Interpretation of Death of a Salesman

What are the shifts of American Societal Values as Shown by Willy and His Sons?


Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s ‘Death of a Salesman’ is a complex and conflicted character. He finds himself at odds with his surroundings, his values, and even his family, at times. And these conflicts spill over into how he raises his sons. Willy tries to instill what he thinks are his more admirable traits into his boys; likability and initiative. However, one can see by his actions and even his words that he has a deeper set of values that he tries to deny. In the time that the play is set there is a shift in the values of American society which come through as well. Arthur Miller wrote the play in 1949 and after its premier on Broadway, the play went on to bag the playwright numerous awards.

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Until today, the play is always considered as one of the greatest American plays and ranked among classics. The main themes in the play still ring in today’s society. The play is basically a tragic story about the many differences between a family in New York City, the difference in each one’s dreams and the harsh reality in their lives. The play is a critique of the popular ‘American Dream’, and of the rather competitive and materialistic 1940’s American society. In the story line, Miller features the main character, Willy Loman, who is an average man who tries hard to hide his average state and his failures behind grandeur delusions in his quest to become a “success” (Murphy p 5).

Willy is a character who shows a typical modern American living with the mindset of the American dream, that of hope for a future achievement and great recognition in spite of the nothingness that which his current situation is. However, his elder son does not emulate him, he realizes that the dream is a fallacy and chooses his own unbeaten path. This exemplifies his liberal mid, which many sons/children do so often in families- choosing their paths other than those mapped for them by their folks.

On the other hand, the second-born son, Happy, looks at his father as a role model, and does not wish that his legacy goes down the drain after his death, and so opts to walk in his father’s shoes. The two brothers show contrasting beliefs, principles, and consequently, values. Biff, the elder son does not care much about publicity and fame built on daydreams, but rather wants to embrace and face the real situation, unlike Willy-his father and his brother Happy. Clearly, there is a drift between the two sets of people, their values and beliefs.

This paper will seek to analyze Willy’s character in the capitalism society and his borrowed values and beliefs- with great focus on the American Dream being the driving force. I will discuss how he plays the American parent who wants to manipulate and model his sons to become just like him and follow his ways as is the case in many societal settings, like for example, many join the army simply because their father’s lineage has been in the army since way back in the days of the Civil War.

It will also show a different character in his son who breaks out of the tyranny and mediocre thinking to embrace the real world and live his own course. This exhibition of shifting values in the family is typical of American families. A summary of the plot will be highlighted to give exposition to the matter under discussion. Discussion will be mainly on Willy’s life, his approach to things and decision making which exhibit his values, then discussion on those of his sons. His beliefs and the contrasting thoughts on his popularity as well as the two dimensions on which he can be analyzed, in life and in his death will be discussed.

Plot Summary

Willy is an old salesperson, who the play begins as he returns home from Boston on a failed business trip. His wife Linda notices how tiring the trip was and asks him to seek a transfer from his boss to the offices in New York so that he would not have to travel to Boston for business deals. Willy thinks that it would be easy to get the transfer from his boss because he sees himself as a very worthy salesman whom people liked. However, his notion is wrong as we come to see. Willy and Linda have two grown up sons, named Happy and Biff. Biff has just returned home too from the west where he was working as a farmhand.

His father thinks that he could be a very successful person if only he stopped wasting his talents and gets on track. Bill spites his father for his dreams, something Willy believes to be too wish-washy. Willy believes that he could one day set up a big business of his own. Later in the night, Willy starts speaking with imaginary faces. This wakes up everyone in the house and they discover that something was wrong with their father. Biff thinks that the best he would do is to stay back home, fix his relationship with Willy by taking up a loan from his former employer, Bill Oliver, and start a business. Linda confesses to the two sons that they had been having financial problems, something that had driven Willy mad and that Willy had been contemplating committing suicide.

Linda’s worries make her take it out on the two sons and placing the blame on Biff for being the one who had made his father unhappy the most. However, Willy is overjoyed by the news that Biff would go see Oliver the next morning for a loan, and that he himself would get transferred by his boss to the New York office the next day. The next day was surely going to be a new beginning for them, or so they believed. This leaves everyone happy and they go to sleeping great anticipation that the next day would be great for them (Murphy, p 62).

Unfortunately, the next day does not go as expected and everything crumbled. Willy felt very confident as he approached his boss, Howard, to ask for a transfer, but instead of the transfer, he was fired. The news of his employment termination distresses him and he begins to hallucinate yet again as he checks into a restaurant where he was supposed to meet his sons. The two boys wait as Biff explains to his brother Happy how Oliver declined to see him claiming that he had no idea who he was.

At this point, the distress in Biff brings him out as somewhat of a kleptomaniac as he stole Oliver’s pen. Biff realizes how crazy the thought of getting a loan from Oliver was and that their family had been deceiving themselves all along. Willy comes in demanding for good news from Biff, who tries to explain in a charismatic manner about his lack of luck. Willy cannot handle it and begins to hallucinate, and it is from this that his sons learn of an affair Willy had with a woman from Boston. As their dad detached himself from reality, the two boys left him and joined two girls (Murphy, p 73).

The two return home after their dates to find Linda awaiting and fuming with rage for the two leaving their father alone at the restaurant. There is a massive argument as no one wants to listen to Biff, who puts his point across that he could not be able to live up to their father’s huge expectations. He admits to being a failure. However, Biff is the only one in the family who realizes that they had been living a lie and tells the family so. Willy realizes that in spite of the fact that Biff was a failure, he loved him. Unfortunately, Willy could not get over the fact that Biff was a failure, and he concludes that the greatest contribution he could make to his son was to take his own life. By doing so, Willy believes that Biff would use the insurance money he left to start up a business (Murphy p 103).

Willy drives off, and seconds later, a huge crash is heard: Willy committed suicide. In the last scene, Linda sobs, and while still under the impression that people liked her husband, wonders why only just a few people went to his funeral. Biff is the only one who continues seeing through their family’s lies and decides to be a better man and honest with himself. On the other hand, Happy wants to become just like his father (Murphy, p 108).


The way Willy raises his two sons and how he expresses his values as well as how the two sons express their values say quite a lot about the American values. Notably in Willy’s character: the reflection of the ‘American Dream’. The dream is o the idea that; by believing and trying very hard in whatever they do, there will be a great reward, with the ultimate prize being that of happiness. The Miller, who portrays it in the life of Willy and his relationships too, has brutalized this delusional idea. Willy is a typical American earning a low income.

At the time, in 1949, the country was experiencing a boom in the economy, and Miller uses the character to portray just how the period affected “normal” people and families. The play therefore, as a whole and not its parts, portrays just how faulty the components of the ‘American Dream’ are. Willy kept preaching to his sons that the secret of success was having personal magnetism, having contacts, making impressions and being liked by people.

The elaborate play describes the story of a man who strives to achieve greatness from nothing. Miller seems to ridicule America’s society, which is very competitive. Willy says, “Imagine? When the mail comes he’ll be ahead of Bernard again!” (Miller, p 1225).

Literally, Willy is a low man who has quite a number of personality traits that are accurate to the real life. Miller based the character on his uncle, and termed him as a homely and ridiculous little man who never stopped to struggle for a particular victory, as he seeks to achieve his lost self by using the name of his son on his own business. Willy, as much as he was defiant in a struggle, he was never in a struggle, that of convincing himself that he was doing better than he was.

He says, “I can park my car in any street in New England, and the cops protect it like their own” (Miller, p 1165). Willy, just like the typical person, was not ready to die and feared death. When he goes to seek approval to Ben on what would please his family, he says, “Ben, I want to go through the ins and outs of this thing with me. I’ve got nobody to talk to, Ben, and the woman has suffered, and you hear me? (Miller, p 1210).

His fear of death is proved by the many incidents where he neared death. However, according to Snelgrove (p 36), those who attempt suicide use their encounters to bring sorrow into communication, but these incidents are like trials for the main event. Suicide is not intended to kill oneself, but is used to seek solutions to problems. Willy meant to give a better life to his family and end suffering to his wife, and his suicide came more when it dawned to him that people did not like him as he thought.

A negative value of cowardice could be seen from Willy’s death, which can be analyzed from two dimensions. The first point of view is that of cowardice and Willy being a fool in his life. Since he was unable to achieve success in life, he starts playing make-believe like a small child. Biff says, “He had the wrong dreams. All, all wrong”. (Miller, p 1216)

Eventually, life gets hard for him and after realizing that he was an inconvenience, opted to kill himself to escape quickly from his problems. Before his death, Willy had the presumption that many people would attend his funeral, he was a narcissist, and that many would mourn him. He expects to have a big memorial like Dave, a character. He tells Ben, “The funeral will be massive! They will come from Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire.” (Miller, p 1210)