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A Study of Arthur Miller’s
Death of a Salesman
and the Downfall of Its Hero
A Thesis Proposal Presented to:
The Department of English
Faculty of Modern Languages and Communication
Putra University, Malaysia
By: Mehdi Hassanian esfahani
The objective of this study is to probe into the Arthur
Miller’s tragedy, Death of a Salesman, entitled as the best
American play of the century, in order to analyze the development
of the main character, Willy Loman, and his downfall. Willy
Loman, the antihero of this tragedy, is an example of 20th century
people who resort to illusion in order to gain some dignity. Arthur
Miller (1915 - 2005) narrates the story of an ignominious salesman
who faces the end, and cannot fulfill his idealistic ambitions.
Willy Loman, who has worked all his life as a salesman, in
his 60s, encounters barriers in fulfilling his life-time dreams, which
are far away and almost unreachable in reality. His world is
covered with some principles and goals, which are the elements of
American Dream, but his present life lacks them. Miller’s
technique in using flashbacks which are aimed at bringing back
some memories of the past, presents the Lomans life; Willy, his
wife Linda and their sons Biff and Happy.
The drama cites last hours of Willy Loman’s life, when he
decides to commit suicide in order to provide a way out of the
stalemate his family seems to be in, through his life insurance
policy. Willy Loman has lived a fake life in a dream of success and
prosperity, imagining possession of money and respect of others;
however, he has woken up to reality and the ongoing disaster
(Weales 1968). But now he looks and finds no similarity in his life.
He has two sons, grown up, who are spoiled; a wife who has
dedicated her life to her husband, but lives in almost poverty and
frustration, and nothing more. He even has forfeited himself, and
missed the honor he once preserved for himself. He cannot find a
way out to make his dreams come true, and he is informed of being
fired from his life-time job. Conflict arises when he insists on the
dream part of his life, and gets lost in unattainable wishes he
always had, which make him slip into deeper trouble and lead him
eventually to attain the ending.
Death of a Salesman is a complex play. One may discuss it
as an individual play, narrating the traumatic life of a salesman, as
Clurman believes; or a morality play, concerning principles of the
family which Willy Loman fails to rule; a heroic play about a
modern antihero and his attempts to save his life; a Jewish story of
a Jew in a Jewish industry, as Cardullo asserts; a father-son
relationship story; a social play which is focused on an ordinary
sample; a historical play about post world war era in America; or a
self-realization story which ends in catastrophe. The current study
declares that it is a social play, narrating American social
characteristics of the time, which are rooted in American society of
post world war era and its defects. It confirms, as a result, that the
downfall is due to misunderstanding of American Dream, the
dominant propaganda of the time, and not morality flaws. In
another word, Willy Loman dies “not because life has been made
intolerable by a terrible burden of guilt, but because he believes
that his death is the purchase price of a security he himself could
never find” (Bierman 1958:492). This wrong belief roots in his
misunderstanding of one’s social acts and responsibility, i.e.
misunderstanding of American Dream. Despite Clurman’s claim in
his book Lies Like Truth (1958), that “the death of Arthur Miller’s
salesman is symbolic of the breakdown of the whole concept of
salesmanship inherent in out society” (69), Miller is not concerned
to focus on salesmanship or an individual; consequently, Willy
Loman –who is an individual himself-- is the representative of
American society, trapped within social principles and mores.
It is important to have in mind the symbolic characterization
of main characters in Death of a Salesman, too. Linda and Biff
have outstanding parts, as leading as Willy, and can be discussed in
separate papers. One may argue that Biff is the real protagonist of
the play, who undergoes several experiences to reach the self-
realization, or Linda as the representative of American housewives,
who endures the virile society and acts passively in her life. But the
present study is concerned with Willy Loman, it traces the plot
from his point of view, and will shift to other characters just in the
case it clarifies the characterization of Willy Loman.
Death of a Salesman presents the life and loneliness of Willy
Loman, in addition to some memories from the past, and some
melancholy thoughts which make the future. Thus, Willy's
character and the process of his thinking provide a good starting
point to see how American Dream has failed in this American
To study that, one should analyze the idea of American
Dream, which can be defined superficially as the opportunity and
freedom for all American citizens to achieve their goals, and
become wealthy and renowned if only they work hard enough. In
the next stage, it is Willy Loman, who should be judged through
his words and actions, to be compared with principles of American
Dream. It would lead to Willy’s misunderstanding of American
In brief, Willy Loman, blinded by propagandas and
promises, is drowned in an idealistic view of life, which is
advertised through decades by the idea of American Dream to
warrant a prosperous life (Dillingham 1960). He cannot realize the
actual situation of his family, refuses to face the reality of his life,
and persists on the dream part of that idea. This misinterpretation
ends in total failure. The play’s Requiem indicates that Willy
Loman wasted his life on his wrong beliefs, and his death would
not change anything.
2. Significance of the Study
Without any doubts Death of a Salesman is one of the most
important American literary works in the field of drama. The script
won Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the 1949 Tony Award for Best Play,
as well as the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best Play
in a short time. It received many enthusiastic reviews, and won
fame for its author.
A detailed and in-depth analysis of Willy's character is
needed to define the hero's downfall. Regarding the critical point of
view of Miller in his play, it is essential to first delineate the
society of the time, and its related issues like Imperialism and
American Dream, to focus on Willy Loman and trace his failures
through the close study of his characterization. This paper
comments that Willy Loman is a sample of 20th century American
society; he is not unique, and he recites the story of more than three
3. Objectives of the Study
The main objective of this research is to investigate different
elements of the play, to compare with the perception of American
Dream, associated with primary promises of satisfaction and
fulfillment in life (Clurman 1958:69), to arrive at an understanding
of the main character's downfall.
Willy Loman’s misguided notion has ruined the lives of his
wife and two sons, but he never acknowledges. The last time he
tries to realize the truth, he fails and commits suicide (Miller 1957).
Arthur Miller narrates the story is a 63-year-old man who
cannot change himself or even doubt his present state. A Close
reading reveals that he cannot think of himself anymore, because
he has failed in pursuing success, and blames himself about it. This
is rooted in his wrong understanding of American Dream. The
ending depends strongly on the hero’s decision. When he cannot
see any light, he prefers to opt out. The wrong realization of life (in
Willy Loman’s point of view) is emphasized in the last part of the
play, in which Willy Loman trails not the real world and earnestly
wants to reside in his life-time dream.
4. Review of Literature
James Truslow Adams in The Epic of America (1931),
explores the historical process of American culture and compares it
with the European culture to show that they are more alike than
anywhere else, but still states that despite the similarity, there is a
dream here; which is the promised land, in which one can find
opportunity according to his ability or achievement, where dreams
come true based on one's own abilities and hard work, not on a
rigid class structure.
From another point of view, Carpenter believes that
American Dream has never been defied exactly. He suggests in
American Literature and the Dream (1955), that different
interpretations, therefore, may have different influences on people.
Some of these interpretations are due to misunderstandings of a
Reviewing the first decades of American drama in 19th
century, Alan S. Downer in his book Fifty Years of American
Drama (1951) explores Death of a Salesman as a social play
suggesting expressionism. He introduces American Dream as a
belief of quot;attractive personality [which] is the key to success in
businessquot; (74). He believes that Willy Loman fails to realize the
meaning of his actions, therefore misses the chance to understand
the realism of his life. Referring to the foundations of American
Dream in that particular society, it is true when he comments that,
quot;For American and societies similarly organized, Death of a
Salesman is tragedy, [but] for other societies, it is a lesser thing, a
case history, perhapsquot; (75).
Harold Clurman in Lies Like Truth (1958), asserts that Willy
Loman is a victim of American Dream. He first analyzes the
progress of concept of American Dream, from the first beliefs of
primitive Americans to the current 20th century propagandas. He
criticizes the society of America, and condemns the false belief of
American Dream which has leaded the life of millions of lower-
middle-class workers to the catastrophe. He expresses the cause of
Willy Loman's downfall, as he quot;never acknowledges or learns the
error of his way. [In this way] to the very end, he is a devout
believer in the ideology that destroys him (70).quot;
Blau has a look on the conflicts between an individual and
the American society. He believes that there is a gap between an
individual's desires and traditions of society. He implies in The
Whole Man and the Real Witch (1964), that society is on the wrong
side, and states that, quot;to achieve consciousness, one needs to
believe in society. . . . For Miller, it comes out of the desire to
make sense of the word individual in a mass society, increasingly
deprived of identity by machines and machine politics and machine
Leonard Moss explains in the book Arthur Miller (1967),
that due to the explanation of quot;makequot;, a word Willy Loman used
forty-five times during the play, quot;a man must acquire status and
wealthquot; (49). He admits, further more, a declaration that sees Willy
Loman a passive victim of corrupted propagandist society, where
the emphasis is on the concept of being number one and reaching
Gerals Weales in the introduction of Arthur Miller’s Death
of a Salesman: Text and Criticism (1968) assumes that Death of a
Salesman is a tragedy about Biff, Loman's son. He includes that
Willy Loman is not the real protagonist, and states that quot;it is Biff's
story . . . it is a play about a son's troubles with his fatherquot; (xvii).
He also indicates that Willy Loman is a sufferer of his self-
delusion; the legacy he remains for Biff.
quot;We are not, [and] we must not,quot; Harold Clurman suggests
in The Merits of Mr. Miller (1969), quot;separate from the others. Our
refusal to acknowledge this and to act upon it is the sin which
secretly torments us and causes us personal griefquot; (148). Clurman
places all oppositions to sins an individual commits--such as pride
or moral arrogance. In his essay, Clurman condemns the rebel
individual, like Willy Loman, who disobeys (or misunderstands)
his responsibility and pre-designs his catastrophe.
Raymond Williams in his study of some dramatists, in the
book Drama from Ibsen to Brecht (1971), discusses Arthur Miller
as a social playwright and finds the problem in the
misunderstanding of individual and society. He verifies Blau when
he asserts that, quot;the key to social realism . . . lies in a particular
conception of the relationship of the individual to society, in which
neither is the individual seen as a unit nor the society as an
aggregate, but both are seen as belonging to a continuous, but in
real terms inseparable process (70).quot;
Aarnes Believes in Tragic Form and the Possibility of
Meaning in Death of a Salesman (1988), that Willy Loman has
thought about suicide for a while, but only determines to commit it
when his older son, Biff, has at last openly and unequivocally
declared his quot;lovequot; for his father. Willy Loman’s action is his last
attempt to help his last lover.
Harold Bloom in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman
(1988), analyzes the play from different aspects, and strongly
claims that it is an American play, written for American people. He
implies that American Dream is not real, and Willy Loman's
problem is quite common in American society. He depicts the play
as quot;it reverberates, echoes, resonates. Its rhythms roll deep down
toward and into American desires and delusionsquot; (47). He
emphasizes American images presented here to call it a real social
The famous sermon of Martin Luther King Jr., delivered at
Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia, on 4 July 1965, recited
by Clayborne Carson (1998) is another source to explore the idea
of American Dream in the society of United States.
Sussan C. W. Abbotson in Student Companion to Arthur
Miller (2000) believes that Miller is dedicated his literary works to
self-realization and self-discovery of American nation--an
important phase in one's life regarding the society. She declares
that Death of a Salesman ends tragic because of the salesman's
self-realization. She entitles Miller as quot;a kind of prophet who
uncovers America's flaws and tries to enlighten the people as to the
harsh realities of their existence, in the hope that they might strive
to improve their behavior and livesquot; (17).
Thompson, in his article, Miller’s Death of a Salesman
(2005), explores the symbolic function of proper names and
implies that the problem is the reflection of the Lomans’ wrong
acts regarding their ages.
5. Research Methodology
Death of a Salesman is the narration of a downfall. A man
who feels insecure and limited by social forces, cannot control his
life anymore, and eventually fails to understand his situation and
encounter some internal and external conflicts. His nothingness in
society makes him to believe of no more right to live. He commits
suicide, in order to save a dignity for his sons. To explore the
situation and find the cause, the approach should be elective. Any
approach that analyzes social paralysis should contain imperialism
facets as well, to probe into Willy Loman’s condition. Formalistic
study can partly help to find out social elements of the context, but
should be interpreted and compared with principles.
As the story “is not focused on the station or status of man,
but on motives of his soul” (Bierman 1958:493), and it is a social
play, new historicism approach is useful to be applied on the
character developments of the play. There is no boundary to limit
different approaches, as long as they prove helpful to clarify the
downfall, they are applicable.
Modern criticism may discuss the situation properly to
consider imperialism and post world-war era. Furthermore, it is the
usage of classic definition of great hero and bourgeoisie wishes,
which reflects in American Dream; what Loman always seeks but
never reaches, that contrasts with his low life and verifies his tragic
6. Works cited
Aarnes, William. quot;Tragic Form and the Possibility of Meaning in
Death of a Salesman.quot; In Arthur Miller's Death of a
Salesman: Modern Critical Interpretations. Ed. Harold
Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1988.
Abbotson, Susan C. W. Student Companion to Arthur Miller.
London: Greenwood Press, 2000.
Adams, James Truslow. The Epic of America. Boston: Little
Brown and Company, 1931.
Bierman, Judah, James Hart and Stanley Johnson. The Dramatic
Experience. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1958.
Blau, Herbert. quot;The Whole Man and the Real Witch.quot; In The
Impossible Theater. Ed. Robert W. Corrigan. New York:
The Macmillan Company, 1964.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. New
York: Chelsea House, 1988.
Cardullo, Bert. quot;Death of a Salesman, Life of a Jew: Ethnicity,
Business, and the Character of Willy Loman.quot; Southwest
Review. 2007, 583.
Carpenter, Frederic I. American Literature and the Dream. New
York: Philosophical Library, 1955.
Carson, Clayborne, and Peter Holloran. A Knock at Midnight:
Inspiration from the Great Sermons of Reverend Martin
Luther King, Junior. NewYork: Warner Books, 1998.
Clurman, Harold. quot;The Merits of Mr. Miller.quot; In Arthur Miller: A
Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Robert W. Corrigan.
Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1969.
--------. Lies Like Truth. New Work: The Macmillan Company,
Dillingham, William B. quot;Arthur Miller and the Loss of
Conscience.quot; In Emory University Quarterly. Spring 1960,
Downer, Alan Seymour. Fifty Years of American Drama 1900 –
1950. Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1951.
Miller, Arthur. Collected Plays. New York: Viking, 1957.
Moss, Leonard. Arthur Miller. New York: Twayne Publishers,
Thompson, Terry W. quot;Miller's Death of a Salesman.quot; In The
Explicator. Summer 2005, 244.
Weales, Gerals, ed. Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman: Text and
Criticism. New York: The Viking Press, 1968.
Williams, Raymond. Drama from Ibsen to Brecht. London: Chatto
and Windus, 1971.