Attention Must Be Paid
When Arthur Miller wrote "Death of a Salesman" many considered it a modern masterpiece. It has spurred debate among academics and stirred the emotions of hundreds of thousands of audiences and readers alike. However, there is a growing trend among many who approach this play to condemn Willy Loman out of hand. Entire new generations of readers feel nothing for the plight of Willy Loman; they believe his actions merit his destruction. Why is this? Has there been a fundamental but subtle shift in societal attitudes not just toward literature but toward life in general? If so, does this affect the validity of Miller's vision as presented in "Death of a Salesman"? This play must be seen as something more than an invigorating academic challenge, a pawn in the petty games of academia. It is so much more than that. Attention, attention must be paid to such a person and such a play.
Late twentieth century society has made the transition from agrarian and rural communities to massive urban industrialization. These changes can and have been monitored; they are tangible. Small family operated businesses and farms have been gobbled up by multinational conglomerates. The days of the employer as a sort of surrogate parent to his or her loyal employees are over. Our world no longer has time for Willy Loman. We discard these people as inefficient, burdensome, and unnecessary, all in the name of progress. Willy Lomans are expendable commodities to be used up and cast aside. This change in societal attitudes, though perhaps not as tangible, is very real. A social theory as well as a literary one is needed, therefore, to reconcile Miller's play with the modern world.
Marxist literary criticism is one such theory. It relates literature to the society which produced it and the society that consumes it. Examining the ideological basis and historical context which surround the play result in a better understanding not only of the text but of the changes in our society as well. We must begin beneath the surface of the play, in abstraction, to search for the ideologies that control the action of the play. To the Marxist, ideology is more than a doctrine or set of doctrines; it is an amorphous body of free-floating images that pervades and manipulates all aspects of life. Terry Eagleton goes so far as to say,
"...that literature is nothing but ideology in a certain
artistic form-that works of literature are just
expressions of the ideologies of their time" (Eagleton 17).
Ideology could be thought of as the skeleton upon which the musculature of form, plot, and character are hung. It is the primary purpose of the Marxist critic to expose and comment on any and all ideologies present in a work. In effect, a Marxist literary critique tries to weaken or fracture the bones of the play.
In Death of a Salesman, two major ideologies come into direct conflict: the cult of the personality and the profit motive. The play moves from the homespun myth of the fierce individualist who has pulled himself up by the bootstraps and into fame and fortune (i.e. Willy's father and Ben, his brother) to the harsh realities of industrial capitalist society. The ideologies are not mutually exclusive. They both fuel the insatiable greed at the heart of the American dream. They equate happiness with economic success.
Willy thinks he can achieve this goal with a smile and handshake. He places image before substance. "Be liked and you will never want" (Death 1360). This idea coupled with a belief that the simplest and most humble can rise to the greatest heights form the core of Willy's motivation. It is also the source of his greatest struggle. Willy becomes Miller's ideological champion of the common man. Though he fails, Willy challenges the fixed notion of a class system. "The revolutionary questioning of a stable environment is what terrifies. In no way is the common man debarred from such thoughts or actions" (Miller 5).
Miller's champion, however, is blind to the dangers inherent in his own ideology. Willys boss, Howard is Willy's ideological opponent. He embodies the growing amoral view of business: survival of the fittest, profit at any price. "'Cause you gotta admit business is business" (Death 1388). This ideology is an extension of mechanization. Efficiency is the goal. As Brian Parker states, "The machine is both the cause and the illustration of Willy's breakdown" (99). This efficiency ideology transforms society into an entity that produces soulless machine-like people. Subjective humanity is extracted from individuals by the business world. Miller himself states, "We have finally come to serve the machine" (60). Willy lives and dies blind. And he is not alone. Miller seems to suggest that society, under the influence of this newer crueler ideology, promotes such blindness. "His [Willy's] destruction posits a wrong or evil in society" (Miller 5). "Surely the evil lies in those who perpetuate the environment, passively or actively" (Mottram 33). The animosity this ideology expresses toward Willy exemplifies the class struggle.
In this manner Willy becomes a kind of Marxist Everyman. He embodies the plight of the proletariat and confirms the Marxist view of history as a struggle to become free from oppression. "Willy is a man to whom things happen and who responds with bewilderment and a desperate clinging to his old faith" (Hagopian 35). Willy's faith is in the common man. His fate reaches tragic proportions. "The wrong is the condition which suppresses man, perverts the flowing out of his love and creative instinct" (Miller 5). It seems Willy would have been happier as a carpenter or stonemason, but ideological pressure from his society blinds him and gives him false dreams. His station in society, his desire to die the death of a salesman prevent him from truly knowing himself, his wife or his children. "The play's technique thus forces the audience to become Willy Lomans for the whole duration of the play, to sympathize with his predicament in a way they could not do in real life"(Parker 101).
The future Miller presents does not bode well for the state of the common man. Happy's attitude toward life is a sad foreshadowing of his fate. "He [Willy] had the good dream. Its the only dream to have- to come out number one man" (Death 1425). Unwittingly, Happy will continue the cycle of domination by trying to emulate and vindicate his father. Willys brother Ben exploits others, rather than submit to the fate of the common man. Ben is an old world imperialist. Driven by greed, he exploits the earth as well as others. "When I was seventeen I walked into the jungle, and when I was twenty one I walked out. And by God I was rich" (Death 1369). Ben's credo seems to be: you cannot save anyone but yourself. When he returns to visit Willy, he has to be informed that his mother died years earlier. Ben's strength comes from his financial state; he gains the power to exploit by becoming rich. He offers Willy a chance to share in his strength, but Willy declines. Willy opts for the stability of his false dreams. He wants to make his million in the city. The city, however, lacks the same exploitative power taken by Ben from the world at large. There is no pioneer spirit, no jungle to tame in the city. In both places hard work can bring success, but the success and influence of city dwellers like Charley seem small when compared to the power Ben carries with him wherever he goes.
Linda is very influential in Willy's decision to stay. She is a source of security, strength, and support for Willy. The results of her assistance, however, contribute to Willy's destruction. She pins all her hope on his false dreams. Rather than deal with the possibilities of failure, she convinces herself his dreams will come true. She blinds herself to Willys weakness and tempts him to dream. (Bliquez, p.78) "To acquiesce in all of Willy's weakness is to be a failure as a wife and a mother, and to share in the responsibility of her husband's fall" (Bliquez 78). Rather than bolstering Willy, Linda bolsters Willy's dreams. Without question, Linda loves Willy. But her love and her pride blind her.
It is possible to read Linda as a Marxist figure within the play because she understands the importance, the value, of Willy (the proletariat), even though she has an influential role in his suicide. But a more subtle critique of Linda Loman is also possible. She was once seen as a pinnacle of strength, the archetypal loving and loyal wife (reminiscent of Penelope in the Odyssey). Linda, however, is an important factor in Willy's destruction. While performing her role as the passive and loving wife, she reaffirms the misogynist notion of women's ancient responsibility for the fall of men (Eve, Helen of Troy). Like Willy, society is partially responsible for her blindness. Society promotes such blindness and even displays it as a trait to be admired. Linda's culpability is preceded, however, by society's. Perhaps the patriarchy present in society tries to use Linda as a scapegoat for its own failures. Because Linda is the only female character of substance in the play, much responsibility can be heaped on her (and women in general) for the tragic plight of men. It is possible that Linda, the one
time heroine and seeming tower of strength, may actually be admired for her ability to exempt men from responsibility for their own actions (Bliquez 78).
Biffs self discovery late in the play demonstrates a different way to struggle against this bleak world view. A spark of self-awareness can be seen in Biff, the wanderer returned home. By the conclusion of the play this spark has blossomed into self-realization. Biff begins to assign higher meaning to his life, meaning beyond financial standards. He gains a sense of self worth, while also understanding his limitations in the workaday world all too well, unlike his father. "Pop! I'm a dime a dozen and so are you" (Death 1421). There is hope that through this process of self-realization, Biff can avoid meeting Willy's fate.
"Death of a Salesman" is historical in that the types of characters and language they use are products of a certain day and age. Its ideological significance, however, can transcend its place in history. From a Marxist perspective, the play is a broad based attack of industrial society as a whole. As John Hagopian states, "...the play does specifically isolate the capitalistic form of society as its target" (42). The true tragedy of this play is not so much embodied in the lifeblood of Willy Loman as it is in the insidious world which fosters whole generations of lost souls like Willy. The modern world should accept at least partial responsibility for those like Willy who lead pathetic lives and suffer senseless deaths.
This would normally be the conclusion of a Marxist reading of "Death of a Salesman": that it is a powerful indictment of industrial capitalism as a whole with Willy Loman (low man) representing the tragic fate that awaits us all.
"So long as modern man conceives himself as valuable only because he fits into some niche in the machine-tending pattern, he will never know anything more than a pathetic doom." (Miller, p.60)