Death of a Modernist Salesman
The modernist movement in writing was characterized by a lack of faith in the traditional ways of explaining life and its meaning. Religion, nationalism, and family were no longer seen as being infallible. For the modernist writers, a sense of security could no longer be found. They could not find any meaning or order in the old ways. Despair was a common reaction for them. The dilemma they ran into was what to do with this knowledge. Poet Robert Frost phrased their question best in his poem “The Oven Bird.” Frost’s narrator and the bird about which he is speaking both are wondering “what to make of a diminished thing” (Baym 1103). The modernist writers attempted to mirror this despair and tried to superimpose meaning on it or find meaning in it. The old frames of reference were no longer meaningful. Newer ones had to be sought. This belief gave them license to create new points of reference, which at least held some meaning for them, or to comment on the remains of the old. These writers referred often to shattered illusions, feelings of alienation, and the fragmentation of the remains of tradition. Although society was making technological advances, many of these writers felt that it was declining in other ways. They saw this progression as being made at the expense of individuality and the individual’s sense of true self-worth.
Arthur Miller’s writings are characteristic of this movement. Miller is a playwright whose works reflect the major themes of modernism. Death of a Salesman, which is perhaps his best-known piece, is a perfect example of this. In it, he addresses the common modernist themes of alienation and loneliness through both his portrayal of society and an exploration of the psychological dimensions of dealing with the modern world. Alienation, loneliness, and denial are all responses to society, and they can be seen clearly in the character of Willy Loman. In a sense, Miller is a part of the second half of the modernist movement. His characters in Death of a Salesman are attempting to come to terms with a democratic, capitalistic society which has been functioning for some time. As well as demonstrating to his audience the hopelessness of Willy’s situation, Miller is also trying to convey that the values society places on material wealth and the models of success they look to are not necessarily the best solution either. Willy is a societal failure, but how successful are the other members of society by comparison? This is the question Miller seems to be asking throughout the play as he shows the demise of Willy’s life and society’s reaction to this demise.
Sociologists, psychologists, theologians, and philosophers have found Arthur Miller’s major works, especially his Death of a Salesman, both fascinating and quotable as they discuss problems as ‘alienation’ and ‘loneliness;’ ‘dehumanization’ and ‘desocialization;’ ‘the alienated ego’ and ‘existentialism;’...