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Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller

Why It's a Masterpiece (Week 10)

By Annie KapurPublished 17 days ago 7 min read
Top Story - May 2024
From: Penguin Australia

Perhaps one of the best known modern plays in all of 20th century theatre, ‘Death of a Salesman’ is a 1949 play written by Arthur Miller. Set in Brooklyn, it takes place over two acts and portrays the tragedy of the Loman household - specifically that of protagonist Willy Loman. It deals with the crushing of the American Dream and forces the audience to confront the harsh truth about what America has become. It ended up winning the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play and as it is revived many times we in literature and drama hope it can continue its influence for years to come.


From: Amazon

The plot is a simplistic one that relies heavily on its dialogues between characters. It opens on Willy Loman returning home from a sales trip whilst his wife, Linda, suggests that he should do a city job instead. The sons of the couple (Happy and Biff) are talking about the future and how they are trying to remain hopeful. These juxtapositions of thought and action are essential for understanding to deep interworking dynamics of the family central to the play.

Willy thinks about the time he said to his sons that though they may not be as academic as their neighbour’s son, they will become more successful than him. Biff Loman is about to fail his math class and won’t be able to graduate without it. Willy Loman knows that he himself is not very successful no matter how much Linda tries to convince him that he is. I think a great fact about this play is that Arthur Miller based Bernard (the neighbour’s son) on himself.

When daydreaming, Willy thinks about a mistress in a hotel room and then he and his wife argue about Biff’s horrid treatment of women. During the present day though, Charley and Willy play cards together but Charley gets up and leaves as he is creeped out by Willy who is talking to his brother Ben. Ben has been dead for a while and Willy still communicates with him. I think this is a poignant part of the story which, like Shakespeare does through ghostly encounters and communications, shows us that Willy Loman is not of sound mind.

Again, in the present day, Willy is shouting at himself and this wakes up the other members of the Loman family - they are no longer doing as well as they once were, they have even less money now. Linda talks about how Willy has tried to kill himself a few times whilst Biff and Happy carry on talking about the future. I think this part is quite important because Biff and Happy are still talking about the future, something they talk about a lot. They talk about it because they know they have to confront it soon and its getting closer. The closer it gets, the more it happens and thus, we have Linda discussing Willy’s attempted suicide intertwined with the urgency of the future, quickly approaching.

Act 2 presents a turn as, whilst asking for a non-travelling job and unable to take no for an answer, Willy Loman is fired. Charley learns Willy was fired and offers him a job in his office, though there is an argument that Willy has with Bernard about how Bernard has implied the reason why Biff is failing is because of Willy. Willy refuses the job but takes Charley’s money and though he leaves, he also insinuates that the key to success is being well liked. Charley doesn’t agree though.

Willy has a nervous breakdown when Biff’s ‘Florida Plan’ fails and Happy and Biff begin to argue. They rush out of the restaurant they were in and Willy is left alone with his thoughts. Willy recalls that Biff found out about his affair in Boston. Biff stated that he would fail math and not go to college. The waiter at the restaurant snaps Willy out of his daydream. When finally at home though, an argument with Biff ensues.

Biff becomes upset and Willy thinks about the fact that Biff must like him. After this, Happy, Biff and Linda hear Willy drive his car into the night. Willy commits suicide by crashing his car and at his funeral, Biff and Charley discuss how it is important for a salesman to dream. Happy commits himself to becoming successful whilst Linda cries privately, telling her dead husband that they are now going to be free.

Into the Book

From: Amazon

I think that quite possibly the most important theme in this book (and of books of the era) is the American Dream and its destructions. An opposite to ‘The Great Gatsby’ which takes its point from elsewhere on the social ladder, this book deals with the everyday human beings and their deteriorations after the war. The displacement after World War 2 was huge and took a massive toll on the minds of many Americans. I would suggest looking into an autobiographical work (and one of my favourite books) entitled ‘Kafka was the Rage’ by Anatole Broyard to learn more about this. Willy Loman was sold a lie about the American Dream that anyone can succeed as long as people like them and they work hard.

This is Willy Loman’s hamartia as well, as he becomes obsessed with personal appearances to the point that it is detrimental to his work. His method to being likeable is mixed with the childish approaches of being disliked as well. For example: he does not like Bernard for his intelligence and he doesn’t like being confronted with rejection even though there is grounds for rejection happening. His mismatched version of the American Dream against his own presentable self is something that causes his downward spiral, especially when he thinks about the past in which he has not been very presentable himself.

A melody is heard, played upon a flute. It is small and fine, telling of grass and trees and the horizon. The curtain rises. Before us is the Salesman’s house. We are aware of towering, angular shapes behind it, surrounding it on all sides. Only the blue light of the sky falls upon the house and fore-stage; the surrounding area shows an angry glow of orange.

- Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller

A symbol that I always quite enjoyed in this play was diamonds. Diamonds represent the most valuable form of tangible wealth and, like Willy’s superficial understanding of the American Dream, represents something he can see as being valuable. It is this representation of validation that makes him believe that it is important to pass on material wealth to his kids - it is this material wealth that makes him obsessed with appearance and the appearance of niceness to be successful. It is Ben's ghost who tells Willy to enter the ‘jungle’ and retrieve the elusive ‘diamond’ he needs to secure his family financially. This is a reference to the insurance payout they will get when Willy kills himself by crashing his car at night. I just thought the idea of diamond though it is not seen as evidence of wealth in the characters of the text, is a brilliant talking point for money and materialism and is directly representative of what wealth looks like on the outside.

A man can’t go out the way he came in, Ben, a man has got to add up to something. You can’t, you can’t—Ben moves toward him as though to interrupt. You gotta consider now. Don’t answer so quick. Remember, it’s a guaranteed twenty-thousand-dollar proposition.

- Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller

The final symbol I want to discuss is place. Place is very important in the play as it is all set in Brooklyn. Not just that though, most of the play is set in the Loman’s house. These have depressing jail-like atmospheres, often arguments ensue in them plus bad fortunes. However, this is then juxtaposed to what Willy’s father and Willy’s brother both did - they travelled. His father went to Alaska and gained success whilst Ben went to Africa and saw success there. Willy’s commitment to his deluded understanding of the American Dream has ironically trapped him in a system where he will never achieve it. Biff and Happy however talk about owning a farm in a very ‘Of Mice and Men’ kind of way. This is an older understanding of the American Dream, that of before the Second World War. Biff’s realisation that this is the only way he is actually contented gives us a bigger scope of the American Dream for the Loman Family. You also have to focus on where you are as a part of your happiness. It is not just about appearances, but where you feel is your home and belonging.

Sure, maybe we could buy a ranch. Raise cattle, use our muscles. Men built like we are should be working out in the open.

- Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller

Why It’s a Masterpiece

From: Amazon

Arthur Miller’s play ‘Death of a Salesman’ is often regarded as one of the most famous plays of the 20th century and apart from the Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prizes, it also won big at the New York Drama Critics Circle Awards and the Theatre World Award was given to it in its primary year. In the 1984 version starring Dustin Hoffman as Willy Loman It won the Tony Award, the Drama Desk Awards and the Outer Critics Circles Awards. Thus proving that ‘Death of a Salesman’ is a favourite amongst writers, theatregoers and critics alike. Referenced in films like ‘Synecdoche, New York’ (2008) and was called by drama critic John Lahr ‘probably the most successful modern play ever published’ (New Yorker, 1999). It is a tragic tale yes, but the writing style that Arthur Miller adopted makes this a true story of absolute despair with notes that are tinged with realisation and epiphany. As the understanding of what the American Dream truly is builds, the misunderstandings must die in order to make way for learning.


From: The Kennedy Centre

All in all, ‘Death of a Salesman’ might be one of the saddest stories ever told. A brave and frightful look at a faction of the American Dream, a family politic that moves through intensive arguments, heated debates, realisations, secrets and self-deceptions - this book is truly one of those that I think everyone should read before they die. It presents us with a vicious delusion whilst making no mistake to emotionally wreck its audience.

Next Week: Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner


About the Creator

Annie Kapur

200K+ Reads on Vocal.

English Lecturer

🎓Literature & Writing (B.A)

🎓Film & Writing (M.A)

🎓Secondary English Education (PgDipEd) (QTS)

📍Birmingham, UK

Reader insights


Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

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  • Anna 13 days ago

    Congrats on your Top Story!

  • Babs Iverson14 days ago

    Fantastic review!!! Loved it!!!💕❤️❤️ Congratulations on Top Story too!!!

  • Congratulations on your top story.

  • shrey 15 days ago

    Congratulations on top story Annie. Loved it! the review is awesome.

  • Tony Benjamin15 days ago

    I love how you can see the whole story while still being intrigued while reading it

  • Wow! Congrats on top story! Well deserved! ❤️♥️💙💗💜

  • Sid Aaron Hirji15 days ago

    I have to say salesmen have to wear a mask and this play shows Willy wearing a mask not just in his job. It is indeed a sad one to read but I was fortunate to get to study it

  • JBaz15 days ago

    Well said o like the way you went through the entire story yet left enough to want to read it This was and still is one one my all time favourite plays and stories because it has more of reality then an average story. Congratulations

  • Caroline Craven15 days ago

    One of my favourite plays. You did an awesome job with this.

  • angela hepworth16 days ago

    I found this through the film and I absolutely loved this book!

  • Your review is meticulous as always…Bravo…

  • Carol Townend17 days ago

    Great work and this is a book I will look out for. Stories like these keep me reading, and I like your descriptive review, Annie.

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