Book Review: Death of a Salesman

Written by Arthur Miller

Reviewed by Eleazar Wawa, age 18

Arthur Miller’s novel Death of a Salesman is a great American tragedy. Originally written as a play, this text is set in the 1940’s and tells the story of aged, traveling salesman Willy Loman. Willy is an optimistic man who believes in the romantic ideal of the “American Dream.”

After many years of loyal service, Willy is demoted by his business firm. He is frequently sent on out-of-state business trips but, more often than not, he comes home without making a cent. Although Willy’s status as a salesman declines over the years, he maintains a strong sense of self-worth. Without a livable income, however, Willy and his family sink into poverty. Ultimately, the crippling stress Willy experiences when he cannot achieve the American Dream leads him to hallucinate and relive experiences from his past.

Willy pushes his two adult sons, Biff and Happy, to gain success and recognition. Though he has high hopes for the future, Happy has only a minimal role in the business world. Described by his mother, Linda, as a “philandering bum,” Happy struggles to feel significant. He compensates for his feelings of insignificance by having affairs with his bosses’ girlfriends. Willy does not believe that Happy possesses the “right stuff” to become successful.

In contrast to Happy, Biff is the apple of his father’s eye; Willy invests his hopes and dreams in Biff. However, Biff refuses to embrace his father’s idealism. High school dropout and kleptomaniac, Biff wants to work in the country with his hands rather than pursue his father’s dreams. This difference in perspective frequently leads to conflicts between Biff and Willy.

Though Linda tries to mediate the family’s conflicts, she—like Willy—is worn out and tired. Rather than confront reality and their problems, the men in the family weave in and out of what is, what was, what might have been, and what could be. By not voicing her concerns for Willy and her sons, Linda enables their behavior.

Willy’s struggle to support his family represents how unrealistic the American Dream can be. Though he believes that one’s image and being well-liked are enough to propel one to the top of the business world, he himself cannot prove this. He wants to be a man with great power and success, die with honor, and be remembered. He dubs this kind of romantic death “the death of a salesman.”

Depicting how dysfunctional the Loman family is, this novel encourages readers to understand that one can achieve true success by finding happiness in one’s career. The novel also reveals a haunting message; the human spirit can be crushed by the pursuit of wealth.

Death of a Salesman illustrates that viewing material wealth as the pinnacle of success can have tragic consequences. I recommend this book to high school students who are thinking about their own professional futures. I believe that this novel will challenge readers to reconsider their own ideas of success.