of writers write best when they are most miserable. I suppose my sense of form comes from a positive need to organize life and not from a desire to demonstrate the inevitability i.e. defeat and death. If I feel miserable enough, I can’t work. A lot of writers, I am aware, then are spurred on to express their disillusion. All I know about that, really comes down to this that we are doomed to live, and I suppose one better make the best of it ..... It is a commitment on my part that I don’t see the point in proving again that we must be defeated. I don’t intend that in Salesman, I was trying in this respect to set forth what happens when a man does not have a grip on the forces of life and has no sense of values which will lead him to that kind of a grip; but the implication was that there must be such a grasp of those forces or else we’re doomed. I was the writer and Willy Loman is there because I could see beyond him.”

      Thus looking beyond, looking on to new horizons, is at least one positive value that emerges, in a milieu where negativity, hopelessness and despair rule.

University Questions

Does Death of a Salesman assert any positive moral values, or is it a mere negative witness to these values?
To what extent can Death of a Salesman be said to have dealt with the quest-motif, a quest for values and for identity?
“Willy Loman is there because I could see beyond him.” Discuss the implications of this remark.
How far do you agree with the view that “Willy Loman is seeking for a kind of ecstasy in life, which the machine civilization deprives people of?”

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