Death of a Salesman Poetry Review

979 words | 4 page(s)

The power and depth of Arthur Miller’s legendary play Death of a Salesman is communicated to the reader on the very first page. In a simple conversation between Willy Loman, an aging salesman and the play’s “unspooling protagonist,” and his wife Linda, a woman with an enduring spirit and loyalty that breaches upon credulity, Arthur Miller presents the reader with a wholly realistic look into a man’s late arrival home and a housewife’s worry (Harvey, 1). From the very start of Death of a Salesman, Miller casts the reader into a seamless and engrossing world of thick relationships, illusioned characters, and a perfectly crafted plot. However, this paper will argue, as it is seen in Linda and Willy’s first conversation, that it is Miller’s deep and pointed dialogue that makes Death of a Salesman a lasting piece of American literature and establishes the play’s theme of illusion in the face of the American Dream. Further, it is Miller’s dialogue that shows the reader the darker side of post-war American living and the perhaps overlooked insidious nature of the effect of consumerism on people who lived during that era.

Death of a Salesman, like all works of theatre, is driven by dialogue. In a piece of cinema, a director is able to incorporate visuals, high-tech edits, or even scores to augment the viewer experience. However, the live nature of theatre dictates that an actor’s words are to be the focal point of the work and the element that drives forward the action of the play. When one reads Death of a Salesman, it becomes clear that they are dealing with a playwright who holds a mastery over this important element. For example, at one point in Death of a Salesman Miller describes a salesman as a “man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a Shoeshine” (Miller, 104). What is even more impressive is that Miller’s way with words stretches beyond these one-line gems and into something that builds rock-solid character dynamics. Through dialogue, Miller showcases each character’s depth, yearnings, and their fragility, among numerous other personal characteristics.

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The quality of Arthur Miller’s dialogue in Death of a Salesman begins, as mentioned above, in the first scene and it builds steadily from there. The reader is first introduced to the relationship between Willy and Linda. Through detailed dialogue, readers come to find out that Linda is an incredibly patient, thoughtful, and generous character, one who spends her days attempting to hold together the life of Willy, a man whose anger, jubilance, and illusion know no steady place, as though his emotions are brittle leaves fluttering in gusts of wind. Next, Miller weaves in the couple’s sons, Biff and Happy, who are staying at the Loman residence for a short while. In their own ways, Biff and Happy represent two sides of their father Willy. Biff, a 34-year old “bum,” represents his all that Willy is afraid to admit about himself – his worthlessness, his self-loathing, and his feeling of being lost. Indeed, Willy, a man who has spent his life wandering about back roads and highways in search of a sale or a friendship, is a lost man afraid to admit this fact. This concept is echoed in his son Biff, who has spent the last 15 years of his life looking for his home. All of this is clearly communicated to the reader through Biff’s temper flares and through Willy’s consistent, well-written ramblings. On the other side of the coin is Happy. Happy is two years younger than Biff but has followed in his father’s footsteps in the business world. Happy represents Willy’s illusion, his enduring-to-a-fault belief that he will be a “big shot” one day. Happy never hesitates to elaborate on the simplest truths, tell his father about his weight loss, or brag to a waiter or random girl. Throughout the play, the reader is introduced to a handful of other characters, Uncle Ben, Charley, Bernard, and The Woman – among other – all of whom further the plot and add to Willy’s character.

Death of a Salesman is also a play about the consumerism culture of the post-war era, which is an element of the play that seems to endure through and apply to each passing decade of American life. In Death of a Salesman, Willy appears as a relic of the past, a man beaten down by the jungle of the city and the growing world. This concept is best understood via a metaphor in Miller’s stage directions: “Before us is the Salesman’s house. We are aware of towering angular shapes behind it, surrounding it on all sides” (Miller, 1). Here, Miller is juxtaposing Willy’s quaint domicile against towering new apartment complexes in order to demonstrate that Willy is a just another person, one in a city of millions, who unfortunately thinks he is special. Miller is showing the reader, through scenic design, that the city is unambiguously engulfing Willy. It is a concept that can be understood by all Americans in any decade since World War II, after which the United States and American urban centers began to grow rapidly.

Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is a work of literature rooted in dialogue that creates realistic relationships and heightens each character’s wants and motivations. Further, Miller’s dialogue is precise enough to forward the plot of the play with every line. It is because of dialogue that Death of a Salesman has lasted through the decades and continues to be a point of literary reference for storytellers and readers alike.

  • Harvey, Giles. “‘Death of a Salesman’: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Mediocrity.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 2017, www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/death-of-a-salesman-a-heartbreaking-work-of-staggering-mediocrity.
  • Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman: Revised Edition. Penguin, 1996.

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