Literary Criticism of Death of a Salesman

Instructor: Kiesa Kay

Kiesa Kay has taught college English and has a master's degree in English, with honors.

Willie Loman's bone-tired. He's been a salesman all his life. The play ''Death of a Salesman'' by Arthur Miller shows Willie's descent into depression after a lifetime spent trying to charm others into smiling.

Striving for Success

Death of a Salesman shows what happens to Willie Loman, a man who spends his whole life striving for success in his work. However, Willie soon decides he's nothing more than sum of his mistakes: 'Work a lifetime to pay off a house. You finally own it; there's nobody to live in it.' He feels like people laugh at him, and he can't stand it. He gets fired, and he feels like a failure.

Willie's sons, Biff and Happy, have not lived up to their potential, in his eyes, and he hasn't become the man that he meant to be. Happy, the son who tried to follow in his footsteps for success, brags that he has a car, women, and freedom. Nonetheless, he's lonely.

Exaggerating Status

All the Loman men exaggerate status. When Happy and Biff imagine the possibilities and pretenses of a Loman Brothers sporting goods venture, Willie Loman slides into the conversation with small suggestions, like not to say 'Gee,' when asking for money, and soon the plan disintegrates.

When Biff goes to ask for money, he gets no attention at all. His efforts fail, and he lies to his father about it. He risks his own integrity in order to raise his father's self-esteem and allow Willie to retain his fantasies about his family as a memorable group of men. In fact, the opposite is true. Nobody remembers who these men once were. People with power won't give them a second glance.


At the heart, this play reveals the loneliness felt by all the main male characters, Happy, Biff, and Willie, who so desperately strive to be important in the larger world. Linda, mother to Happy and Biff, wife to Willie, loves them all as they are -- and that love assuages her loneliness.

The sons lie to shore up Willie's flagging self-esteem, but neither love nor lies can save him. Willie never really knew his father, and his big brother, Ben, left home when he was three years old. He tried to be the father he'd needed for himself, and he failed in his own eyes, by his own standards.

The play twists back on itself, showing how Bernard, a boy who only wanted to carry Biff's helmet, grew up to argue a case before the Supreme Court, while Biff himself flunked math and never bounced back. Willie betrayed his wife by having a sordid affair in a hotel room. He isn't who he pretends to be. The easy dreams dissolved fast, and Willie decides he's worth more dead than alive. Even that ploy doesn't work, though. The insurance company already suspects him of trying to end his own life.

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