The basic theme of Arthur Miller's work Death of a Salesman is the loss of identity and man’s inability to recognize alteration within himself and the society. Willy Loman, the major protagonist in the play, is a person whose fall from the top results in the echoing crash, metaphorically and also literally. Doing business in youth, when he was young and attractive, was far simpler for Willy. However, now as a man wrapped up in memories of the past and controlled by the fears of his future, Willy sees himself as the victim of ill fortune, accepting no responsibility for own difficulties. Nevertheless, it was not an unfortunate fate that drove Willy to destroy his own living as well as the lives of people he loved; it was his vague set of values. To Willy, success is connected with two things: being prosperous and being very popular, neither of which he is ever likely to achieve. This is demonstrated in a requiem, when at his father's funeral, Biff declares, "He had the wrong dreams, all wrong”.
Willy's misery results from the failure to accomplish his American dream of success. In the past he was a quite successful salesman opening novel area in New England, and Happy and Biff treated him as a perfect father. However, when Biff finds out about his father’s affair, he loses esteem for Willy and his own stimulus to succeed. As Willy gets older, making sales is harder for him, so he tries to draw on previous success by recollecting old memories. Willy Loman loses the capability to differentiate reality from fantasy, and this conduct alienates him from other people, thus diminishing his capability to survive in his present. With time Willy's life becomes more disordered, forcing him to withdraw totally to the past, where order exists as he can relive old memories. Willy's memories are the major key to acknowledging his personality. He cautiously selects memories to create situations in which he is happy or to justify his present lack of wealth. Willy's continuous shift to the past results in his contradictory nature.
Willy is not the unbeatable father or a faithful husband or an extremely successful salesman like he wishes everyone to think. He is selfish. He fails to appreciate his own wife and family. And he cannot accept the fact that he is only marginally successful. Thus, Willy Loman fantasizes about his lost chances for fame and prosperity.
However, the author does not solely criticize Willy. Instead, he shows how one person may create a cycle which manages to include other people. This is definitely the case within the Loman family. Till the finale of this play, Willy successfully blocks own affair out of memory and commits himself to the existence of refutation. He does not remember that incident, so obviously he does not realize why his tie with Biff has altered. Willy wishes Biff's love as before, but instead father and son continually argue. Willy vacillates, at times criticizing Biff's incompetence and laziness, other times praising his ambition and physical strength. Happy and Linda are also drawn into this cycle. Linda knows about Willy's habit of reliving reality; nevertheless, she also acknowledges that Willy may not be capable to accept reality, as demonstrated via his several suicide attempts before the beginning of the play. Consequently, Linda prefers to defend Willy's fantasies by viewing them as reality, even if she must neglect reality or separate from her sons in doing so.
Probably Willy’s philosophy is rooted in his feelings of insufficiency over his own deficiencies in many spheres. Finally, Willy has built his total living around the belief that “the single thing you got in the world is what you can sell”, and his incapability to sustain his beliefs has weighed insufferably heavy on his feeling of personal failure. When Willy asserts: “Street is lined with cars. There is not a breath of fresh air… Grass don’t grow . . . you cannot raise a carrot in a yard” (Miller 17), he is mainly showing how unproductive he feels his living has become. Yet what he actually fails to see is that there is beauty all around him if he just knew where to look and how to see it.
Thus, with the help of his play Miller is attempting to tell the audience that dreams may take over the lives and devastate them in the process. Biff asserts: “I do not know what I am supposed to want” as if there was just one dream to accomplish, otherwise you have failed. The stress surrounding fantasies is too large and at times people have to come to terms with the fact they cannot be achieved.
If Willy had appreciated acceptance over popularity, devotion over materialism and individuality over traditionalism, he would have considered himself rich, feeling grateful to have a loving wife and two sons; and that would have been enough. Yet, as he was not capable to appreciate the crucial things in his existence, he finally opted for death instead, consequently stealing a chance for genuine happiness away from those people who had managed to discover own peace before his self-centered act.
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