When Arthur Miller wrote "Death of a Salesman" many considered it a modern masterpiece. It has spurred debate among academics and stirred the emotions of hundreds of thousands of audiences and readers alike. However, there is a growing trend among many who approach this play to condemn Willy Loman out of hand. Entire new generations of readers feel nothing for the plight of Willy Loman; they believe his actions merit his destruction. Why is this? Has there been a fundamental but subtle shift in societal attitudes not just toward literature but toward life in general? If so, does this affect the validity of Miller's vision as presented in "Death of a Salesman"? This play must be seen as something more than an invigorating academic challenge, a pawn in the petty games of academia. It is so much more than that. Attention, attention must be paid to such a person and such a play.
Late twentieth century society has made the transition from agrarian and rural communities to massive urban industrialization. These changes can and have been monitored; they are tangible. Small family operated businesses and farms have been gobbled up by multinational conglomerates. The days of the employer as a sort of surrogate parent to his or her loyal employees are over. Our world no longer has time for Willy Loman. We discard these people as inefficient, burdensome, and unnecessary, all in the name of progress. Willy Lomans are expendable commodities to be used up and cast aside. This change in societal attitudes, though perhaps not as tangible, is very real. A social theory as well as a literary one is needed, therefore, to reconcile Miller's play with the modern world.
Marxist literary criticism is one such theory. It relates literature to the society which produced it and the society that consumes it. Examining the ideological basis and historical context which surround the play result in a better understanding not only of the text but of the changes in our society as well. We must begin beneath the surface of the play, in abstraction, to search for the ideologies that control the action of the play. To the Marxist, ideology is more than a doctrine or set of doctrines; it is an amorphous body of free-floating images that pervades and manipulates all aspects of life. Terry Eagleton goes so far as to say,
"...that literature is nothing but ideology in a certain
artistic form-that works of literature are just
expressions of the ideologies of their time" (Eagleton 17).
Ideology could be thought of as the skeleton upon which the musculature of form, plot, and character are hung. It is the primary purpose of the Marxist critic to expose and comment on any and all ideologies present in a work. In effect, a Marxist literary critique tries to weaken or fracture the bones of the play.
In “Death of a Salesman,” two major ideologies come into direct conflict: the cult of the personality and the profit motive. The play moves from the homespun myth of the fierce individualist who has pulled himself up by the bootstraps and into fame and fortune (i.e. Willy's father and Ben, his brother) to the harsh realities of industrial capitalist society. The ideologies are not mutually exclusive. They both fuel the insatiable greed at the heart of the American dream. They equate happiness with economic success.
Willy thinks he can achieve this goal with a smile and handshake. He places image before substance. "Be liked and you will never want" (Death 1360). This idea coupled with a belief that the simplest and most humble can rise to the greatest heights form the core of Willy's motivation. It is also the source of his greatest struggle. Willy becomes Miller's ideological champion of the common man. Though he fails, Willy challenges the fixed notion of a class system. "The revolutionary questioning of a stable environment is what terrifies. In no way is the common man debarred from such thoughts or actions" (Miller 5).
Miller's champion, however, is blind to the dangers inherent in his own ideology. Willy’s boss, Howard is Willy's ideological opponent. He embodies the growing amoral view of business: survival of the fittest, profit at any price. "'Cause you gotta admit business is business" (Death 1388). This ideology is an extension of mechanization. Efficiency is the goal. As Brian Parker states, "The machine is both the cause and the illustration of Willy's breakdown" (99). This efficiency ideology transforms society into an entity that produces soulless machine-like people. Subjective humanity is extracted from individuals by the business world. Miller himself states, "We have finally come to serve the machine" (60). Willy lives and dies blind. And he is not alone. Miller seems to suggest that society, under the influence of this newer crueler ideology, promotes such blindness. "His [Willy's] destruction posits a wrong or evil in society" (Miller 5). "Surely the evil lies in those who perpetuate the environment, passively or actively" (Mottram 33). The animosity this ideology expresses toward Willy exemplifies the class struggle.
In this manner Willy becomes a kind of Marxist Everyman. He embodies the plight of the proletariat and confirms the Marxist view of history as a struggle to become free from oppression. "Willy is a man to whom things happen and who responds with bewilderment and a desperate clinging to his old faith" (Hagopian 35). Willy's faith is in the common man. His fate reaches tragic proportions. "The wrong is the condition which suppresses man, perverts the flowing out of his love and creative instinct" (Miller 5). It seems Willy would have been happier as a carpenter or stonemason, but ideological pressure from his society blinds him and gives him false dreams. His station in society, his desire to die the death of a salesman prevent him from truly knowing himself, his wife or his children. "The play's technique thus forces the audience to become Willy Lomans for the whole duration of the play, to sympathize with his predicament in a way they could not do in real life"(Parker 101).
The future Miller presents does not bode well for the state of the common man. Happy's attitude toward life is a sad foreshadowing of his fate. "He [Willy] had the good dream. Its the only dream to have- to come out number one man" (Death 1425). Unwittingly, Happy will continue the cycle of domination by trying to emulate and vindicate his father. Willy’s brother Ben exploits others, rather than submit to the fate of the common man. Ben is an old world imperialist. Driven by greed, he exploits the earth as well as others. "When I was seventeen I walked into the jungle, and when I was twenty one I walked out. And by God I was rich" (Death 1369). Ben's credo seems to be: you cannot save anyone but yourself. When he returns to visit Willy, he has to be informed that his mother died years earlier. Ben's strength comes from his financial state; he gains the power to exploit by becoming rich. He offers Willy a chance to share in his strength, but Willy declines. Willy opts for the stability of his false dreams. He wants to make his million in the city. The city, however, lacks the same exploitative power taken by Ben from the world at large. There is no pioneer spirit, no jungle to tame in the city. In both places hard work can bring success, but the success and influence of city dwellers like Charley seem small when compared to the power Ben carries with him wherever he goes.
Linda is very influential in Willy's decision to stay. She is a source of security, strength, and support for Willy. The results of her assistance, however, contribute to Willy's destruction. She pins all her hope on his false dreams. Rather than deal with the possibilities of failure, she convinces herself his dreams will come true. She blinds herself to Willy’s weakness and tempts him to dream. (Bliquez, p.78) "To acquiesce in all of Willy's weakness is to be a failure as a wife and a mother, and to share in the responsibility of her husband's fall" (Bliquez 78). Rather than bolstering Willy, Linda bolsters Willy's dreams. Without question, Linda loves Willy. But her love and her pride blind her.
It is possible to read Linda as a Marxist figure within the play because she understands the importance, the value, of Willy (the proletariat), even though she has an influential role in his suicide. But a more subtle critique of Linda Loman is also possible. She was once seen as a pinnacle of strength, the archetypal loving and loyal wife (reminiscent of Penelope in the Odyssey). Linda, however, is an important factor in Willy's destruction. While performing her role as the passive and loving wife, she reaffirms the misogynist notion of women's ancient responsibility for the fall of men (Eve, Helen of Troy). Like Willy, society is partially responsible for her blindness. Society promotes such blindness and even displays it as a trait to be admired. Linda's culpability is preceded, however, by society's. Perhaps the patriarchy present in society tries to use Linda as a scapegoat for its own failures. Because Linda is the only female character of substance in the play, much responsibility can be heaped on her (and women in general) for the tragic plight of men. It is possible that Linda, the one
time heroine and seeming tower of strength, may actually be admired for her ability to exempt men from responsibility for their own actions (Bliquez 78).
Biff’s self discovery late in the play demonstrates a different way to struggle against this bleak world view. A spark of self-awareness can be seen in Biff, the wanderer returned home. By the conclusion of the play this spark has blossomed into self-realization. Biff begins to assign higher meaning to his life, meaning beyond financial standards. He gains a sense of self worth, while also understanding his limitations in the workaday world all too well, unlike his father. "Pop! I'm a dime a dozen and so are you" (Death 1421). There is hope that through this process of self-realization, Biff can avoid meeting Willy's fate.
"Death of a Salesman" is historical in that the types of characters and language they use are products of a certain day and age. Its ideological significance, however, can transcend its place in history. From a Marxist perspective, the play is a broad based attack of industrial society as a whole. As John Hagopian states, "...the play does specifically isolate the capitalistic form of society as its target" (42). The true tragedy of this play is not so much embodied in the lifeblood of Willy Loman as it is in the insidious world which fosters whole generations of lost souls like Willy. The modern world should accept at least partial responsibility for those like Willy who lead pathetic lives and suffer senseless deaths.
This would normally be the conclusion of a Marxist reading of "Death of a Salesman": that it is a powerful indictment of industrial capitalism as a whole with Willy Loman (low man) representing the tragic fate that awaits us all.
"So long as modern man conceives himself as valuable only because he fits into some niche in the machine-tending pattern, he will never know anything more than a pathetic doom." (Miller, p.60)
It is easy, however, to fall into the trap of assigning simple ideological influence to literature. The play should not be simplified or vulgarized in such a manner. To do so is to lose sight of the poignant realism of the play in favor of a specific ideological agenda.
"...'vulgar Marxist' criticism, which tends to see literary works merely as reflections of dominant ideologies" (Eagleton 17).
Indeed, most Marxist critics are vulgar Marxists. Eagleton suggests that a subtle more scathing critique can be achieved through Marxism. This second critique undermines the first obvious attack, and eventually calls into question the validity of Marxist criticism itself.
Vulgar heavy-handed Marxists make Miller's play one sided, one dimensional. Three simple observations refute these claims and give the play added dimension. Howard, Willy's godson and employer, is not a monster. He has an infatuation with gadgetry and a proud love of his children not unlike Willy. If this were truly a vulgar Marxist commentary, Howard would be more an oppressive tyrant than a self consumed father. Willy must also accept some of the responsibility for his downfall. His blindness is partially self induced. His character is not totally dominated by the oppressive capitalist environment. Not all people suffer the fate of Willy Loman. Charley and Bernard work hard, and they not only survive, they thrive in Willy's world. Capitalism is thus praised and punished within the play (Parker 103-4).
The most debilitating blow dealt to a vulgar Marxist interpretation is the discovery of a paradox fundamental to the supposed message of the play. Arthur Miller is caught in the middle. On one hand, Miller seems to pick up the banner of Marxism and march with the proletariat. For this reason he was called to testify in front of the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
"Among the questions asked me by the chairman of that committee was, 'Why do you write so sadly about this country?' It is truly a Stalinist question, if you will, and there are millions of Americans that share the chairman's feelings" (Miller, p.323).
Miller's complicity with economic metaphors and motives, however, stand in direct opposition to his Marxist tendencies. Economic standards are used as moral and aesthetic ones. Money is the only viable solution presented to problems in the play. More money makes an act more acceptable. Charley gives Willy money. Ben tries to entice Willy to Alaska with the promise of money. Biff tries to redeem himself by earning more money. Linda equates money with freedom. "I made the last payment on the house today. Today, dear. And there'll be nobody home. We're free and clear. We're free" (Death 1426). Eventually money is equated with self worth. Willy ends his life because he is worth more dead than alive. Self worth is not something one can receive from a neighbor or give to a son. The only logical alternative that occurs to the characters is an economic one. Only Biff searches for higher values, values beyond the dollar sign. These higher values are economically constructed illusions. A basic tenet of Marxism is that "life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life." (Eagleton 4). Translated by Miller in his play: economics are not determined by morality, morality is determined by economics.
Even the language chosen by Miller is economic in nature. Why, for instance, does Biff choose the phrase, "Pop! I'm a dime a dozen and so are you" (Death 1421)? By acknowledging his helplessness to control his own identity in the face of economic forces, Biff's (and thus Miller's) ability to critique the system is marred. Historic necessity demands new ideas from art, yet Arthur Miller does not present a single opposing ideology in his play (Eagleton 17). Instead he legitimates the very ideology that he tries to critique. According to his own definition "Death of a Salesman" is not a tragedy because of Miller's complicity with economic domination.
"No tragedy can ever come about when its author fears to question absolutely everything, when he regards any institution, habit, or custom as being either everlasting, immutable, or inevitable" (Miller 6).
Marxist literary criticism is at its strongest, therefore, when it attempts to explain art and its relationship to ideology (Eagleton 18). To Leon Trotsky, art was not a simple extension of ideology. "The belief that we force poets, willy-nilly, to write about nothing but factory chimneys or a revolt against capitalism is absurd" (Eagleton 43). A Marxist critique can bring new and exciting insights, but it is limited by the fact that it too is ideologically bound. Marxist critics suggest or allude to the latent Marxist tendencies of Miller because of the play's overt attack on capitalism. Marxism has an ideological agenda of its own; it seeks to replace Miller's economic doxa with a doxa of its own. Even with these limitations, the questions Marxist criticism raises about Miller's world and our own are thought provoking and even profound. To be of value, its questions must be put into ideological perspective. Though not in the most obvious manner, Marxist criticism does provide ample justification of the merit of "Death of a Salesman". Through an admission of our own ideological frailty not so unlike Arthur Miller's or Willy Loman's, we can see the nature of their tragedies, and also the nature of the tragedy that could await us all. Whether or not Willy has the stature of Oedipus, the possibility of learning exists. Because such texts present us with the chance to learn from them, attention must be paid.
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