The last of my courses in North American literature is focused on the works written after World War II and Arthur Miller, with his Death of a Salesman (1949) inaugurates the semester.
The play starts off with Willy, our salesman, returning home unexpectedly after an inexplicable episode in which he felt his mind wandering while driving, almost causing an accident. It is late at night, Willy’s sons are paying the parents a visit and the eldest, Biff, has already had an argument with Willy.
The plot circles around two conflicts: one between father and son, which reignites with every visit, and the other Willy’s inner sense of failure, after all the years dedicated to the pursuit of success.
In a series of flashbacks, or daydreams, the reader/spectator dives into three motifs of Willy’s past, which will help to understand the present.
We encounter his brother, Ben, who left when Willy was a teenager, in the same fashion their father had previously abandoned them years before. Ben became rich and, to Willy, his adventures are the “road not taken” which would have provided everything he was longing for. Ben is in possession of “the secret” that has not been transmitted to Willy, and he goes back in his mind to ask an absent Ben about it. The desertions of father and brother linger throughout the play, they being the reason behind Willy’s wish to be well-liked and mourned by many after his death.
The second set of daydreams takes us back to the time when Biff and Happy were kids. We find two boys adoring their father, trying their best to impress him, admiring his lifestyle, the places he visits and the people he meets. The devotion of young Biff is meticulously depicted, and it’s reciprocated with the pride of a father who believes his boy is on the road to success thanks to his teachings and example.
WILLY: You nervous, Biff, about the game?
BIFF: Not if you’re gonna be there.
These happy family memories contrast with the current situation: at some point, Biff estranged himself from “the dream” and now leads a life of fresh-air and low-waged jobs farming in the west that, against all odds, appeals to him. However, his happiness still depends on Willy’s acceptance of his choice, an acceptance that will never come.
But what about Happy, the younger brother? He has followed Willy’s advice and he is making good money, but he is candid about his dissatisfaction. Happy has assumed the hollowness of his existence as a given, and he doesn’t seem to care.
What is the secret to success, then?
The last of Willy’s flashbacks concern “the woman”, of whom we know nothing other than she and Willy seem to be having an illicit liaison. His worries about other people laughing behind his back are balanced by this woman’s compliments of his personality, symbolizing the acceptance of who Willy tries to be. But she is also the reason for Biff’s departure: his discovery of the affair shows him who his father really is and makes him reconsider his own path in life. He is not to follow the steps of a liar.
The reader can’t avoid noticing the different approaches of men towards women in the play. Biff, the man who rejects the American dream and lives true to himself, is not interested in chasing women at nights, as it’s his brother’s habit. He is also concerned about Willy’s erratic behavior in behalf of his mother, and he bluntly defends Linda before Willy in the scene where the latter gets angry at her for participating in the conversation. Willy treats his wife in accordance to his own mood but Biff is a man of principles who does not need to be above somebody else.
WILLY [with hatred, threateningly]: The door of your life is wide open!
BIFF: Pop! I’m a dime a dozen, and so are you!
WILLY [turning on him now in an uncontrolled outburst]: I am not a dime a dozen! I am Willy Loman, and you are Biff Loman!
BIFF: I am not a leader of men, Willy, and neither are you. You were never anything but a hard-working drummer who landed in the ash like all the rest of them!
In the end we have two brothers: a charismatic Happy, who knows what to say to please people; and Biff, a man who remains truth to himself but will never get the acceptance of the father. The division between the two is the illusion Willy created for himself and, after all these years, can’t sustain him anymore.
Details from the British edition:
Death of a Salesman
Penguin Modern Classics /1174
Length: 128 pages