This review contains spoilers.
I had read this book years ago but this second reading brought home its significance for me. I suppose one has to have accumulated years of experience and wisdom to appreciate what Miller was driving at.
Death of a Salesman is about Willy Loman, his wife Linda, his sons Biff and Happy and some other characters who briefly enter into the story. Willy Loman is a traveling salesman who has created a myth about his life to his family.
He wants his wife to believe that he is successful and sales are doing great but he's tired of all the traveling. Linda encourages him to speak to his boss about working locally. They've got bills to pay and there's a lot of pressure. He is not the salesman he was.
What mostly torments Willy is that his dreams rested on his sons, mainly Biff, who was going to be a football star. Biff was on the verge of getting a full scholarship to a big college for football but he failed a final exam in high school thus rendering his dream, no pun intended, academic.
At the time of the story's opening, Biff has just returned from living out west where he worked various jobs such as ranching.
Willy feels as though he's been handed a raw deal. He doesn't care that Biff works or can live independently from him. He wants him to dream the same dream Willy has been dreaming all these years. He wants Biff to become a big shot success story in New York.
There is constant friction between Willy and Biff because of their opposing viewpoints about life. Willy wants Biff to recreate the smashed dream and Biff knows it's over.
Miller exposed a profound truth in this play. There are people who would rather live a lie than face the truth. That's what Willy is determined to do. He's determined to play the role of the successful salesman and he wants Biff to play along. He doesn't bother with Happy because Happy has already made the decision to think no deeper than the next woman to sleep with and bottle to get drunk by.
Biff started out the same way as Happy. They both grew up selfish and irresponsible, neither believing they needed to exercise self-control, deal honestly with others or show any kind of sense of honor. When natural consequences followed, so did their rage at the "bad luck" that, in their minds, was foisted on them by other people.
Biff refused to study for his high school exams because he didn't want to. His cousin, Bernard, tried to tutor him, warned him that he wasn't going to pass. Biff didn't listen, he was going to be a football star and football stars don't live by the rules lesser mortals abide by.
When Biff failed his exam, he went running to his father to make it right. What comes next is the turning point for Biff. He makes the horrible discovery that his father is not the man he thought he was. He had never quavered in faith that his father knew what was best. With this myth shattered Biff runs off.
When he finally returns it is to confront his father and break hold of the lie his father clings to and has wrapped around his sons. He realizes that his dad is too far gone. His father cannot accept that none of his aspirations will ever come to pass. He's a worn out, useless salesman that receives no respect from his employers. Happy is a shallow punk. Linda is tormented over her husbands unhappiness but he knows he's betrayed her so he is nasty and disrespectful to her to hide from his own duplicity.
Only Biff has awoken and he tries to tell his father the truth.
Biff: And I never got anywhere because you blew me so full of hot air I could never stand taking orders from anybody!
Willy can't hear what his son is saying to him because he's too far gone. A friend told me once that when we're young we have a choice over how we think or act but when we play a role for so many years we become a passenger on the train. There's no going back. That's where Willy arrived. He could no longer face reality.
But somewhere in the recesses of his mind he must have known the truth. He decided once for all to make money for his family and get everyone to care about him.
His plan only partly works. After several unsuccessful attempts at crashing his car he finally manages to kill himself in a wreck. The insurance pays off his debts. But it raises him in no one's eyes. At the funeral his wife asks why nobody came.
The play does not leave the reader completely bereft of hope. While Happy is determined to live on and "beat this racket" for his father's sake, Biff finally understands and moves on.
The story implicitly asks the question, why are we here? What is the purpose of our existence? To become a "success"? How is that word defined? If this world all there is, then work hard, make lots of money, use your talents and be the best you can be.
Some religions, such as Buddhism or Hinduism, believe in higher realms and we must stop caring about this world in order to achieve the next level.
Christianity believes that all we do in this world should honor our Creator. And not only should we honor him but have personal relationship with Him, more than even our spouse, children or closest friends. We strive to be the best in this world but only as a means to an ultimate destination to live with God and enjoy Him forever.
That is my perspective and it trivializes any worldly dream. What I saw in Miller's play was a fear of reality because of the hopelessness it produced. As long as the characters could chase something they could forget everything else. Because without God, what's left?