Miller's Values in Death Of A Salesman

Miller's Values in Death Of A Salesman

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Values and Attitudes of the Author

The way fiction texts begin and end provides a clear indication of the dominant values and attitudes supported by the author

Values and attitudes that the author supports are often reflected in their writing, whether it be in the themes that are involved in the story, or the way it begins and ends. The author adopts a particular point of view and uses that point of view throughout the story to influence and impact readers and viewers. This is most often done through effective use of characterisation. Arthur Miller, in his play ‘Death of a Salesman' uses his main character, Willy Loman, to heighten the audience to the nature of modern life and "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 grip".

Willy Loman is 63 years old, a travelling salesman for a New York firm for the past 36 years, in the last stages of exhaustion and headed for suicide. He has his sights set on success. To Willy, success means two things: being rich, and being popular, neither of which he has or is ever likely to attain. We are intended to blame Willy for having all the wrong dreams, or rather, for holding onto those dreams long after they cease to correspond with reality. This is shown in the requiem, when at his father's funeral, Biff states, "He had the wrong dreams, all wrong." Biff knows that Willy should have stuck to doing things with his hands, instead of sticking to sales, where he faltered. This is backed up by Biff's comment to Charley: "… there's more of him in that front stoop than in all the sales he ever made" to which comes his reply, "Yeah. He was a happy man with a batch of cement." Willy's death is seen as the death of a dream.

Willy has chosen to imitate the salesman side of his father, a choice that was influenced greatly by his meeting of Dave Singleman, who comes to represent for Willy the father he never knew, as well as a role model in life, as is shown by Willy announcing to Howard: "… and without even leaving his room, at the age of eighty-four, he made his living. And when I saw that, I realised selling was the greatest career a man could ever want.

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As Willy grows older, he has trouble distinguishing between the past and present - between illusion and reality - and is often lost in flashbacks where much of the story is told. These flashbacks are generally during the summer after Biff's senior year of high school when all of the family problems began. Biff, failing his maths exam, goes to Boston, to tell his father, and convince him to talk the teacher into getting him the extra marks because "he likes you, dad". It is now, when he discovers his father with another woman that all of his illusions are shattered, his idol debased, and he surrenders to failure in life.

It could be that Willy's failure in business and sales was a reflection of Miller's father's failure; when his business failed in 1929, the family began a downward spiral that culminated in the loss of their home and consequent move to Brooklyn. Miller never forgot the hopelessness that overtook his father and the tensions that it produced between his parents. The loss of personal security at such a crucial point in his development bred in him a lifelong sensitivity to his helplessness in the face of large and incomprehensible social forces, as well as to the impact of such helplessness on his sense of self and family relationships. Knowing this, we can compare this information to Biff's point of view in the story; Biff sees his father's failures in business to be the root of the family problems.

The play romanticizes the rural-agrarian dream but does not make it genuinely available to Willy. Miller seems to use this dream merely to give himself an opportunity for sentimentality, himself being a person who is fond of the countryside and in touch with nature. This is shown in the opening of the play; "A melody is heard, played upon a flute. It is small and fine, telling of grass and trees and the horizon." It is then directly contrasted with the starkness of the newly erected apartment buildings; "… the surrounding area shows an angry glow of orange. As more light appears, we see a solid vault of apartment houses around the small, fragile-seeming home… " This places emphasis on the urbanisation, and the city taking over, which can be metaphorically compared to Willy, with his dream taking over his life, eventually driving him to his death, as the apartments take over the freedom and openness of the countryside, and Willy is defeated by the city.

Willy Loman's wife Linda is not part of the solution but rather part of the problem with this dysfunctional family and their inability to see things for what they really are. Her statement, "Life is a casting off…" is an example of this. It's her philosophy; that in an ever- changing life, one thing leads to another. Little does she realise that it's up to the individual to make those things change. As the eternal wife and mother, the fixed point of affection both given and received, the woman who suffers and endures, is in many ways, the earth mother who embodies the play's ultimate moral value- love. But in the beautiful, ironic complexity of her creation, she is also Willy and their sons' destroyer.

In her love, Linda has accepted Willy's greatness and his dream, but while in her admiration for Willy her love is powerful and moving, in her admiration for his dreams, it is lethal. She encourages Willy's dream, yet she will not let him leave her for the New Continent, the only realm where the dream can be fulfilled. She wants to reconcile father and son, but she attempts this in the context of Willy's false values. She cannot allow her sons to achieve that selfhood that involves denial of these values. Linda is also caught up in Willy's lies and therefore does nothing but help fuel the fire in the inferno of their dreams and ambitions. She lets this whole masquerade continue right in front of her instead of doing something to stop their out of control lies.

Happy, the youngest son, never realizes his father's fallacy of "be well liked and you shall never want". Happy tried to make it in the city with a similar sales career like his father. He also lives a lie in the fact he claims to have a certain position with his company when in reality he is in the lower bracket of the company. Happy is not able to see himself for what he is, unlike his brother, who finally has an epiphany of who he is and what he stands for. Happy is modelled on the salesmen that Miller came to know whilst working in his father's factory. He came to dislike the human relationships in the industry and noticed how they were all too caught up in their own dreams to notice the realities surrounding them, while Miller himself had his feet firmly on the ground, as represented in Biff's realisation of the truth.

Less favoured by nature and his father, perhaps as Willy was in comparison with Ben, Happy has escaped the closeness with his father that destroys Biff in social terms. Thus worshipping his father from afar, Happy has never fully come to realize that phoney part of his father and his dreams. He is not a social rebel, and he will carry on with the life of a salesman, and, as one would suspect, go on to the death of a salesman. He will violate the boss' wife out of some lonely desperation, as Willy sought support and solace in his Boston woman. He will also prove his manliness with fast cars and fancy talk, but again, like Willy, he will never really believe in his own manliness in any mature way. We are shown that Willy doesn't really believe in himself when he admits to Linda in a moment of truth that far from being well liked, he is a laughing stock.

In contrast, Ben has become extremely successful in life compared to his brother Willy. Ben is the only member of the Loman family to achieve greatness. He is the example of the true entrepreneur in every sense, "Never fight fair with a stranger" was Ben's wisdom and his faith- "When I was seventeen I walked into the jungle, and when I was twenty-one I walked out. And by God I was rich!" Although, this information was never enough for a blueprint for Willy to follow, Willy always sought his brother Ben's advice to reach the pot of gold under the rainbow.

Likewise, Charley is also Willy's opposite in many ways in the play. Charley stands for different beliefs and ends up quite successful. Charley tries to help Willy as well, however, Willy will not listen to his advice. For instance, Charley warns Willy not to let Biff and Happy steal from a nearby construction site, that the night watchman would eventually catch them. Willy answers, "I got a couple of fearless characters," to which Charley replies, "The jails are full of fearless characters." Charley is the voice of reason, but Willy is too stubborn to listen to him. Willy's refusal, from the standpoint of dramatic significance, seems less a product of his insanity than of his lifelong feeling of competition with Charley. Acceptance would have been the equivalent to admitting that Charley's philosophy had proved to be the right one, and Willy simply wasn't big enough a man to make such an admission. Like you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink, Charley tries to lead Willy to the fountain of knowledge, but Willy refuses to take in this precious liquid.

Arthur Miller's concern in ‘Death of a Salesman', he says, is "with the aspirations, worries and failures of all men- and more especially of the little man…" and to expose the hardships experienced by an individual striving to achieve what every man sets out to achieve- The American Dream. Miller begins the play with the apartment buildings being built, and ends the play with their construction becoming complete; "Only the music of the flute is left on the darkening stage as over the house the hard towers of the apartment buildings rise into sharp focus." Suggesting that Willy had been defeated by the city, and reflecting Miller's attitudes towards the hardness and rapid growth of the urban community, as a restriction of freedom, by taking over the rural environment, and also showing that having the wrong dreams, holding onto them, if they aren't realistic, could ultimately drive a man to his own tragic end, symbolised by the buildings taking over the country. This clarifies that the author's values and attitudes are indicated through the way a fiction text begins and ends.
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