the cedar ledge

Death of a Salesman

Date: July 26 2020

Summary: A wonderful but scathing critique of the American dream as told from the perspective of a low-income, and at times, lower-middle class, American family with the father eking out an existence as a traveling salesman.

Keywords: ##bibliography #capitalism #classic #fiction #satisfaction ##book ##blog

Bibliography Reference:

A. Miller, Death of a Salesman. Penguin Books, 1998.

Notes

What is Satisfaction?

“I’m thirty-four years old, I oughta be makin’ my future. That’s when I come running home. And now, I get here, and I don’t know what to do with myself. [After a pause] I’ve always made a point of not wasting my life, and everytime I come back here I know that all I’ve done is to waste my life.”

Biff talking to his mother about his life’s relative miserable existence

His obsession for not wasting his life or waiting almost for his life to start is similar to my thoughts. Interesting. I think the big thing is here is the overinflated notion of being “big” or important. As though that were the ultimate goal of any man.

“All I can do now is wait for the merchandise manager to die. And suppose I get to be merchandise manager? He’s a good friend of mine, and he just built a terrific estate on Long Island. And he lived there about two months and sold it, and now he’s building another one. He can’t enjoy it once it’s finished. And I know that’s just what I would do. I don’t know what the hell I’m workin’ for. Sometimes I sit in my apartment—all alone. And I think of the rent I’m paying. And it’s crazy. But then, it’s what I always wanted. My own apartment, a car, and plenty of women. And still, goddammit, I’m lonely.”

Happy talking to his brother, Biff, about his own struggle and situation in life

This carries on the theme of the dissatisfaction with the attainment of being “big.” Happy got everything he could want but is still unhappy – contrasting this with Biff is that Biff is unhappy even though he did not get what he wanted. These are two examples of being dissatisfied in uniquely different ways.

Linda: “[to Willy …] Why must everybody conquer the world?”

It is a powerful insight into Linda’s thinking. To Linda, Willy already has the best things in the world. He just can’t stop to realize it or rather, it is not enough for him to have a loving family. He needs to be big in the eyes of “people.” This reminds me of my note on “False Expertise” where there, the problem is that being exposed enough to material gives you prestige. In this case, Willy thinks being acknowledged by people as a nice guy is enough to ensure endless success.

Shattering of Innocence

Willy: “Never mind! He’s going to give you those points. I’ll see to it.” Biff: “He wouldn’t listen to you.”

The crushing moment when Biff sees through his father and loses complete faith in him.

I find this moment in the story more tragic than Willy’s eventual death. It is this moment which doomed Willy and his family for the rest of his life. It’s never explained why Willy had an affair but, perhaps, that is the point. A person does not need a reason for slipping. I find it interesting how Willy tries to keep up the front of being an exemplar amongst men. Though Biff later calls his father, “a prince among men,” I believe it was to keep up Willy’s pretense. I wonder if Willy did confess this incident to his family, if things may have been different…

Willy [moving to the right]: “Funny, y’know? After all the highways, and the trains, and the appointments, and the years, you end up worth more dead than alive.”

The moment in which Willy realizes his life is not moving towards any grand destiny and decides fully upon suicide. It’s an interesting insight about the idea of providing incentives.

False Expectations

Willy: “Without a penny to [my brother’s name], […] it’s not what you do[.] It’s who you know and the smile on your face!”

The crux of Willy’s mentality on how life “should be” and how he expects life to work. Ultimately, this is proven false when he fails to get a job after pulling his contacts. In reality, nearly the exact opposite of this maxim is the truth.

Charley: “The only thing you got in this world is what you can sell. And the funny thing is that you’re a salesman, and you don’t know that.”

Willy’s neighbor Charley admonishing him on his frustration with the world not working they way Willy expects it to.

Ultimately, this searing criticism of Willy shows to him that he doesn’t have any skills to offer outside of his perfunctory service as a salesman. He is a mediocre man who never tried to adapt and move with the times. And Willy refuses to believe that life passed him by in that way.

References:

Discussion:

CC BY-SA 4.0 Jacob Zelko. Last modified: May 14, 2022. Website built with Franklin.jl and the Julia programming language.