The word “success” evokes many interpretations. While the common dictionary definition defines it merely as achieving a desirable outcome, the true meaning of the word extends far beyond that. In Arthur Miller’s tragic play Death of a Salesman, success carries a much more elaborate definition as Willy Loman, the story’s protagonist, undergoes a tragic fall caused by his perceptions and delusions surrounding the definition of “success”. Through Loman’s descent, Miller redesigns and embellishes both the meaning and the value of the word by adding a level of complexity beyond merely what is stated in the dictionary. The definition of success, as it pertains to the play, changes with the perspective, the situation, and the desires of those to which it applies. Willy Loman, throughout the story, has a flawed concept of success and through his failures to succeed as a father, a husband, and a salesman, the true meaning of success is ultimately unveiled.
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For Willy Loman, success is measured against the accomplishments of others. While, at first glance, this ideology may not seem unusual, since Willy’s desire to achieve what his idols have already achieved seems more or less human. However, Willy’s unrealistic, and sometimes contradictory, perception of success ultimately results in his untimely. As noted by literary critic Merritt Moseley, Willy asserts, on multiple occasions throughout the play, that he wants to “[be] recognized as a success and [be] admired, like legendary salesman, Dave Singleman,” a character who Willy never actually knew in person, but nonetheless idolized based on the impressive number of people that attended his funeral (Moseley 2). Willy shaped his interpretation of success around replicating the influence and popularity of Singleman through his own career as a salesman. In addition to this goal of achieving the greatness of Singleman, Willy also desires to follow in the footsteps of his mysterious older brother, Ben. To Willy, Ben represents Willy’s potential to obtain the massive amounts of wealth and power that Ben has managed to acquire. Idolizing both very different figures, Willy uses the schemas set by both to sculpt a definition of success that is fundamentally flawed. Individually, the qualities of each idol are positive in nature. However, in this instance, two positives do not automatically equal another positive. Aside from the fact that the qualities that Willy chooses to idolize are not aligned with his personally at all, the futility of Willy’s approach to success is due to his inability to see the flaws of each role model. He only ever choses to consider the positive images portrayed by each idol, falsely assuming that they got to be in a position of admiration simply by practicing the qualities that they projected onto Willy. Willy truly believes that he can succeed both financially and socially purely by being a likable salesman. This conclusion, however, proves to be simply unrealistic for his character, and eventually contributes to his downfall.
Another major factor in Willy’s denotation of success is the false assumption that success must be quantifiable, and can only be measured based on accumulated wealth and financial status. However, this assumption is not the case in the larger reality of Miller’s play. In the context of Willy Loman, most of his aspirations cannot be quantified through money. For example, although Willy values positive social connections and human relationships very highly, he has no quantifiable way of measuring his success in this field other than the number of people attending his funeral. Because Willy has no way to measure his progress socially, he incorrectly interprets his own wealth to be an indicator for his own likeability, ultimately causing him to fail socially. Consequently, Willy’s failure to be well-liked among both businessmen and his own family members causes him to also fall short as an effective salesman (Jameson 247-251). Without the ability to maintain his job, Willy cannot sustain himself or his family financially causing him to find himself trapping a vicious cycle based on the delusion that money determines stature. As the play progresses, Willy’s definition of success, along with his mental state, deteriorate and become more and more detached from reality until he eventually commits suicide with the hope that the insurance money that his family receives from his death earns him some kind of admiration. Willy states to an imaginary Ben:
I can see [the insurance money] like a diamond shining in the dark, hard and rough, that I can pick up and touch in my hand… [my family] thinks I am nothing, see, and so [they] spite me. But the Funeral – Ben, [my] funeral will be massive! They’ll come from Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire… Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey – I am known, Ben, and [they’ll] see it with [their] own eyes once and for all. [They’ll] see what I am. (Miller 1622)
Unfortunately, only five people actually attend Willy’s funeral, tragically demonstrating the futility in Willy’s quantifying success with monetary possession. Ironically, Miller utilizes the minute number of people at Willy’s funeral to teach the lesson that achievement cannot truly be assessed as it exists differently across all types of mediums.
Through Arthur Miller’s play, Death of a Salesman, success embraces a broader definition. Learning from the failures and shortcomings of Willy Loman, the definition of success extends beyond simply a desirable outcome or a favorable result, to rather accomplishing a specific, preconceived standard through one’s own efforts. In addition, Miller illustrates that a successful existence cannot be quantified because the mediums for which success can occur extend beyond any single value of measurement. Willy’s failures come from him setting unrealistic standards for himself, and hopelessly trying to weigh his success with money. Provided the consequences of Willy’s actions, Miller teaches a very valuable lesson about the true nature of success, and the realistic way to go about achieving it.
- Jacobson, Irving. “Family Dreams in Death of a Salesman.” American Literature, vol. 47, no. 2, 1975, pp. 247–258. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2925484.
- Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. Perrine’s Literature Structure, Sound, and Sense, Eighth Edition, 8th ed., Earl McPeek, 2001, pp. 1545-1631.
- Moseley, Merritt. “The American Dream in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.” Bloom’s Literary Themes: The American Dream, Chelsea House, 2009. History Research Center, online.infobase.com/Auth/Index?aid=&itemid=&articleId=2742. Accessed 2 May 2019.
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