Death of a Salesman

A recent NYT article intrigued me:

Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” … is the most devastating portrait of punctured middle-class dreams in our national literature. … [It] has consolidated its prestige as an exposure of middle-class delusions. … Mr. Miller later wrote …. that he had hoped the play would expose “this pseudo life that thought to touch the clouds by standing on top of a refrigerator, waving a paid-up mortgage at the moon, victorious at last.” … Mr. Miller remembered worrying in 1949 that “there was too much identification with Willy, too much weeping, and that the play’s ironies were being dimmed out by all this empathy.” … Miller’s outrage at a capitalist system he wanted to humanize has become our cynical adaptation to a capitalist system we pride ourselves on knowing how to manipulate. (more)

I didn’t remember the play offering a critique of capitalism, but looking around I see this view is common:

Critics have maintained that much of the enduring universal appeal of Death of a Salesman lies in its central theme of the failure of the American Dream. Willy’s commitment to false social values—consumerism, ambition, social stature—keeps him from acknowledging the value of human experience—the comforts of personal relationships, family and friends, and love. … Some commentators perceive the play as an indictment of American capitalism and a rejection of materialist values. … Willy’s … penchant for blaming others has been passed onto his sons and, as a result, all three men exhibit a poor work ethic and lack of integrity. Willy’s inability to discern between reality and fantasy is another recurring motif. (more)

So I just re-read the play. And it does contain critiques of status, ambition for status, and self-delusion to gain status. It is indeed sad to see a success-driven man unwilling to admit his failure, or to accept charity from friends, choose instead to kill himself. But I see no further critiques of materialism or capitalism in the play.

On materialism, Willy Loman and his similar son Happy mainly want to be liked and respected. Sometimes they care about money, but mainly to keep score, and get respect. When they want luxury goods, such as stockings or fancy drinks, it is mainly to get women to sleep with them. In contrast, Willy’s other son Biff wants “to be outdoors, with [my] shirt off.” Perhaps those other women are materialistic, but not these men.

On capitalism, the play might hold critiques of failing to save for hard times, or of success based on who you know, good looks, and likability. But these are not intrinsic to, or even obviously correlated with, capitalism. For example, North Korea today is nothing like capitalism, yet it has strong status differences, people who struggle for status, in part to gain sex, and success based in part on good looks and who you know. A story about an old self-deluded status-seeking North Korean failure would make just as much sense as Willy Loman’s story.

This seems to me a common situation – things said to be critiques of capitalism are often just critiques of humanity. Humans vie selfishly and self-deludedly for status. Some succeed, while others fail. The struggle, and the failures, aren’t pretty. Yes capitalism inherits this ugliness, but then so does any other system with humans.

It is interesting to note that, compared to most occupations, the world of Miller the playwright was especially like the salesmen Miller described:

For a salesman, there is no rock bottom to the life. … He’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back—that’s an earthquake. … A salesman is got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory.

Like salesmen, playwrights succeed when others like them. Even though most fail, most self-deludedly think they will be the exceptions, and can be crushed when they eventually learn otherwise. But few playwrights lament this, or blame it on capitalism. Why?

I suspect this is because playwrights see even failed playwrights as high status, and successful salesmen as low status. A hidden message of the play is “Poor Willy can’t see that even if he sold a lot, he’d still be a failure in our eyes.” Which is part of why it bothered Arthur Miller that his audiences empathized so much with Willy. Audiences thought Willy could have high status.

Some key quotes from the play:

To suffer fifty weeks of the year for the sake of a two-week vacation, when all you really desire is to be outdoors, with your shirt off. And always to have to get ahead of the next fella. …There’s nothing more inspiring or—beautiful than the sight of a mare and a new colt. …

And whenever spring comes to where I am, I suddenly get the feeling, my God, I’m not gettin’ anywhere! What the hell am I doing, playing around with horses, twenty-eight dollars a week! I’m thirty-four years old, I oughta be makin’ my future. …

Sometimes I want to just rip my clothes off in the middle of the store and outbox that goddam merchandise manager. I mean I can outbox, outrun, and outlift anybody in that store, and I have to take orders from those common, petty sons-of-bitches till I can’t stand it any more. … I gotta show some of those pompous, self-important executives over there that Hap Loman can make the grade. I want to walk into the store the way he walks in. …

That girl Charlotte I was with tonight is engaged to be married in five weeks. … Sure, the guy’s in line for the vice-presidency of the store. I don’t know what gets into me, maybe I just have an overdeveloped sense of competition or something, but I went and ruined her, and furthermore I can’t get rid of her. And he’s the third executive I’ve done that to. …

I mean, Bernard can get the best marks in school, y’understand, but when he gets out in the business world, y’understand, you are going to be five times ahead of him. That’s why I thank Almighty God you’re both 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. …

Never fight fair with a stranger, boy. You’ll never get out of the jungle that way. … See—I put thirty-four years into this firm, Howard, and now I can’t pay my insurance! You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away—a man is not a piece of fruit! …

Willy was a salesman. And for a salesman, there is no rock bottom to the life. He don’t put a bolt to a nut, he don’t tell you the law or give you medicine. He’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back—that’s an earthquake. And then you get yourself a couple of spots on your hat, and you’re finished. Nobody dast blame this man. A salesman is got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory.

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