, Research Paper
Materialism in Death of a Salesman Arthur Miller uses Death of a Salesman to expose America’s preoccupation withmaterialism after World War II. This preoccupation is the main cause of Willy’s mentalstress. Willy had a lot riding on him being successful. His family’s survival depended on hissuccess. Miller’s depiction of the Loman family is an example which shows that America islargely a second and third generation country. The first generation in this play, Willy’sfather, was forced in order to make a living, to break up the family. But while Willy’sfather achieved and was creative, he left behind him a wife, a young son who is nowfatherless, and an older son who was driven to find success and letting nothing get in hisway. Willy, the second generation, is his father’s victim. While he wants to love and “doright” by his sons, he is driven to use them as heirs to the kingdom that he believes mustbe built. Thus, he must pass on to them not only love but the doomed dream that he has.Biff and Happy represent the third generation in this play. Happy values only materialthings. He looks for some kind of consolation in his relationship with women and thoughvaguely conscious of some insufficiency, measures himself solely by reference to hissuccess in business. Biff, on the other hand, is aware of other values than the purelymaterial and is capable finally of the kind of genuine humanity which Willy onlyapproaches in moments of rare sensitivity. Some have interpreted Death of a Salesman as an attack upon the “AmericanDream” which according to R.H. Gardner means the idea that ours is a land of unlimitedopportunity in which only a ragamuffin can attain riches and any mother’s son becomepresident. Others have chosen to regard it as a contemporary “King Lear” which is thetragedy of the common old man of today, as opposed to that of the extraordinary old manof shakespeare’s time. (Gardner 123) One set of values that exists in Willy’s character, and defeated by the circumstancesin which he finds himself, are his impulses toward two of the original American virtues:Self-reliance and Individualism of spirit. These virtues are perhaps the pure formsunderlying the corrupt and destructive societal imperatives of success and gettingahead.(Foster 84) Willy has the self-reliant skills of the artisan. He is “good at things,”from polishing a car to building a front porch. But self-reliance has collapsed, the toolsrust, and Willy has become a victim of a machine culture. The play implies that Willymight have been happier in a pre-capitalistic society. In simple terms, it suggests that Willywould have been happier working with his hands.(Brustein 46) Willy was meant to represent a Lear of the modern middle classes. His hero is notso much a “low man” as the lowest man one could conceive.(Gardner 124) He is just plaindumb and a big bore. Willy never changes throughout the play. At the end he is still thesame old Willy, babbling maniacally about how magnificent Biff is going to be with the$20,000 insurance money. Happy, the younger son, less favored by both nature and his father, perhaps asWilly was in comparison with Ben, has escaped the closeness with his father that destroysBiff in social terms. Thus worshipping his father from afar, Hap has never fully come torealize the phony parts of his father and his father’s dreams. Happy is not a social rebel andhe will carry on with the life of a salesman, and one suspects, go on to the death of asalesman. (Gordon 279) He will violate the boss’ wife out of some lonely desperation, asWIlly sought support from his Boston woman. He will also try to prove his manliness withthe fast cars and fancy talk, but again like willy, he will never really believe in his ownmanliness in a mature way.(Gordon 280) Just as Willy is called a kid throughout, andreferred to as the diminutive Willy by everyone except Ben, Happy has been trapped bythe infantile American Playboy Magazine vision of the male. (Gordon 279) In Death of a Salesman, Willy is portrayed as a social victim. He is given his elegyin the last scene by his friend Charley, who, ironically, by a kind of indifference and lack ofdream, ha succeeded within the Amercan system. Charley points out that a salesman mustdream of great things if he is to travel the territory “way out there in the blue,” but that heis also a man who really has no trade like the carpenter, lawyer, or doctor, and when thebrilliant smile that has brought his success begins to pale, he must fall, though “there is norock bottom.” Because this portrait rings true, the play seems to indict a system thatpromises and indeed demands total commitment to success without regard to humanvalues, a system that, as Willy says to Howard, will “eat the orange and throw the peelaway.”(Gordon 276) It is a system symbolized in the play by the car, that strange, uniquelyAmerican obsession, which Willy and his sons polish, love and cherish as a manifestationof their manly glory. (Gordon 277) But the car is something that wears out and breaks
down, and soon enough, unless one can afford an even-shinier one, he is driving an oldStudebaker, smashed up many times, with a broken carburetor. He is driving the symbol ofan outlived usefulness. Willy Loman’s catastrophe is one of the poignant and inevitable misfortunes of oursociety an our time. The various formulations of the idea of success have contributed tothe state of mind that makes failure a crime. Success is a requirement that Americans makeof life. Because it seems magical and inexplicable, as it us to Willy, it can be consideredthe due of every free citizen, even those with no notable or measurable talents. One citizenis as good as any other, and he cannot be proved to be a natural-born failure any morethan he can be stripped of his civil rights. The disappointment Willy feels because he hasnot made it is one of great American exasperations. He postpones his anguish bytransferring his ambitions to his sons, and so the play’s free use of time permits us toobserve aspiration and failure in both generations.(Popkin 53) Willy’s language reflects his resoluteness in the pursuit of success. It is devoid ofwords for anything but the necessities of life and the ingredients or symbols of success.This world is full of aspirin, arch supports, saccharin, Studebakers, Chevrolets, shavinglotion, refrigerators, silk stockings and washing machines. (Popkin 54) Everything butthese commonplace objects is washed out of the characters speech. The road and Willy’s car have metaphysical meaning. Willy’s soul can no longertravel the road; it has broken down because the road has lost meaning.(Gordon 279) Thatmultiplicity within himself, his creative yearnings, and that part of himself which seescreativity as a moral value, now intrudes on consciousness. The woods burn, and he isthrown into a hell of disorder and conflicting value within himself. The two bags which arehis salesgoods, his emblems of material success, the two bags which his sons would carryinto the capitals of New England and so carry on the tradition of his dream, are now tooheavy. His sons will never bear them for him, and the values which they represent are nowoverwhelming burden of his existence.(Gordon 280) The refrigerator and the house, though paid for, will never house the totality of hisyearnings. They will never be the monuments to his existence that he has sought to makethem. His sons, who would also have been the immortality of his dreams, his mark on theworld have failed him. As the play progresses and Willy’s sons finally leave him kneeling ina bathroom to take their chippies in consonance with the manliness they have learned fromhim, they leave him alone to face the void within his soul.(Gordon 280) The social frame of limitation of Willy’s world doesn’t restrict the drama to acommonplace or materialistic plot, because in his bumbling, inarticulate way, Willy Lomanpersonifies his creator’s concept that even the common-place hero has “the human passionto surpass his given bounds, the fanatic insistence upon self-conceived goal.” ThoughOedipus’ search for the truth is a conscious exercise of a powerful regal mind dealing witha problem of broad dimension and import, and Willy’s quest for the truth is restrained by acommonness of mind and a restricted sphere of life, yet ” Willy persues the truth andstruggles against it within his personal and social limits no less arduously andcatastrophically than Oedipus.”(Vogel 88) In the generations between these two heroes,the family bloodline may have thinned a bit, but the lineaments of the tyrannous havenedbeen elided. It isn’t what society demands that makes the action, it is what Willy thinks itdemands, and that is the unpreventable element that is the all-powerful motivation of histragedy, as it was for Oedipus in his s situation. It would seem, then, that Miller’s vision oftragedy is as broad as his predecessors. It isn’t society that is the primary flaw but man’sinnate, eternal, inevitable tendency to self-delusion, ironically induced by uncontrollableexternal powers.(Vogel 93) The villain in Death of a Salesman is, of course, the American cult of success,dramatically exacerbated when the protagonist is a salesman, one who sells selling morethan material goods. The poignancy is enhanced by his being a jew who has to overcomeadditional rootlessness and insecurity.(Simon 76) Willy pursues the two-headed chimuraof financial and social success-being rich and well liked- and how this delusory and evermore elusive aim lures him and his family to physical or moral disaster that is considered aperfect fit subject for tragedy. But, unfortunately, Miller himself is to a considerable extentthe victim of the obsessions he sets out to expose, and can’t acquiesce in the notion that adesperate situation doesn’t occur. Throughout Death of a Salesman, Arthur miller uses many examples to exposeAmerica’s obsession with materialistic items since World War II. He does this byportraying Willy as an egotistical, greedy man. Willy’s only will is in his name. Willy theinsensate slob who is to be pitied as a confused wretch, not as a proxy for a man.(Duprey139) Miller depicts him as the victim of a society that is money hungry.