List of Contents
2 Cultural Reasons
2.1 The Economic System
2.2 The Popular Myths of Success
3 Psychological Reasons
3.1 Undeserved Love
3.2 The Irrational Desire for Success
3.3 The Will to Save His Dignity
5 List of Works Cited
When Willy Loman is heard racing off with his car at the end of Arthur Millers play Death of a Salesman, nobody doubts why he is doing so. He wrecks his car and kills himself to leave his family 20,000 dollars insurance money. Willy Loman is a suicide.
And yet every viewer of the play will ask himself who or what killed this man. What are the forces that pushed him towards this somber end? The fact that Arthur Miller pursues genuine moral education in his plays, which he has repeatedly admitted to (for example in “The Salesman Has a Birthday”) justifies this question. For how one answers it decides what kind of message one distils from the play.
In this paper, I will not focus on a possible moral message of the play. Instead, I will try to collect hints at who or what might be responsible for Willy Loman’s death. As I am not the first to engage in this matter, I will be able to present the viewpoints of different critics, and to compare them. It seems to be a characteristic of Death of a Salesman that many reasons can be named for its catastrophic ending – its discussion has been very controversial. In consequence, one difficulty of my investigation will be to take into account also the play’s subtleties in order to value each critic’s standpoint properly.
It has repeatedly been criticized that Arthur Miller makes use of fuzzy logic in his play. On the one hand, one can see obvious traits of social criticism in Death of a Salesman, on the other hand Miller presents two characters – Charley and Bernard – that succeed in a capitalistic world without acting unfair. Miller condemns a social order ruled by wealth while approving of the right way to live in it. This conflict demonstrates that Miller’s play is offering explanations of Willy Loman’s failure that are based on social criticism as well as explanations that are psychologically motivated. This division marks the two directions criticism has been following through the years. For that reason, I will divide my inquiry into two sections: Cultural Reasons and Psychological Reasons. Whenever necessary, the two domains will be cross-linked in order to form a synthesis.
When verifying quotations from Death of a Salesman, I will use plain numbers in brackets, such as (2031). Excerpts from secondary works will be substantiated in an extended form, e.g. (Murphy 200-210). Numbers refer to the pages the quotations were found on.
2 Cultural Reasons
2.1 The Economic System
Miller’s drama has a strong scent of social criticism. For some interpreters, especially Marxists, the idea might come near that the author of Death of a Salesman intended to present Willy’s ruin exclusively as a result of an unfair society. In fact, several scenes of the play, among them some of the most important ones, seem to support this point of view:
When Willy Loman (the “low man”) enters the office of his boss Howard Wagner, who is 36 years old and the heir of the company’s founder, he is not paid any attention to. Howard is busy with his new tape recorder. When Willy finally manages to utter his wish to work in New York from now on instead of travelling, he is fed with empty phrases such as “But you’re a road man, Willy, and we do a road business.” or “... it’s a business, kid [Willy is over 60 years old], and everybody’s gotta pull his own weight.” (2028) What for Willy is a reason to give him a New York job (“I’m just a little tired”, 2028), is for Howard a reason to fire him. All that counts for people like him is efficiency. Willy hits the nail on its head when he says:
In those days, there was personality in it, Howard. There was respect, and comradeship, and gratitude in it. Today, it’s all cut and dried, and there’s no chance for bringing friendship to bear – or personality.
Ben was Willy’s older brother and is dead now. Willy adores him – to him he is a myth. In one scene – all the Ben scenes take place in Willy’s head – Ben tells us why: “When I was seventeen I walked into the jungle, and when I was twenty-one I walked out. And, by God, I was rich.” (2014) This makes Willy feel a mixture of envy and adoration.
The scenes in which Ben appears draw a picture similar to the one in the Howard scene. For instance, Ben provokes Biff to engage in a fist fight with him, and suddenly trips him. “Never fight fair with a stranger, boy.” he comments on his deed. “You’ll never get out of the jungle that way.” (2014) The “jungle” stands for an environment in which no law exists. The roughness of power is the only force that helps one surviving there. Obviously, for Ben the whole life is such a jungle. I do not know whether Miller was inspired by Nietzsche’s “Will to Power”, but Ben advocates very similar ideas.
Miller did not miss the opportunity to endow Ben with the face of death itself. Shortly before Willy decides to kill himself, Miller inserts the following line: “BEN: [looking at his watch] The boat. We’ll be late. [He moves slowly off into the darkness.]” (2055) I believe that Miller alludes to Greek mythology here, where it was the duty of Charon to escort the dead in a boat to the underworld.
Miller seems to take the idea serious that it is Ben or what Ben stands for that promotes Willy’s death. In support of this, Sighle Kennedy in his essay “Who Killed the Salesman?” stresses the importance of Ben: “Ben’s words and example – grown to an obsession – directly lure Willy to his death.” (Kennedy 38)
Willy’s struggle with economy is shown in a further way. Miller depicts a Willy Loman who cannot handle the new technologies thrown on the market by sharply calculating economists, technologies that are now part of daily life. For example he feels uneasy with Howard’s tape recorder and fumbles it when he, by accident, turns its switch on. In another scene, he falls victim to the invention of advertisement. When Willy regrets having bought the refrigerator (he hates it because it permanently breaks down), his wife Linda says: “They got the biggest ads on them!” and Willy answers: “I know, it’s a fine machine.” as though advertisement was a criterion of quality. All of these scenes demonstrate that modern economy and modern life are strange to Willy Loman. To use a Marxist term that fits in here: He is alienated from his work and his environment.
Brenda Murphy convincingly points out that in presenting the characters of Charley, Bernard, Howard and Ben, Miller gives examples for the three forms in which wealth is attained in the world of Death of a Salesman. The first two stand for hard work combined with a stress on education, Howard for inheritance, and Ben for sheer luck. (Murphy 5) Willy Loman’s philosophy of personality unfortunately is not listed as a recipe for wealth and success. This brings us to the second point in this section. First, though, we’ll have to evaluate the importance of the economic situation retrospectively.
We have found much evidence for the contribution of the economical environment to Willy’s ruin. Yet economic pressure alone does not seem sufficient to explain it. If it was, cases like Willy’s would be nothing extraordinary, for thousands of people live under comparable, if not worse conditions. And as pointed out above, Miller in his play presents two characters that get on well with capitalism without becoming reckless monsters: Charley and Bernard. So while economics might provide a framework for the salesman’s failure, we definitely have to look for further factors contributing to Willy’s death.
 Exclusively for reasons of simplicity, only the male forms will be used.