At a time when the American Dream has curdled, and conscientious young people who once were wary of sacrificing their lives to a career no longer even have the opportunity to do so, Arthur Miller’s masterpiece Death of a Salesman has much to say. I’ll be the first to admit—I admire Miller himself more than his plays. For all their fiery passion and intelligence, plays like The Crucible and Incident at Vichy bludgeon their subjects with rhetorical bombast and, often, simplistic morality. But when Miller connected, as he did in All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, and A View from the Bridge, he effectively revealed how America sees itself: in a funhouse mirror.
In Death of a Salesman, the distorted self-image seen in that funhouse mirror is rooted in the optimism at the heart of the American Dream, the sense that one can be whomever one wants to be, and the concomitant rage when those-who-cannot realize they cannot while refusing to admit it. I can hardly imagine a play more relevant to a political climate in which those who have been disenfranchised by corporate capitalism rage against almost everything but corporate capitalism—even worse is the bile directed toward those whom they perceive as opting out of it—blaming practically anything that comes into sight for limiting their ability to participate in the very system that had excluded them in the first place, riding on a smile and shoeshine, when it’s the smile and shoeshine that actually marks them for failure.
Willy Loman, Death of a Salesman’s protagonist, occupies the place of everyman, his humble station in life suggested by his surname, while his first name poses the question whose answer teases and torments him throughout his life, continually holding out promise long after it has dried up: “Will he? Will he?” If the unfortunate answer to that question is clear to practically everyone who knows him, Willy refuses to hear it, just as he refuses to hear Biff in the powerful, climactic scene at Frank’s Chop House, in which Willy lays his philosophy bare: “The gist of it is that I haven’t got a story left in my head, Biff. So don’t give me a lecture about facts and aspects. I am not interested.” The facts don’t matter. Lies, if posited as facts, will do just as well, if not better.
Or at least they seem to. The fact that they don’t is the drama of Death of a Salesman. Biff wants to set the story straight, delivering a powerful blow—his name also quite suggestive—to Willy’s house of cards. But Willy can’t shake what he still understands as the promise of his youth, manifested in his brother Ben who, when a young man, accidentally went to Africa when he intended to go to Alaska, emerging from Africa a wealthy man. As he tells Biff and Happy in one of Willy’s memories in the play, “Why, boys, when I was seventeen I walked into the jungle, and when I was twenty-one I walked out. […] And by God I was rich.”
But that was in Willy’s past, even in the memory. It’s the offer he makes Willy in the memory itself, of a business opportunity in Alaska, that seizes Willy’s imagination: “You’ve a new continent at your doorstep, William. Get out of these cities, they’re full of talk and
time payments and courts of law. Screw on your firsts and you can fight for a fortune up there.” He offers Willy the myth of the American frontier, that rugged blankness where, with muscle and moxie, one can mold one’s own character and come out rich. Ben permits Willy a glimpse of who he could have been, or more accurately, as Shane Blegen, a gifted reader of literary texts who is a student of mine, suggested, Ben is who Willy thinks he could have been. That he isn’t never really registers with Willy until Biff forces him to look hard at the truth.
Willy suffers from the same purblindness described by John Steinbeck when he said: “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” Willy’s inability to see the fallacy of his beliefs fueled his rage just as it fuels the rage of those who unwittingly follow in his footsteps today.