A play in which the title is significant but not obviously so is “Death of a Salesman” by Arthur Miller. In “Death of a Salesman” Miller explores the capitalism of 1940s America and how the American Dream does not benefit everyone in the business world. Willy Loman, the main character in the play, became a salesman after the death of another elderly salesman who could make money without leaving his hotel room. It was this salesman and how well liked he was that inspired Willy to become a salesman as he wanted to be well liked as Dave Singleman. Willy mentions on multiple occasions how well liked he was and that at his own funeral he wanted many people to be present as they had been at Dave Singleman’s funeral “When he died, hundreds of salesmen and buyers were at his funeral.”
Like Dave Singleman Willy wanted people to come from all over the country to mourn him this sympathy towards him as this is a highly unlikely situation and he therefore is setting himself and his family into a deluded scene that will never be witnessed. Willy also wants to die the honourable death, which he now associates with being a salesman as he idolises Dave Singleman “He died the death of a salesman, in his green velvet slippers…” However at the conclusion of the play it is clear that Willy Loman did not die the honourable death he so desired as no one from the business world arrived at his funeral only his wife, two sons, Charley and Bernard were present which also demonstrates how deluded Willy was in the life he led as he honestly believed his funeral would be of a similar scale to Dave Singleman’s.
This evokes sympathy towards Willy as he did not die his ideal death of a salesman and seems to live by measuring how successful people are by the size of their funeral and therefore his own funeral reflects truly how unsuccessful his career as a salesman was. In “Death of a Salesman” Willy suffers a metaphorical death, the death of his dream of financial success. By the plays conclusion Willy is jobless and broke. Willy has a conversation with his brother Ben, who has been dead for some time, and concludes the best future for his family, especially Biff whom Willy is desperate to become successful, would be for him to kill himself as the insurance company would pay out $20, 000, enough to make Biff successful in Willy’s mind, “you end up worth more dead than alive.”
The irony of Willy killing himself is that he is killing himself to give Biff money in order for him to become a successful business man however the insurance company will not make a payout for suicide and Biff has no intention of following in his father’s footsteps. This evokes sympathy for Willy as he is trying to do the best for his family however he still cannot provide for them even through his death.
During the play “Death of a Salesman” the title is significant as there is a physical death of a salesman in the respect that Willy dies and he is a salesman. Through killing himself Willy hopes to provide the financial support, which he has been failing to gain for many years, for his family that is required. The death of Willy is not honourable as he desires and is sorry ending to his unsuccessful life in business. In conclusion the title of the play is significant as it in further understanding of the events, which occur in the play. Miller uses the title to convey both a physical and metaphorical death and in order for the reader to understand the ending to their full capability.
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What we can’t see is more important than what we can see.
—Arthur Miller to Enoch Brater
Recent revelations about Arthur Miller’s estrangement from his Down Syndrome son, Daniel, rebound like a prophecy Miller himself made early in his career when, in Death of a Salesman, he wrestled with but failed to subdue the legacy of the lost father. The depth of Miller’s abandonment of Daniel, uncertain given the September 2007 Vanity Fair’s unnamed informers and snide photographic blurbs, remains vague. We know only that Daniel Miller was born to Arthur Miller and Inge Morath in 1962, and that following the era’s protocol, they placed him in Southbury, an institution in a pastoral setting a few miles from their home and still some years away from serious overcrowding, not unlike baby Willy’s being left in a pastoral setting on the cusp of change as his father walks away in Death of a Salesman. And like Willy, Daniel seems to have made his way without his father’s mentoring.
This imputation, of course, threatens to shadow our experience of the profound moral consciousness of Miller’s plays just when we most need their clarity. It is important, therefore, to consider the theme of the lost father as a fixed idea Miller couldn’t shake by externalizing it in a play—in more than one play if we consider the nuances of lost patrimony in All My Sons, and even in The Crucible and The Misfits, where lost fathers are implied—and Miller’s distance from Daniel, who grew up to be a wonderful man by all accounts, as evidence of that deep irony.
Willy Loman’s lost father is at the core of Death of Salesman, whose debut made American audiences sweat and weep and run to pay phones. Though never acted on the stage, this character is so deeply embedded in the play’s structure that by means of him Miller not only awakens the shadow of his own future but also exhumes the ghost of our lost national character, probing our cultural ambivalence about identity and vocation and offering only uneasy resolution. The play’s relevance seems specifically American. Yet it has moved audiences in far-flung locations, packing theaters in China and Thailand, for example, even becoming a nightly ritual for Norwegian Arctic fishermen, and after the demise of the Soviet Union, offering special relevance for Russians seeking work.
He is the first character to enter the stage, though in metonymic form: a flute melody, “small and fine, telling of grass and trees and the horizon.” We associate the sound with Willy’s father because he carved, played, and peddled flutes; he was a salesman like Willy, but the preindustrial craftsperson version: both maker and marketer. Willy remembers him as “a man with a big beard, and I was in Mamma’s lap, sitting around a fire, and some kind of high music.” This is Willy’s only memory of his father, but he hungers for more. In this way, the mythic search for the lost father is conflated with the allegory of American identity, resulting in relevance reaching even the playwright himself.
On the level of that allegory, Willy’s father not only illustrates the autonomy of preindustrial work, to be contrasted with the alienation of the industrial worker, but also recapitulates the geographical expansion of the nation. Like the frontier, Willy’s father moved as far west as he could, then vanished north. According to Willy,
Father was a very great and wild-hearted man. We would start in Boston, and he’d toss the whole family into the wagon, and then he’d drive the team right across the country: through Ohio, and Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, and all the Western states. And we’d stop in the towns and sell flutes that he’d make on the way. Great inventor, Father.
When Willy’s father finally disappears “down some open road” to “Alaska,” America’s last geographical frontier, it must be about 1889, for Willy is “sixty-three” in 1949, the year the play debuted, and his father left when he was almost four, significantly not to seek gold, the gold rush being ten years away, but wilderness itself.
In fact, Willy’s father keeps just ahead of America’s industrial expansion. Before 1890, Americans were traveling on horseback and in wagons, though the railroad was riding upon the nation. By 1890, however, the industrial revolution in the East had given birth to new American types: the capitalist, the imperialist, and the robber baron. The cowboy was receding into myth—one reason Biff’s choice offers uneasy resolution—and America was selling its assembly-line-produced goods abroad. Cities were growing; the Great Plains were being fenced. Willy’s father’s final trip as far west as South Dakota, then north to Alaska is, like the Plains Indians’ Ghost Dance, an exertion in the old style before the familiar world disappears.
But we mustn’t wax too nostalgic about Willy’s father, for Miller reveals that he contains the seeds of his own demise, embodying a paradox implicit in our national character and one that also contributes to the play’s uneasy resolution: he is part of the exploration that inevitably resulted in the occupation and development of the frontier, a contradiction echoed in Willy’s lamenting the “massacre” of the neighborhood by developers yet being “a happy man with a batch of cement.” So in spite of having skillful hands and a spirit bent toward adventure, Willy’s father, with his restlessness and wanderlust, suggests an alienated prototype of Biff, who gets “lost. In the greatest country in the world,” prefiguring, in his abandonment of wife and sons in Dakota to blaze a trail and invite civilization and its trappings to follow in his wake, Biff’s conflict between Willy’s need for him in Brooklyn and freedom out West.
Furthermore, because Willy’s father abandoned him when he was so young, Willy reaches manhood feeling, as do his counterparts in myth and literature, that he must find his father in order to know himself and clarify his vocation. The search for the father involves simultaneously moving forward in life and backward toward roots and the past. Classical mythology as well as American literature are replete with such searches, and they often involve irony and paradox: Phaethon seeks proof that his father is the sun yet is destroyed by that proof; Theseus seeks his father, Aegeus, but the old man sees a black sail, thinks his son has died, and so throws himself into the sea; Horus’ father Osiris is locked in a coffin later sealed inside a tree trunk, echoed in Willy’s own father’s disappearance into Alaskan timberland; Oedipus searches for Laius’ murderer and gets a surprise about paternity; and in American literature we have Hawthorne’s “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and Kerouac’s On the Road, among others, all involving missing or corrupted fathers, as do the poems of Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, James Tate, Sharon Olds, Theodore Roethke, John Berryman, Anne Sexton, Frank Bidart, and even Stanley Kunitz, whose father exited before his birth.
Willy echoes this mythic compulsion. But he never finds his father. Rather, he is detoured by a surrogate, Dave Singleman, whose name suggests he may be a blip on the American dreamscape, a remnant of a time when “respect, and comradeship, and gratitude” were part of doing business, or a wish that this had been so.
When I was a boy—eighteen, nineteen—I was already on the road. And there was a question in my mind as to whether selling had a future for me. Because in those days, I had a yearning to go to Alaska . . . my father lived many years in Alaska. He was an adventurous man. . . . I thought I’d go out with my older brother and try to locate him, and maybe settle in the North with the old man. And I was almost decided to go when I met a salesman in the Parker House. His name was Dave Singleman. And he was eighty-four years old, and he’d drummed merchandise in thirty-one states. And old Dave, he’d go up to his room, y’understand, put on his green velvet slippers—I’ll never forget—and pick up his phone and call the buyers, and without ever leaving his room, at the age of eighty-four, he made his living. And when I saw that, I realized that selling was the greatest career a man could want.
Willy is thus deflected from his father search, albeit perhaps a doomed search for a father irretrievably gone, by this dreamlike apparition whose vocation is far less tangible than carving and selling flutes. Singleman sells charisma, and if that weren’t vaporous enough, his description bears the taint of
In this scene from the 1949 production of Death of a Salesman, Thomas Chalmers plays Ben and Lee J. Cobb is Willy.Courtesy of the Fred Fehl Photo Collection, Theatre Arts Collection, Harry Ransom Research Center, The University of Texas
For even when he is well into fatherhood and working for the Wagner firm, Willy tells his older brother Ben, “Dad left when I was such a baby . . . I never had a chance to talk to him and I still feel kind of temporary about myself.” Not talented at selling himself in order to sell whatever it is he sells, having “to be at it ten, twelve hours a day,” Willy resorts to a kind of prostitution: an affair with Miss Francis, a secretary with power to put him through to the buyers. Nevertheless, he clings to the ethos embodied in the Singleman apparition, believing that old man Wagner would have made him a partner and thus being stunned when Wagner’s son, inheritor of the firm, discards him like the rind on “a piece of fruit.”
Ben, Hebrew for “son of,” also fits this allegory well, offering Willy a second surrogate identity. His own father quest absurdly detoured—he was “going to find Father in Alaska” but “discovered after a few days [he] was heading due South, so instead . . . ended up in Africa”—Ben is the variegated offspring of the preindustrial American who vanished with the vanishing frontier. He retains the old qualities expedient in the new era: his father’s energy, guts, and pioneering spirit, but adds to these a willingness to “never fight fairly with a stranger” and to exploit the natural resources of another continent. Willy admires him as “success incarnate,” and as one who “knew the answers,” yet seems to suspect the bait-and-switch, so returns to his essential question, “Where is Dad? Didn’t you follow him?” and expresses his deep need to know his father: “Please tell about Dad.” Again, Miller offers us paradox: Ben’s success is predicated on error, then plunder, rhyming nicely with the contradiction between Willy’s anger at the builders “for cutting those [elms] down” and his regret over not logging with Ben in Alaska. Finally, no matter what the question, Ben has one smug non sequitur answer: “when I was seventeen I walked into the jungle, and when I was twenty-one I walked out. . . . And by God I was rich.” Willy thinks Ben has something to teach, and his premise isn’t entirely wrong: fathers, including father surrogates, teach.
Willy’s felt obligation to instruct his sons in a viable ethos is made desperate by his confusion. When Linda tells them, “attention must finally be paid to such a person,” suggesting the tragic ramifications of Willy’s struggle, Biff and Hap hardly need to be reminded to pay attention to their father: they are deeply mired in his muddle. In fact, the Loman family manifests a kind of psychic contagion whereby Willy’s father’s hunger and thus identity and vocational confusion is passed on to his sons, who essentially inherit Willy’s uncompleted father quest: they too suffer the loss of the preindustrial role model. Willy fills the void with exaggerations: the police protect his car, the Mayor of Providence invites him to breakfast, his sons’ Adonis bodies will ensure their future success. He lies this way because he doesn’t know what to offer them and fears he is “not teaching them the right kind of—” principles, asking, “Ben, how should I teach them?” In the end, rather than admit the bankruptcy of his legacy, he sells his death to perpetuate it.
Interestingly, Miller offers us a foil for the “diamond” of Willy’s life insurance policy in the subplot of Charley, whose refusal to pass on hype to his son results in Bernard’s success. When Willy says, “you never told him what to do, did you? You never took any interest in him,” Charley acquiesces, “I never took any interest in anything,” suggesting another paradox, that transmitting nothing is better than transmitting the defunct. The result is a steady and unmyopic Bernard who offers Biff reality checks even in flashbacks: “I heard Mr. Birnbaum say that if you don’t start studyin’ math he’s gonna flunk you and you won’t graduate.” Charley and therefore Bernard, “who, between them can’t hammer a nail but who adapt to a corrupting and dehumanizing system,” understand the diminished reality before them—diminished inevitably because frontiers, at least on Earth, are finite. They substitute hard work for moments of glory like Biff’s at Ebbets Field. Moreover, Charley is generous and kind, and Bernard is “gonna argue a case in front of the Supreme Court,” so they offer hope. Because of their uninflated identities, however, they neither suffer nor attain Willy’s tragic stature, a stature Charley acknowledges in his requiem speech.
But the pragmatist Charley did not raise Biff and Happy. When Linda says, “Then make Charley your father, Biff. You can’t do that, can you?”, we know that if Willy’s sons are to survive his muddle, they must understand his identity, which leads back to their grandfather. Only Biff is able to complete this process. Happy, the second son, continues to emulate the false Willy, and that accounts for why, at a critical moment in the restaurant scene, he must deny Willy, saying, “that’s not my father,” his own striving being predicated on the inauthentic Willy: the successful identity Willy fabricated, and not the man “babbling in a toilet.” But Biff has the advantage—another irony—of disillusionment. When at eighteen he seeks his father in Boston, expecting to find the stupendous salesman who will be able to talk Birnbaum out of flunking him, Biff encounters the real Willy: a lonely man fearful of failure having an adulterous affair. Willy’s flashback to this pivotal moment in the Boston hotel room, the climax of the play, reveals a genuine family tragedy: the loss of a son’s faith in his father, resulting in the loss of that son’s faith in his own bright future. But on the level of myth, it puts Biff on the path.
It takes Biff sixteen years to assimilate the loss of the “fake” Willy and to discover the essential Willy. Until he does so, Biff is “mixed up very bad . . . like a boy.” After Boston, he struggles to hack his way through the tangle of Willy’s confusion. But in the farewell scene with his father, Biff achieves clarity, saying, “you’re going to hear the truth—what you are and what I am! The man doesn’t know who we are!” Neither denying, forgiving, nor discounting his father’s infidelity (which resonates metaphorically), Biff, with monumental effort, at last can say, “I know who I am,” rejecting the business-success ethos that is only the surface of Willy’s legacy, and embracing the deeper layers: love of nature, celebration of manual labor, and distrust of the machine. By not knowing his own father and choosing instead to emulate Singleman, Willy repressed his real talent, the carpentry work he excels at and enjoys, reminding us of the difficulty of uniting vocation and avocation in the industrialized world. Significantly, we never know what Willy sells, but we do know what he makes and grows: a hammock, a ceiling, a front porch, lilac, wisteria.
Nevertheless, Miller offers only an attenuated resolution for Biff. When Biff rejects Willy’s false legacy—note that it is too late for Willy, who dies trying to underwrite it—he rejects what he earlier in the play called:
a measly manner of existence. To get on that subway on the hot mornings in summer. To devote your whole life to keeping stock, or making phone calls, or selling or buying. To suffer fifty weeks of the year for the sake of a two-week vacation.
In this moment of transfiguration—although Willy is the tragic hero, the transfiguration is Biff’s—his entanglement in Willy’s false values ends, and he achieves the clarity and the self-knowledge that Willy, who “never knew who he was” fails to achieve. And although it is Willy who struggles for dignity in a system that denies it, and we can’t help admiring that struggle, it is finally Biff who makes peace with their condition by declaring independence from the city and the business world, for himself as grandson, and for his father who likewise prefers to whistle on elevators and take in the thick trees and warm sun, and would have liked to retire on a little farm.
Willy! I ran down eleven flights with a pen in my hand today. And suddenly I stopped, you hear me? And in the middle of that office building, do you hear this? I stopped in the middle of that building and I saw—the sky. I saw the things that I love in this world. The work and the food and time to sit and smoke. And I looked at the pen and said to myself, what the hell am I grabbing this for? Why am I trying to become what I don’t want to be?
Biff plans to return to the West to do the work he loves, “playing around with horses.”
Even though the cowboy lifestyle endures, the relief we feel at Biff’s escape feels anachronistic, a suspicion Miller’s later screenplay, The Misfits, validates, with its cowboys’ diminishing options and uncertain futures. Yet Biff’s choice of a vocation that embodies a timeless American type seems necessary on the level of allegory. The athletic Biff will labor with his hands, live in the tenured insecurity of nature, carry his values and home within, and remain unfettered and individualistic. The life of the cowboy is one of the few contemporary options that allows Biff to straddle the world of his grandfather, his father, and his own, and achieve a height Willy was unable to achieve, on the throne of a horse, a live mount instead of a Chevrolet.
Willy’s life, running from about 1886 to 1949, parallels the emergence of America as an industrial power. When Willy’s father vanishes, his son and his son’s sons wake up in a radically altered world. And that world is our world. Willy, never having found his father, remains arrested in a kind of boyhood, a Willy instead of William, and wills this fate to his sons, whose names, Biff and Happy, likewise suggest arrested maturity. Ben blunders, then is bought away from his father quest. Willy takes a detour. Happy cannot acknowledge that Willy is lost. Bernard and his father, Charley, can’t get lost with feet so firmly planted on the ground. But Biff completes Willy’s father quest by making an inferential leap: Willy has given him enough clues about enduring values that Biff is able to affirm “the stock they spring from.” Because Willy’s father is an American prototype, in returning to him, Biff closes the circle of our past.
Yet why, if it is our past, does this topically and allegorically American play manage to move the world’s people too? Because while the surface of Death of a Salesman is rich with the textures of American life—from high school football, a weathered mortgage, a simonized car, to the built-in obsolescence of almost everything Willy labors through time payments to own, and deep in the play’s structure, too, is the music of the lost America—its milieu and characters are increasingly the world’s, where “Everybody is selling and everything is for sale.” Furthermore, beneath the particularities of the play’s surface is the deep structure of myth: sons seeking lost fathers, the lost promise of youth. So when Willy asks, “How do we get back to all the great times? . . . so full of light, and comradeship. . . . And always some kind of good news coming up . . . ,” people everywhere wonder too.
Finally, if this “American” mythic allegory speaks to the world’s people, they must also reckon, as Americans must, with its implications. For those “great times” weren’t “great” for everyone—African-Americans, Native Americans, others elsewhere, perhaps even Daniel Miller. Willy’s lost father both obscures and suggests their realities.
And this brings us, post-finally, to Vanity Fair’s revelations, wherein myth explodes in reality and challenges us to assimilate the irony that Miller, who manipulated the myth of the lost father so compellingly, may have been a lost father himself. Of course, Miller didn’t vanish into Alaska but only a few miles down the road, nor did he disappear entirely from Daniel’s life. Moreover, while Willy may have died trying to underwrite a false legacy, Miller, near death, amended his own, acknowledging Daniel in his will. So in the end, we are left with what we had in the first place: a writer who, in a state of artistic grace, built a cabin with his own hands and in it wrote a play, Death of a Salesman, that, in illuminating his culture and increasingly the world’s, both reflects and transcends him as a man.
Myths and dreams, personal and cultural, have a tenacious grip on the present. The theme of the lost father is relevant to people in industrializing or industrialized, in developing or developed countries: anywhere people inhabit worlds different from the worlds of their predecessors and, haunted by those worlds, seek identity and vocation even while reckoning the degree to which their legacies are myth and what those myths shroud. The layer of allegory and deep mythic structure in Death of a Salesman, its evocation of the father search, combine seamlessly with the theme of confused identity, thus vocation, both cultural and personal. Miller’s sets, including the mind of Willy, and now, we discover, Miller’s own, house these conflations. We hear, and the world hears, Willy’s father floating back to us in sound.
1. Enoch Brater, ed., Arthur Miller’s America: Theater and Culture in a Time of Change (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2005), 36.
2. Suzanne Andrews, “Arthur Miller’s Missing Act.” Vanity Fair, Sept. 2007, 252–265.
3. From opening night, the action and characters of Death of a Salesman have been indistinguishable from reality for American audiences. Miller describes in an essay how they “sweated, sobbed . . . wrote the most affecting letters in which they promised themselves to change their lives . . . confessed themselves to be exactly like Willy, Linda, Biff, and Happy, and wanted desperately to forgive a father, mother, brother they had wronged. . . . Bernard Gimbel gave orders to all his stores that no overage employee was to be fired, and Alfred C. Fuller had me to dinner to ask what he could do to keep his Fuller Brush salesmen from quitting.” See Arthur Miller, “The Year It Came Apart,” New York Magazine, Vol. 8., December 30, 1974, 30–44.
4. “The Norwegian Arctic circle fishermen . . . insisted on seeing it night after night . . . believing it to be some kind of religious rite,” in Miller, “Introduction,” The Collected Plays (New York: Viking, 1965), 28. See also Yuan Henian, “Death of a Salesman in Beijing,” Chinese Literature (October 1983), 103–109; and Dana Heller, “Salesman in Moscow” in Pease, Wiegman, and Dobson, The Futures of American Studies (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002), 183–210.
5. Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman (New York: Viking Penguin, 1976), 11. Subsequent quotations are from this edition.
6. “For Miller, the break between making and selling ‘has terrible consequences’. . . . To make something . . . is to retain a grasp on the real.” See Christopher Bigsby, Arthur Miller: A Critical Study (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 13.
7. My thinking about both allegories was facilitated by Barclay Bates, “The Lost Past in Death of a Salesman” in Modern Drama, 11, 164–172; Richard T. Brucher, “Willy Loman and The Soul of the New Machine: Technology and the Common Man” in Journal of American Studies, 17, 325–336; Alfred Ferguson, “The Tragedy of the American Dream in Death of a Salesman” in Thought: a Review of Culture and Ideas, 53, 83–98; Stuart B. James, “Pastoral Dreamer in an Urban World” in Denver Quarterly, I (Autumn 1966) 45–57; Norma Jenckes, Ed., New Readings in American Drama (New York: Peter Lang, 2002); Fred. Ribkoff, “Shame, Guilt, Empathy, and the Search for Identity in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman” in Modern Drama 43:1 (Spring 2000) 48–55.
8. My understanding of the theme of the lost father was nurtured by: Carl G. Jung’s “The Significance of the Father in the Destiny of the Individual” in The Collected Works of C. G. Jung (Princeton University Press, 1961) 301–323; Marvin Bell, “Ending with a Line from Lear” (poem); James Tate, “The Lost Pilot” (poem); Robert Bly, “The Hunger for the King in a Time with No Father” (essay) in Fathers and Mothers, second edition, ed. Patricia Berry (Dallas: Spring Publications, 1990); and Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth (New York: Doubleday, 1988).
9. Kenneth Bernard, in Philip C. Kolin, “Death of a Salesman: A Playwright’s Forum, Michigan Quarterly Review, 37:4 (Fall 1998), 599.
10. The following provided scaffolding for my thinking about cowboys and the West: Gerald Nash, The American West in the Twentieth Century (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1973); and Jack Weston, The Real American Cowboy (New York: Schocken Books, 1985).
11. Colby H. Kullman, “Death of a Salesman at Fifty: An Interview with Arthur Miller” in Michigan Quarterly Review, 37:4 (Fall 1998), 634.
12. See Oyamo’s observations in Kolin’s “A Playwrights’ Forum,” Michigan Quarterly Review, 37:4 (Fall 1998), 591–623.
13. For a penetrating discussion of these and other complexities, see Granger Babcock’s “’What’s the Secret?’ Willy Loman as Desiring Machine” in Norma Jenckes, ed., New Readings in American Drama (New York: Peter Lang, 2002), 101–117.