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In Arthur Miller's play, Death of a Salesman, the major theme as well as the main source of conflict is Willy's inability to distinguish between reality and illusion. Willy has created a fantasy world for himself and his family, a world in which he and his sons are great men who "have what it takes" to make it in the context of business and free enterprise. In reality, none of them can achieve greatness until they confront and deal with this illusion.
Willy's most prominent illusion is that success is dependant upon popularity and personal attractiveness. Willy builds his entire life around this idea and teaches it to his children. When Willy was young, he had met a man named Dave Singleman who was so well-liked that he was able to make a living simply by staying in his hotel room and telephoning buyers. When Dave Singleman died, buyers and salesmen from all over the country came to his funeral. This is what Willy has been trying to emulate his entire life. Willy's need to feel well-liked is so strong that he often makes up lies about his popularity and success. At times, Willy even believes these lies himself. At one point in the play, Willy tells his family of how well-liked he is in all of his towns and how vital he is to New England. Later, however, he tells Linda that no one remembers him and that the people laugh at him behind his back. As this demonstrates, Willy's need to feel well-liked also causes him to become intensely paranoid. When his son, Biff, for example, is trying to explain why he cannot become successful, Willy believes that Biff is just trying to spite him. Unfortunately, Willy never realizes that his values are flawed. As Biff points out at the end of the play, "he had the wrong dreams."
In many ways Biff is similar to his father. In the beginning of the play we see that Biff shares many of the same ideas as Willy. He values being well-liked above everything else and sees little value in being smart or honest. One of Biff's main flaws is his tendency to steal. Early in the play we learn that he has stolen a football from the school locker. When Willy finds out about this, instead of disciplining Biff, he says that the coach will probably congratulate him on his initiative.
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Happy is the younger of the two Lowman brothers and thus is often overshadowed by Biff. Because of this, Happy is constantly trying to get attention from Willy. In one of the flashbacks Happy continually says, "I'm losing weight, you notice, Pop?" This is an attempt by Happy to get recognition from Willy. When in the present, Happy tries to get recognition by announcing that he is getting married. In both instances, however, Happy's remarks are dismissed as unimportant. Thus it is no surprise when Happy leaves Willy alone in the restaurant. It is merely in retaliation for his own rejection. Another characteristic of Happy is his refusal to recognize reality. When Biff, Happy, and Willy are in the restaurant, Happy tries to prevent Willy from learning that Biff did not get the loan. While Biff is trying to explain that he never actually worked as a salesman for Oliver, Happy is continually reassuring Willy that the interview went well. Another example occurs at the end of the play when Happy insists that Willy "did not die in vain. He had a good dream."
The main theme in Death of a Salesman is illusion versus reality. Willy has lived his entire life in a world of illusions. These illusions include Willy's belief that being well-liked is the key to success, as well as the literal illusions that Willy has of his past. Originally, Biff shared Willy's illusions of success and greatness, but by the end of the play he has become completely disillusioned. Once Biff comes to fully understand his place in life, he says to Willy, "I'm a dime a dozen, and so are you." Willy, however, has lived too long in his dreams and cannot understand what Biff is trying to say. If Willy had to face reality, he would then be forced to examine the affair he had in Boston, his philosophy, and all of his illusions. Instead, he prefers to live in the past. And now Biff, who is trying to confront the truth about himself, finds that he is completely unable to commuicate with his father.
Another theme of Death of a Salesman is the old order of agrarian pride and nobility versus the new order of industrialization. In the beginning of the play, Willy foreshadows this theme by criticizing the changes brought about by industrialization. "The street is lined with cars. There's not a breath of fresh air in the neighborhood." It is this conflict between the old and new orders that brings about Willy's downfall. Willy's father, a pioneer inventor, represents the traditional values and way of life that Willy was brought up on. So does Dave Singleman, the eigthy-four year old salesman that inspired Willy to go into the sales industry. Howard, the young boss of Willy's company, represents the impersonal and ruthless nature of capitalistic enterprise. When Willy goes in to ask Howard if he can be transferred to a job in New York, Howard refuses to help him even though Willy has been working for the company for several decades and was good friends with his father. When Willy asks why he cannot be reassigned, Howard replies, "Šit's a business, kid, and everybody's gotta pull his own weight," thus demonstrating Howard's cold indifference to Willy's situation.
Arthur Miller uses a very realistic style of speech. Because the story is carried almost completely by the dialog, this is vital to the play's success. Miller also uses repetition of significant phrases throughout the play. Phrases such as "He is not just liked, but well-liked" and "Isn't that a remarkable thing" acquire greater meaning over the course of the play. One example of this is how the phrase "Isn't that a remarkable thing" comes to signify Willy's occasional disillusionment. The first time we hear this phrase is when Willy says that he can't roll down the windshield on his car and Linda reminds him that he said he rolled it down on his trip to Boston. The phrase doesn't really acquire significance, however, until the scene in which Willy borrows money from Charley. Willy has always thought of Charley as representing the worst qualities in humanity. He is neither popular nor personally attractive. For this reason, Willy has never considered Charley to be his friend. After Willy is fired, however, he discovers that the only person he can borrow money from is Charley. Thus he comes to realize that Charley is his only friend, and he says "Isn't that remarkable." Willy also uses the phrase near the end of the play after Biff has broken down and cried while trying to explain his life. Willy has always though that Biff was destroying his own life just to spite him, but now he realizes that Biff actually loves him.
Death of a Salesman deals with the frustration of Willy Lowman and his inability to face the realities of modern society. Willy believes that success is dependant upon popularity and having personal attractiveness. Willy builds his entire life around this idea and teaches it to his children. He learns to late that he has built his life around an illusion.
Works Cited and Consulted:
Eisinger, Chester E. "Focus on Arthur Miller's 'Death of a Salesman': The Wrong Dreams," in American Dreams, American Nightmares, (1970 rpt In clc. Detroit: Gale Research. 1976 vol. 6:331
Foster, Richard J. (Confusion and Tragedy: The Failure of Miller's 'Salesman' (1959) rpt in clc. Detroit: Gale Research. 1983 vol. 26:316
Gardner, R. H. ("Tragedy of the Lowest Man," in his Splintered Stage: (1965) rpt in clc. Detroit: Gale Research. 1983 vol. 2l6:320
Miller, Arthur. "Death of a Salesman" in Literature, Reading, Reacting, Writing, Compact Fourth Edition. Harcourt, Inc. 2000.
Schlueter, June. Essay over "Death of a Salesman" in Arthur Miller-Criticism and Interpretation. The Ungar Publishing Company. 1987.