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American Values and Success in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman

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American Values and Success in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman

The purpose of this brief essay is to examine Arthur Miller's play, Death of a Salesman, with respect to its reflection of the impact of American values and mores as to what constitutes "success" upon individual lives.

George Perkins has stated that this play has been described as "possibly the best play ever written by an American (Perkins, p. 710)." The play marks a brilliant fusion of the ideas and problems central to Miller's artistic and creative life; among those problems are the relationship of selfishness to altruism and the need to define an achievable code of morality for oneself (Perkins, p. 710). Willy Loman, the dominant central character of the play, has defined morality in terms of his capacity to provide financially for his family. Frederick Karl (p. 329) states that Willy Loman is an outgrowth of a "Depression ambiance," which suggests that he defines "success" with respect to income, retaining a job, and fiscal security (all elements of man's work that literally disappeared overnight during the Great Depression). Loman is a "commercial cowboy," whose travels are days and weeks spent "out on the range" in pursuit of one more "big sale."

Arthur Miller himself argued that Loman's situation - that of the formerly successful and now unemployed salesman unable to find a reason for continued life - was so general a quality of American life that he (Willy) was victimized "by our being what we are (Karl, p. 330)." According to Perkins (p. 710), Willy Loman's "fatal flaw" has been variously interpreted as a pitiable blindness to the realities of the American Dream, as the unrealistic hope of a doting father for his son's advancement to l...

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Willy Loman stands in, so to speak, for every American male who defined himself as a man, husband and father with respect to his success in the workplace and his capacity for grabbing a share of the material American dream. Willy Loman is a man who has deluded himself and has judged himself more harshly than his wife or his son. His tragedy is that he comes to an understanding of this delusion too late to make any changes in his life. Whether or not we as readers or as members of the audience agree with his judgment is irrelevant. It is Willy's own failure that is important in this play.

Works Cited

Karl, Frederick R. American Fiction 1940-1980. New York: Harper Collins. 1985.

Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. London: Penguin, 1982.

Perkins, George. Editor. Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia of American Literature. New York: Harper Collins. 1991
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