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… A salesman is got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory.
I was rummaging my bookcase and shelves looking for books to read that I don’t have to purchase. Now with amazon paperback deliveries stopped due to Covid-19, I’m down to reading books I was never drawn to read. I’m a bit ashamed to confess that I never thought of reading Arthur Miller’s modern play, Death of a Salesman, written in 1949 critiquing consumerism and the great American dream, which opened in Broadway and changed the course of modern theatre.
Maybe it had something to do with the drab and nondramatic cover. Too plain in my opinion, covering this thin gem of a book. Or was it the title, way too straight with mention of death. And sales. Two of my least favourite nouns, when it comes to picking fiction.
Anyway without digressing further, let me dive right into Death of a Salesman. And into the life of Willy Loman, an average looking sales guy who has been working for a company for 34 years. His weekly commissions have taken care of his family, namely his wife Linda and his two sons, Biff and Happy.
Willy was never great at his job or otherwise. An average salesman he is the quintessential common man — who managed to pay for his mortgages, recurring bills, son’s education and put food on the table for a family of four. But, now with time and age, he is losing his mind. He chats with himself constantly and has lost his credibility in the market and become a liability for the company he works for.
But Loman doesn’t want to believe any of that. He knows what he is and what he has become. He is just not ready to accept it. He thinks he can kill it in New York, even though he has been forced to sell in New England. He believes his eldest son Biff is a glorious hero who will astound the business world with his charisma and mojo. Simply because in school he was good at Sports.
He is not ready to face that Biff flunked in Math and never graduated. That he often steals and can’t help it. That he is a man who can’t earn more than a “buck an hour” or fears the rat race and wants to escape to a farm in the countryside to raise cattle.
On the day Willy gets fired from his job by his young boss (whose father he had once served) but who has no respect for him or patience for his words, his good friend Charlie offers him a job with a decent weekly pay. But, his false pride stops him from accepting it.
I can’t work for you, that’s all, don’t ask me why.
He tells him.
Loman’s projection of his ideal self is so strong that when reality creeps in, he snubs it and escapes into the unreal world. Wherein he converses with his brother Ben, a man who stumbled upon diamonds in Africa. His other escape being the idyllic days spent with his family in the past.
It is through these past recollections and present day reality that the story builds and moves forward, until coming to a devastating end, which has been revealed in the title, already. Death of a Salesman is a tragedy waiting to happen, as Miller put it in his own words, this is the story of a man who:
Does not have a grip on the forces of life.
And yet I found myself racing through it in an attempt to find out who is Willy Loman and why is he heading towards a tragic end? That’s how powerful Arthur Miller’s writing is. It sucks you right in and throws you in the middle of a storm. Or Willy’s head and his home in this case.
In this play, every character, minor or major stands out. Whether its Willy’s docile and loving wife Linda — a homebody whose singular devotion to her husband is heart-wrenching. Happy, Willy’s younger son — a selfish, tough-skinned spunky young man. A big hit with the ladies and a liar just like his father. Charlie, Willy’s level-headed friend who is a man of the world and has the best lines.
In one place he tells Willy:
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.
Or his dead brother Ben, an adventurous but snobbish man whose approval Willy seeks and aims to replicate his success at any cost.
Willy’s false pride and his nonacceptance of reality distances him from his elder son. When he finally understands that his son loves and cares for him, it’s too late. The ghosts of his past have caught up with him. His adulterous liaisons with a woman to whom he had gifted his wife’s silk stockings, something Biff discovered as a boy and used frequently in the play as a haunting reminder of his betrayal. His failure to pursue his dream of following in his brother’s footsteps and joining him in his diamond adventure in Africa.
Then there is the bitter reality. Biff’s meeting which goes haywire when Oliver, the man who once liked him doesn’t even recognize him or consider loaning him money to start his business. While Willy strongly believes that his elder son is a strapping hero who can change his fortune at the drop of a hat.
This confrontation with reality, Biff being the mouthpiece aggravates and finally pushes Willy to commit suicide by crashing his car. It must be noted that when the play begins, we learn that Willy has been trying to commit suicide for a while. The reason why he chooses death is explained through his words at the end.
That funeral will be massive! They’ll come from Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire! All the old timers with the strange license plates—that boy will be thunderstruck… because he never realized—I am known!”
Sadly, no one turns up at Willy Loman’s funeral barring his family and his old friend Charlie and his son, Bernard. The play ends with Linda Loman’s heartbreaking words spoken at her husband’s grave:
Why did you do it? I search and search…and I can’t understand it. Willy. I made the last payment on the house today. Today, dear. And there’ll be nobody home. We’re free and clear…We’re free…
- This book shook me to the core. The Death of a Salesman is a relevant and accurate account of the repercussions of our misplaced self-image and consumerist values that we grow up with, all the while forgetting to acknowledge our limitations.
- How we glorify money, fame and aim to be liked at any cost.
- How we fail to face reality and delude ourselves with ego-bolstering bull crap and innumerable self-help books, which are again nothing but, deceitful and lame.
- This book written in 1949 is relevant today and will remain relevant in a consumerist society that doesn’t want to be shown the mirror. After all, life is not always “a smile and shoeshine.”
- Read it for sure, if you haven’t already. There must be a reason why it won a Pulitzer prize, was adapted for film and TV and revived time and again on Broadway.
- The overlapping voices.
- The constant shifting from present to past and vice versa.
- This one is not for the impatient or those looking for instant gratification.
You can watch the Death of a Salesman here