I recently watched Death of a Salesman, and highly recommend that you do as well. Here is a brief analysis of the play. (spoilers, obviously)
An Overview of False Personas
In his play, Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller demonstrates, through Willy, Biff, and Happy Loman, how Americans view and strive for success. Willy Loman, a lifetime salesman, says that he is well respected and widely influential, specifically saying it was satisfying to “be remembered and loved and helped by so many different people”. However, Willy never reaches this goal, ultimately having his funeral attended by only 5 people, many fewer than he imagined. Likewise, his sons, Happy and Biff, both have failed at being salesmen during their first 15 years in the professional world. All three are constantly telling lies about their successes, not only in sales, but in other areas as well.
For example, when meeting a woman in a restaraunt, Happy says that he is a successful champagne salesman and tells the waiter to “bring her a glass … it’s all company money”, even though this is completely fabricated. He also creates a false persona for his brother, saying he is a famous football player for the New York Giants, which again, is incorrect. Willy, the father, also lies about the success of his trips, calling them wildly successful, even though directly after saying that, his wife, Linda, brings up their inability to pay their bills in a sobering discussion that heavily implies that he is not successful enough to support the typical American middle-to-upper-middle class lifestyle. This pattern of behavior, lying about success and then dealing with the harsh reality of failure, defines the progress of all three characters. The difference between these characters is how they each cope with their situation.
Willy Loman, a Common Worker
Willy Loman is marked by a constant need of respect and admiration. For example, he wants to be “able to go to twenty or thirty different cities and be remembered and loved”. He also believes that he needs to have a likeable persona in order to be successful, which he convinces himself that he has. In a meeting with Charley, an owner of a firm, in which Charley offers Willy a job, he stresses the fact that the mark of a salesman is his ability to convince people, and that he must have a tight appearance and first impression. Charley, being Willy’s only true friend in the world, offered the job out of kindness of his heart (even saying the purpose was “for the heck of it”), knowing the Willy could not perform as well as other salesmen.
Essentially, Willy views being a salesman as an emotional and personal connection, rather than a mechanical business transaction, and Charley had an emotional connection to Willy, which prompted the job offer. In contrast, just before his meeting with Charley, Willy meets with his boss Howard Wagner, and pleads to keep a job, rambling that “your father, before you were born … on this very desk, made promises”, alluding to the fact that Willy had worked for Howard Wagner’s father, and that he assumed he would always hold a position because of sentimental reasons. Wagner, however, fires Willy citing that there was nowhere to put him in New York, but the implied meaning was that Wagner realized Willy was not as good as Willy believed, and thought he isn’t a good salesman. So, Willy was fired because he simply didn’t perform well enough, and the emotional connection to the firm for 35 years didn’t actually help him keep his job, as Willy would have liked to hope.
As his failure rages on, Willy comes up with the idea of committing suicide, which, if followed, would grant his family $20,000 in insurance money. After a very authentic and raw confrontation with Biff, Happy, and Linda, Willy ultimately does commit suicide. In the end, Willy’s emotional connection in the sales industry is does not prevent him losing his job because of his poor performance, which indicates that his relationship with his boss, Wagner, was simply a mechanical commercial relationship all along, instead of the emotional commitment with the firm that Willy believed himself to have. And, in an ironic twist, his decision to commit suicide is driven by the purely economical interest of the insurance money.
So, at this point, we can conclude that Willy had a firm belief in the personal connections in the sales industry, yet when it comes to his own family, we eventually went with the mechanical and anti-emotional decision to end his own life, just so his family could reap financial benefits. It now seems as though his values are thoroughly reversed from the traditional view of having emotional connections with family members, and purely business relationships with other salespeople.
How This Relates to the “American Dream”
I think this theme of valuing hard work over personal relationships is almost central to the modern “American Dream”. After seeing this play, you can reason that most average work-a-day citizens are like Willy Loman, which leads to the realization that everyone is just faking it, pretending that they are successful, and mindlessly following orders from people they hate, yet concealing it. Only those at the top, such as Charley and Wagner, actually have financial stability because they control all of the Willy Lomans of the world. And, in the end, Willy Loman thought that with a little hard work and effort, he could make his loot, like one of the bosses.
However, this is not the case, and in my previous reading, Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut wrote that
Americans, like human beings everywhere, believe many things that are obviously untrue… Their most destructive untruth is that it is very easy for any American to make money. They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by, and, therefore, those who have no money blame and blame and blame themselves. This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful This rings extremely true in the case of Willy Loman, because in the end, he does realize that he is not successful, and blames himself, leading to his own suicide.
Years of this eternal race up into the “good life” (characterized in the play by Willy’s recurring debts, such as the mortgage) have been fruitless, but also actually helped his boss make money and reap the gains.
A Brief Summary
Overall, this play was a great choice to watch, and it had been recommended to me by multiple people in my philosophy class. I had heard about it before, but had never actually seen it, and now having seen it, highly recommend it. There’s plenty of critiques about the presumed ‘faux’ culture surrounding the workplace and school attitude of professionalism that I think are overlooked too often.
For example, some perverted version of practicing ‘professionalism’ including not disagreeing or critiquing others out of respect, but as we can see in this play, that is what ultimately fueled Willy Loman’s decline and suicide, and without his constant need for validation, Willy Loman’s fate would have likely changed dramatically.
I think that, at least my experiences, people are too concerned about being likeable by a large audience, and the attitude of ‘working hard’. When an extended family member of mine, or some other adult mentions “once you go into the workforce, you’ll realize how it is”, I have to fight back my cringing, because not only have I been in a workplace environment, the notion that all people who have had a job automatically understand more than those who haven’t is naive at best.
After all, Willy Loman thought he knew the value of hard work and success, and we see where that got him.