Themes of Death of a Salesman
The American Dream
Death of a Salesman is based on the American Dream, which states that anybody may achieve financial success and material comfort. Various secondary characters achieve the Dream in a variety of ways: Ben ventures into the wilderness of Alaska and Africa and strikes it rich by discovering a diamond mine; Howard Wagner inherits his Dream through his father’s business; and Bernard, who appeared to be a studious bore as a child, succeeds as a successful lawyer through hard work. Willy Loman’s interpretation of the Dream, informed by his brother Ben’s success, is that any man who is manly, attractive, charismatic, and well-liked deserves and will naturally attain success.
Willy and his sons fall short of the dream’s unrealistic requirements throughout their lives. However, the true tragedy of the play is not that Willy fails to achieve the financial success promised by his American dream, but that he buys into it so completely that he ignores the tangible things in his life, such as his family’s love, in pursuit of the success he hopes will bring his family security. Willy practically murders himself for money at the end of the play by killing himself in order to receive his family the money from his life insurance policy. He demonstrates in the process that, while the American dream is a potent engine for aspiration, it can also transform a human being into a product or commodity whose sole value is determined by his financial worth.
Fathers and Sons
The play’s major tension is between Willy and his eldest son Biff, who showed great promise as a teenage athlete and ladies’ man but has evolved into a robber and aimless drifter in adulthood. Willy’s second kid, Happy, is shallow and appears to not commit to anyone, despite a more solid job path.
By diving into Willy’s memories, the play can demonstrate how the ideals Willy taught in his sons—fortune over effort, likability over expertise—led them to fail both him and themselves as adults. Willy’s idea of vast, easy success is both barren and overpowering, and thus Biff and Happy are aimless, generating nothing, while Willy continues to work, planting seeds in the middle of the night to provide sustenance for his family. At the play’s conclusion, Biff learns that only by escaping Willy’s dream will father and son be free to pursue fulfilling lives. Happy is unaware of this, and at the play’s conclusion, he swears to follow in his father’s footsteps, following an American Dream that will ultimately leave him destitute and alone.
Nature vs. City
The towering apartment buildings that surround Willy’s house, obstructing his view of the stars and preventing him from growing a garden in his back yard, reflect the artificial world of the city encroaching on his small patch of self-determination, with all its commercialism and superficiality. He aspires to follow in his brother Ben’s footsteps by exploring the wildernesses of Africa and Alaska in quest of diamonds, or even by constructing wooden flutes and selling them on America’s rural frontier, as his father did. However, Willy is both timid and tardy. He lacks the confidence to venture into nature and seek his fortune, and, in any case, that world of unexplored untamed frontiers no longer exists. Rather than that, the urban world has supplanted the rural, and Willy chooses to enter the world of sales, which does not require him to create anything but rather to sell himself.
Biff and Happy exemplify Willy’s two facets: the independent dreamer and the eager-to-please salesman. Biff works on farms, assisting horses in giving birth, while Happy plans in the stuffy confines of a retail store. While Willy acquires household appliances and automobiles, as the American Dream has taught him, these goods eventually do not satisfy him, and he considers his own death as a means of finally delving into nature, the dark forest that the confines of his existence have prevented him from entering.
Abandonment and Betrayal
Willy paradoxically abandons his family out of love for them (just as he himself was abandoned by his father when he was three). Willy’s death is tragic as a result of his failure to distinguish between his economic value as a resource and his identity as a human being. By “liking” Willy, the Woman with whom Willy cheats on Linda can feed Willy’s salesman ego. He is happy with his ability to sell himself to her, and this pride transforms into shame when he realises that by providing stockings to The Woman rather to Linda, he is undermining his duty as a provider. He is blind to the fact that the essential thing Linda requires from him is his love, not his possessions.
The connection between love and betrayal runs throughout the play: part of Biff’s discovery at the play’s conclusion is that Willy has betrayed him by encouraging him to settle for nothing less than perfection, so making real-world concessions exceedingly difficult. Happy, and even Linda, betray Willy out of a compassionate desire to keep him in his delusions, forcing Willy’s delicate psyche to face alone with the growing disjunction between his fantasies and reality.