Arthur Miller’s most celebrated work, Death of a Salesman, dwells on the depressing life of its protagonist, a failed businessman named Willy Loman. Loman, in his efforts to become a man of success and respect, undermines his dreams by lack of action. Willy lives in fantastic world; he sees himself reflected in the eyes of Singleman, a wealthy bachelor of a salesman. Willy conjures images oh himself in far off cities, the townsfolk calling to him in delight. He sees himself as a role model for his children, a debonair, yet loving husband, and a man about town. In reality, Willy has never become anything he has wished; instead, he sees himself as fallen from grace. However, his “grace” never existed. Willy’s life never peaked, his business never took off. All the while, he drowns himself in thoughts of what might have been, and he sees his failures reflected in his wife and two sons.
Miller shapes Willy Loman in an interesting manner; his dialogue and rhetoric are enough to inform the audience of his pitiful existence. Willy is a deluded character, and Miller adjusts the audience’s perception of him through subtle details merged with flashbacks and past events. He is the small, humble house amidst the towering, oppressive apartment buildings; he is a dream quelled by the occurrences of life. Miller places Willy in the shadows of existence, in the city of hundreds as a nameless, faceless nobody. Loman is not appreciated in his own household, and his lack of noble efforts takes a toll on the way his family perceives him. Miller manipulates Willy like a puppet; he takes the hits as they come, but he hardly goes out of his way to prevent one from coming.
A seemingly usual conversation between Linda and Willy allows Miller to dig his claws into Loman. After arriving home from a tedious and exhausting business trip, Willy converses with his wife, his subtle intonation hint to his subconscious dreams of achieving success. He asks his wife, somewhat indignantly, why she purchased “American [cheese] when I like Swiss?” (Miller 10) Linda had previously informed him of her decision because the cheese was a new kind, “It’s whipped” (10). Through these lines of dialogue, Willy’s entire existence is revealed. Linda, though perhaps inadvertently, believes she knows what is best for her floundering husband. By offering him the new type of cheese – whipped – she is keeping him grounded by domesticity, yet with an air of extravagance. The American cheese is Willy’s actual life; it is boring, dull, rudimentary, and lackluster. Willy’s preferred cheese, Swiss, is exotic, foreign, sharp, and lively. Miller, in this particular line, summarizes Willy’s notions toward becoming successful; he is unwilling to give up the dream and succumb to a boring life. While Willy sees American cheese as something to settle for, such as carpentry would be, it is, in reality, the lucrative American dream.
By offering the new “whipped” version of the American cheese, Linda is extending an olive branch. She wants Willy to settle down and confront his failures while attempting to make a change to break the monotonous rut in which he has landed. The new type of cheese is still the same in basis, but it has an added touch of flair – it is whipped, and therefore, is most likely most expensive than the regular American cheese, but less costly than Swiss. However, Willy is unable to let go of his dream. Miller shows that he is convinced that he deserves the exotic lifestyle, but he has merely been gypped of what is owed him. Singleman has Swiss cheese, why not him?
Linda then attempts to quell the situation by offering that she figured he might like a change. At this point in the play, one does not view Linda as a wave-maker, and it appears as thought Miller’s intentions for her character allow her to speak subconsciously about wanting a change in her mundane life that is a direct result of Willy’s failures; however, she speaks so casually about the daunting issues of demise and death, relating them, in turn, to types of cheese, that one cannot assume she is steadfast in her convictions. Miller paints Linda as weak, frail, and somewhat pitiful. She treats Willy as though he has the final say in all of life’s decisions, and, by allowing him to reprimand her like a child, she immediately becomes inferior to him. Linda’s offering of a change is subtle and with good intentions, but the outcome is once again futile, and she gives in just as easily as it appears she always has.
Willy once again reprimands her, obviously angered by the fact that he is not receiving what he wishes. “I don’t want a change! I want Swiss cheese” (10). Miller shows that Willy is unable to part with the smallest aspects of a luxurious life, one that he simply cannot afford. Willy has inadvertent intentions of “keeping up with the Joneses,” which has often landed him in tight financial situations. Miller colors this notion with references such as the aforementioned cheese predicament. Willy refuses to trade in his seemingly lavish and respectable career for a lucrative, productive, blue-collar craft. Through context clues, one can assume he is excellent with construction, having built swings, stoops, and other various items around the house. However, in a child-like tantrum, Willy exalts, “I want Swiss cheese,” signifying that he is simply too stubborn to bring his head above the sand.
Linda then attempts to hide her laughter, amused slightly by Willy’s boy-like pig-headedness. This subtle action epitomizes Linda’s reaction to Willy as a man, as a salesman, as a husband. She finds his actions laughable, but she refuses to let on for fear that she might alienate her spouse. She does not want to embarrass him, so she places constructive criticism to the side and lets him live as he does, undisturbed. Miller lets the audience believe that next time, she will purchase the Swiss cheese. Next time, she will do as her husband wishes; she will not try to “surprise” him (10). These singular lines color the audience’s perception of Willy and Linda as a couple; he sees himself as superior and deserving of exotic aspects of a lifestyle, while she feels that he could come down a few notches in order to save himself, but she fears embarrassing him, and neglects to do so.
Willy then goes on to order his wife, “Why don’t you open a window in here, for God’s sake?” (10) Willy’s abrupt intonation is enough to anger Linda, but she acts calmly, hardly irritated by his mannerisms. Miller shows that Willy has learned that he can talk to Linda this way, and he sees nothing wrong with it. By using the Lord’s name in vain, we can see that Willy is crude and unconcerned with a higher power. He again wants what he wants, and does not see that he is hurting others in attempts to obtain what he feels he needs. By verbalizing commands in a casual manner, Miller helps to color the audience’s innate dislike for Willy. We begin to see him less as pitiful, and more as a product of his own design. It becomes clear through these lines that Willy has made his own bed, but he refuses to sleep in it.
Willy’s dialogue also aids in setting the scene of his small home. Linda informs him that “They’re [the windows] are all open, dear” (10). Miller’s original set design informs the audience that the Lomans reside in small house that is now the center of a daunting, concrete metropolis. Apartment buildings encroach upon the house in mass, shadowing it in a blanket of despair. The tiny house struggles to survive in the pavement jungle, but it is constantly reminded of its inadequacy due to its surrounding neighbors, as is Willy. The house is so blocked in, that, even with all of the windows open, not a single breeze filters through. This also shows that Willy feels heavy and oppressed; one can imagine him pulling anxiously on the collar of his button-down shirt in a fit of sweat. Linda sits by “with infinite patience” (10), with small attempts to console her washed-up husband.
Miller continues his rant via Willy’s dialogue. “The way they boxed us in here. Bricks and windows, windows and bricks” (10). Miller transposes bricks and windows, comparing them to allude to the same basic meaning. Windows are hardly bricks and bricks hardly windows. One allows you to see through, allows the breeze and the sunlight in. The other is solid and finite; in mass, it keeps one trapped, allowing no light in and no exit out. Willy’s inability to show distinction between these two entities alludes to his inability to find a way out. If he has mistaken windows for bricks, such as appears to be so in his own home, he will never be able to make the distinction between a way out and the dismal trappings of his own life. He says that he feels “boxed in;” however, he is content to place the blame on an ambiguous entity of others – “they boxed us in” – and does not feel the need to keep the fault in his own backyard.
Linda them chimes in, as Miller states, “not criticizing” (10), to offer the reservation that they did not purchase the land next door. By making this comment, it appears as thought Willy and Linda had, at one point in time, enough money to purchase a vacant lot located next to their home. This also leads the audience to believe that, at the time of this contemplation, the apartment buildings had not yet been built. If Willy had purchased the land instead of chasing his dreams, he could have either sold it to the building companies and made a reasonable profit (enough, with the combination of his land, to purchase a decently-sized house in a respectable suburban area), or kept the land to himself and prevented the builders from putting up the apartments. Willy had the power to stop his home from becoming inundated by the sprawling metropolis, but he neglected to take action. The fact that Linda does not criticize him for this colors her as a character lacking conviction, simply always allowing her husband a multitude of mistakes.
Irving Jacobson maintains a similar view in his article “Family Dreams in Death of a Salesman,” claiming that Willy is merely a protagonist who hurts himself and others by his inability to act in a positive manner and develop his character. He quotes Sheila Huftel in remarking that “Loman fell only from ‘an imagined height'” (Jacobson 247), and chalks Loman’s demise as “merely the collapse of a Philistine” (247). Loman is responsible for his own actions, and, in turn, his inactions, which allowed him to “fall” in the first place. However, by simply idealizing a sweeter life, Willy never worked toward becoming anything better than what he innately was. He fooled himself into believing that he was a great salesman, when in reality, he is merely blue-collar, a Philistine. Miller creates Willy as a character who is unable to accept his fate, as a character who dreams a dream but never follows through.
Jacobson reverts to an interview with Arthur Miller in which Miller states, “The trouble with Willy Loman is that he has tremendously powerful ideas” (247). One might assume that such would hardly be a trouble, but in Miller’s own words, we understand his intentions for Willy, and how just such could be true. Willy defined success in monetary form; he wanted to be popular rather than hardworking. Jacobson also denotes that the family is often viewed as the center of the American dream, something that Miller intentionally has Willy overlook in his race to the theoretical top (248). He also draws allusions to All My Sons, citing Willy as “an odd synthesis of Joe and Chris Keller” (247). Miller draws upon the same theme by having Willy alienate his family just as Joe Keller did, yet creates a fallen father figure that should have never been revered.
Robert A. Martin’s article, The Nature of Tragedy in Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” finds Willy as a device rather than an agent (Martin 99). He allows himself to flow with the current and never prepares for what might come. He can see his dream clearly, and he has taken the very initial steps in order to participate in it, but he misses the most important steps of the process – execution – and in turn, becomes a terrible, unsuccessful salesman. However, Martin uses such to discredit Miller, chalking his intentions for the character of Willy Loman to be too “tragic” (99). “Willy has been criticized for being ‘too little’ or ‘too common’ to meet the supposed requirement for Aristotle, i.e., that tragedy can only affect or be affected by noble beings, who are themselves of a ‘certain nobility or magnitude'” (99).
While Martin’s notions are poignant, he fails to give credit to the audience; Miller’s intentions might be skewed carelessly by different perspectives. Willy Loman is intended to be portrayed; much of his efforts are worn in how Miller’s lines are executed, not simply how Miller’s lines are written. Willy is not supposed to be tragic. His efforts were meek, futile, and flailing. He amounted to nothing in life, gave nothing, and ended his existence in a cowardly fashion. Willy Loman is hardly pitiable, but rather is rather a representative fable of life and its flaws. Miller creates Willy in textbook fashion; he is disgraceful and unable to see past himself. Perhaps, in turn, such is tragic, but it up to the audience to determine such for themselves.
Willy Loman is a solid example of Arthur Miller’s attention to detail; Willy’s life story is told through a series of descriptive, tale-telling vignettes that offer little consolation of daily existence. Through the characterization of Willy, Miller is able to tell a tale, to teach a fable. In simple detail-oriented dialogue, Miller forges Willy’s relationships, faults, flaws, and shortcomings. This craft allows the audience to see Willy Loman in a myriad of lights, and each perspective could offer a commentary all its own. Arthur Miller breeds failure and its consequence through Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman.
Jacobson, Irving. "Family Dreams in 'Death of a Salesman.'" American Literature 47.2 (May 1975): 247-258. 25 Mar. 2007 .
Martin, Robert A. "The Nature of Tragedy in Arthur Miller's 'Death of a Salesman.'" South Atlantic Review 61.4 (Fall 1996): 97-106. 26 Mar. 2007 .
Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. 1948. New York: Dramatists Play Service Inc., 1980.