The Great Depression was a time of intense economic struggle and strife. Companies went out of business, people suffered from poverty, families had to make many sacrifices and unemployment rose at alarming rates. Families struggled to pay bills and to provide for their children. Businesses attempted but later failed to provide the resources employees needed to tackle the economic hardships head-on. White-collar workers were at a loss as their weakened businesses began to fall through the cracks.
The crash of the economy in October of 1929 led to a long dangerous downward spiral for America’s businessmen. Stocks fell way below the annual margin. Unemployment rose in March 1930, and in November of 1930, those who once were thriving office workers became apple sellers on busy city street corners. In Arthur Miller’s play “Death of a Salesman”, Willy Loman’s paranoia stems from the struggle of the white-collar worker in the years following the Great Depression. The Great Depression shattered the very being of society during the late 1920s. The economic downfall of October 1929 sent stock prices plummeting, leading businessmen to become jobless, thus, destroying the very meaning of their existence.
The morale of the businessman was at an all-time low, as their chances of finding high-paying jobs decreased. Willy Loman, the protagonist of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman”, struggled with his manliness, as his ability to obtain a high-paying salary slowly declined. As jobs were being given to younger men in society, Willy began to question his purpose in the world of business. In the introduction of “Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller states “He (Willy Loman) wants, beyond anything, to be “well-liked, for, without that, he fears he will be nothing at all.”(ix). Reputation was everything in the business world. Men sought to be the best at their jobs, for if they were not thought highly of by their bosses, or if they did not present themselves in such a way that their potential boss would appreciate them, then what was the point of even trying to work hard?
Without a good reputation and validation from bosses and coworkers, businessmen felt that they were not worthy of work, nor of the pay, they were to receive. Businessmen were often abused by their clients and treated poorly by those around them, but they still worked hard. The Loman Family mainly depended on Willy’s salary in order to survive in New York City during the Post-Great Depression era. Willy Loman often wanted what was best for his family, which meant that his son Biff Loman should get an actual high-paying job. Biff’s laziness and his lack of interest in finding a job, other than farm work, often made Willy paranoid about Biff’s future. The possible factor that Biff would wind up on the path of destruction that Willy forged many years ago often made Willy very anxious, and constantly stressed, which was not beneficial to his work ethic (Salesman).
Willy Loman states that “there’s such an undercurrent in him.” (5) which represents the father-son conflict that arose from Willy Loman’s anxiety for Biff’s future. Willy Loman loved his son and he wanted nothing more than to see Biff succeed at whatever he put his mind to, preferably business (Miller, Salesman 5-10 ). Mira Komarovsky, a Russian born sociologist who developed a theory on gender dependence during the Great Depression, states “He (the businessman in the family) experiences a sense of deep frustration…because in his own estimation he fails to fulfill what is the central duty of his life…the role of family provider” (qt. in Wood).
A parent never wants to see his child travel down the same road and make the same mistakes that he made when he was younger, but when that child ultimately leads himself down the path that his parent knows will get him nowhere, the parent will do anything in his power to get him to where he needs to be. In Willy’s case, he wants Biff to become a salesman like him, so he will not fall into despair. In Amity Shlaes’ “The Forgotten Man”, William Troeller, a Brooklyn-born boy, “watched his family slide into an increasingly desperate situation” (14). His father suffered a great deal of pain after a workplace injury that led him to be temporarily unemployed. Family life suffered when the father was not able to adequately support its financial needs. Arthur Miller, the author of “Death of a Salesman” grew up in the Great Depression.
Arthur Miller’s family fortune quickly diminished to nothing after the stock market plummeted in October of 1929.“With the national economic crisis” says Katherine Egerton “the Miller’s hard-won success vanished rapidly, and young Arthur’s life was utterly changed” (“The Freedom” 3). His family was relocated from the lavished city life to the rugged rural life in the countryside. He had to give up certain comforts because his father, Isodore Miller, was not able to adequately support his family. Age played a major role in the paranoia of businessmen during the time of the Great Depression. The older a man got, the less likely he would be to make a sale that would earn him money.
Willy Loman’s paranoia also stems from the fact that his job is not paying him as well as the younger men he works with. During a study of the 1930s and white-collar working conditions in the era of the Great Depression, Historian Clark Davis stated “White-collar unemployment attracted considerable attention, for it seemed a new problem and one that aroused many status anxieties” (qt in Wood). Unemployment rates increased over the twenty percent margin, between the years of 1929 and 1933, according to data from Stanley Lebergott’s and Michael Darby’s study of the Bureau of Labor Statistics (“Employment and Unemployment” 42)
While Willy spoke to the assistant, characterized as “The Woman” in “Death of a Salesman”, he said to her “I get the feeling that I’ll never sell anything again, that I won’t make a living for you, or a business, a business for the boys” (25). When all hope for finding a good job, and for providing resources for the family was all lost, suicide was often the last resort for businessmen in the 1930s. The anxiety that had been building up throughout the ten-year duration of the Great Depression had an intense psychological effect on salesmen, which often became too unbearable for them, leading these hard-working men to take their own lives. In chapter seven of John Kenneth Galbraith’s “The Great Crash of 1929,” he explains that suicide in major cities, such as New York, became increasingly common due to the high volume of unemployed workers, who had nothing else to live for.
Salesmen committed suicide often because their businesses were not doing well in the stock market. Stock declines often correlated with the suicide rate in cities such as New York and Chicago (Crash 1929 182-183). Willy Loman is the prime example of a salesman who has just about reached his climax of desperation. After not having made a major sale in years, Willy grew increasingly desperate and felt that he had no purpose in life anymore (Salesman 55). In Act I of “Death of a Salesman”, Willy Loman can be seen driving his car recklessly on the road, and eventually crashing it into the side of the road. This type of recklessness stemmed from his lust to end his life at the spot. While Linda explains to Willy that he needs to take some rest because he has been stressed, Willy says to his wife “…I absolutely forgot I was driving. If I’d gone the other way over the white line I might’ve killed somebody.”(3)
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