Values of American Society in Death of a Salesman

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      Introduction. Miller’s plays show his serious preoccupation with the problems facing his society. However, his concern is not so much with general problems, but with a vital problem—the predicament of a common man in a rapidly advancing commercial society, the conflict between business ethics and the emotional relationships of a family. Death of a Salesman brings out this conflict very well, and in the process the play achieves the status of being one of the most severe indictments of the values of the American commercial civilization.

      Method of criticism of society. Miller does not, of course, indulge in open diatribe of social ills. He diagnoses the malady which afflicts the American civilization through dramatizing the diagnosis of what happens to an individual psyche (i.e. Willy). America grows like a giant in unimaginable proportions; it is a colossal machine revolving in crushing circles, but what is man’s fate in it? The best are able to keep abreast in the race to survive, even become prosperous; but the Willy Lomans even after striving a great deal cannot keep pace with the successful. They become the ‘also rans’, slowly but surely head towards breakdown, and die an unnoticed death. Why does this happen? To a large extent it is because of the values that the society lives by, inculcating them into individuals unfit for the rat race, so that it becomes a crime to ‘fail’ in this society.

      The tension between the emotional life of little people and the impersonal business ethics is at the centre of the play. Willy Loman, as his name indicates, is a little man. We are told that he is a salesman, but we are not told what he sells. Miller deliberately holds back this information from us. We might say that Willy symbolically stands for all the ‘low-men’ of the American business community who sell themselves. Willy sells himself and in the process wears himself out until he is finally discarded being no longer of any use. The mechanical way in which human beings are assessed by this business civilization finds a poignant expression in Linda’s words:

      When he brought them business, when he was young, they were glad to see him. But now his old friends, the old buyers that loved him so and always found some order to hand him in a pinch — they’re all dead, retired. He used to be able to make six, seven calls a day in Boston. Now he takes his valises out of his car and puts them out again and he’s exhausted. Instead of walking he talks now. He drives seven hundred miles, and when he gets there no one knows him anymore, no one welcomes him.

      The words expose the ugliness and sickness beneath the glamour and polish of the veneer of the commercial society. In this society nothing succeeds like success; human values of generosity, kindness, and mercy have no place.

      Willy’s own values bring out the hollowness of the civilization of which he is a part. He has an incurable faith in the magic of salesmanship. He wonders why he has failed to achieve his ideal. He  simply cannot see that the ideal is unsuited for him. He asks his brother Ben and his friend Charley for the secret of success. They can offer none, for there is really no clear-cut answer. Biff is able to see that the past has been a lie:

     We never told the truth for ten minutes in this house....

      The reference is to the false ideals and illusions by which Willy has lived, the very ideals which form the success myth of Business America. The dream of success is hollow. But Willy is convinced that success depends on personality, ‘contacts’, a quick smile, and good clothes and that these will bring everything one wants in life. Obviously Willy shows his complete subjugation to the magic formula weaved by that extremely popular book, How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. He believes that the selling profession is the best in the world. We know that he is wrong, that he has chosen the wrong profession. At a momentous time in life he had seen how one Dave Singleman, a salesman eighty-four years of age, contacted buyers in thirty-one states just by sitting in his room in New York and speaking to them on telephone.

      The ruthlessness of a business society is seen in Howard, Willy’s employer, and Bill Oliver, the former boss of Biff. Howard is boss, he has attained success in the rat race because he knows what is good for business, and that what is not good has to be rooted out pitilessly if the business is to prosper. Willy is for him just like a machine, to be discarded if it has outlived its use. So, he eats his orange and throws away the peel, as Willy remarks. Willy says that Howard cannot do this, but he forgets that in the mechanized commercial world, whose values he himself tries to emulate, that is the only method for success. The point is starkly brought home by Miller. Even in Howard’s speech about his hobbies, this callousness and total lack of humanity is embodied. When he has got the new interest in his wire recorder. Howard expresses his determination to throw away all his previous hobbies—his camera, his bandsaw, all his hobbies.

      The world is not totally bleak, however. Tolerance, goodwill, sympathy are not totally absent. Charley and his son Bernard are plain, honest and kind. Charley is an instance of prospering in business without being hoodwinked by the ideology of salesmanship. Bernard makes good in his own way without any pushing’ by Charley. In Willy’s view, they should not be successes at all, for they are merely liked and not ‘well-liked’. Moreover, Bernard never wore ‘University of Virginia’ on his sneakers, like Biff. Their success is due to the fact that they followed the natural bent of their virtue, by not succumbing to a popular dream, but by listening to the voices of greed, selfishness and private ambitions.

      The hollowness of the commercial society’s values is exposed as Willy’s career progresses along the reverse of the rags-to-riches formula. Willy is absolutely sure that success lies in the ability to make friends and influence people, being impressive, persuasive, and ‘well-liked’. He cannot believe that his sons are failures, for they have all the qualities necessary for success according to Willy’s book—personality and the capacity for being well-liked. He does not realize, as Bernard does, that Biff 'never trained himself for anything’. But these false values are real to Willy and they are part of the cultural milieu he lives in.

      The idea of personal success is all important in this competitive society. Miller equates commercial success with personal combat. Ben’s advice to Willy’s son is: “Never fight fair with a stranger, boy; you will never get out of the jungle that way.” Clearly, the same holds true for the commercial jungle of American business civilization. Biff, imbued by his father with the spirit of competition and theft, steals a football, a carton of basketballs, a suit, and finally a fountain pen. The equation between competition and theft is made automatically by a waiter when Happy tells his that he and his brother are going into a business together ‘Great; that’s the best for you. Because a family business, you know what I mean?—that’s the best.... ‘cause what’s the difference? Somebody steals? It’s in the family.’

      Society not the only culprit Although much of the pathos in this play is precipitated by the American business machine, it would not be correct to say that society is the only cause for the tragedy of Willy Lorn an. To a large extent, Willy himself is responsible for his misery. He is dimly aware of this, as he says off and on: ‘Am I responsible?’, ‘...don’t you dare blame it on me. ‘I won’t take the rap, do you hear?’. He is committed to the standard ideals. He succumbs to the pull of the commercial civilization which requires men to earn their paltry five dollars a week and ascertain whether they are ‘liked’ or ‘well-liked’. He has ignored the call of Nature deep down inside him. Thus we see that the play while embodying an indictment on the false values of the American society, is about ‘what happens when a man does not have a grip on the forces of life.’ At the center of the play is Willy’s adherence to the great American dream of success and its effect on human relationships.

      Conclusion. Willy is part and parcel of the valueless American world and suffers from the ‘no-value’ affliction. The indictment of the American ethos in Death of a Salesman is succintly summed up by Albert A. Shea: ‘It is the biting truth of Arthur Miller’s insight into the rotten moral base of our selling society that gives the play its power. Miller casts a score of darts at advertising, credit selling, the family automobile, the petty larceny and the subversive attitude towards sex, characteristic of our time. But his main attack is against the view that a man is a fool if he does not get something—as much as possible—for nothing more than a smile, being a good follow and having good connections. In the very act of striking a blow at the immorality of our commercial civilization, and the salesman mentality it has engendered, Arthur Miller has raised a shout.for the individual and his right to his own soul.’

University Questions

Discuss the view that Miller’s Death of a Salesman is an indictment of the American values.
“Death of a Salesman is a criticism of the moral and social standards of contemporary America, not merely a record of the particular plight of one man.” Discuss.

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