Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell

Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman (1949)   

Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman (1949) is the tragedy of a common man, the fictional salesman Willy Loman.  His fatal flaw that brought him undone was his unswerving belief in the definition of success intrinsic to the American dream, which is that anyone with a little intelligence, personality, courage and lots of hard work can make it financially in business.  His ultimate disaster was to have the unimpressive reality of his existence threaten to tear away from him his chosen image of who he was in the world.  In the pursuit of financial success, Willy Loman failed by his own standards, and, as a result, he damaged himself and his family. 

This play is a psychological drama as well as a work of social criticism.  As social criticism Miller intended to generate scepticism about the value of the American dream.  The play implies that Willy Loman, and others like him, would have been better off and more fulfilled to have been a builder or to have worked on the land rather than participate in the urban rat race as a salesman for a big corporation that exploited its employees until they were no longer useful and then discarded them.  Rather than competition and sales, Miller argues that honest labour, a loving family life, and looking out for one’s fellow man are values that should be at the centre of a society.  

As a psychological drama, Miller saw the play as an exploration of the thoughts and feelings of a man in crisis, a mental breakdown that led to destruction.  Willy Loman’s memories, pleasant and unpleasant, invade his present and intertwine with it, shaping his reality and even leading him into delusion.  The play recreates and follows thought processes that are often illogical and confusing.  At the same time, they are informative as to the nature of Willy Loman’s perilous and declining psychological condition. 

Willy Loman’s decline is accentuated by his interactions and clashes with other characters, notably his family, with each of these characters created within the same Freudian psychoanalytical conceptual framework that informed the creation of Willy Loman.  The most notable clash is between Willy and his favourite son Biff, on whom he projected his hopes for success, but whom he had damaged by imposing upon him the American dream that ruined his own life.  Biff eventually saw through Willy’s dream, and found a way to accept the truth of his ordinary existence and salvage the wreckage of his life.  However, Willy remained deluded until the end.

Student resources by Dr Mark Lopez

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The purpose of the concise notes of Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell is to provide much needed help to students seeking to unlock the meaning of the texts with which they have to deal.  (More elaborate notes are provided in lessons as part of my private tutoring business.) 

Subject: Death of a Salesman meaning, Death of a Salesman themes, Death of a Salesman analysis, Death of a Salesman notes