Arthur Miller’s ‘Death of a Salesman’

Undoubtedly it is Arthur Miller’s most popular play and it takes a close hard look at the life of Willy Loman. Willy has been a hardcore salesman for over thirty-four years now. A smooth talker he believes that personality and shortcuts are stepping-stones to success.

His life is a lie and the delusion hits him where it hurts the most – his wayward ways and work ethic tears apart the future of his two sons – otherwise fairly good kids who showed some promise in the early youth.

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While Miller’s message is well accepted, I did find it a bit tedious that there were simply no redeeming features in Willy Loman. Thirty Four years on the road is a long period and definitely he must have had some work ethic and interpersonal skills to survive so long. But Miller makes the whole story seem suspicious – he cleverly employs two devices to lead credibility to his premise. We have Willy Loman tell exaggerated tales about his popularity that make one sceptical to begin with. Miller pounds in more pressure by explaining Loman’s straitened circumstances – no longer on fixed salary he had been struggling to manage on commissions alone.

Miller then goes on overdrive in describing Loman as a fairly repulsive character – he comments about his looks, dressing sense and even plain sense of etiquette. He is seen to cut corners and not have sufficient respect for discipline and hard work. With this Miller alienates all sympathy for his chief character. His kids love him and look at him as a cult figure. Well it is bound to crumble after that when reality meets fiction.

In steady contrast Miller builds unassuming credibility for Barnard and Charley who play a smooth foil to the lead character. Loman’s wife, Linda, too is an emotional woman and very loyal to her husband. She berates her sons for taking care of their father.

Things go bad to worse and there is no redemption. Unfortunately Loman too realizes that his whole life has been a sham and commits suicide. No one can easily explain how things came to such a terrible pass. The family’s future too is in dire straits and one is not quite sure how they will fare.

Miller echoes his sentiments about Loman by having Charley speak out for him. Charley mentions, ‘Willy was a salesman. And for a salesman, there is no rock bottom to the life. He don’t put a bolt to a nut, he don’t tell you the law or give you medicine. He’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back – that’s an earthquake. And then you get yourself a couple of spots on your hat – and you’re finished. Nobody dast blame this man. A salesman is got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory.’

Miller is quite convincing when he says that – it is a troublesome tale though. Such a pity that a salesman like Loman could not quite find the balance when it came to grooming his boys and they ended up getting the thin edge of the wedge.


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