Individual Choice and Failure in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman
It could be argued that Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman is a tragic play that represents the failures of a system, but from an existentialist point of view, however, the play solely represents the failures of an individual. By looking at the many distasteful characteristics of the societal system embodied by the Loman's family values and dreams, and by then arguing these points from an existentialist point of view, this essay will confirm that the play represents the failures of an individual instead of casting blame on a socially constructed system.
Existentialists claim that to live is to be faced with the necessity of choice, and in the making of these choices we define ourselves and influence for good or evil the lives of others around us. The existentialist claims that there are no moral absolutes, and there is also no basis for knowing the consequences of our acts, but we must act, so we must choose and this is known as the existential dilemma. The truth of our existential dilemma reduces us to a state of anguish, as no matter what we choose we cannot escape responsibility for our choice and guilt for the consequences. Existentialist Jean Paul Sartre states, "we are condemned to be free" (Arts 1000 Lecture, 43), and by this he means that we are free to choose, free to define our being, and free to accept our moral responsibility; humans, however, do not want to face this freedom so they are constantly trying to escape from this freedom by inventing pretentious scientific and social theories, or by making up superstitions about Gods, all in an attempt to convince ourselves that we are not ultimately free to choose and that we are not responsible for our choices and their consequences (Lecture 43).
The materialistic values so emphasized by the Loman family are illustrated throughout the play. Willy, when speaking with Linda, criticizes Biff for the amount of money he makes, stating "he has yet to make thirty-five dollars a week!" (16), and after Ben tells Willy of his riches, Willy exclaims, "[he] was rich! That's just the spirit I need to imbue them with" (52). Even though Biff is content working on the ranch, he complains to Happy, "What the hell am I doing, playing around with horses, twenty-eight dollars a week!" (22). He goes on to add that every time he comes home he feels that all he has done is waste his life. When Happy is talking to Biff about happiness, he argues, "it's what I always wanted . . . my own apartment, a car, and plenty of women" (p. 23).
According to existentialism, it is a choice to follow convention and conform to the norms and ideologies of society, and therefore it is not the fault of a system that the Lomans have materialistic values, but the fault of individual choice. Willy makes the choice to think less of Biff because he is not making much money, and he has the choice of which values to try to instill in his sons. Although...