Death of a Salesman Essay
Death of a Salesman
To What Extent Does ‘Death of a Salesman’ deal with modern issues such as materialism, consumerism, procrastination and alienation, in Act 1 of the play? ‘Death of a Salesman’ deals with many modern issues appropriate to the genre of tragedy. Materialism is an issue presented in the play as a flaw of the main character Willy Loman, who not only is far too materialistic, but places material importance on the wrong things. This is partly owing to the issue of consumerism, which has permeated his beliefs and actions. Willy Loman also procrastinates as a theme throughout the play, in various detrimental ways.
The play presents Willy Loman as both the cause and casualty of alienation. All four issues are presented as societal products of the illusory American Dream and flawed American culture, and although none of them are the focus of the play, they pervade it significantly from beginning to end. Willy Loman could have attained happiness by following his dreams and doing something he was good at, like his father and brother did. Aside from being obvious that Willy is not happy or successful in his current occupation, it is expressed that Willy wishes he had gone with Ben to Alaska when he had the chance.
For example, he says ‘If I’d gone with him to Alaska that time, everything would’ve been totally different. ” Willy wanted to live the original concept of the ‘American Dream’, in which the two visions of living close to nature in the ‘great outdoors’, and using nothing but what you were born with – your personality – to make your fortune in the role of the salesman, were combined to form the image of the pioneer. Willy however rejected his desires to work outdoors and pursue carpentry, so he could seek wealth in the city, revealing his materialistic and unbalanced interpretation of how to accomplish the ‘American Dream’.
Biff inherits his father’s idealistic view of the ‘American Dream’ owing to his being fed Willy’s opinions. Happy calls Biff a “poet and “idealist” as he reveals his desire to live and work with nature, just like his father had. Biff too denies himself the pleasure of settling down on a farm or “out West” because the dogma of materialism has been ingrained in his morals and he feels that if he is only making “twenty-eight dollars a week” then “all [he’s] done is to waste [his] life”. Willy’s materialism is also shown by his disadvantageous priorities, which despite leaning towards immorality are not unfounded, merely unfit.
Willy doesn’t understand the importance of the love and support of a family, and believes the foundations of his life lie in material facets of success, such as his income. A sign of this is how he mistreats his wife, despite her consistent care for him. She pampers him, “taking off his shoes” for him and is met by reproach and disrespect, displaying his ungratefulness. However, he clings reverently onto superficial accomplishments or anything that may bring them about, such as the Ebbets Field game that Biff took part in.
In this way Willy is chasing an illusory dream – his idea of the ‘American Dream’ is corrupted. This is partly shown by Willy’s affair with the woman, which shows how his need to be ‘well-liked’ overrides his need for security and his wife. When Willy expresses self-doubt to Linda about his abilities and appearance, she fills him with confidence. When Willy says “people don’t seem to take to me”, Linda responds “don’t be foolish”, without requesting any explanation, showing how she disregards whatever the truth may be and cares only to reassure him.
Linda tells Willy he is the handsomest man in the world, and when he contradicts her she responds “To me you are”, displaying her unconditional love for him. Her love for him is based on his internal features like his character, not his external features like his achievements. This is in contrast to the woman, whose like was earned by Willy’s success, not friendship, as she was a professional relation to Willy. The woman lavishes attention and flattery on Willy, which Willy uses to gratify his flagging ego, feel ‘well-liked’, and appease his loneliness on the road.
In having an affair with the woman, Willy chooses that he prefers to be ‘well-liked’ than loved, as ‘love’ with Linda would constitute his fidelity. The play tackles the issue of consumerism in its treatment of the ‘American Dream’ and the sadness it expresses in its degeneration. Through Willy Loman, Miller complains how America has taken the ‘American Dream’ too far and fallen victim to consumerism, losing the original values and ethics of the ideal in translation.
The ‘American Dream’ was the aim to achieve wealth and status by only hard work and faith – the aim of a society in which everyone had the same starting line in the race to success. Miller points out the stark reality that success actually relies on solid results, a reality which Charley and his son understand and consequently, flourish. Bernard concentrates his energies on studying as he knows this is what will help him make an impact in the business world, unlike Biff and Happy who have been taught by Willy that how they are “well-liked” and “built like Adonises” will see them through.
Willy Loman fails to realise that times have changed since the days when the frontiersmen – salesman – sold their personalities, not their goods, and made their living on the basis of their personal charisma. Confirming this, Charley tells Willy that “The only thing you got in this world is what you can sell. And the funny thing is that you’re a salesman and you don’t know that. ” It is ironic that for all Willy’s enthusiasm for his livelihood as a salesman, he spent his life trying to sell the wrong product. Willy uses procrastination in his propagation of his image of success, to himself and others.
He borrows money from Charley every week and each time gives Charley empty promises to pay it back. Willy is procrastinating from finding a permanent solution to his financial problems because it hurts his pride to have to seek a job from Charley, who he is jealous of. He is also always better off somewhere else, claiming he would have been “King of New York” if his previous boss was still around. Willy pins the blame for his failure on unchangeable problems which can’t be his fault, feeding his self-deception and saving him from the regret that would accompany the truth of his situation.
Willy vows that he will speak to Biff’s maths teacher to prevent him flunking Biff but he never gets round to it, amongst other examples of how Willy is all talk and no action. Willy constantly boasts, falsely, about his own success and his sons’ success, building the smoke screen of lies which he feels is necessary to maintain his dignity. This procrastination from facing the truth is proven to be a major problem in contribution to Willy’s eventual failure, as it leads to his complete mental deterioration.
We learn from Linda that when Biff writes home to say he’ll visit, Willy is thrilled at the opportunity to look forward to something – “he’s all smiles, and talks about the future”. However as the date of Biff’s visit approaches, his delusional happiness fades to be replaced with the irritation that anticipates Biff’s actual presence. This is an example of how Willy is most happy when he is looking forward to something because it provides him with one of his only remaining pleasures – hope, albeit false hope.
In general, the times when we see Willy most happy in the play are when he is fantasizing or reminiscing about the past, i. e. procrastinating from getting on with his present. Alienation is one of the larger themes in the play, being the issue which spreads most obviously. At the start of the play, we see Willy has isolated himself from reality by constantly losing himself in the past and being detached from and unable to concentrate on his current situation. This is partly indicated by the flute music, symbolic of Willy’s father, which plays to accompany Willy’s submersion in his memory.
He acts tiredly when he “presses two fingers against his eyes” and absentmindedly as he “starts putting on his jacket” for no reason, and Linda even tries “to bring him out of it”. Willy has no one to talk to about his problems as he has hemmed himself in with his boasts of well-being, and cannot go back on words so self-assured. He turns to the fantasy of his dead brother Ben for advice, further portraying his growing alienation from reality. The play shows Willy’s alienation to be a result of the American Capitalist system having turned its back on him and also his own personal flaws.
Willy’s alienation spreads to his two sons, who have been instilled with their father’s flawed moral values. Willy’s chauvinistic attitude and lack of respect for his wife is evident in Happy, who uses women to the point that sleeping with them “gets like bowling” and “doesn’t mean anything”. He refers to women as “gorgeous creatures”. Willy’s condoning of Biff’s petty thieving as a boy led to his implied kleptomania and eventual jail sentence as a grown man. The brothers are both alienated from society in their defective behaviour and the temporary nature of their livelihoods.
Both boys are not content with their lives. Happy is referred to as a “philandering bum” and Biff especially is “like a boy”, unable to settle down and grasp some direction or security. Alienation is the issue perhaps dealt with the most as it is the end result of the other issues combined and the one which has the largest part in the death of the main character, however Miller’s play treats the issues as living off each other and as all counting towards the tragic fate that is the conclusion of the events of the play.