Most people want to get ahead and certainly almost everyone at one point or another dreams of the good life; a high level of social status, wealth, health, motivation and inspiration. Willy Loman is a lower-middle class man who has been shaped by the American Dream. Willys shattered life and the dysfunction of his family represent the failure of that dream. The play kills this dream by portraying Willys failure, as well as the failure of the success dream itself. Death of a Salesman encompasses sex, maturity, honesty and most importantly the dream world of the success myth with past success, possibilities and the current reality of the small house in Brooklyn.
WILLY: figure it out. Work a lifetime to pay off a house. You finally own it, and theres nobody to live in it.
LINDA: well dear, life is a casting off. Its always that way.
WILLY: No, no, some people - some people accomplish something.
Willys social status, his family background, and his role as a salesman originate from the influence of an American producer-consumer driven society. Willys goal is to keep ahead of other salesmen in a competitive society, and to leave a thumbprint on the world. He has never really been successful, but he has been inspired by those who made it and those who have what it takes to be at the top. He believes his society to be the land of opportunity but Willy does not realize that personality and friendship are not enough. However personality is important and psychological personality testing is used by thousands of career counsellors. Things like well developed cognitive skills, emotional stability, intelligence and experience play a big role in career and life success. In the contemporary world, work-related conduct is not ruled by who you are, but by what you can do as well as ones specific skills and contributions, so Willys best friend Charley tries to enlighten him:
WILLY: Charley, Im strapped. Im strapped. I dont know what to do. I was just fired.
CHARLEY: Howard fired you?
WILLY: That snotnose. Imagine that? I named him. I named him Howard.
CHARLEY: Willy, whenre you gonna realize that them things dont mean anything? You named him Howard, but you cant sell that. The only thing you got in this world is what you can sell. And the funny thing is that youre a salesman, and you dont know that.
WILLY: Ive 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? In a Turkish bath hed look like a butcher. But with his pockets on he was very well liked.
Willy discovers certain attributes in his sons which characterize the personality likely to succeed. The boys are physically strong, well-built, and attractive. Biff is a football hero, the captain of the high school team and Happy has a pleasant personality.
Against the picture of the radiant athlete is Bernard who studies hard, and is not well liked. Bernard is a realists, judging his situations with clear eye and hard head. The first is the value he places on education, which is more and more often the path to occupational success. The Loman brothers grow up supported by their fathers misguided but powerful success dream. Willy believes the following qualities to be the keys to achievement: popularity, courage, physical prowess, and attractiveness. Willy never tells the boys they need skill, indeed, he encourages them, especially Biff, in cutting corners and relying on personal charisma to carry the day. He thinks of Biff as a smooth operator. Biffs wandering in the west is an escape from the competitive occupational world, just as it is an escape from the father whose disloyalty makes him feel betrayed.
Willy, Biff and Happy are unable to connect sincerely and meaningfully with others. Miller emphasizes this weakness through the superficial and dysfunctional sexual relationships that they form with women. Women in Death of a Salesman are used as indicators of male success and promoters of male values.
Maturity is another emphasized theme in the play. Biff lacks critical thinking skills appropriate for his age. Willy has to lecture him like a boy by telling him, Walk in very serious. You are not applying for a boys jobAnd dont say Gee. Gee is a boys word. A man walking in for fifteen thousand dollars does not say Gee! Biff also whistles in the elevator and is irresponsible. The Loman men lack objective and ambition. Both are in their thirties now, single and still living at home with their parents. Whereas Willy misses the point that business should be professional and impersonal just like formal writing is far more respectable than informal. This is especially seen when he gets upset after Howard fires him especially when he named him Howard and thinks this matters in a world of business.
There is also a lot of stealing in this play. When Biff steals the football Willy congratulates him. Furthermore when both Biff and Happy steal lumber Willy encourages them, while he is proudly announcing it to Charley. Willy laughs at both thefts because they reveal power of personality and fearless competitiveness. When Charley warns Willy that the watchman will catch the boys at their thieving Willy answers that though he gave them hell the boys are a couple of fearless characters. When Charley responds that the jails are full of fearless characters, Ben adds that the stock exchange is also. Biff finally gets caught for stealing a suit in Kansas City and is punished by being sent to jail.
As life closes in on Willy in the form of time payments and disappointing children, Willy gives up his hope for economic success. Finally he follows an unusual form of innovation: desperately wanting the success for his sons and uses illegitimate means to provide them with money, that is, the proceeds of his life insurance policy, the only thing he has to give them.