Miller’s Death of a Salesman is a play of a modern tragic hero’s attempt to survive in a capitalist society where success is measured by the amount of money one possesses. This play is a modern tragedy since it differs from the classic tragedy that portrays “a fall of a man of high standing … due to a tragic flaw” (Gamage 787). In this play, the tragic hero, Willy Loman, is “neither a man of high standing nor his tragic flaw is completely of this own” (Gamage 787). On the contrary, Willy is a common man struggling with everyday problems. Externally, he has to compete in a capitalist society, which leads him to follow someone else’s dreams. Internally, he needs recognition and respect, which causes him to live in a delusion. Although Willy’s struggles to succeed in a capitalist society and gain love and respect contributed to his fall, the main factor causing his failure and suicide is his hubristic pride because it prevented him from seeing his flaws and opportunities for improving his situation.
Death of a Salesman is written from the perspective of the oppressed working class as per the Marxist theory. Willy is a common man working as a salesman and experiencing all the hardships of his disadvantaged socioeconomic position. He blindly follows the American dream, according to which people are expected to achieve material success. Willy trusts the American dream “to the point of self-illusion,” which makes him develop unrealistic expectations about himself and his sons and, eventually, get lost between reality and delusion (Ismael 351). He has confidence in the capitalist idea of success that is measured solely by the amount of money and material possessions that a person has.
However, one can hardly blame Willy for falling victim to this misbelief because he only tried to fit in the tough capitalistic society. As Charley, Willy’s neighbor and a successful businessman, noted at Willy’s funeral, “Nobody dast blame this man” because, in a capitalist society, one can lose everything in a flash (Miller 111). Perhaps, Willy did not quite understand this truth about capitalism, which is why he blindly followed the American dream. He could have followed his own dream of being a gardener and living in the countryside. Yet, he decided to become a salesman because he wanted to earn much money like Dave Singleman, who made his living selling goods by phone. However, Willy appeared to be a bad salesman and could not earn enough money, which made him a failure in the capitalist society.
The play vividly depicts the materialist culture characteristic of capitalism. In a consumer society, “not only everything but everybody is sold in one way or the other” (Gamage 792). For example, when Willy comes to Howard for a job, he seems to try to sell himself. First, he asks for a salary of sixty-five dollars, but since Howard remains reluctant, Willy has to lower his price to fifty dollars a week, and, at last, he says, “If I had forty dollars a week—that’s all I’d need” (Miller 61). He is ready to sell himself for such a low price but is, nevertheless, rejected, which means that he and his family will be unable to pay the bills. Eventually, Willy makes his last deal by trading his life for twenty thousand dollars in life insurance. Willy cannot reach success as per the capitalist ideology, which makes him feel a complete failure. Therefore, he takes this radical step to restore his dignity and earn money for his family at the cost of his life.
Apart from struggling to succeed in a capitalist society, Willy has an internal need to be loved, recognized, and respected. For example, Willy explains to his sons his views on what determines one’s success: “Be liked and you will never want” (Miller 21). Willy believes that being liked is very important and, therefore, he thinks that he does not deserve his current failures. However, he is concerned even more about his family’s attitudes toward him. Everything that Willy accomplishes, including his self-sacrifice, occurs because he “wants only to earn and to deserve the love of his wife and of his sons” (Bayouli and Sammali 46). Thus, Willy’s desire for love and respect drives many of his deeds.
Yet, when Willy does not get recognition and love, he uses the defense mechanism of repression to avoid the pain. This becomes evident after the scene when Biff, his older son, learns about Willy’s affair with another woman. Disappointed in his father, Biff cries, “You fake! You phony little fake!” (Miller 95). This incident ruined the relationships between Biff and Willy, and from then on, Willy sometimes uses repression by returning to his memories when he and his son got on well with each other. Willy also wants to escape the guilt for his adultery. He gave his mistress stockings, which were meant for his wife, and was triggered every time his wife mended her stockings. To avoid feeling guilty, Willy said, “Will you stop mending stockings? At least while I’m in the house. It gets me nervous” (Miller 55). Thus, Willy needs love and recognition, but when he does not get them, he avoids his painful experiences by recalling the times when he was respected and loved.
Although capitalist society and Willy’s desperate need for recognition contributed to his failure, the main reason for his fall was his excessive pride. Throughout his life, Willy thought highly of himself and considered himself better than others. According to Gamage, Willy “lived in a bubble where he was extremely popular, respected, and wanted” (789). Indeed, Willy believed that he had many friends and was “vital” at least in New England, even though it was not what happened it reality (Miller 4). Willy’s pride led to his blindness and unrealistic hopes. He dreamed of overnight success but continued to work as a salesman. Yet, his efforts were so unsuccessful that he sometimes had to borrow money from his neighbor and pretend that it was his salary. At the same time, when Charley offered him a job to help him improve his situation, Willy refused because of his pride, saying, “Don’t insult me” (Miller 29). Hence, blinded by his excessive pride, Willy could not see the opportunities for improving his situation and remained in his delusion.
Willy’s excessive pride was the major cause of his death. He could not reconcile with the fact that he had not become a successful businessman, which is why he committed suicide to “redeem himself and his son from defeat” (Bayouli and Sammali 46). However, even before his death, his pride did not leave him. Discussing his future suicide with an imaginary figure of his deceased brother, he thought of his burial: “Ben, that funeral will be massive!” He believed that many people would attend his funeral, while, in fact, only five people came. Overall, because of his pride, Willy failed to see his flaws and discover other opportunities for succeeding in life, which eventually led him to commit suicide in an attempt to redeem his dignity.
In conclusion, the tragic hero in Death of a Salesman struggles to achieve material success and gain love and respect but fails in his pursuit mainly because of his hubristic pride. Due to this trait, Willy is unable to see his shortcomings and find ways of improving his situation. Overall, Miller’s play shows readers the drawbacks and perils of capitalism for common men as this system encourages people to pursue wealth at any cost. However, the play also warns the audience about the danger of excessive pride that may lead people into a delusion and deprive them of the possibility to fix the situation.
Bayouli, Tahar, and Imed Sammali. “Tragedy and Social Drama in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.” Arab World English Journal for Translation & Literary Studies, vol. 3, no. 2, 2019, pp. 37-48.
Gamage, K.G. Swarnananda. “Selling or Being Sold: ‘Eat the Orange and Throw the Peel away’ – Reading ‘Death of a Salesman’ by Arthur Miller as a Modern Tragedy.” Global Scientific Journal, vol. 8, no. 12, 2020, pp. 785-794.
Ismael, Aseel Qais. “Imprisonment in ‘Death of a Salesman’ for Arthur Miller.” International Journal of Research in Social Sciences and Humanities, vol. 9, no. 3, 2019, pp. 347-353.
Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman: Certain Private Conversations in Two Acts and a Requiem. Penguin Books, 1998.