During the 1930’s, the United States had suffered the “Great Depression” wherein businesses had failed and most people lost their jobs. It is also around this period that the notion of the “American Dream” had developed. The belief in equal opportunity and prosperity results to overinflated hopes and anticipations. Optimism and pessimism spread throughout the country creating confusion, denial and anxieties. The greatest impact had been on the working class who had struggle to find one job over another trying to work their way up the corporate ladder, just to find themselves jobless on the next lay-off period.
Modern technology had also started to advance which further increase unemployment in the urban areas as workers are replaced by the products of modern technology.
These scenario and concepts are the main themes that can be found in Arthur Miller’s renowned drama “Death of a Salesman”. The purpose of this essay is to argue that the social and cultural concepts presented on the drama reflects the experiences and beliefs of the author and signifies the confusions and illusions prevalent on the story that influenced how the text is perceived by the readers.
The drama would be analyzed using the lens of Histocriticism. The essay would first give a brief summary of the story that shall focus on the characters. It would be followed by a reflection on the setting of the story which shall incorporate the idea of the “American Dream”. In this part, there will also be a brief discussion of Historicism. The reoccurring themes of the story and the characters would be analyzed based on the period it was written and in relation to today’s society and experiences.
The drama revolves around the condition and family of Willy Loman. He is a salesman, who had spent his life working for a company that paid him based on commissions. His work involved travelling and staying away from his family for several days. The drama portrayed him as a man who had lost his sense of reality. He often mumbles out loud speaking to illusions or talking about the past. His wife, Linda had been the mediator between Willy and his sons. Linda was also the one who understand Willy the most. In their conversation at the start of the drama Willy described Linda as his “foundation and support”. She often tried to bring Willy back to his senses every time he was caught up with his illusions. Their first born son was Biff, a man who had so much potential but was lost because he “could never stand taking orders from anybody” and blamed his father for being so. The second son was Happy or Hap who had never recovered from being lost until his father’s death. Happy didn’t seem to know what he wants. He was accustomed to lying or living in an illusion. Bernard and his father, Charley had been the opposite of Willy and his Sons. Bernard was at the same age as Biff but he had been a successful lawyer. Charley was also successful and Willy (as can be implied from the story) was envious of him.
The story began when Willy went home after not being able to accomplish his work. Linda told him that their sons came to visit. Willy began complaining about his mind wandering away. This shows how confused Willy was. He often mentioned about his dreams especially for and about his eldest son Biff. Nevertheless, he also expressed his disappointments as can be seen when he mentioned “In the greatest country… a young man with such – personal attractiveness, gets lost”.
Biff and Willy often fight with each other most of the time. Willy would like his sons to be great. He believes that “if a man was impressive and well liked” he will be successful. As the story unfolds, Linda revealed that Willy had been suicidal and asked for his sons’ help. As the story ended, Biff decided to pursue his own dreams and stay away of his father’s life. Willy committed suicide to be able to help Biff start his own business through his insurance.
To grasp how the author’s past had affected his writings and how his work reflects society, it is best to use the theory of historicism. According to Kelly Griffith (179), historicism believes that “historical culture from which a work comes help us understand the work” of an author. By culture, Griffith elaborated that it is “the total way of life of a particular society”.
During the time the book was written, the prevalent culture involves the achievement of the “American Dream”. Throughout the story, Ben (a character from the past and Willy’s illusions; Willy’s successful brother who lived in Africa) was repeatedly associated with “coming in to the jungle at the age of 17 and going out at the age of 21 as a rich man”. This alone represents the notions of optimism and illusion about prosperous life and equality that prevails during the Arthur Miller’s lifetime.
Willy represented typical parent of his time. At the age of 63, he was still working to pay for his expenses. He tried to work hard to provide his family’s needs; such as house, car and daily needs. As a man who did not experienced having a father of his own, he was overwhelmed by the idea of being a father himself and having great sons. He tried his best to give them the experienced he didn’t had by projecting an image of a successful man as reflected by his culture. He treated them with optimism and ingrained the idea of the usual “American Dream” into their minds. He envisioned them to grow up and achieve what he failed to accomplish.
Indeed, illusion and/or rejection of reality had been repeatedly shown in the story. The entire family had been living in denial. Willy would not accept his failures as a person, a husband and a father. Linda lived her life as if she did not know about Willy’s situation. Biff believed he was so great that he couldn’t accept having a boss. Hap denied the fact that there is a problem within their family. Everyone made the other’s believe that they are alright despite the fact that they’ve lost their ways.
As explained above, the optimism the shrouded the era results to confusions and illusions. People, like Willy, end up expecting the good things and the prospect of prosperity. There is a “rags to riches” vision that confuses the public. Instead of doing what they really like, people tend to try the most popular or easiest ways to become richer. People often see things as means towards an end.
The story also reiterated that their house would end up as someone else’s home. Willy had been paying for the house for decades, yet none of his son would like to live in it. He felt remorse about the idea that someday, all of his life’s hardships would be thrown away. This was typical in the 1940’s scenario wherein a person is working and paying for the house until old age.
Although the priorities, the jobs, the needs and the dreams are different today, the same societal issues exist such as lack of employment opportunities and overpopulation. Technology today had been changing at a faster rate. People need to be constantly educated about the changes. Parents remained to have not enough time to care for their children especially since working mothers and single parents are on the rise. The United States is still perceived as a land of opportunity and equality. Miller’s work is still applicable to today’s culture. Nevertheless, the current society is more realistic than the society presented in the drama.
Indeed, the social and cultural concepts experienced by the author before and during the publication of the work displayed the attitude and beliefs of the author. In relation to the idea of the “American Dream”, the people are focus on creating money and becoming rich as promised by the prosperity and opportunities implied by the opportunities and prosperity that the US offers. These concepts are still present in today’s society although there is more optimism than usual. Through looking or considering the culture that the author had experienced, one can get a better gripped of the ideas he presented.
Griffith, K. Writing Essays about Literature: A guide and style sheet. Cengage Learning, 2005.
Miller, A. Death of a Salesman. Penguin, 1998.
Cite this United States in Times of “Great Depression” Analysis
United States in Times of “Great Depression” Analysis. (2016, Jul 12). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/argument-based-essay/