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Death of a Salesman Theme
I’m a first generation American in my family. My mother was German and my dad’s side of the family immigrated to this country in the 50s from Latvia. My grandparents really believed that the opportunities they had here in this country, would be much greater than what they had in Eastern Europe. My grandparents to me were always really an example of the American Dream at work. If you work had enough, and put a lot of passion and effort into something, you’re going to be successful. That’s what’s promised in the American Dream.
The first time I read Death of a Salesman, I really had to stop for the first time and wonder, is the American Dream really attainable to anyone if they work really hard? That’s what we’ll discuss today. We’re going to talk about the theme of the American Dream. We’ll also discuss the title significance, what’s so important about the Death of a Salesman. The last thing we’re going to talk about is Motifs and the different Motifs that are present in this play. That’s a lot to handle, but I think we can handle it. Let’s get going.
If I say the words 'The American Dream', what is it that you think off? This phrase is used all the time but do we ever really stop to figure out what it means? The American Dream is the belief and the freedom that allows all citizens in the United States, to pursue their goals in life through hard work and free choice. Essentially the idea is, if you work hard you can be successful and that’s our right and that’s our freedom as Americans.
Now, whether you agree with that or not, that’s really your decision. But my idea here is that, Arthur Miller, in Death of a Salesman, kind of questions the American Dream. He wants to know whether it really exists or not for everyone. If you think about it, our dreams are tied to very different things. Maybe your dream is to find love. Someone else’s dream could be financial, they want to be a billionaire, or maybe it's social status. You want to be the most important person in your circle of friends. The American dream isn’t the same thing for all people.
We see Willy; his version of the American dream is providing for his family, being well liked and well known, so it’s kind of financial and social at the same time. However, we see him struggling to get there and no one can say that Willy is not working hard. So is Willy really accomplishing the American Dream? What is Willy’s version? We said it’s financial. Remember, he goes through so many different iterations of trying to make money for his family. At one point, he talks about wanting to go off with his brother, because his brother's been really successful. Later, he does different things in his job and then in the end he has this life insurance policy that he thinks is going to able to accomplish his dream in taking care of his family. He also wants to be well liked. He talks about how important that is for a sales man. That’s the kind of social element of his version of the American Dream.
Now the next question I would ask is Willy realistically able to really achieve his ambitions? That’s a big question. I probably have to say no. He keeps trying. The different things that I said, that he tries to do in his job, they don’t really pay off for him. Hard work does not always create success, and that’s kind of part of what’s the idea behind the American dream. It’s really unfortunate but we see Willy working hard but he’s not getting what he’s supposed to be getting. Even in failure, Willy still believes in this dream, even at the end. If you think about it, he’s take out his insurance policy and most insurance policies, I would probably say all insurance policies though, I’m no expert, if they know that somebody committed suicide, they’re not going to pay that money out. So even in death, Willy is not really able to accomplish what he wants to. It’s really unfortunate, but he still believes in this idea.
When he’s talking about Biff at one point, he says, “Biff Loman is lost. In the greatest country in the world a young man with such – personal attractiveness gets lost. And such a hard worker. There’s one thing about Biff – he’s not lazy.” This is reinforcing the idea that if you’re working hard, you’re going to be successful. Willy doesn’t get it. Biff is a hard worker, he’s not lazy at all, why isn’t he succeeding? Why is he lost? The American Dream is still in place in Willy’s mind, he doesn’t understand why Biff doesn’t fit the equation, but at the same time he really doesn’t get it, that he doesn’t fit in it either.
I really think that Miller wants us to question the American Dream. He's not telling us either way but we might just start thinking about would that kind of dream really work for everyone.
You remember Dave Singleman. We talked about him a little bit earlier, I think in a different episode. But it’s very important and it bears repeating, that we remember exactly who he is when we talk about the title of this book. Dave Singleman is someone that really puts up on a pedestal. He’s a salesman who passed away. He was this amazing salesman, he could walk into any city and get on the phone and have buyers at his door immediately, it’s what Willy said. He has this amazing funeral. So many people come and this is really a big deal to Willy, this is what he ultimately wants.
Listen to what he says, “What could be more satisfying than to be remembered and loved and helped by so many different people? Do you know? When he died – and by the way he died the death of salesman, in his green velvet slippers in a smoker...going to Boston- when he died, hundreds of salesmen and buyers were at his funeral. Things were sad on a lotta trains for months after that.” This is so significant. This is really showing us what Willy would like to be. Just so you know, a smoker it’s not a Cigar, it’s actually the part of the train that you can smoke on and that’s where he died.
We can really see here that it’s almost like Willy doesn’t think life matters, as long as in the end you’ve got this great representation. This is representing that people loved him and respected him and remembered him, and that’s almost more important to him than what this guy did in his lifetime, which is kind of scary if you think about it.
Now, a little bit later on, he’s imagining his own funeral. He really wants it to be like the one that he described for Dave. He’s talking to his invisible dead brother and he says, “Ben, that funeral will be massive! They’ll come from Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire! All the old timers with the strange license plates – that boy will be thunderstruck, Ben, because he never realized – I am known!” This is a huge quote for this book. This is what Willy wants. This person here, when he says, “that boy,” do you know who he’s talking about? He’s referring to Biff, his son, like the light of his life. He thinks that, if Biff is at his funeral, sees all these people who have come from miles and miles away to pay tribute to him, that he’s going to have this big epiphany, that his dad was something great. And we know that in these terms, his dad isn’t really something great at all. We know that this is something he strives for, but isn’t really a reality for him. He’s fantasizing here about his worth to others, especially his own son. It’s really sad if you think about it, that this is going to be his measure of success for his whole life.
The title significance, Death of a Salesman can work on a couple of different levels. If you’re thinking about it literally, this play is about the death of a salesman. It’s about Willy Loman’s death, what leads up to it and then his actual death and right afterwards. If we’re speaking more figuratively, we’re talking about Willy’s desire to be something great, and to be remembered, and to be well liked, and to kind of leave this legacy even after he’s gone.
We’re on the last part of the episode, we’re going to talk about Motifs. But, do you remember what a motif is? Let’s review real quick. Motif is a reoccurring symbol. It’s important that it’s reoccurring. It is something that is repeated. A repeated significant idea or image. Actually we’ll talk a little bit in this, that idea can also be musical so you might want to add that in there too. A motif can be summed up in one word. That’s kind of a little clue to you, of how you can distinguish a motif from something else like a theme; motif, one little word.
I want to discuss two different motifs that we have in Death of a Salesman. The first of which is childishness. Now did you pick up on how many times the word “boy” is used in this play? It’s kind of crazy especially if you notice it, you’re going to keep noticing it over and over again. Boy is actually used 43 different times and it’s not like just talking about here was a boy on the street, or here was a boy in the store. This is actually how characters refer to each other.
It’s the same thing for “kid”. Kid is used 22 different times in this play, which is a little excessive. It’s not really a long play at all. “When are you going to grow up?” This is an extremely significant line. Charley says this to Willy at one point and Willy absolutely loses it. The idea of childishness or that he is like a child, is extremely derogatory in his opinion.
We can also see a similar kind of negativity. Biff’s talking about himself here. He says, “No, I’m mixed up very bad. Maybe I oughta get married. Maybe I oughta get stuck into something. Maybe that’s my trouble. I’m like a boy. I’m not married, I’m not in business, I just – I’m like a boy.” Again it’s this kind of self-disappointment and the word boy here it’s derogatory. In this case, it’s how he feels about himself. Like he’s something less than man, he’s a boy.
Now these are some different illustrations of things that Howard, Willy’s boss, says to him when they’re in the office together. Keep in mind the fact that, he is 36 years old? And Willy’s 61 years. It definitely has a kind of insulting tone to it. He’s trying to brush him off he says, “I’ve got to see some people kid.” “Look kid I’m busy this morning.” “But where am I going to put you kid? “No, but it’s a business, kid.” “Kid I can’t take blood from a stone.” Now really how insulting is that? Someone who’s like your dad’s age and you’re calling him kid. It’s definitely setting up a very distinct power difference between the two of them. This motif with kid and boy, we see it through out the entire play.
Let’s move on to a second motif. This is the flute. Remember a little bit earlier when I said that a Motif could also be musical? That's the case with this. Flute music is used very often in the stage directions for the play. We’re going to talk about stage directions a little bit more later on. But just so you’re clear, those are the italicized words, the slanty ones, that basically give instruction from the author as to how this play should look or sound or kind of atmospheric cues.
Flute music is used very often in stage directions. It often signifies Willy’s departure from reality into his fantasy life and his flashbacks. Flute also ties though to Willy’s dad. I think this is really interesting, because the first time I read Death of the Salesman, I didn’t even pick up on it. In this scene, Ben and Willy are talking, keep in mind that Ben is basically a figment of Willy’s imagination at this point, but they’re having conversation about their father. Ben says, “His flute. He played the flute.” Willy responds, “Sure the flute that’s right.” And Ben says, "Father was a very great man...we’d stop in the towns and sell the flutes that he’d made on the way. Great inventor father. With one gadget he made more in a week than a man like you could make in a lifetime.” There’s a tie not only in the fact that the father plays the flute, he also creates the flute, and he also provides for his family with this gadget. Now providing for the family is a huge theme in the play. It’s Willy’s big struggle. It’s another interesting way that this motif works.
Also very significant, the very last thing we hear in the play. After the requiem, when everyone has left the stage, is the flute. It’s supposed to be this like haunting melody and it kind of gives me goosebumps. If you’re very lucky enough to see this play performed, this is the last thing you should hear and that’s a really significant thing for a playwright, the final image or the final thing that sticks with you.
Having the flute, kind of just be there at the end as the closing remark, is really bringing things back together again. It’s reminding us of Willy and his fantasy life and just kind of that sad and tragic feeling and a motif can do that. You keep repeating it, you’re really establishing a mood and that’s what I think is being done here.
If you’re in to this idea, I do think that’s really cool the musical motifs. Check out the article I linked in the bonus materials, it’s all about the flute and other different musical motifs that Arthur Miller decided to keep in this play and to make really significant parts. I also have a Web Quest in the bonus materials about the American Dream. There’s a lot of cool stuff there that you can really play with and add to what you already know about this great play.
In case you were spending a little too much time checking out pictures of the world’s ugliest dog online, you should check it out by the way if you haven’t, here’s the jest of what you missed. We talked about the American Dream and the accessibility of it. Can anybody really accomplish success if they work hard? Maybe, maybe not. We also discussed title significance and figured out that Willy Loman, just really wants to be loved and remembered.
The third thing that we addressed was the idea of motif and specifically we discussed the flute motif and how it runs in and out of the play. Now get ready for the next episode. We’re going back to the future. So be ready, get your car ready, get your lightening rod ready we’re going to go back.