“Death of a Salesman” by Arthur Miller was written in 1949 and portrays, Willy Loman, a failing salesman in the last few days of his life. He is very caught up in the “American Dream” with the opportunity of success for everyone who wants it, and is driven mad by the fact that whatever he does, he cannot be successful forcing him into a breakdown and eventually suicide.
During the last few days of his life, of which we are allowed a glimpse, Willy has many flashbacks of key parts in his life which help to explain his breakdown to the audience. I think Arthur Miller used this play as an attack on capitalism showing how it does not benefit everyone. Here is a man who poured everything he had into making a success of himself, only to be beaten by the system.The card game scene is a key scene in the play as it really brings out the madness of Willy.
It starts off with Willy downstairs in the kitchen with Happy who has come down to see what the matter is when in walks Charley who is wondering what all the noise is about. Charley is presented as the dramatic opposite of Willy; he is successful, has plenty of money and is well liked. He pities Willy and is happy to help out with anything he can, including money, but he cannot understand why Willy will not take the job he is offering him.”What the hell are you offering me a job for?””Don’t get insulted!”This dialogue has dramatic significance throughout the entire play as it shows how stubborn Willy is and how much pride he has.
Continually, throughout the play, he declines offers to help him, preferring to do it under his own power even though he knows he cannot. This is the real reason Charley comes over, to help him out.They start playing cards so that there is not so much tension in the air and during the game Miller’s initial dialogue shows Willy and Charley talking about unimportant things such as the ceiling. Charley tries to make Willy happy by admitting he cannot put up a ceiling so that there is something Willy can do that he cannot, however, Willy again takes the offensive:”A man who cannot handle tools is not a man.
You’re disgusting!”This disagreement over trivial matters also happens with the knowledge of heart burn and vitamins, both sections of dialogue also have dramatic significance in that they are very effective in showing how pathetic Willy is desperately anxious to have at least one skill, however small, that someone else does not. In this way charley is used by Miller to emphasise Willy’s feeling of failure whilst he is clearly a very edgy and nervous person despite his outward appearance. He has many violent mood swings, criticizing the people who question him, as when charley asks him how he does it, for being ignorant. He is trying to convince himself of his ‘superiority’Halfway through their conversation Ben comes in.
He provides another dramatic contrast to Willy, however because Ben is his brother he is even more jealous. Ben followed their father into Alaska at the age of seventeen, made his fortune, attaining everything Willy wanted for himself. Ben is Willy’s idol, the person he looks up to:”That man was a genius, that man was success incarnate”It gradually becomes evident to the audience that Ben is dead, however, so he is a figment of Willys’ confused imagination, therefore he is exactly how Willy thinks of him; with an “authoritative air and utterly certain of his destiny” as stage directors dictate. Willy starts talking to both Charley and Ben; this however becomes very confusing as Charley cannot see Ben and thinks that Willy is talking to him or himself.
This dialogue is very effective to the audience in showing how crazy Willy actually is:”Is mother living with you?” – Ben”No, she died a long time ago” – Willy”Who?” – CharleyThis confirms that Charley has absolutely no idea what Willy is talking about.Willy is, by this time, confused himself, not knowing whom to talk to as the conversation becomes steadily more confusing. This, again is excellently presented by Miller and the dialogue is effective in bringing out the insanity of Willy; he is so confused that he is not paying attention to the card game and argues with Charley who storms out of the house as we see Willy insulting and cheating on his only friend.At this point, Miller changes the lighting to a more bright set indicating happier times and a flashback.
This is confirmed by Willy walking through the invisible walls, representing a more “free” time in Willy’s life where he was not overshadowed and encircled by flats and sky scrapers restricting him. Here Willy talks about how successful he is and keeps asking about how Ben did it:”What’s the answer? How did you do it?”However, Ben keeps insisting that he has to go, indicating that he has no time for anyone, including his family. Willy tries to boast about his children to Ben, desperate to show that he is successful at everything, including bringing up his sons. Yet Ben has a fight with Biff, encouraged by Willy, to show how good Biff is and Ben wins by knocking him down after he has apparently given up, clearly revealing his key to his success:”Never fight fair with a stranger”This suggests a ruthless, devious character so not one to be admired.
Yet, as Ben starts to leave Willy tries to beg him to stay.”Can’t you stay for a few days? You’re just what I need.”This, for the first time reveals Willy’s true feelings about himself. However, Ben replies with a line that repeats throughout the play, to symbolise that it haunts Willy’s mind, as he feels that he is a failure in comparison:”When I walked into the jungle I was seventeen.
When I walked out I was twenty-one and by God I was rich.A major dramatic device of this play is the series of Willy’s flashbacks which not only gives the audience a clue as to his insanity, but also an insight into his past life. The flashbacks usually happen when something occurs to spark off any memories, usually when he is feeling guilty, for example when he finds Linda is forced to mend her old stockings. This sparks off a flashback because he used to buy the woman he had an affair with new stockings.
With the flashbacks the audience also get a chance to see a younger Willy and assess the similarities between Willy and Happy. Both are womanisers, as shown with Willy’s “woman” and the two women Happy dines with when his father is close to a nervous breakdown. They are also the younger brothers that are ignored; Ben is seen as superior to Willy while Biff displaces Happy, forcing him to seek attention constantly, as in “I’m losing weight Pop!”To conclude, although the play seems like an attack on the whole of the capitalist society, the further the audience progresses through the plot, the more it becomes clear that Miller is trying to portray the fact that the “American Dream” does not suit everyone, in fact it can destroy their lives. The Lomans are supposedly one of the many families victimised by the system.
Miller is also trying to indicate that there are many things more important than money, and his audience should be more concerned with relationships and friends.