Impact of Society in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman
Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman examines outside influences on the individual. These influences include society as a whole, the family as a societal unit and beliefs which the individual thinks he should espouse. In order to understand Willy Loman and the struggles with which he is dealing, the society in which he exists must first be understood. He is relying upon a slightly different set of values and motivations than everyone else seems to be, and this sets him apart. A prime example of the rest of society is Willy’s brother, Ben.
In sociological terms, Ben is a classic representative of the old, 19th century middle class, while Willy represents the new, dependent, salaried, pathetically other-directed middle class. Ben’s character is clearly inner-directed… While Willy stresses the importance of personality, of being ‘well-liked’ and acceptable to the world, of pleasing others, while insisting on proper form, dress, manner, and style, Ben ignores all of this. (Martin 56)
Willy is looking to the rest of society for guidance, to see how he needs to act in order to be successful by their terms. Yet he cannot fully let go of the belief that his way of trying to “please all of the people all of the time” is right. Society is made up of people like Ben who are focused on getting ahead. It is an industrial society which is quickly expanding; people have to move quickly to stay on top. They do not have time for the old ways anymore. Willy has been working for many years, but he has not been able to keep up. Ultimately, this is why he is let go from his job. His boss, Howard explains it to him.
Howard: I don’t want you to represent us. I’ve been meaning to tell you for a long time now.
Willy: Howard, are you firing me?
Howard: I think you need a good long rest, Willy. (Baym 2022)
Willy is not focusing on what is truly important in life, and he has no good role models to show him. Ultimately he keeps pursuing an empty dream at the cost of his family and of himself. The society portrayed in Death of a Salesman is one in which material goods and transient, earthly success are what is valued. Willy is not able to step back and realize this. Since he is a failure by their terms, he believes he must be a failure, period. His only way of coping with this is to attempt to deceive others about his accomplishments as well as those of his sons. He seems to convince himself that these dreams are true more than he convinces others.
In speaking of Death of a Salesman and some of his other plays, Miller had this to say:
These plays, in one sense, are my response to what was ‘in the air,’ they are one man’s way of saying to his fellow man, ‘This is what you see every day or think or feel; now I will show you what you know but have not had the time, or the disinterestedness, or the insight, or the information to understand...