In the play, Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller establishes a variety of themes such as the American Dream and disillusionment. Under a Marxist perspective, Death of a Salesman is a critique of a capitalist American society and materialistic lies that are written deep within the American Dream. Willy Loman, the main character of the play, is a prime example of a hardworking middle-class man striving for the success that comes from the American Dream but is left disillusioned and devastated when he realizes that hard work by itself won’t bring about success. Death of a Salesman highlights the effect that the American Dream and the power of money has on an average American family and brings about important questions that we need to ask ourselves when determining our own success in a capitalistic system. In Death of a Salesman, Miller shows that money holds power and exposes the proletariat’s dependence on the bourgeoisie’s employment and salary, while simultaneously revealing the classist values behind the labor forces.
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Death of a Salesman brings about questions that have been dwelling on humanity since the beginning: What’s the meaning of happiness? What defines success and failure? Is the American Dream real? All these questions tie into each other more than one might think. The American Dream is the ideology that if you work hard enough in this country, you will emerge rich and successful. Getting rich quickly is reflected in Miller’s play when Willy’s brother Ben Loman brags to Willy’s sons: “Why, boys when I was seventeen, I walked into the jungle, and when I was twenty-one, I walked out. He laughs. And by God I was rich” (37) There’s nowhere in the text that says anything about what Ben was specifically doing in the jungle, but he does imply acquiring wealth effortlessly. This creates an almost mocking tone toward Willy and his inefficacious labor of being a travelling salesman and not getting an earned reward quickly, if at all.
The American Dream from a Marxist perspective has become more of a shared false belief system rather than a goal to work toward. The American Dream has been misleading to the proletariat. Willy Loman is a symbol of the average American trying to attain The American Dream, while the bourgeoisie benefits from them. The working class is chasing effortless wealth while the upper class sits back and feeds off the hard work from the proletariat. Although Willy never attains the wealth he wanted, his hard work helps those that are already better off. Willy Loman isn’t Miller’s only representative of the failure of The American Dream. Happy and Biff Loman, Willy’s two sons, are struggling with their own version of success. Happy lives a materialistic life, while Biff aims for a more simple, spiritual life. The Lomans live a happy life on the outside, but on the inside, they’re falling apart as from representing the stark reality of American working-class families: an ambitious work ethic that only leads to a depressing failure.
The reality of both the bourgeoisie and the proletariat is that the bourgeoisie advances when development strikes, and the proletariat feels the oppression that comes from the development. In Karl Marx and Frederick Engels’ work Manifesto of the Communist Party, they state that, “Each step in the development of the bourgeoisie was accompanied by a corresponding political advance of that class.” (15) This is expressed in Death of a Salesman when Willy gets fired. Willy expresses to his boss Howard that he’s tired of travelling and would rather take a position in New York. Howard responds back by firing him. Howard states that Willy has never averaged a hundred and seventy dollars a week in commissions. (62) While Howard benefits from cutting Willy loose, Willy gets laid off simply by asking for an added salary and a work position closer to home.
Willy’s choice of work as a salesman contrasts greatly with his son Biff’s choice of work. Biff has very different dreams from his father and enjoys more manual labor. Willy is displeased by his son’s choice and implies that working on a farm like Biff wants hardly institutes “a life.” The contrast is to be noticed with Biff’s happiness from just the thought of working out in nature. Meanwhile Willy’s job as a salesman results in hollowness and failure for his life. Willy has been so caught up in the soul-less procedure of selling, that he’s lost sight of the true happiness that work can provide for an individual, in which Biff seems to find. In Karl Marx terms, this is called alienation. Erich Fromm describes this term in Marx’s Concept of Man. Alienation implies that the individual doesn’t see himself as an agent in the hands of the world, but rather that the world remains alien to him (Fromm 44). In other words, selling has become merely an object to Willy who has no relationship with the product itself. Arthur Miller interestingly shows this by not mentioning the product in which Willy sells. Perhaps by not specifying the product, Miller intends to show that it’s not of importance to Willy, when the product should be an extremely important part of selling.
Willy Loman embodies the average American that’s so caught up in their fruit-less endeavor of trying to sell without gaining the income necessary to cover the bills and expenses that come from living a middle-class life. While Willy works for riches and comfort, he still doesn’t understand Biff’s desires to be out in nature where he can express his freedoms. Willy is fighting to bring his family happiness, while at the same time forcing Biff into the same kind of alienated labor that he himself is trapped in. Because of his father’s capitalistic logic, Biff is left insecure with his choice of work, even if it does bring him happiness. When Biff confides in his brother Happy, he says, “What the hell am I doing, playing around with horses, twenty-eight dollars a week! I’m thirty-four years old, I oughta be makin’ my future. That’s when I come running home. And now, I get here, and I don’t know what to do with myself (Miller 16). Biff is confused and knows of his father’s disappointment. However, he’s also aware of the happiness it brings him and is appreciative of the beauty that comes from the farm; something that his father is unable to see anymore.
The American Dream is a very important theme that’s represented in Death of a Salesman. It may come true if you work hard, but hard work may also lead to someone else’s success. Willy’s work made the owners of Wagner Company successful. So, from a Marxist perspective, Willy had been exploited from his hard work that only benefited a minority of the bourgeoise instead of himself and his family. Though the American Dream describes society as one without classes where your background doesn’t determine your achievements, Death of a Salesman proves this to be false. To see the Lomans and the Wagners as equals would be ridiculous. Willy must work much harder and for much longer than his boss Howard, yet Howard is the one firing Willy and gaining the wealth. If one part of The American Dream is about taking care of people in need, then why is it when Willy comes to Howard about his energy and working skills being exploited, he doesn’t take care of him? Howard, the Wagner Company, not even his own sons take care of Willy in the end, which leaves Willy dying with a psychological disorder to give his family one last bit of cash from his health insurance.
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Willy’s psychological illness has made itself apparent throughout the entirety of the play but becomes the most harmful nearing the end. When Willy’s two sons leave him drunk and consumed by his delusions in a restaurant, he has a sudden urge to buy seeds. “I’ve got to get some seeds right away. Nothing’s planted. I don’t have a thing in the ground.” (Miller 96) Miller’s symbolism of seeds for Willy could mean several things. From a Marxist perspective, seeds could mean a legacy, a thriving business, or fortune. Willy has none of these things. His sons don’t have much to give, and Willy isn’t left with anything that he could show for himself after he’s gone. This foreshadows the end of Willy’s life, as his urge to plant seeds after a failed dinner with his sons was enough to drive Willy off the edge. Willy is left with nothing but to think about his legacy that he’s passing on. When he realizes he doesn’t have much of a legacy at all, even though he’s worked his entire life for one, Willy is left with very limited options. It is only when his brother comes to him in a delusion to tell him of his health insurance funds that Willy finds happiness about his legacy he’ll leave behind. Willy leaves his household with a smile on his face and a façade in his brain that his death will give his family a stroke of wealth and happiness.
From a Marxist perspective, Willy’s death is a protest to the dehumanizing system of a capitalistic world that dwindles down individuals into nothing but a “dime in a dozen”. In committing suicide, Willy hopes to show that he can still make a difference in his family’s lives. Even if his life hasn’t been what he wanted and he wasn’t able to provide what he wanted, he could at the very least ensure that Biff and the rest of his family will get $20,000 from the insurance company. In the end, Willy ends up escaping his mediocre and unsatisfied life by a last-ditch effort to bring fulfillment for his family. Though Willy’s wife Linda doesn’t quite understand why Willy did what he did, she ends the play stating that they’re free and clear. “I made the last payment on the house today. Today, dear. And there’ll be nobody home… We’re free and clear” (Miller 112). Linda doesn’t want Willy’s death to have been for nothing. She knows there must have been a reason, and yet she feels as if he’s just on another business trip. From a Marxist perspective, this confusion could be a correlation. Almost as if even after Willy’s death, he’s still just a hardworking salesman to his family. Almost as if the capitalistic relationship between the bourgeoisie and proletariat has utterly consumed Willy and cut him down to another pawn or piece of fruit.
Money holds power in Death of a Salesman. The proletariat’s dependence on the bourgeoisie and their toxic relationship of taking without giving is much too apparent and becomes the downfall to the Loman family. However, the negative effects of capitalism and the false American Dream promises shouldn’t take all the blame for the Loman’s demise. The individual must also take responsibility, as simply interfering with the capitalistic nature of business and selling will turn you into a puppet for the bourgeoisie to take advantage of. The classist values behind the labor forces is always to gain money and success, even if it’s at the expense of others below them. From a Marxist perspective, the middle class is no better than the upper class, as they both take advantage of those below them. Willy lives his life to breathe the success that the American Dream has to offer until he realizes that he’s just a piece of fruit tossed out by his employers that don’t give him the compensation that he deserves from being a travelling salesman. When looking at Death of a Salesman as a whole, we must examine the effect that money has on simple families and the measures we’re willing to take to provide for our loved ones. However, we must also realize that it isn’t easy to escape from the capitalistic society we live in. To live outside of it would be to live as an outcast. Miller promotes many messages to the American people, but one of the most important ones is for the audience to think about just how independent our choices really are when living in the false American Dream.
- Gailan, Mohammad. Financial Success and the American Dream. 2016, hig.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:934498/FULLTEXT01.pdf.
- Holscher, Maria. A Man Is Not a Piece of Fruit. 2013, kau.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:622708/FULLTEXT01.pdf.
- Marx, Karl, and Frederick Engels. Manifesto of the Communist Party. 1848, www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/pdf/Manifesto.pdf.
- Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. 1948, www.wcusd15.org/kershaw/ENG%20302/DS%20Death%20of%20a%20Salesman%20Complete.pdf.
- Segal, Alex, director. Death of a Salesman. Log In - Films On Demand, Broadway Digital Archive, 1966, fod.infobase.com/p_ViewVideo.aspx?xtid=49016&tScript=0.
- Fromm, Erich, and Thomas Burton Bottomore. Marx's Concept of Man. Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1961.
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