Materialism in Death of a Salesman
Arthur Miller uses Death of a Salesman to expose America's preoccupation with
materialism after World War II. This preoccupation is the main cause of Willy's mental
stress. Willy had a lot riding on him being successful. His family's survival depended on
his success. Miller's depiction of the Loman family is an example which shows that
America is largely a second and third generation country. The first generation in this play,
Willy's father, was forced in order to make a living, to break up the family. But while
Willy's father achieved and was creative, he left behind him a wife, a young son who is
now fatherless, and an older son who was driven to find success and letting nothing get in
his way. Willy, the second generation, is his father's victim. While he wants to love and
"do right" by his sons, he is driven to use them as heirs to the kingdom that he believes
must be built. Thus, he must pass on to them not only love but the doomed dream that he
has. Biff and Happy represent the third generation in this play. Happy values only
material things. He looks for some kind of consolation in his relationship with women
and though vaguely conscious of some insufficiency, measures himself solely by
reference to his success in business. Biff, on the other hand, is aware of other values than
the purely material and is capable finally of the kind of genuine humanity which Willy
only approaches in moments of rare sensitivity.
Some have interpreted Death of a Salesman as an attack upon the "American
Dream" which according to R.H. Gardner means the idea that ours is a land of unlimited
opportunity in which only a ragamuffin can attain riches and any mother's son become
president. Others have chosen to regard it as a contemporary "King Lear" which is the
tragedy of the common old man of today, as opposed to that of the extraordinary old man
of shakespeare's time. (Gardner 123)
One set of values that exists in Willy's character, and defeated by the
circumstances in which he finds himself, are his impulses toward two of the original
American virtues: Self-reliance and Individualism of spirit. These virtues are perhaps the
pure forms underlying the corrupt and destructive societal imperatives of success and
getting ahead.(Foster 84) Willy has the self-reliant skills of the artisan. He is "good at
things," from polishing a car to building a front porch. But self-reliance has collapsed, the
tools rust, and Willy has become a victim of a machine culture. The play implies that
Willy might have been happier in a pre-capitalistic society. In simple terms, it suggests
that Willy would have been happier working with his hands.(Brustein 46)
Willy was meant to represent a Lear of the modern middle classes. His hero is not
so much a "low man" as the lowest man one could conceive.(Gardner 124) He is just
plain dumb and a big bore. Willy never changes throughout the play. At the end he is still
the same old Willy, babbling maniacally about how magnificent Biff is going to be with
the $20,000 insurance money.
Happy, the younger son, less favored by both nature and his father, perhaps as
Willy was in comparison with Ben, has escaped the closeness with his father that destroys
Biff in social terms. Thus worshipping his father from afar, Hap has never fully come to
realize the phony parts of his father and his father's dreams. Happy is not a social rebel
and he will carry on with the life of a salesman, and one suspects, go on to the death of a
salesman. (Gordon 279) He will violate the boss' wife out of some lonely desperation, as
WIlly sought support from his Boston woman. He will also try to prove his manliness
with the fast cars and fancy talk, but again like willy, he will never really believe in his
own manliness in a mature way.(Gordon 280) Just as Willy is called a kid throughout,
and referred to as the diminutive Willy by everyone except Ben, Happy has been trapped
by the infantile American Playboy Magazine vision of the male. (Gordon 279)
In Death of a Salesman, Willy is portrayed as a social victim. He is given his elegy
in the last scene by his friend Charley, who, ironically, by a kind of indifference and lack
of dream, ha succeeded within the Amercan system. Charley points out that a salesman
must dream of great things if he is