Why Death of a Salesman is Still Relevant


The late comedian George Carlin propounded in one of his comedy bits that “call it the American Dream is because you have to be asleep to believe it,” and there is certainly no better way to sum up the message of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949).

The mid-century tale is told from the perspective of Willy Loman, a 63-year-old salesman with an ailing mind and a dulling charisma. The play only covers the span of two days, yet the reader sees Loman’s entire life fall apart. His son, Biff Loman, can’t hold a job and can’t find his place in the world, even though he is in his thirties. Happ Loman, his younger son, is a serial homebreaker, an affinity only empowered by his dream of sleeping his way to the top of the corporate ladder. Biff has no money, but he cares tremendously for his father; Happ is pretty well-set financial, but he cares not for his father.

Willy is barely getting by, and the expenses of living a moderate and wholesome life prove too great for his meager income. Willy lives paycheck-to-paycheck, like 75 percent of Americans today, reports CNN Money. His wife, Linda Loman, tries her best to squeeze every cent out their checkbook, but she couldn’t draw any more liquidity from the bone-dry paper.

In the middle of the play, there is upsurge of optimism. The unemployed Biff tries to get a deal so he can finally settle down and take control of his life. Willy asks the pinnacle of virtue in American society, the businessman, to change his position at the ‘company,’ since he drives all over the Northeast every day, and it’s taking a toll on him. All is well when they go off on their merry way the next morning, and spirits are high.

Then, nothing goes right. Biff is denied even a substantive meeting, and the boss fired Willy, the faithful and fruitful worker. There is a great conflagration in his home, and the primary theme of the modern infeasibility of the American Dream comes to the forefront.

All of a sudden, at the frail age of 63, Willy Loman’s life crashes like the stock market. Willy’s dream is the American Dream: he is the quintessential American, working hard and spending thriftly, providing the support of a father and the love of a husband, and he faithfully provides for his employer. After decades, Willy’s dream collapses, leaving any pretense of opportunity or support behind in a bygone era.

Willy’s story is the story of millions of hard-working Americans who can’t find a way out of the meager subsistence of daily life. The bottom 20 percent of American society are almost immutably destined to stay there; 60 percent of those born to the lowest quintile stay within the bottom two quintiles, according to Economic Studies expert Richard Reeves of Brookings. On the bright side, 8.4 percent of poor Americans find themselves among the top 20 percent of moneymakers. As a point of reference, socialist Denmark has a much better social mobility rate, with double as many poor children finding their way to the top in adulthood, reports The Economist. John Cassidy for The New Yorker states, “the United States remains a highly stratified society, and most poor kids still have few prospects of making big strides.”

Americans can see the declining opportunity in the US, too. Back in 1998, 81 percent of the public felt that the common man has a fair chance at making it; today, it’s 52 percent.

Biff Loman would be among their ranks, as when he pleads to his delusional father, “Will you take that phony dream and burn it before something happens?” Willy refuses to renounce his hopes of a fair shot; instead, he finds himself in the dirt, the victim of a suicide attempt. At his funeral, his friend Charley commanded, “Nobody dast blame this man,” but he really instead commanded, ‘Nobody dast blame this system.’ Willy’s destruction left his distraught wife Linda sobbing at his grave, exasperatedly proclaiming, “We’re free.”

Yet the phony dream lives on.

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