A small man can be just as exhausted as a great man
–Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller
This is probably my favorite play of all time, just a warning! There will be considerable gushing for this particular work.
AUTHOR: Arthur Miller
GENRE: Drama, Tragedy
WHERE DID I GET THIS BOOK: school library
SUMMARY: Willy Loman is a less-than-mediocre salesman that seems utterly incapable of coming to terms with his own mediocrity and average state and with the lack of conventional success in his two sons’ lives, Biff and Happy. It is revealed in the play that Willy had always imagined that his two sons would experience great success, as Biff was the quarterback of the football team and was predicted to go to college on a football scholarship. Their neighbor, Bernard, is a smart kid who had constantly reminded Biff to study so as not to fail his high school classes. It is also apparent to the audience that Biff as a kid was a bully, full of himself, irresponsible, and a troublemaker. Willy is as blind to his son’s flaws at that time as he is in the present, and Biff and Happy strive to prove to their father that they will lead ordinary lives. Their mother, Linda, pushes them to make their father happy by pursuing prospects that do not really exist and careers that ultimately would not make them happy. Willy refuses to listen to his kids’ protests, and his children desperately try to play in his fantasy world while Linda moderates, but eventually all of these tensions come to a boiling point and a climax that the family cannot ultimately return from.
RATING: 5/5 stars
THOUGHTS: There are many reasons why this is one of my favorite plays, and one of the reasons is because the theatricality of it is so thought out and employed so well. All of the details and thought put into the stage directions is amazing and helps the reader really envision the work; it is a play that can exist as beautifully on stage as it does on paper. Specifically, the flute music that is supposed to accompany the story and Willy’s memories is one of my favorites details, and Miller’s details concerning how the house is supposed to be set up embody the feeling of the story so perfectly.
This is also a story about the American Dream, but not in the way that more classical works like The Great Gatsby address the materialism accompanied with the American Dream. One would think that Willy’s son Biff was the perfect high-school hero, as a popular kid and the star of the football team. However, his future did not pan out as well as Willy might have hoped it would, and this mostly resulted from the character flaws of Biff and from some of Willy’s. Instead, the expectations for a standard American life and the entitlement that can sometimes embody American culture are the subjects of this show, and I think it only reveals why idealizing anyone else’s idea of the perfect life can be so damaging and demoralizing.
Willy Loman is the epitome of a tragic hero, and it is unclear what exactly, in medical and psychological terms, what it was that he was afflicted with. There is no need to really know what could possibly be affecting Willy’s mental and emotional state, because it is family expectations and an idealized world that ultimately would be his downfall, and he pushed these things that poisoned his life onto his sons, continuing the cycle of abuse. He has no consciousness that these are his weaknesses though, except maybe at the end, and this makes him a fascinating character that I love to investigate over and over again.
This is a simple family drama but it is ultimately a reflection on American culture, and it is almost certain that everyone has something to draw from the story. I think that is what makes it timeless to me, that as a high schooler in 2016, I could still relate to the character of Willy Loman from decades ago. He only ever strived to be a great man and not just another chip off the block, and I believe that a lot of us strive to be one of the “greats” when the reality is, that most of us are the flecks of dust and not the flecks of gold. However, this can be embraced in its own way and has its own beauty, a message that Willy Loman never learned but one that perhaps Arthur Miller did and was trying to convey through this work.