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Review of Death of a Salesman

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Many works of literature have the theme of a failed American Dream, which is the basic idea that no matter what social class an individual may be, they still have an equal ability to achieve prosperity and a good life for their family; however, there has been much debate over whether or not the American dream is still obtainable in modern society. One piece of American literature that substantiates the fact that the American Dream can not be gotten is Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman which describes the tragedy of the average person in America. A number of other writers also draw the inability to capture the American Dream.

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To an unusual degree, The Death of a Salesman interweaves past and present action. Willy Loman, the play’s protagonist, repeatedly revisits old memories, sometimes even conflating them with the present moment. But these memories are not the sentimental, slightly melancholy daydreams of a contented man. Instead, they are the dark clues to Willy’s present state of mental and emotional disrepair. Miller uses the extended flashbacks to show both that Willy longs to understand himself, and also that his efforts to do so are doomed. Willy revisits the past not in an effort to sink into happy memories, but in an effort to analyze himself and understand where his life went wrong. His flashbacks are hardly comforting flights into idealized past times. Rather, they are harrowing journeys that get to the heart of his dysfunction. When Willy thinks about the old days, he remembers making light of Biff’s thieving, barking at Linda about the state of her stockings, ignoring Biff’s mistreatment of young women, sidelining Happy, and so on. Each of these memories lays bare one of Willy’s shortcomings: his failure to instill strong morals in his sons, his guilt over his adultery, his inability to see Biff objectively, and his unequal love for Biff and Happy, respectively. If Willy’s dips into the past were purely escapist, he would fixate on the happy moments in his life. Instead, he tends to be drawn to the times at which he behaved in revealingly unpleasant ways. This tendency suggests that Willy longs for self-knowledge. He wants to figure out how he got into his present mess, and he knows that the answers lie in the past. Willy’s efforts at self-analysis are doomed not just because he gives himself wholly to his memories, but also because his passionate emotions are not balanced by cool critical thinking. Willy is constitutionally incapable of analyzing his own behavior, understanding his character, and comprehending the mistakes he has made. Over and over, Miller shows how Willy plunges back into the past, stares uncomprehendingly at the errors he made, and then makes those identical errors in the present. He remembers idealizing Ben as a boy; then he describes Ben in outsized, glowing terms to his sons. He remembers implying that Biff did not need to work hard in order to attend a good college; then he bridles at the implication that his parenting has something to do with Biff’s failure. Willy dimly senses that his past missteps have a bearing on the present, but he cannot bring himself to make the connections explicit. Willy Loman has a multitude of faults, but escapism is not one of them. He truly wants to understand himself; part of his tragedy is that he is incapable of doing so.

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Willy goes to great length to prove that popularity is the key to success and encourages Biff to fight with his uncle Ben, something that has an important meaning and infuriates Lindah so much. However, Biff falls to his uncle Ben who advises Biff, “Never (to) fight fair with a stranger, boy. (or) You’ll never get out of the jungle that way” ( 34). Biff believed in his father so much that he did not put any diligent hard work in whatever he did. His adoration for his father stated to take a toll on his life because, as Willy commented that “his (Biff’s) life ended after that Ebbets Field game because from the age of seventeen, nothing good ever happened to him” (71). Biff’s belief in the essence of popularity take s him to seek his father in Boston as he thought that Willy’s popularity would make Biff’s math teacher change his grade and allow Biff to graduate. However, their relationship takes a sudden change for the worst when Biff realizes that his father has been unfaithful to his mother, by keeping a mistress in his hotel room in Boston.The changing nature of their relationships in Death of a Salesman is reflected through their dialogues and conversations, which expresses anguish, pain, and betrayal. Biff no longer trusts his father and realizes that Willy had led them all in living a lie and a pretentious life (104). Willy retaliates by telling Biff that he has been nothing but a failure (103). As such, Bill comments that: “(he had been) trying to become what (he didn’t) want to be… (And asks Himself) What (he was) doing in an office, making a contemptuous, begging fool of (himself), when all (he) wanted (was) out there, waiting for the minute (he) say (that he) knew who (he) wanted to be! (105). This is an emotional realization of the betrayal that Willy led him to believe was the truth. Their relationship was never the same again.Willy’s greatest need was emotional and psychological. Willy needed to feel liked and loved not only by his family but also by his clients and friends. From his mentor Dave Singleman, Willy thought that success was brought by popularity and attractiveness, and these two ideals subordinated virtuous ideals such as honesty, integrity, and hard work.

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Finally, Willy believes that his death will actually be the biggest sale of his life. He has given years of service to a harsh and cruel system to have nothing in return. His death at least, will mean something tangible to his family. It is ironic that he feels this way, after years of service, he must give up his life, so his family can live the American Dream he always wanted. Willy is excited again. He believes when Biff gets the cheque he’ll be ahead of Bernard again. When they were children, Willy always believed that Biff would be more successful than Bernard because of his likeability as opposed to Bernard’s anaemic personality. Even as Willy sees that he is worth more to his sons dead than alive, he fails to grasp any semblance of self realization and failing to realize that killing himself to put Biff ahead of Bernard is utterly pathetic.

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Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. New York: Penguin Books, 1986. Print.

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