Published on February 16, 2009
A Study of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and the Downfall of Its Hero A Thesis Proposal Presented to: The Department of English Faculty of Modern Languages and Communication Putra University, Malaysia By: Mehdi Hassanian esfahani November 2007
1. Introduction The objective of this study is to probe into the Arthur Miller’s tragedy, Death of a Salesman, entitled as the best American play of the century, in order to analyze the development of the main character, Willy Loman, and his downfall. Willy Loman, the antihero of this tragedy, is an example of 20th century people who resort to illusion in order to gain some dignity. Arthur Miller (1915 - 2005) narrates the story of an ignominious salesman who faces the end, and cannot fulfill his idealistic ambitions. Willy Loman, who has worked all his life as a salesman, in his 60s, encounters barriers in fulfilling his life-time dreams, which are far away and almost unreachable in reality. His world is covered with some principles and goals, which are the elements of American Dream, but his present life lacks them. Miller’s technique in using flashbacks which are aimed at bringing back some memories of the past, presents the Lomans life; Willy, his wife Linda and their sons Biff and Happy. The drama cites last hours of Willy Loman’s life, when he decides to commit suicide in order to provide a way out of the stalemate his family seems to be in, through his life insurance policy. Willy Loman has lived a fake life in a dream of success and prosperity, imagining possession of money and respect of others; however, he has woken up to reality and the ongoing disaster (Weales 1968). But now he looks and finds no similarity in his life. He has two sons, grown up, who are spoiled; a wife who has 2
dedicated her life to her husband, but lives in almost poverty and frustration, and nothing more. He even has forfeited himself, and missed the honor he once preserved for himself. He cannot find a way out to make his dreams come true, and he is informed of being fired from his life-time job. Conflict arises when he insists on the dream part of his life, and gets lost in unattainable wishes he always had, which make him slip into deeper trouble and lead him eventually to attain the ending. Death of a Salesman is a complex play. One may discuss it as an individual play, narrating the traumatic life of a salesman, as Clurman believes; or a morality play, concerning principles of the family which Willy Loman fails to rule; a heroic play about a modern antihero and his attempts to save his life; a Jewish story of a Jew in a Jewish industry, as Cardullo asserts; a father-son relationship story; a social play which is focused on an ordinary sample; a historical play about post world war era in America; or a self-realization story which ends in catastrophe. The current study declares that it is a social play, narrating American social characteristics of the time, which are rooted in American society of post world war era and its defects. It confirms, as a result, that the downfall is due to misunderstanding of American Dream, the dominant propaganda of the time, and not morality flaws. In another word, Willy Loman dies “not because life has been made intolerable by a terrible burden of guilt, but because he believes that his death is the purchase price of a security he himself could never find” (Bierman 1958:492). This wrong belief roots in his 3
misunderstanding of one’s social acts and responsibility, i.e. misunderstanding of American Dream. Despite Clurman’s claim in his book Lies Like Truth (1958), that “the death of Arthur Miller’s salesman is symbolic of the breakdown of the whole concept of salesmanship inherent in out society” (69), Miller is not concerned to focus on salesmanship or an individual; consequently, Willy Loman –who is an individual himself-- is the representative of American society, trapped within social principles and mores. It is important to have in mind the symbolic characterization of main characters in Death of a Salesman, too. Linda and Biff have outstanding parts, as leading as Willy, and can be discussed in separate papers. One may argue that Biff is the real protagonist of the play, who undergoes several experiences to reach the self- realization, or Linda as the representative of American housewives, who endures the virile society and acts passively in her life. But the present study is concerned with Willy Loman, it traces the plot from his point of view, and will shift to other characters just in the case it clarifies the characterization of Willy Loman. Death of a Salesman presents the life and loneliness of Willy Loman, in addition to some memories from the past, and some melancholy thoughts which make the future. Thus, Willy's character and the process of his thinking provide a good starting point to see how American Dream has failed in this American family. To study that, one should analyze the idea of American Dream, which can be defined superficially as the opportunity and 4
freedom for all American citizens to achieve their goals, and become wealthy and renowned if only they work hard enough. In the next stage, it is Willy Loman, who should be judged through his words and actions, to be compared with principles of American Dream. It would lead to Willy’s misunderstanding of American Dream. In brief, Willy Loman, blinded by propagandas and promises, is drowned in an idealistic view of life, which is advertised through decades by the idea of American Dream to warrant a prosperous life (Dillingham 1960). He cannot realize the actual situation of his family, refuses to face the reality of his life, and persists on the dream part of that idea. This misinterpretation ends in total failure. The play’s Requiem indicates that Willy Loman wasted his life on his wrong beliefs, and his death would not change anything. 2. Significance of the Study Without any doubts Death of a Salesman is one of the most important American literary works in the field of drama. The script won Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the 1949 Tony Award for Best Play, as well as the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best Play in a short time. It received many enthusiastic reviews, and won fame for its author. A detailed and in-depth analysis of Willy's character is needed to define the hero's downfall. Regarding the critical point of 5
view of Miller in his play, it is essential to first delineate the society of the time, and its related issues like Imperialism and American Dream, to focus on Willy Loman and trace his failures through the close study of his characterization. This paper comments that Willy Loman is a sample of 20th century American society; he is not unique, and he recites the story of more than three million people. 3. Objectives of the Study The main objective of this research is to investigate different elements of the play, to compare with the perception of American Dream, associated with primary promises of satisfaction and fulfillment in life (Clurman 1958:69), to arrive at an understanding of the main character's downfall. Willy Loman’s misguided notion has ruined the lives of his wife and two sons, but he never acknowledges. The last time he tries to realize the truth, he fails and commits suicide (Miller 1957). Arthur Miller narrates the story is a 63-year-old man who cannot change himself or even doubt his present state. A Close reading reveals that he cannot think of himself anymore, because he has failed in pursuing success, and blames himself about it. This is rooted in his wrong understanding of American Dream. The ending depends strongly on the hero’s decision. When he cannot see any light, he prefers to opt out. The wrong realization of life (in Willy Loman’s point of view) is emphasized in the last part of the 6
play, in which Willy Loman trails not the real world and earnestly wants to reside in his life-time dream. 4. Review of Literature James Truslow Adams in The Epic of America (1931), explores the historical process of American culture and compares it with the European culture to show that they are more alike than anywhere else, but still states that despite the similarity, there is a dream here; which is the promised land, in which one can find opportunity according to his ability or achievement, where dreams come true based on one's own abilities and hard work, not on a rigid class structure. From another point of view, Carpenter believes that American Dream has never been defied exactly. He suggests in American Literature and the Dream (1955), that different interpretations, therefore, may have different influences on people. Some of these interpretations are due to misunderstandings of a real concept. Reviewing the first decades of American drama in 19th century, Alan S. Downer in his book Fifty Years of American Drama (1951) explores Death of a Salesman as a social play suggesting expressionism. He introduces American Dream as a belief of quot;attractive personality [which] is the key to success in businessquot; (74). He believes that Willy Loman fails to realize the meaning of his actions, therefore misses the chance to understand 7
the realism of his life. Referring to the foundations of American Dream in that particular society, it is true when he comments that, quot;For American and societies similarly organized, Death of a Salesman is tragedy, [but] for other societies, it is a lesser thing, a case history, perhapsquot; (75). Harold Clurman in Lies Like Truth (1958), asserts that Willy Loman is a victim of American Dream. He first analyzes the progress of concept of American Dream, from the first beliefs of primitive Americans to the current 20th century propagandas. He criticizes the society of America, and condemns the false belief of American Dream which has leaded the life of millions of lower- middle-class workers to the catastrophe. He expresses the cause of Willy Loman's downfall, as he quot;never acknowledges or learns the error of his way. [In this way] to the very end, he is a devout believer in the ideology that destroys him (70).quot; Blau has a look on the conflicts between an individual and the American society. He believes that there is a gap between an individual's desires and traditions of society. He implies in The Whole Man and the Real Witch (1964), that society is on the wrong side, and states that, quot;to achieve consciousness, one needs to believe in society. . . . For Miller, it comes out of the desire to make sense of the word individual in a mass society, increasingly deprived of identity by machines and machine politics and machine values (123).quot; Leonard Moss explains in the book Arthur Miller (1967), that due to the explanation of quot;makequot;, a word Willy Loman used 8
forty-five times during the play, quot;a man must acquire status and wealthquot; (49). He admits, further more, a declaration that sees Willy Loman a passive victim of corrupted propagandist society, where the emphasis is on the concept of being number one and reaching everything. Gerals Weales in the introduction of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman: Text and Criticism (1968) assumes that Death of a Salesman is a tragedy about Biff, Loman's son. He includes that Willy Loman is not the real protagonist, and states that quot;it is Biff's story . . . it is a play about a son's troubles with his fatherquot; (xvii). He also indicates that Willy Loman is a sufferer of his self- delusion; the legacy he remains for Biff. quot;We are not, [and] we must not,quot; Harold Clurman suggests in The Merits of Mr. Miller (1969), quot;separate from the others. Our refusal to acknowledge this and to act upon it is the sin which secretly torments us and causes us personal griefquot; (148). Clurman places all oppositions to sins an individual commits--such as pride or moral arrogance. In his essay, Clurman condemns the rebel individual, like Willy Loman, who disobeys (or misunderstands) his responsibility and pre-designs his catastrophe. Raymond Williams in his study of some dramatists, in the book Drama from Ibsen to Brecht (1971), discusses Arthur Miller as a social playwright and finds the problem in the misunderstanding of individual and society. He verifies Blau when he asserts that, quot;the key to social realism . . . lies in a particular conception of the relationship of the individual to society, in which 9
neither is the individual seen as a unit nor the society as an aggregate, but both are seen as belonging to a continuous, but in real terms inseparable process (70).quot; Aarnes Believes in Tragic Form and the Possibility of Meaning in Death of a Salesman (1988), that Willy Loman has thought about suicide for a while, but only determines to commit it when his older son, Biff, has at last openly and unequivocally declared his quot;lovequot; for his father. Willy Loman’s action is his last attempt to help his last lover. Harold Bloom in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1988), analyzes the play from different aspects, and strongly claims that it is an American play, written for American people. He implies that American Dream is not real, and Willy Loman's problem is quite common in American society. He depicts the play as quot;it reverberates, echoes, resonates. Its rhythms roll deep down toward and into American desires and delusionsquot; (47). He emphasizes American images presented here to call it a real social play. The famous sermon of Martin Luther King Jr., delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia, on 4 July 1965, recited by Clayborne Carson (1998) is another source to explore the idea of American Dream in the society of United States. Sussan C. W. Abbotson in Student Companion to Arthur Miller (2000) believes that Miller is dedicated his literary works to self-realization and self-discovery of American nation--an important phase in one's life regarding the society. She declares 10
that Death of a Salesman ends tragic because of the salesman's self-realization. She entitles Miller as quot;a kind of prophet who uncovers America's flaws and tries to enlighten the people as to the harsh realities of their existence, in the hope that they might strive to improve their behavior and livesquot; (17). Thompson, in his article, Miller’s Death of a Salesman (2005), explores the symbolic function of proper names and implies that the problem is the reflection of the Lomans’ wrong acts regarding their ages. 5. Research Methodology Death of a Salesman is the narration of a downfall. A man who feels insecure and limited by social forces, cannot control his life anymore, and eventually fails to understand his situation and encounter some internal and external conflicts. His nothingness in society makes him to believe of no more right to live. He commits suicide, in order to save a dignity for his sons. To explore the situation and find the cause, the approach should be elective. Any approach that analyzes social paralysis should contain imperialism facets as well, to probe into Willy Loman’s condition. Formalistic study can partly help to find out social elements of the context, but should be interpreted and compared with principles. As the story “is not focused on the station or status of man, but on motives of his soul” (Bierman 1958:493), and it is a social play, new historicism approach is useful to be applied on the 11
character developments of the play. There is no boundary to limit different approaches, as long as they prove helpful to clarify the downfall, they are applicable. Modern criticism may discuss the situation properly to consider imperialism and post world-war era. Furthermore, it is the usage of classic definition of great hero and bourgeoisie wishes, which reflects in American Dream; what Loman always seeks but never reaches, that contrasts with his low life and verifies his tragic downfall. 6. Works cited Aarnes, William. quot;Tragic Form and the Possibility of Meaning in Death of a Salesman.quot; In Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman: Modern Critical Interpretations. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1988. Abbotson, Susan C. W. Student Companion to Arthur Miller. London: Greenwood Press, 2000. Adams, James Truslow. The Epic of America. Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1931. Bierman, Judah, James Hart and Stanley Johnson. The Dramatic Experience. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1958. 12
Blau, Herbert. quot;The Whole Man and the Real Witch.quot; In The Impossible Theater. Ed. Robert W. Corrigan. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1964. Bloom, Harold, ed. Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. New York: Chelsea House, 1988. Cardullo, Bert. quot;Death of a Salesman, Life of a Jew: Ethnicity, Business, and the Character of Willy Loman.quot; Southwest Review. 2007, 583. Carpenter, Frederic I. American Literature and the Dream. New York: Philosophical Library, 1955. Carson, Clayborne, and Peter Holloran. A Knock at Midnight: Inspiration from the Great Sermons of Reverend Martin Luther King, Junior. NewYork: Warner Books, 1998. Clurman, Harold. quot;The Merits of Mr. Miller.quot; In Arthur Miller: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Robert W. Corrigan. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1969. --------. Lies Like Truth. New Work: The Macmillan Company, 1958. 13
Dillingham, William B. quot;Arthur Miller and the Loss of Conscience.quot; In Emory University Quarterly. Spring 1960, 40-50. Downer, Alan Seymour. Fifty Years of American Drama 1900 – 1950. Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1951. Miller, Arthur. Collected Plays. New York: Viking, 1957. Moss, Leonard. Arthur Miller. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1967. Thompson, Terry W. quot;Miller's Death of a Salesman.quot; In The Explicator. Summer 2005, 244. Weales, Gerals, ed. Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman: Text and Criticism. New York: The Viking Press, 1968. Williams, Raymond. Drama from Ibsen to Brecht. London: Chatto and Windus, 1971. 14
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