Realism & Socialism in Death of a Salesman

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Individual—an adumbration of society

      Every individual has his roots in the society. So, any story, any drama centering around an individual takes into its periphery, somehow, his society, too. Faiths, beliefs and ideals, hopes and aspirations of an individual are generally an adumbration of the faiths, beliefs and aspirations of the society at large. An individual either adheres to or revolts against what the society has to offer to him.

Death of a Salesman—a social drama

      Same is true of Death of a Salesman. Being the story of a salesman, it is one of the most powerful realistic social dramas of our times. In most of varied interpretations of the play, the social element features prominently. It has been variously interpreted as “a communist propaganda”, “a social tragedy”, “a rare blend of realism and socialism”, “a dramatization of socio-political philosophy” and so on.

Similar to Ibsen’s plays

      Death of a Salesman shares some elements in common with those of Ibsen’s plays. A stands out for its unique blend of naturalism and realism which is characteristic of Ibsen’s plays. Miller’s heroes suffer at the hands of society like the heroes of Galsworthy. They seek justice which seems to elude them.

Theme—hero in a rotten society

      The heroes in these plays (Miller’s and Ibsen’s) find themselves in a society which is rotten at the core and ‘one can smell the stink’. Corruption and selfishness are the norms of this society. The dominant theme of the play is man’s relationship with society and his loyalty to the family, for family is a part of society of which the individual is a unit. The hero in this play is repulsed at having to be a part of this rotten structure; he wants to be different, to break away from it, but knows that without it (the society) and beyond it he has no existence. There is no other way out for him but to rot with the entire system and fall off only when he can rot no further—this is only his physical death. He had ceased to live long time back. He was only existing. This formality comes to an end when he cannot survive the ills of the system any further.

Willy—a tragic failure because the personalities of the salesman and of the individual clash

      Willy is the salesman in Death of a Salesman. Willy is one of those heroes who want to adhere themselves completely to the values of their society. He is a salesman mainly because of this. Willy Loman fanatically pursues the American dream of success which is exactly what contemporary American society strives for. Willy’s fall results from a dichotomy inherent in his nature and in his desires. Instinctively, Willy loves nature and cherishes human values of love, friendship, sympathy and sincerity. But the dream he has dedicated himself to, demands complete stripping off these values—nay, it in fact demands putting on negative values. What is negative from the human point of view is ironically that which guarantees the positivity of ‘success’. So we see, that the fall was imminent. Negative values put on by a wrong person can lead one to nowhere. Double negatives can never make a positive. One can live amidst contradictions, but one who has based his life on the sand of contradictions is bound to collapse any moment. Willy is perhaps the best-known and the most typical of modem everyman. Willy Loman is the epitome of the element of corrosion that is taking root in the modern society. Based on falsehood, exaggeration and propaganda, this society is self-destructive, hollowing not only the business lines but also boring through the private domains of personal relationships. When the infrastructure of personal relationships is not taken care of, the superstructure of the individual does not take long to crumble. Willy is child-like in the credulity with which he believes everything of this society. This also reflects his inherent purity of thought; simple at heart, he thinks the world to be so and takes it word at its face value. This society has fed him with hopes and promises, never to be fulfilled. He is so much a part of this society that almost unconsciously he is stuffing Linda, Biff, Happy and even himself with promises never to be fulfilled; these are mere delusions. Primarily, to Willy, his family is the utmost but the basis of his upbringing of his sons is that they should employ their attractive personalities and be a success in the profession of salesmanship. He wants them to achieve the finale of what he had begun or at least wanted. He wants them to be equipped to face this competitive society. As befits a proper salesman, Willy cannot and does not think in any terms other than those of selling. He has lived amidst these terms and earns his livelihood from them. Even in his death, he sells himself. Yet, Willy’s goal, his happiness lies in giving and receiving universal adoration and love and not accumulation of material wealth, as should have been the case. Willy the salesman and Willy the man—do not merge or coalesce. They are in constant conflict and friction, is the root of tragedy. Willy Loman’s failure is largely due to the society, his family and also because of his mould—the type of man he is. Of course society and individuals are both responsible for each other, what one makes of the other and what the other derives from it.

Critics—the play is a dramatization of socio-political philosophy

      The play has been attacked on different grounds. Many critics feel that there is a contradiction inherent in the conception of the play. They believe that the play is polemic. Such critics feel that the play is a dramatization of socio-political philosophy, though it is disturbingly inconsistent. Eric Bentley feels that it is neither a proper tragedy, nor a proper social drama. He sees them as conflicting points of view in the play. He feels that as a tragedy, it is diluted by its extreme social consciousness and as social drama, it is over-inflated by aspiring to achieve the heights of tragedy. He feels that it is a typically peculiar, unsuccessful hybrid. Bentley says: “The ‘tragedy’ destroys the social drama, the social drama keeps the ‘tragedy’ from having a genuinely tragic stature. By this last remark we mean that the theme of this social drama, as of most others, is the little man as victim. The theme arouses pity but no terror. Man is here too little and too passive to play the tragic hero”.

      More important is the conflict on the tragedy and the social drama. The tragic catharsis reconciles us to, or persuades us to disregard, precisely those material conditions which the social drama calls oar attention to....Or is Mr. Miller a “tragic, artist who without knowing it has been confused by Marxism?”

      Bentley’s criticism is one of the earliest attempts to tear the play apart into pieces. Since then Bentley’s thesis has become a pattern and a premise for critics who desperately try to fit the play into a mold but fail; it is “a slippery play to categorize.” Miss Eleanor Clark is one of the most illustrious of Bentley’s successors. She feels that the play is ‘an intellectual muddle and there is, in the play a lack of candor, that regardless of Mr. Miller’s conscious intent are the main earmarks of contemporary fellow-traveling.

Miller—presents a complex situation

      Bentley is not being fair to Miller. He is approaching Miller with an air of hostility and antagonism. Miller is not trying to make things complex deliberately; he is presenting a complex situation instead. Miller has not tried to prepare an assorted mixture of elements like social drama and tragedy, socialism and realism. Instead, the final work of art that emerges is a compound of seemingly contradictory elements like social drama and tragedy; yet these elements are inextricably woven into the texture of the play. Both depend on each other and both derive from each other mutually. The little man in the play is a victim, not only of society but also of those mysterious forces that keep on working their influence on our daily life, too. Miller said that he set out to present the truth as he saw it. And it is as difficult to interpret and to swallow truth as it is to present it.

Marxist interpretation of the play—not very convincing

      Mr. Welland points out that the evidence for a Marxist interpretation of Death of a Salesman is not very convincing. The scene, where Willy, who is seeking a change in the nature of his job, is dismissed without much ado, cannot be read only as an indictment of capitalism as seen by Miss Clark. This is a very moving and painful scene in the theatre. But it carries the audience into the realms of pity and exasperation, rather than that of indignation as is expected of party-line literature. Willy’s behavior is not deliberated to enhance his or our sense of his personal dignity. We pity and sympathize with him for having to auction his worth; yet we are irritated at his lack of far-sightedness. Willy does not realize that by indirectly manhandling Howard, he is losing any possible chances that he might be having. The central irony of the scene rests in our notion of the capitalist tycoon and what Howard really is. Miller seems to have set his mind at transgressing all set norms. Even Howard does not fit into the popular molds of the capitalist profiteer. This is no ruthless executive, callously firing the trusted employee from calculated mercenary motives; it is the “nice guy” forced into a situation that he doesn’t know how to handle nicely and consequently only makes the ugliness of it worse. It is one little man being fired by another little man, Willy being fired by a younger Willy. Howard’s callousness is occasioned less by his business acumen than by his absorption in his personal life.

      The tape-recorder serves two purposes in this scene. Willy stumbles against it accidentally, setting it into motion. This precipitates a hysterical breakdown that symbolizes the central theme of the play in Willy’s horror at his inability to switch it off—to switch off the recorded past. “Whether the past is that of his own sons recorded in his memory and conscience or that of Howard’s son recorded on a mechanical instrument it is the past, more than capitalism of which Willy is always the victim”. The machine also serves another purpose it is instrumental in dramatizing Howard’s ingenuous pride in his children. To Howard, the voice of his children on the tape is more real than the memory of his father to which Willy constantly appeals, and his pride in their powers and their affection for him obliterates any understanding of Willy's plight, his predicament. This situation can be paralleled to that of Willy being blinded to Bernard’s worth by his fondness for his sons. We see that the irony set in motion in Howard’s office, culminates in Charley’s. Miller intended Charley, not Howard to be the nearest thing to the big businessman in the play, yet it is Charley alone who offers any positive help to Willy. Charley has no motives. When he offers money and employment to Willy, there are no threads attached to it to puppetise him.

      Charley is the only person in the play who understands Willy almost completely. His understanding of Willy is divested of all sentimental colors. Miller does not intend to criticize Howard by creating Charley. We realize that Willy is dismissed by a man no better than himself.

      Samuel Siller praised the drama’s social content and purpose but found the presence of Willy’s capitalistic friend Charley as eulogist, a marked weakness.

Miller—a play is not a social philosophy

      As expected, Miller was not satisfied with any of these, extremist interpretations. Miller insists that Death of a Salesman is neither the left-wing diatribe against American capitalism nor the implicit approval of the system as opposing reviewers have made it out to be. He stresses that his play, in particular, and drama in general, cannot be equated with political philosophies. There might be something of it in the plays but we should be on our guards, not to mistake a part for the whole. To quote Miller:

      I do not believe that any work of art can help but be diminished by its adherence at any cost to a political program including its author’s and not for any other reason than there is no political program—any more than there is a theory of tragedy which can encompass the complexities of real life. Doubtless, an author’s politics must be one element, and even an important one, in the germination of his art, but if it is art he has created, it must by definition bend itself to his observation rather than to his opinions or even his hopes. If I have shown a preference for plays which seek causation not only in psychology but in society, I may also believe in the autonomy of art, and I believe this because my experience with All My Sons and Death of a Salesman forces the belief on me”.

      Even if we choose to rely on the evidence provided in the play, rather than on Miller’s words, we are not disappointed.

Conclusion: the play—an affirmation of Miller’s words—a double pronged attack

      There are certain sociological overtures in the play. The hero dies for his own faults no doubt. But the main cause of his death is the wrong values his society has fed him with. It is the edifice of the capitalistic society that had sought to crush Willy’s individuality and to play havoc with him. In Death of a Salesman, Miller turns away from the initial Marxism of his early plays, and relies more on his observation rather than on any political philosophy. In fact, Miller makes a bi-pronged attack, with his play as a work of art. Miller lashes out at society, which tends to annihilate the individual or the man who cannot come to terms with it and is a threat to this society. The subtle duality is beyond the grasp of those minds that have accepted simple-mindedness as the norm. The irritated intellectual dwarfs cannot conceive that this duality could be intentional; not accidental and superfluous.

University Questions

How far Miller’s Death of a Salesman, is a “union of realism and symbolism?” Discuss.
Discuss Miller’s Death of a Salesman as a realistic play.
“A blend of realism and expressionism in Death of a Salesman is not the weakness some critics have claimed, but on the contrary, one of the play’s most subtle weaknesses.” Critically examine this statement.

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