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 levels he himself never achieve, and the bad luck of a salesman working a tough territory. Each interpretation has a certain degree of validity. Taken together, they reflect a critical perception of Willy Loman's life and concerns as typical of a society in which material success is valued over other types of success. Willy may be "an exploited victim of an indifferent capitalist system (Perkins, p. 710)," but he clearly values that very system and has "bought in" to its norms and mores. Thus, when he finds that the one thing which had defined him as a man, a husband, and a father has been taken away from him (e.g., his job), he regards himself as a failure.
When Willy Loman's act of sacrificial suicide is completed, it is Linda Loman who is left to cope with the supposed benefits of his "act of love" meant to redeem his house. The character of Linda Loman reflects Willy's own perception of himself; she recognizes that her husband, Willy, is "only a little boat looking for a harbor (Miller, p. 76)." Her sons and her husband are unable to communicate openly; she serves as the conduit through which they express their emotions, worrying throughout the play about her husband's long slow decline into professional failure....