The Image of Arthur Miller in the Play Death of a Salesman

A misinterpretation of the American Dream and the warped idea of success can damage the human spirit. Mental instability may transform a person with optimistic views of the future, into one whose life is filled with unhappiness and despair. In Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, the main character, Willy Loman, considered himself to be a truly lucrative salesman who was well-liked and respected by others. The play highlighted the obsession of a man with unrealistic goals who tried to be successful far beyond his reach. Willy’s inability to meet these goals shattered his self-confidence, optimism, and important relationships. He was never able to reach the level of success he hoped for. Insecurity, indecisiveness, and a misplaced set of values also contributed to Willy’s destruction and ultimately, his death.

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Willy Loman’s twisted view of success was based on superficial elements. He believed that success was measured by material possessions, one’s outward appearance, and whether or not a person was liked and respected. Willy compared material items such as his car, refrigerator, and salary to those of his friends and family. The belief that one’s appearance determined success was strong and reflected in his view of his two sons, Happy and Biff, when he said,

“That’s why I thank Almighty God that you’re built like Adonises. Because the man who makes an appearance in the business world, the man who creates personal interest, is the man who gets ahead. Be liked and you will never want. You take me, for instance. I never have to wait in line to see a buyer. “Willy Loman is here!” That’s all they have to know, and I go right through” (Miller 33).

At one point he even encouraged his son Biff to joke, tell stories and use his personality when attempting to get a job interview with Bill Oliver. He believed that those actions would be rewarded and make others perceive him as being worthy. Willy’s constant comparison of himself to others and insatiable drive to attain material things caused him to become depressed and mentally volatile. Death of a Salesman is not about one or two individuals; rather it is about a family system, a unit of interlocking relationships, which shapes individual member’s behaviors and attitudes (Allan and Nancy Feyl Chavkin) Unfortunately, Willy’s distorted view was passed down to the sons who once worshiped him in their younger years. It was clearly exemplified in a conversation between Biff and Happy. Biff tells Happy he feels mixed up and stuck. He feels inadequate for not being married or having a career in business. He believed that Happy was content and successful because he was making money. However, Biff discovered that things were not actually how they appeared. This was evident when Happy explained how he was feeling. “Sometimes I sit in my apartment—all alone. And I think of the rent I’m paying. And it’s crazy. But then, it’s what I always wanted. My own apartment, a car, and plenty of women. And still, goddammit, I’m lonely” (Miller 23).

Unhappiness and despair were common threads woven throughout the play. Flashbacks to happier, less stressful times in his life became more frequent as a necessary escape from the pressures of his present reality. His strong desire to plant a garden was one way that Willy tried to overcome the despair he felt in his current situation. He reminisced about his neighborhood and what it was like before it succumbed to the change when apartment houses were built around his home. He says, “The street is lined with cars. There’s not a breath of fresh air in the neighborhood. The grass doesn’t grow anymore, you can’t raise a carrot in the backyard (Miller 17). He reminds his wife that the lilacs, wisteria, and peonies filled their home with beautiful fragrances. Willy shared a strange dream with his wife after he arrives home from work. He described himself observing the scenery as he drove his car on a tree-lined road in the country. He mentioned the warm air and sun and told Linda that it was beautiful and felt wonderful. His demeanor at that moment appeared calm and relaxed as he thought about the drive. This description of a happy event in his life was a sharp contrast to the harsh reality of his present neighborhood. Willy, however, did not make the connection that perhaps he would be happier in a different environment.

Discontentment with his job and home caused Willy to become insecure about his future. He realized that he was not selling enough to make a decent paycheck and was unable, to be honest with Linda. Things in his home were breaking and he did not have the money to fix them. Bills were piling up and he did not have the money to pay them. Past experiences also contributed to Willy’s insecurities. He was abandoned by his father as a young lad. Willy felt abandoned by his older brother Ben when he left to make his mark on the world. When Ben returned a rich man, he became Willy’s representation of the American Dream. Willy sought validation from Ben.

To regain confidence, Willy sought reassurance from his wife. Linda constantly tried to reassure him of his worth. She told him he is doing “wonderful” when he complained about being unnoticed (Miller 37). He stated, “I’m fat. I’m very—-foolish to look at, Linda.” She replied, “Willy, darling, you’re the most handsome man in the world—‘ (Miller 37). Insecurities about himself as a reliable husband and provider were contributing causes of Willy’s affair. Although Willy loved his wife, he needed to acquire things in order to feel worthy. The Woman was no more than an acquisition to improve his status. She fed his ego. Unfortunately, this affair was the incident responsible for the demise of his relationship with his son, Biff. Once Biff’s image of his father was tarnished, their close relationship disintegrated and Biff also developed insecurity in his ability to be successful.

As time went on, Willy became more indecisive and mentally unstable. His negotiation with Howard illustrated his inability to make a clear decision. When Willy explained to Howard that he did not want to travel for work anymore his desperation became evident. He initially told Howard that he would be fine making sixty-five dollars a week. When Howard dismissed him, Willy was claiming that forty dollars would be enough for him to make ends meet. These fluctuating views were also evident when Willy spoke of his son Biff. In order for Willy to emotionally deal with Biff’s disappointment in him, he painted a picture of Biff as a failure. At one point, Willy exclaimed, “Biff is a lazy bum!” (Miller 16) Then several lines later he stated, “There’s one thing about Biff—he’s not lazy.” (Miller 16) This indecisiveness showed the war of emotions Willy struggled with. He loved his son and wanted to live vicariously through him, but when Biff did not meet Willy’s expectations of success, he was viewed as deficient. The guilt that Willy felt about Biff not graduating and going to college weighed on him heavily. Willy’s mental stability appeared to decrease with each passing day.

Willy Loman’s misplaced set of values and compromised priorities were also contributing factors in his demise. He placed more emphasis on being a successful salesman than he did on being an upstanding father and husband. In order to feel a sense of worth, Willy told lies about his successful business ventures to impress his friends and family. The lies eventually spiraled out of control. Willy had an affair and when his son Biff discovered the truth, he was not able to admit his wrongdoing. Willy tried to justify the affair because he was lonely. He was never able to admit his infidelity or admit his stories were embellished. Stealing, cheating, and lying became the fabric of his existence and he instilled these behaviors and values into his sons. An example of this was when Willy used stolen sand and lumber to build the stoop for his home.

He would also build Biff up as an amazing human being and athlete and then justify his poor choices. When Biff was in high school and stole a football he claimed it was because he wanted to practice. Instead of holding Biff accountable and expecting him to return it, Willy said, “Coach’ll probably congratulate you on your initiative!” (Miller 30). Willy lied to Linda about having a temporary job that would cover the bills when the reality has he borrowed fifty dollars a week from Charley to make ends meet. Willy’s pride prevented him from accepting a job offer from Charley. He was never able to admit he was desperate or accept help when offered. His main priority was protecting the image he had created of himself as a successful salesman.

Willy’s insecurity, indecisiveness, and a misplaced sense of values destroyed his spirit, tarnished his image, and led to his downfall. His contorted view of the American Dream and how success should be measured caused him to place unrealistic expectations on himself and his sons. Conflicts between characters in the play stemmed from Willy’s obsession to become a well-respected, successful businessman who was liked by everyone. The poor choices he made and the inability to accept himself as he truly was, created an inner turmoil that resulted in depression, despair, and insecurity. Although Willy was never able to reach the level of success he had strived for, he hoped that his death would provide his sons with the money needed for them to make their dreams a reality. This tragic decision would be his final heroic attempt to achieve success. 

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The image of Arthur Miller in the play Death of a Salesman. (2021, Nov 25). Retrieved September 30, 2022 , from

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