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Discuss the Themes of Success and Failure in Miller’s “Death of a Salesman”

Arthur Miller’s ‘Death of a Salesman’ is a tragedy based on the American Dream. According to most views, most people go through their lives as ‘ordinary,’ and that’s perfectly okay. However, it is not okay for Willy Loman, the ageing salesman who is the protagonist of Miller’s play. Death of a Salesman is centred around one man trying to reach the American dream and taking his family along for the ride. The Loman’s Life from beginning to end is a troubling story based on trying to become successful or happy. The ‘American Dream’ was to be successful at work and bring up a perfect family. Willy sets his goals to a standard, which is too high for a salesman like himself. But, “….was rich! That’s just the spirit I want to imbue…”

Willy’s age doesn’t help with what he wants to achieve. He becomes demoralized by this and continues to set more unachievable goals for a salesman at the age of 60 like himself. With Willy continuously setting standards too high, he continues the theme of failure throughout this play. But it isn’t just Willy who suffers; it’s the whole Loman family. In contrast to Willy’s views on success and failure, his son Biff sees both differently. Biff sees the true success in life and causes tension in their relationship. “Why does dad mock me all the time?” This is what Biff says to his brother, Happy, at the beginning of the play. He appears to feel confused about what his dad thinks of him. Throughout the novel, the audience can sense the confusion in Biff as to his dad both praises and mocks him.

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Willy wants Biff to be the perfect son, but at the age of 30 and still unsettled in a good-paying job, Willy thinks badly of Biff. This is selfish of Willy to do this as it shows that he wants his ‘American Dream’ to come true and isn’t so bothered about how Biff feels. Biff shows content about not earning a lot of money but just being happy and living an “ordinary” life like most people. “Biff Loman is lost. In the greatest country in the world, a young man with such – personal attractiveness gets lost.” The theme of failure is shown throughout this novel by how Willy treats other people and the way he thinks and does things. His failure to hold a strong, loving relationship with his son, Biff and himself is down to Willy trying to achieve his impossible goals and excluding others from them.

Willy is lucky to have a loving and supporting wife called Linda. Arthur Miller creates a sympathetic character that is a successful wife and mother to both Willy and her children. Unfortunately, because Willy is so wrapped up in achieving the ‘American Dream,’ Linda doesn’t often get noticed, and when she is, she appears unappreciated. “I just thought you would like a change – ” “I don’t want a change! I want Swiss cheese. Why am I always being contradicted?” Willy proves to be ungrateful for his wife’s hard work in trying to please him. He doesn’t want a surprise, which shows that he can be quite boring and unimaginative. Linda can understand what Willy wants and why he is unable to achieve it. She tries to put the message across that his goals are unreachable, but she is aware that if she tells him straight up, she will lose the full respect for her husband, whom she loves.

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Miller uses this situation to put across the point that Willy is very insecure, and causes this leads to his own downfall and failure. “They laugh at me, heh? Go to File, go to the Hub, go to Slattery’s, Boston. Call out the name Willy Loman and see what happens!” This quote is another sign of Willy being insecure as he exaggerates his ‘success’ to his sons, Biff and Happy. Arthur Miller cleverly uses Willy Loman to suggest that his life is one great big disaster and failure. Lo- man, suggests that he lives a low life and doesn’t succeed in one aspect of life. The theme of success is brought about in this play by Arthur Millers’ use of other successful characters.

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Discuss the Themes of Success and Failure in Miller's "Death of a Salesman". (2021, Aug 13). Retrieved August 15, 2022, from