Family in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman
Arthur Miller’s play, Death of a Salesman, which was written in 1947 and first presented on stage in 1949, is recognized today as one of the most important dramas of our times and for our culture. The play endures especially because of the timeless issues and themes with which Miller deals—work and family. Miller sought to have his production of Death of a Salesman presented in the most realistic way possible.
The audience in essence was to become involved in the thought processes of the protagonist, Willy Loman, in order to understand the workings of his mind and his ensuing life decisions. Miller uses dramatic devices that negate time and place, not unlike the actual workings of the human mind, in order to project to his audience the dreams and the realities of his characters lives.
Miller’s portraiture of life is the manner by which the drama becomes relevant to the audience, making the mind of Willy Loman as close to that of a real person whose thoughts teeter from past to present.
All the dramatic techniques that Arthur Miller utilizes in Death of a Salesman contribute to understanding of the significance of work and family in Willy Loman’s life. Every fiber of Willy Loman’s being deals with his work as a salesman and becoming successful. His dream of success clearly shapes the form and intensity of his family relationships. Family and work are the important elements of Willy Loman’s life. However, an examination of the play demonstrates that work and the desire for success and achievement prevail over family issues. A lifetime spent dreaming of success makes that dream the most important part of Willy’s life—over and above the needs and desires of his family.
Willy Loman and Family
In Because it is my Name, Zeineddine refers to the title of the play: “The title embodies the social aspect of Willy’s failure. However, the play is as much concerned with the death of a father as with that of a salesman….Willy’s shortcomings as a salesman and as a father are inextricably linked.” (169) This linkage of salesmanship and fatherhood is discussed by Miller in his article, “The Family in Modern Drama”:
How may a man make of the outside world a home? How and in what way must he struggle, what must he strive to change and overcome within himself and outside himself if he is to find the safety, the surroundings of love, the ease of soul, the sense of identity and honor which, evidently all men have connected in their memories with the idea of family? (36-37)
Americans live with the contention that their families are first in their lives. The myth of the prominence of the American family developed from America’s beginning when in order to tame the wilderness, family was of utmost importance; the livelihood of a family was centered around all members of a family who were necessary to the support of the family.
Arthur Miller, through his characters, dispels this American myth and demonstrates that the focal point of American lives is the source of their livelihood—for Willy Loman it is his life as a salesman.
In Greenfield’s Work and the Work Ethic in American Drama 1920-1970, he concurs with this idea that the Loman family life revolves around work:
In the Loman family, love, sex, religion, and all other conventional familial bonds have been suspended or eliminated by the several half-truths and false beliefs that make up the family’s philosophy of work. Work here has taken over all spiritual dimension of life. (105)
All family life portrayed in Death of a Salesman revolves around work, success and achievement. Family relationships are secondary and have significance only in relation to work. Miller uses symbolism to further his ethos of work and family, starting his play with the suitcases that Willy Loman carries which represent the heavy burden of his life. The road that his car will not stay on as he travels in Yonkers represents his life journey that will not remain on course. He does not finish his journey by car just as his life journey and goals cannot be completed.
The car becomes a focal point and a significant symbol in the play to illustrate extreme contrasts in the Loman family’s life. The car that Willy drives symbolizes success and freedom in America and the American Dream. However, Willy can no longer handle or control the car and keep it on the road just as he can no longer take control of his own life. Gordon equates Willy’s rundown, old Studebaker as a symbol of “outlived usefulness” (102).
When Willy loses his job, he reverts to the importance of family. In his confrontation scene at the main office, he reminds Howard of his close ties to Howard’s father, indicating how family is important to Willy in its relation-ship to work. Thus, one is quick to note that Willy becomes overly involved in his own sons’ lives. Though they are no longer teenagers, Willy pushes his drive for success upon them. His involvement in their lives is an inhibiting force not allowing them to find their own way. They become defensive because of their conflicts with Willy. Carson sees these conflicts as existing because Willy’s relationship with his father lacked affection, and Willy’s relationship with his sons involves smothering love (53). Willy is determined to see to it that his sons succeed. But he never determines what they really want to do.
An extension of himself, the Loman family can only exist if it takes on Willy’s goals and dreams. When there is only one right way, Willy’s way, the feelings, dreams, and aspirations of others become negated because “Willy Loman cannot look beyond the dream structures around his family, the capacity to love or recognize and appreciate the existence of others is not exhibited in Willy…” (Hurt 139). The apartment houses that seem to move in around and enclose Willy’s house represent the walls of Willy’s life—what is immovable and cannot be changed in the life that he has created within his world of work and family.
In Families Under Stress, Willy’s expectations are commented upon: “On the surface this would seem to be a clear expectation on Willy’s part that he expects Biff to work hard. But we have already seen…that Willy disqualifies Bernard.” Later Willy orders Bernard “to give him the answers during the mathematics examination” (Manocchio 142). Willy’s contradictions have come to play and have hurt Biff. Willy’s emphasis on Biff’s future success in business and ignoring his problems in school harken back to traits of Americans relating to the frontier.
Miller dramatizes the relationship between two sets of brothers, Willy and Ben and Biff and Happy. Ben has taught Willy to walk into “the jungle” to search for success. Ben speaks about walking into the jungle and coming out. But Willy doesn’t know how to walk out of it. Harshberger points out that Willy speaks about walking “into the jungle” but does not mention walking out again (62).
Davis notes that illusion binds the members of the family together by keeping them from knowing the truth about themselves (123). Part of the family’s illusion is denial of anything negative or that will undermine personality. Willy minimizes when Biff steals saying, “He’s giving it back, isn’t he?” (41; act 1).
The family’s illusions exist due to a lack of communication within the family. Willy praises Biff for his initiative in stealing a football and lumber, but he will not listen to Biff talk bout stealing Oliver’s pen. Willy and Biff have never spoken about the incident at the Boston hotel, a memory violating Willy’s self-image as a good father and husband.
Miller builds upon the roles of within the Loman family which Hunt describes as “the provider, the enabler, the family hero, and the clown.” The family is sustained by its secrecy: Willy and Biff’s “shared guilty knowledge of the woman….,” Biff’s hidden criminal record, Willy’s business failure obscured by a fantasy of salesmanship, Linda’s doubts about Willy camouflaged behind her feeling of support, and Happy’s self-doubt concealed by sexual conquest (Hunt 138).
Because of the focus of his life on obtaining the success of his dreams, Willy’s family relationships gradually erode. Never taking responsibility as a father for his sons’ failures, Willy realizes too late his part in their failure by relinquishing his role as father for that of a salesman. Willy’s ill-advised encouragement had resulted in Biff emerging as an immature adult, unable to cope with the stresses of life, buying into Willy’s notions of success. Biff blames Willy for his failures and admits, “And I never got anywhere because you blew me so full of hot air I could never stand taking orders from anybody! That’s whose fault it is!” (131; act 2). Willy’s inadequacies now haunt him; all his ideals have been shattered.
Zeineddine sees Willy’s life as a salesman and as a father as being tied together with Willy’s search for a secure position within the family as inseparable from his search for a definite one in the “success system” (169). Willy’s family life was never separated from work—neither was his death— his suicide was not an act of desolation but a way of achieving what he could not in life.
Arthur Miller emphasizes how Willy’s final act in recognition of his fatherhood brings Willy Loman a sense of joy at the end:
… my sense of his character dictated his joy…. he has achieved a very powerful piece of knowledge, which is that he is loved by his son and has been embraced by him and forgiven. In this he is given his existence, so to speak—his fatherhood, for which he has always striven and which until now he could not achieve. That he is unable to take this victory thoroughly to his heart, that it closes the circle for him and propels him to his death is the wages of his sin…. (Introduction 147)
Willy’s final sacrifice is only necessary when the sense of the existence of sin prevails. Willy finally accepts his failure and his sins against his family and makes atonement. With the act of suicide, Willy gifts his son with the means to self-confidence and success.
Through the art of drama, Miller provides insights into the American family through Willy Loman as he sought recognition, prestige, power and success through his work, keeping him from accepting the more meaningful aspects of life— his relationship with his family. Bloom points out Willy’s need for family love: “Arthur Miller’s grand insight into Willy Loman is that his protagonist is slain by his need for love, for familial love” (1).
Miller dramatizes the hold that work has as Willy sacrifices his life to complete his idea of success as “he can prove his existence only by bestowing ‘power’ on his posterity, a power deriving from the sale of his last asset, him-self, for the price of his insurance policy” (Miller, Introduction 147) .
Arthur Miller’s play, Death of a Salesman dramatizes Willy Loman’s overriding desire for success which prevails over all family issues and relationships and finally leads to his destruction. Miller makes the past as relevant as the present and is able to present this relevance in visual terms in order that the audience understands the workings of Willy’s mind: “…in his desperation to justify his life Willy Loman has destroyed the boundaries between now and then” (Introduction 26).
Miller involves the audience totally through the thought processes of his protagonist, Willy Loman, to dramatize the complicated aspects of all lives and the stresses involving work and family. It is through the art of drama that Miller effectively reveals the American family and its work as he portrays Americans’ desire for success as an all-consuming drive and its disastrous impact on the individual and family relationships.
Billington, Ray Allen. “The Frontier and the American Character” Historical Viewpoints: Notable Articles from American Heritage. Ed. John A. Garraty. New York: American Heritage, 1971. 66-77.
Blumberg, Paul. “Work As Alienation in the Plays of Arthur Miller.” Arthur Miller: New Perspectives. Ed. Robert A. Martin. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1982. 48-64.
Carson, Neil. Arthur Miller. New York: Grove, Inc., 1982.
Davis, Walter A. Get the Guests; Psychoanalysis, Modern American Drama, and the Audience. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1994.
Gordon, Lois. “Death of a Salesman: An Appreciation.” Twentieth Century Interpretations of Death of a Salesman. Ed. Helene Wickham Koon. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1983. 98-108.
Greenfield, Thomas Allen. Work and the Work Ethic in American Drama 1920-1970. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1982.
Harshberger, Karl. The Burning Jungle: An Analysis of Arthur Miller’s ‘Death of a Salesman.’ Washington, D. C.: U P of America, 1979.
Hurt, James. “Family and History in Death of a Salesman.” Approaches to Teaching Miller’s ‘Death of a Salesman.’ Ed. Matthew C. Roudane. New York: MLA, 1995. 134-41.
Manocchio, Tony and William Pettitt. Families Under stress: A Psychological Interpretation. New York: Routledge, 1975.
Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman: Text and Criticism. 1949. Ed. Gerald Weales. New York: Viking, 1977.
Miller, Arthur. “Family in Modern Drama” Atlantic Monthly 19 77 (April 1956): 35-41.
Miller, Arthur. “Introduction. Collected Plays. 1957.” Death of a Salesman: Text and Criticism. Ed. Gerald Weales. New York: Viking, 1977. 113-70.
Moss, Leonard. Arthur Miller. Boston: Twayne, 1980.
Zeineddine, Nada. Because It Is My Name: Problems of Identity Experienced by Women, Artists, and Breadwinners in the Plays of Henrik Ibsen, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. Great Britain: Merlin, 1991.
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