The Automobile in Death of a Salesman
In modern society, most Americans own an automobile. In the wealthier households, a family of four may own as many as three to four automobiles, one for each driver living in the house. However, the automobile has not always been a staple of living in America. In the 1940s, a family with an automobile was considered well-to-do, as well as wealthy and hard-working. It is during this time period that Arthur Miller’s play, Death of a Salesman, is set. Miller gives the reader a glimpse into the life of Willy Loman, and in doing so provides an intriguing insight into the common American family of the time. Willy Loman is the everyman, constantly pursuing the “American Dream.” Part of the “American Dream” constitutes owning an automobile, which the Lomans do. However, the importance of the automobile in this play reaches far beyond ownership. In the first scene it is addressed when Willy’s wife Linda asks him worriedly if he has smashed the car. In the closing scene, Willy commits suicide by smashing his car into a tree. In Death of a Salesman, the automobile plays a major role, functioning both as a symbol and a tangible manifestation of the “American Dream.”
In the opening lines of Death of a Salesman, Linda Loman worries that something has “happened” to her husband Willy. After Willy assures her that “nothing happened,” Linda asks, “You didn’t smash the car did you?”. This initial exchange sets up the significant role the automobile will have in the events of the play. In Linda’s mind, she instinctively makes the leap from a problem with Willy to a problem with the automobile. Although she is anxious about the state of the family car, Linda is not a materialistic or selfish woman. For Linda, the car is truly an extension of Willy. On some level, she already knows that the destruction of the automobile will, in all likelihood, coincide with the destruction of the man. For Arthur Miller (writing during the postwar economic boom of the late forties), the symbolic weight of the car cannot be underestimated. For the average middle class American of the 1940s and 1950s, the automobile was an absolute good, an essential part of the “American dream.” As J. Ronald Oakley writes in God’s Country: America in the Fifties:
It would be difficult to exaggerate the importance of the automobile in the 1950s. It had become an integral part of American life by 1930 . . . and the importance of it had steadily increased ever since then. . . . the average American was convinced that his automobile was a part of his life that he could not live without. It gave him mobility, status, freedom, privacy, and the ability to get to his job and other destinations far easier than ever before. (Oakley 245).
Appropriately enough, Death of a Salesman is a play preoccupied with cars. Throughout the play, Arthur Miller associates Willy Loman with his automobile in order to indict the value system of...