Fate in Death of a Salesman

Keywords: death of a salesman fate, will loman fate

Abstract Death of a Salesman is a tragedy written by American playwright Arthur Miller. It describes a story about Willy Loman whose American dreams shattered and eventually he lost his life for it. Willy Loman’s tragic experience reveals the conflicts between the individual, the family and social values of the United States. Miller tells us that we should not be misled by the money worship; otherwise we will become victims of commodity wrong values. This paper will analyze the tragic fate of Willy Loman from four different perspectives: inaccurate self-evaluation, incompetent role-player in family, wrong outlooks on values and being a victim of the American Dream, hoping to inspire and enlighten the readers from the tragic fate of Willy Loman and to find our real selves in the complicated and changeable world.

1. Introduction

1.1 Arthur Miller

Arthur Miller was one of the most distinguished dramatists of the twentieth century. He was born in Jewish family in New York on October 17th 1915. As his father’s business failed during the Depression and the family suddenly became poor, Miller had to discontinue his studies and go to work to earn his university fees after he finished high school. He worked various jobs, such as a truck driver, a waiter, a farmhand, etc. Through these jobs, he saw the injustice of the capitalist system and understood the hard life of workers. The personal experiences provided him with firsthand knowledge about the lower class when he came to write plays and fiction. Through Miller’s career, he wrote lots of valuable masterpieces which contributed a lot to the American theater, ranging from All My Sons (1947) to Death of a Salesman (1949), from The Crucible (1953) to A View from Bridge (1955), from After the Fall (1964) to Broken Glasses (1994). Miller continually addressed several distinct but related issues in both his dramatic and contemporary writings: the form of tragedy applicable to modern times and contemporary characters, the individual’s relationship to society, and family relations, particularly interactions between fathers and sons (黄家修, 2007: 421). He criticized the social problems sharply and at the same time showed his compassion to the common people living at the foot of the society ladder. He has influenced many younger American dramatists, such as Edward Albee, August Wilson, and David Mamet. Miller is a major pioneer in the development of American theater alongside Eugene O’Neil and Tennessee Williams, and Death of a Salesman is his important work. The play suggested new theatrical possibilities with its unique blend of realism and expressionism, as well as offering a challenge to previous definitions of tragedy (Susan C.W., 2007: 71).

1.2 The plot of Death of a Salesman

Death of a Salesman is one of the best three plays with Eugene O’Neil’s Long Day’s Journey into night and Tennessee Williams’s A Street Car Named Desire. After it staged in 1949, it ran for 742 performances on Broadway. It won important awards, including the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Best Play, Pulitzer Prize for Drama and Tony Award for Best Play. The play presents the tragedy of a common person, Willy Loman, an aging travelling salesman who is working for the Wagner Company. After having labored for thirty-four years for that firm, he is fired by Howard Wagner, the head of the company, because he is too old to sell products to make profits for the company. But he is still in debt, so he and his wife are struggling to pay the bills while his two sons are not helpful. Willy’s two goals throughout his life have been to be popular and have his own company, but they haven’t come true. Biff, a habitual thief, and Happy, a self-deluded guy, have failed to fulfill their father’s dream of achievement. Reviewing his life, he is forced to confront its futility and failure. He kills himself in a planned car accident, hoping to provide Biff with twenty thousand dollars from the life insurance company to start his store. The play has profound social significance, because it is from the real life and authentically reflects the tragedy of common man in America (吕代珍,2008).

1.3 Purpose of the paper

Willy Loman’s tragic experience shows the conflicts between the individual, the family and social values of the United States. Miller tells us that we should not be misled by the money worship; otherwise we will become victims of commodity wrong values. In materialistic society, People tend to ignore the cruel reality. Their cravings for material things seem never satisfied. People cannot distinguish reality and illusion. Inevitably, this will causes contradictions between individual, family and society and eventually brings about people’s downfall, like Willy Loman in the play. According to this phenomenon, this paper will analyze the tragic fate of Willy Loman from four different perspectives: inaccurate self-evaluation, incompetent role-player in family, wrong outlooks on values and being a victim of the American Dream, hoping to inspire and enlighten the readers from the tragic fate of Willy Loman and to find our real selves in the complicated and changeable world.

2. Literature Review

Death of a Salesman is written in realistic dialogue about ordinary people. It is based in large part on the experiences of Miller’s family during the Depression and his passionate belief in the honor of work and the difficulties of living the American dream. After its opening in Broadway, response to the play was tremendous; audiences and critics had been attracted. The criticism on Death of a Salesman came from the anti-communist movement known as McCarthyism,but the larger part of comments are praises. Robert Coleman of the Daily Mirror called the play “emotional dynamite” and reported that “sobs were heard throughout the auditorium, and handkerchiefs were kept busy wiping away tears” (Robert Coleman, 1949:360). Brooks Atkinson declared it “superb,” commenting on its poetry and calling it a “wraith-like tragedy” (Brooks Atkinson, 1949:27). Richard Watts asserted that “under the director, Elia Kazen’s vigorous and perceptive direction, ‘Death of a Salesman’ emerges as easily the best and most important new American play of the year” (Richard Watts, 1949:359). Yes, Death of a Salesman is a significant masterpiece of the American play. In theme, the play criticizes the role of capitalism in American society and condemns human nature with pity and sorrow. In technique, Miller broke out of the realistic confinements of time, space and psychology, with the innovative interweaving of the “past” with the “present” and of events inside Willy’s mind with those outside, which merges elements of both realism and expressionism(黄家修,2007:423).


Compared to traditional tragedy, Loman, as a protagonist, is neither upper class nor very intelligence. But he still manages to strike an emotional chord. He has a faulty vision of what makes a person successful, which makes him flawed, but regardless of the opposition and the ultimate cost to himself, he refuses to give up that vision, which makes him, in Miller’s eyes, a tragic hero. A man of his time, Loman bears realistic and far-reaching significance and connotation. In Contemporary American drama:a study in the plays of Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and Edward A, Singh Abha comments that

Willy Loman, the salesman, is a typical embodiment of modern business morality, but he is also a more universal figure…Like the great tragic figures of Sophocles and Shakespeare, Miller’s Willy is both an individual and a type (Singh, Abha, 1998: 70-71).

Furthermore, Loman has attracted international audiences and continues to interest them to the present day. Theater scholar Brenda Murphy talks about “the ease with which audiences all over the world have understood and sympathized with the plight of Willy Loman, and have grasped the issues of the play” (Brenda Murphy, 1995:126). No doubt, the play attracts numerous audiences and critics. Whereas, the common audience are seriously concerned about the fate of Willy and are melt into tears for this tragedy of an everyman. In china, based on my survey on the domestic journals from 1979 to 2009, there are above 22 articles studying on Willy Loman’s tragic fate in Death of a Salesman. Different critics have their own views. Wang Yan, from Shandong University, considers that Loman’s tragedy is caused by the conflict of his dream and the reality. Zhu Yaning, from Foreign Languages Department of Henan Mechanical College, views that the disillusionment of American Dream leads to Loman’s tragedy. Wang Dongmei, from Foreign Languages Department of Liaoning Technical University, regards that Loman’s fate is caused by his own personality distortion. Wang Hong, from Huainan Normal College analyzes Willy Loman’s fate from the respect of family factors. But for me, inaccurate self-evaluation, incompetent role-player in family, wrong outlooks on values and being a victim of the American Dream resulted in Willy Loman’s tragedy.

3. Analysis of Willy Loman’s Fate

Willy Loman’s whole life seems to have been a sellout; his sons have turned out badly, and his relationship with Biff has soured. Disappointedly, Willy chooses to end his life with expectation that his death could exchange for his son’s success. The quasi-resolution that his suicide offers him represents only a partial discovery of the truth. He fails to grasp the true personal, emotional, spiritual understanding of himself. His name provides insights. Compared to William, Willy is a childish version indicating an intrinsic immaturity in his nature. He is too driven by his own “willy”-ness or perverse “willfulness” to recognize the slanted reality that his desperate mind has forged. Loman has been read as indicating Willy to be a “low-man”, common and insignificant. From the insights of his name, we can infer that Willy Loman’s life will be a tragedy in the end, like characters of Dream of the Red Chamber. Not his name resulted in Willy’s tragedy fate, but his inaccurate self-evaluation, incompetent role-player in family, wrong outlooks on values and a victim of the American Dream resulted in his tragedy.

3.1 Willy Loman’s inaccurate self-evaluation

As a travelling salesman, Willy Loman sells products for Wagner Company by driving around New England. When he was young, he was ambitious and set his mind to provide a good life for his family. He worked diligently and enthusiastically, so that he made good profits. He averaged a hundred and seventy dollars a week in the year of 1928. He built up good relationship and reputation among his clients. He has much confidence about his life and dreamed that one day he would set up his own company. However, thirty-four years later, as he became too old to make profits for the firm, he was fired by his employer relentlessly, regardless of his thirty-four years contribution to the company. But he could not confirm his failure. When he would not sell products and get his commission, he borrowed money from his neighbor Charley and deceived his wife that the money was his commission. He trapped himself in the illusion and memory most his time. Under the pressing realities of his life, he could not endure the overwhelming tensions and commit suicide to earn the insurance money to help Biff become successful. Why Willy Loman lived so afflictingly? One of the reasons is that he can not evaluate himself accurately.

Throughout the play, there are many implications that Willy’s wrong self-evaluation leads to his wrong choice of profession. He failed to find his real self, because he was covered by the illusions and the myths. From ACT ONE, Willy told Charley that, “A man who can’t handle tools is not a man (Arthur Miller, 1949:44).” He can put up the ceiling in the living-room. That is a great piece of work, but Willy managed to do it. He, like his father, can build things with his own hand. However, Willy failed to recognize his abilities. If he could realize his talent and choose the job that can fulfill his talent, instead of being a salesman that “way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine (Arthur Miller, 1949:138)”, Willy might seek both job satisfaction and fortune from his job. Also, he failed to recognize his natural inclinations and instincts. When Biff’s decision to seek a business loan raises Willy’s spirits, and the way in which Willy expresses his optimism is quite revealing. The first thing Willy thinks about is planting a garden in his yard; he then muses to Linda that they should buy a house in the country, so that he could build guesthouses for Biff and Happy when they have families of their own. These hopeful plans seem to illustrate how ill-suited Willy is to his profession, as it stifles his natural inclinations. His wistful fantasy of living in the forests of Alaska strengthens the implication that he chose the wrong profession. Indeed, the competitive, hyper-capitalist world of sales seems no more appropriate for Willy. He does not seem to like living in an urban setting. He complains that “the way they boxed us in here. Bricks and windows, windows and bricks. The street is lined with cars. There’s not a breath of fresh air in the neighborhood. The grass don’t grow any more, you can’t raise a carrot in the back yard. They should’ve a law against apartment houses (Arthur Miller, 1949:17). ” From his words, we can infer that Willy is looking forward to living a leisure life, a farm life, not the busy, atwitter and strenuous life in New York. But Willy was unaware of this; he chose to be a salesman that conflicts with his natural inclinations and instincts. At first, his motivation to be a salesman was impure. He chose the job not from his own abilities and interests, but from the admiration for Dave Singleman. If Willy could evaluate himself accurately and respect his own needs, he would live a totally different life from now. He would not commit himself to a pathetic death and meaningless legacy.

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3.2 Incompetent Role-player in family

Willy is a salesman who struggles for a better life in the cruel society, a husband who has his wife’s love and support and a father who lives with his children. It is important to examine the evolution of Willy’s relationship with his family, as the solid family is one of the most prominent elements of the American Dream. But in the present, Willy’s relationship with his family is fraught with tension.

3.2.1 A father unfit for his position

As a common father, he hopes to win the respect and love of his sons and has great expectation to his two sons. But the cruel reality is that Biff is a pilferer and Happy is a liar. Everything goes against his wishes. The main reason is that Willy’s improper education to his sons.

As a youth, Biff was led to believe that since he was “well liked” he could get away with anything. He begins to steal: a football from school, lumber for the house, a crate of balls from Bill Oliver. Willy is desperate that Biff should succeed in life, so instead of punishing him, he condones the thefts and makes excuses, neglecting to instill in his son the moral values a parent should teach a child. For instance, when the young Biff stole the football from the school, Willy said, “Coach’ll probably congratulate you on your initiative! … That’s because he likes you. If somebody else took that ball there’d be an uproar (Arthur Miller, 1949:30).” This way of education makes Biff lose the ability to recognize the correct moral views. Biff appears successful in high school as a football player, but reaps no benefit from this as he never goes to college. Initially he had planned to retake the math course he needed, but he catches his father with a mistress. After leaving the high school, he did many jobs but all failed. As biff said to Willy, “I never got anywhere because you blew me so full of hot air I could never stand taking orders from anybody! That’s whose fault it is! (Arthur Miller, 1949:131)” Obviously, again it’ is Willy’s improper education that leads to Biff’s failure.

3.2.2 A husband disloyal to his wife

In Willy’s reminiscence, there exists a woman, his mistress. Willy has affair with the woman and the affair was discovered by Biff. As a result of this, his belief in the fantasies his father has fed him cannot be maintained. This adultery is an indirect cause that Biff gave up to retake he math course, but evidence that Willy betrayed his wife, Linda. If Willy had had not affair with the woman, Biff might retake the math exam, and then he would go to college and had a promising future.

Willy is always untrue to Linda. He tries to play the salesman with her. Every time he over his trip, he inflates his commission, but Linda also his lie. Although she does not buy his pitch to her, she still loves him. She does not measure Willy’s worth in terms of his professional success. Willy, however, needs more than love, which accepts character flaws, doubts, and insecurity—he seek desperately to be “well liked.” As such, he ignores the opportunity that Linda presents to him: to view himself more honestly, to acknowledge the reality of his life, and to accept himself for what he is feeling like a failure (Selena Ward, Brendan Greaves, 2003:61). If Willy could be true to Linda and himself, he would not choose to commit suicide.

3.3 Wrong outlooks on values

Willy Loman is living in a time when the nature of business itself is undergoing intrinsic changes, partly due to the capitalist pressure to make more money and become more efficient. But he fails to understand the complex and ruthless business community and he still pursue equity and justifiability blindly. So he hugs his outmoded beliefs: Just work hard, be honest and well-liked, you will succeed. However, he is rebuffed in the real life. The reason is that Willy’s outlooks on values are wrong. His recurring description and memory of Dave Singleman manifest his ideal life in his mind:

What could be more satisfying than be able to go, at the age of eighty-four, into twenty or thirty different cities, and pick up a phone, and be remembered and loved and helped by so many different people?” and “When he died—and by the way he died the death of a salesman, in his green velvet slippers in the smoker of the New York, New Haven and Hartford, going into Boston—When he died hundreds of salesmen and buyers were at his funeral. Things were sad on a lotta trains for months after that. (Arthur Miller, 1949:81)

He speakes of Dave Singleman as a legend and imagines that his death must have been beautifully noble. But he fails to realize the hopeless of Singleman’s lonely, on-the-job, on-the-road death. During Singleman’s age, there was “personality”, “respect”, “comradeship” and “gratitude” in it. But in the present day, it is all cut and dried. The time “full of light and friendship” is long gone. Today’s American society has been a “concrete jungle.” Here the survival law is like the law of the jungle in the animal world in primitive time, even more relentless and ruthless. People are molded to be more indifferent and greedy. They worship money. Money dominates—almost everything including “personality”, “respect”, “gratitude” and even man, could be evaluated in terms of money. But Willy doesn’t realize the shift of the times and values. He still keeps “riding on a smile,” making friends, exaggerating and hoping being liked so as to make a sale. He adheres to his own principles and wrong values that cost his life in the end.

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3.4 A victim of the American Dream

The American Dream is a national ethos of the United States of America in which democratic ideals are perceived as a promise of prosperity for its people. In the American Dream, first expressed by James Truslow Adams in 1931, he states, “The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position” (James Truslow Adams, 1931) The idea of the American Dream is rooted in the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence which states that “all men are created equal” and that they are “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights” including “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” (the Declaration of Independence)

However, the industrialization of the 19th and 20th centuries began to erode the dream. After World War II, the United States faced profound and irreconcilable domestic tensions and contradictions. Although the war had ostensibly engendered an unprecedented sense of American confidence, and security, the United States became increasingly embroiled in a tense cold war with the Soviet Union. The propagation of myths of a peaceful, homogenous, and nauseatingly gleeful American golden age was tempered by constant anxiety about Communism. (Selena Ward, Brendan Greaves, 2003:3)The government cannot provide the citizen with a fair environment. People feel desperate and lose themselves. They consider their American dream as making a fortune. They pursuit their dreams by centering their lives around material possessions, such as cars, appliances. There are exhausted to keep up with their equally materialistic neighbors. Seemingly, they are rich in materials, but they are in poor spirit. Many American families become the victims of the American Dream. Unfortunately, the Lomans is one of them. In the search of the “good life”, the Lomans surroud themselves with many things above and beyond the necessities of life. However, these goods are only available at a price, and not everyone in society can afford them. The Lomans try to keep up, with a refrigerator, a vacuum, and a new car, but they find themselves in a constant state of worry that they may be not able to meet all the payments. So when Willy is sixty-three years old, he is still in debt.

In Willy’s life, he has two dreams. One is to set up his own company while the other is his two sons can succeed. But Willy’s two great dreams come to a totally failure. Because he believes that any “well liked” and “personally attractive” man can achieve the dream. And he also passes this belief to his sons.

Bernard can get the best marks in school, y’ understand, but when he gets out in the business world, y’understand, you are going to be five times ahead of him. That’s why I thank Almighty God you’re both built like Adonises. Because the man who makes an personal in the business world, the man who creates personal interest, is the man who gets ahead. Be liked and you will never want. (Arthur Miller, 1949:33)

His understanding of the qualities of attractiveness and likeability is very superficial. He blindly expects to achieve material, emotional, and even spiritual satisfaction through “personal attractiveness” and being “well liked”. He fails to see that Charley and his son are successful because of lifelong hard work and not because of the illusions of social popularity and physical appearances. His blind faith in his stunted version of the American Dream leads to his rapid psychological decline when he is unable to accept the disparity between the ideal dream and his own life.

4. Enlightenment from Willy Loman’s fate

From the previous analysis, we have a better understanding of Willy Loman’s fate. We cannot help showing our sympathy for his downfall. But this tragedy leaves us not only the sigh, but also the deep meditation. We can gain a good deal of enlightenment from his fate. Firstly, we should have a round and accurate evaluation about ourselves. Everyone is unique in the world. We have both merits and demerits. If we can make best use of the advantages and bypass the disadvantages, then we will become more competent and more confidence to deal with the changeable and competitive society. Secondly, our dreams should not go too far away from the reality. It is good to have dreams. Dreams can motive us to work hard to live a better life. In this way, the society can make progress. But our dreams should base on reality. It should be practical to realize the dreams. If the dreams seem impossible to realize, we may feel disappointed and lose confidence when we find the disparity between the dream and our life. Thirdly, we should make a plan that fit ourselves to realize the dream. We should see through the key to success. We should not like Willy Loman think it is “well liked”. But we can learn from Charley that the key to success is hard work and maintain our morality intact. Fourthly, spiritual wealth is more important than material wealth. In the modern society, material civilization is highly developed while there exists a crisis of mental world of human beings. Money worship and hedonism are prevailing, the view of value is collapsing, and men tend to become the slaver of material desire. So we cannot ignore our spiritual world. In our spare time, we should enrich our spirit world by reading books of real worth and live a worthy life.

5. Conclusion

In Death of a salesman, Miller charges America with selling a false myth constructed around a capitalist materialism. And this materialism obscured the personal truth and moral vision of original American Dream described by the country’s founders. Willy Loman’s inaccurate self-evaluation, incompetent role-player in family, wrong outlooks on values and being a victim of the American Dream bring about his downfall. His fate reveals the contradiction between material and spirit, reality and dream. Thus it makes the play become one of the best modern tragedies.

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