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Death of A Salesman has several themes that run throughout the play. The most obvious theme is the idea of reality versus illusion. Though Linda, Biff and Happy are all unable to separate reality from illusion to some degree, Willy is the main character who suffers from this ailment. For years, Willy has believed that both he and his boys (particularly Biff) will one day be great successes. Though he's a disrespected salesman, he calls himself the "New England man." Though Biff has done nothing with his life by the age of thirty-four, Willy tells others and tries to make himself believe that his son is doing big things" out west. Willy's brother, Ben, continually appears in the troubled man's mind, offering hints on how to make it in the world of business. Willy feels that he must live up to the standard that Ben has set, but this is found to be impossible by the end of the play. Only Biff ever realizes who he is ("a dime a dozen") and what his potential really is. He is the only member of the family to finally escape from the poisonous grasp of illusion.
One of Miller's secondary themes is the idea of the American Dream. Throughout his play, Miller seems to criticize this ideal as little more than a capitalist's paradigm. Though Willy spends all of his adult life working for a sales company, this company releases the salesman when he proves to be unprofitable. Willy confronts Howard, his boss (and Miller indicts free market society), when he charges, "You can't eat the orange and throw the peel away-a man is not a piece of fruit." Here, Willy feels that Howard has gone back on his father's word by forgetting him in his golden years, throwing away the peel after eating the orange, so to speak. Thus, Willy is unable to cope with the changing times and the unfeeling business machine that is New York.
In many ways, Death of A Salesman has a tragic theme consistent with great tragedies such as Oedipus the King and others. Though Willy is a very modern man, and certainly not a member of the aristocracy, he lives a very tragic life. Though he believes that he and his sons are great men, his flawed character perverts his idealistic vision of success and happiness.
The idea that "personality wins the day" is one such flaw in Willy's logic. Indeed, substance, not personality or being well liked, is what wins the day. Charley and Bernard, who have success but not personality, prove to Willy that his notion is incorrect. But unfortunately, Willy never understands this, and so goes to his grave never truly realizing where he went wrong.
Death of a Salesman raises many issues, not only of artistic form but also of thematic content. Dramatically speaking, the play represents Arthur Miller’s desire to modernize the tragedy of Aristotle described in the Poetics. Aristotle held that tragedy portrayed the downfall of a king or noble, whose fall from grace was the result of a tragic flaw—generally held to be hubris, or an excessive amount of pride. Miller, on the other hand, believes that tragedy—or the individual’s desire to realize his or her destiny—is not solely the province of royalty. It also belongs to the common man—in this case the “low man,” as in Willy Loman.
Willy’s tragic flaw stems from the fact that he has misinterpreted the American Dream, the belief that one can rise from rags to riches. For Willy, the success of that dream hinges on appearance rather than on substance, on wearing a white collar rather than a blue one. It is this snobbery, combined with a lack of practical knowledge, that leads to his downfall.
Indeed, much of the lasting popularity of Death of a Salesman both in the world of the theater and in the canon of English literature, lies in its treatment of multiple themes. Too didactic or moralistic for some modern readers, who see the author as heavy-handed, the play nevertheless raises many pertinent questions regarding American culture. Many younger readers have even credited it with preventing them from making the same mistakes committed by the characters.
Chief among these themes is an indictment of the capitalist nature of the American Dream—the belief that through the pioneer virtues of hard work, perseverance, ingenuity, and fortitude, one might find happiness through wealth. Implicit within this dream, however, is the assumption that money leads to fulfillment, regardless of the type of work that one does in order to attain it. While Willy himself was never successful as a salesman, he remains confident that his son Biff will be able to make it big in business because of his good looks and his past glory as a high school football star. Willy makes the error of celebrating popularity over know-how, style over substance. He taught Biff that being “well-liked” would carry the day, thus ignoring the damaging truth that Biff’s habit of petty theft—whether it was lumber from a nearby construction site or a football from the locker room—would ultimately lead to the boy’s downfall.
The way in which this theme informs the play is also the key to its form, since Willy constantly relives the past through a series of flashbacks. These scenes present Biff and Happy as they appeared in high school, providing the audience with a glimpse into the happy past that shaped the unhappy present. Another theme thus emerges: that the decisions made in youth have a direct impact on one’s life in maturity. In addition, by seeing past events, the audience is forced to admit that Willy lives in a world of fantasy and denial, where he is unwilling to confront his own role in contributing to his son’s unhappiness.
Indeed, the linchpin of the play surrounds an event in Willy’s past, when Biff discovered his father committing an infidelity with another woman. Crushed by his newfound glimpse into the world of adults, the adolescent Biff learned that his larger-than-life father was all too human, that he was “flawed.” Thrust abruptly from the world of innocence into the world of experience, Biff sabotaged his own life by refusing to attend summer school, thus preventing him from making something of himself at the university. Instead, he took a series of menial jobs and wandered aimlessly, only to return home at the age of thirty-four, unsure of both his identity and his purpose.
The play returns, then, to its examination of the American Dream, asking such fundamental questions as “What is the nature of success, and how does one attain it?” For Willy, it means wearing a suit and tie and making a lot of money—in short, it means having pride, or hubris. Yet, when Biff confronts his father in the final scene, he has an epiphany, a sudden burst of knowledge: Biff realizes that success entails working at an enjoyable job, which for him means working on a farm, outdoors, with his shirt off. The life of business and the city is not for him, and he sees his happiness in day-to-day living rather than in the goals foisted on him by society or by his father. Happy, meanwhile, lacks the courage of honesty and remains caught in the rat race, still under the impression that wealth and status are the keys to fulfillment. In a sense, Death of a Salesman ends on an optimistic note, in that Biff discovers a new sense of himself, stripped of illusion, as he finally becomes a man with self-respect—one who paradoxically has found pride through humility.
Willy, however, remains imprisoned by a set of false ideals. Having devoted his life to a belief in the honor of a career as a salesman, he possessed too much snobbery to admit that his own destiny was in a simple career as a carpenter. Instead, he listened to his brother Ben, that figment of his imagination who told him that money was the true path to happiness. Out of options, Willy decides that suicide is his only exit, since Biff will then collect the insurance settlement and be able to launch a career in business.
Yet, although he remains misguided, Willy achieves the stature of a tragic hero. Fighting a world pitted against him, he fulfills his destiny and sacrifices himself for his son by paying a debt in blood. The futility of his life and dreams are revealed, however, when only his immediate family attends what Willy has imagined would be a magnificent funeral, thus exposing a legacy of only disappointment and death.
Nevertheless, the end is not entirely bleak: Through his father’s sacrifice Biff escapes a vicious circle of greed and self-delusion; he is freed. Accordingly, the audience experiences a catharsis—the cleansing or purgation associated with classical tragedy. The play’s final lesson, then, is that destiny lies in discovering one’s true identity, in following one’s bliss, and in being true to one’s inmost and honest self.