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Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller
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Death of a Salesman (1948)

by Arthur Miller

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Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman shows the American Dream in all its tawdry glory, but he does it in the most unsurprising way possible. I'm happy to give Miller his due: as times Death of a Salesman is highly affecting, and the play seems to capture an era of American life, but throughout it felt as though Miller was going after only low-hanging fruit.

The characters of the play seem to be little more than an amalgam of flaws stretched into a family tree. From the first lines of the play the characters showcase their lack of foresight, inability to commit, quick temper, aimlessness, greed, tendency to overspend, selfishness, dishonesty, inflated sense of self-worth, unrealistic expectations, willful blindness, propensity to blame their problems on others, pride, etc. With all of these flaws it’s impossible not to see yourself in the characters at least a bit, as even the best of us has exhibited at least a couple of these flaws ourselves. I found, however, that having characters with so many flaws also limited my sympathy for them. There is only so long you can want to knock some sense into these characters before you just give up on them and watch the inevitable train wreck happen.

And that train wreck is indeed inevitable; something that would become clear early on even if the play had a different title. Willy’s been bamboozled by the material American Dream of the 1940s, though him falling for it is as much his fault for never thinking about his life as it is the fault of the companies that run the biggest ads in the newspaper or the society that puts wealth on a pedestal (I never noted the play substantively addressing the idea that, as a salesman, Willy is complicit in selling this materialistic idea of life that he himself has fallen prey to). Willy seems like he might have been better off in another age (one where he didn’t have time to think as much), but I’m doubtful that a man who believes “connections” and “impressions” are everything and backs get-rich-quick schemes would do very well in any age. Nevertheless, despite his flaws and his complicity in his eventual fate, it's hard not to feel for Willy as he marches to the grave, being kicked by chance and circumstance and his own nature again and again.

Death of a Salesman taps into the fear that your life won’t go the way you want it to, or the realization that it hasn’t gone as planned, which I imagine are almost universal feelings. Nevertheless, despite this universal core, there’s something very period specific about the play. The play is set during the time when apartment buildings are replacing yards, when cities are growing so big that a traveling salesman no longer knows the people he’s selling to, when it’s grown all but impossible to feel special any more instead of a dime a dozen. Loman, and Miller too, seems to look at the recent past with rose-tinted glasses, while criticizing the way in which the post-WWII America had become obsessed with material possessions, where you were stuck in a rat race to keep up your lifestyle instead of doing fulfilling work, where everyone was being reduced to something less than individuals. This disaffection with the age despite participation in it, with the veneer of comfort hiding withered and dissatisfied souls, seems to encapsulate the era (or at least I get the impression that it does, I wasn't around then so I can't say for sure), and that’s no mean feat.

Still, centering the text on a salesman who has seen his life wasted in the rat race seems the most boring way to encapsulate 1940s and 50s America. It’s as if I wrote a book today about a late 20 something-early 30 something working for a tech startup or a large website like Google who is worried about terrorism and big data, and who feels like the world is getting to complicated to even understand, let alone change. Doesn’t that already sound incredibly cliché? The other books that have encapsulated periods of America, like The Great Gatsby and Moby Dick, do so much more than just choose the most obvious archetype of the time and make him live out the most obvious criticism of the zeitgeist. Compared to those works Death of a Salesman seems, well “lazy” is perhaps too strong a word, let’s go with “uninteresting.”

Miller gets the responses he wants out of you with this play, but nevertheless fails to impress. It makes you feel, but more out of knee-jerk emotion than true sympathy. It shows you an era of American history, but it does so with an unimaginative plot and cast. It levels strong criticism against the world of its day, but it’s such a large target that the hit is rather unimpressive. It certainly has its place, but Death of a Salesman isn’t at the top of the pantheon of American literature.
( )
  BayardUS | Dec 10, 2014 |
I hate this entire time period of art, I get that they want to portray bleakness and whatever but why would I read a whole book to experience that when I already have depression and get to feel that 90% of my life. So I GUESS it achieves it's goal. But did I like it? F no. Get out of my life Arthur miller. ( )
  locriian | Oct 27, 2014 |
A true downer but an excellent play nonetheless. The idea of the parental expectations that they can live their failed lives vicariously through the children's success is highly prevalent as well as that of man defining himself by his work and the tragedy that occurs when the job/identity is lost. Brilliantly written for the stage. ( )
  AliceAnna | Oct 15, 2014 |
The Basics

Willy Loman is an aging salesman who is starting to lose his grip on reality. Through the course of the play, we watch his sad collapse while his family desperately attempts to rally around him.

My Thoughts

I’m beginning to think I have a thing for books that exemplify the death of the American Dream and the victims left in its wake. While Willy Loman isn’t quite as sympathetic as someone like Jay Gatsby, you will pity him, maybe even against your will. Because there is a sad reality here that resonates, and while the high drama could in some moments be seen as melodrama to some, it all seems pertinent and proper here.

Even then, the characters being likable or pitiable isn’t so much the point. More to the point is that they are strong characters with strong voices. The dialogue read smoothly. Interactions were as natural or tense as they needed to be, and when they were tense, it was felt. The message was clear and stark, all about broken dreams and kept secrets. The kind of thing that makes a short play blow by too fast.

So I loved it. I feel it’s a classic piece of theater/literature for good reason. It’s short and engaging, and if you want to read a classic and don’t know where to start, surprisingly this would be a good place.

Final Rating

5/5 ( )
  Nickidemus | Sep 18, 2014 |
Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller is a painful examination of the American Dream and how the pursuit of it can ultimately lead to destruction. Willy Loman, the destructively insecure protagonist, is a painfully ordinary man who makes several destructive choices and does not have a firm grip on life, frequently escaping into fantasy. His own sons conclude that Willy had the "wrong dream" and instead of being a travelling salesman, should have been a carpenter or a rustic worker. Instead his sons watch his dream and eventually his life fall apart.

Written in a manner similar to stream-of-conscious, Miller often merges the present setting of the play with events in the past only Willy can see and interact with. This is often confusing as the action shifts into the past frequently during present scenes, which reflect Willy's deteriorating mental state.

Overall then, this play does expose the emptiness of consumerism and the American Dream - pursuit of which can ruin lives physically and spiritually, yet in doing so Miller writes a deeply dark and depressing play that does little to inspire the reader, instead causing self-reflection on their own dreams.

Goodreads does not allow half-stars but the actual rating is more akin to 2½ stars. ( )
  xuebi | May 30, 2014 |
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A melody is heard, played upon a flute.
Quotations
You don't understand: Willy was a salesman. And for a salesman, there is no rock bottom to the life... He's a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back - that's an earthquake.
He's liked, but he's not well liked.
Biff : Shouldn’t we do anything?

Linda : Oh, my dear, you should do a lot of things, but there’s nothing to do, so go to sleep.
Charley : Howard fired you?

Willy : That snotnose. Imagine that? I named him. I named him Howard.

Charley : Willy, when’re you gonna realize that them things don’t mean anything? You named him Howard, but you can’t sell that. The only thing you got in this world is what you can sell. And the funny thing is that you’re a salesman, and you don’t know that.

Willy : I’ve always tried to think otherwise, I guess. I always felt that if a man was impressive, and well liked, that nothing-

Charley : Why must everybody like you? Who liked J. P. Morgan? Was he impressive?...But with his pockets on he was very well liked.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0140481346, Paperback)

Ever since it was first performed in 1949, Death of a Salesman has been recognized as a milestone of the American theater. In the person of Willy Loman, the aging, failing salesman who makes his living riding on a smile and a shoeshine, Arthur Miller redefined the tragic hero as a man whose dreams are at once insupportably vast and dangerously insubstantial. He has given us a figure whose name has become a symbol for a kind of majestic grandiosity—and a play that compresses epic extremems of humor and anguish, promise and loss, between the four walls of an American living room.

"By common consent, this is one of the finest dramas in the whole range of the American theater." —Brooks Atkinson, The New York Times

"So simple, central, and terrible that the run of playwrights would neither care nor dare to attempt it." —Time

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:59:38 -0400)

(see all 6 descriptions)

The powerful drama of Willy Loman & his tragic end. Ever since it was first performed in 1949, Death of a Salesman has been recognized as a milestone of the American theater. In the person of Willy Loman, the aging, failing salesman who makes his living riding on a smile and a shoeshine, Arthur Miller redefined the tragic hero as a man whose dreams are at once insupportably vast and dangerously insubstantial. He has given us a figure whose name has become a symbol for a kind of majestic grandiosity-and a play that compresses epic extremems of humor and anguish, promise and loss, between the four walls of an American living room. "By common consent, this is one of the finest dramas in the whole range of the American theater."… (more)

» see all 12 descriptions

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