Thursday, October 2, 2008

Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller

I heard this Pulitzer Prize winning play quoted at length two different times this past year and decided it was time to actually read it. “Willy Loman” is apparently a name that every “cultured” American should know, but I had no idea who he was as I opened the book. Although Death Of A Salesman is a short book, just over 100 pages, it took me a whopping three days to read it because it was a bit grim for my tastes and I had to keep putting it down to take a breather. What struck me from the beginning was the profuse profanity – interesting for something written in 1949. While I dislike gratuitous swearing, its repeated use here seemed somehow appropriate – to show how lost these people were. Written today it would have been much worse.

Willy is a 63 year old traveling salesman who wants to quit, but can’t afford to. He is tired and disoriented. Clues to how he reached this condition are given through subsequent dialogue and occasional flashbacks. Obviously something is very wrong with his relationship to Biff, his oldest son. Their struggles to relate to each other are evident from the first scene. As the story unfolds we discover that Biff and his father had adored each other earlier on in their lives. In fact, Willy had pinned all of his hopes on Biff. He had been convinced that his son was going to be “somebody” and had pumped him up with false ideas of his own greatness. Only when Biff recognizes he’s “nobody” does he have a chance to start over without all the lies and pretensions, but this happens near the conclusion of the play.

There were several twists in the play (which will go unmentioned here). The reason that Biff never finished high school comes out near the end. At that point the reader is not sure whether to blame Willy or Biff. Both of them made wrong choices that destroyed their futures. I don’t know what Arthur Miller’s intentions were when he wrote this play. Nothing redemptive seems to come out of all the suffering. When Linda talks about being “free” in the last scene she is referring to their money problems. I think the freedom could also be applied to Biff’s decision to finally give up a life of pursuing false hopes. The truest freedom would have come if the people in this story had been able to experience forgiveness for their past foolishness. Miller effectively showed the oppressive heaviness of their sins and how the whole family was still trapped by them.

Because of the heavy subject matter this play was not pleasant reading material, but I’m glad I finally got to see what all the fuss was about.

1 comment:

Sarah M. said...

Thanks for posting this review. It's tough to get through some of the well-publized books and I am grateful when people read them and give an honest opinion. It helps me to decide if its worth my time to read or if it's something I can pass. (Found your review via Sat. Review)