Critical Theory Analysis of the Death of a Salesman

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One of the most common writing styles is a tragedy. It blends tales of human suffering with a sense of viewer satisfaction. The Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller is a dramatic play about the life of a failed salesman, Willy Loman, and his rash judgment of his family’s success (Miller 9-16). The play is classified as a tragedy because it possesses the core features of the tragedy genre. Willy believes that being well-liked is more critical than achievement and that being well-liked is a road to success. He has then taught this flawed acuity to his sons, Biff and Happy, and his wife devotedly supports the idea. Biff and Happy hold Willy to unbearably great morals, and he does his best to live due to these morals. The impacts are that Willy denies a naked reality of his not having achieved anything important. These fake dreams have led to Willy losing touch with him and realism. This play is the story of the American family depicted by love for each other and Willy’s eroding love for the American Dream. The American Dream serves to be one of the themes in the play.

Arthur Miller explores the human nature by identifying the main character, Willy, as a person dissatisfied with his own life, which leads to his tragic death. The play is based on two acts. The first act reveals Willy’s returning home tired from a road trip. He is worried, since he is having a hard time remembering things as well as staying engrossed at the present. His wife, Linda, cheers him up that it is just a mental fatigue and suggests that he should request for a New York job rather than traveling every week. First, Willy hesitates, since his boss Howard may not listen to him, but Linda encourages him to give it a try and talk to Howard about his achievements, which Willy agrees to do in the morning. The Act 1 ends harmoniously though; it looks like an argument between Biff and Willy to be erupted, if the play continues, hence, they go to bed.

On the other hand, Act II starts in the morning, where Biff is pursuing gainful employment and Willy has gained more confidence and optimism than in the first Act. Willy is cordial to Linda, and he neither exaggerates things, nor is affected by happier times’ memories. Actually, nothing has changed, since his mood immediately alters with his wife’s mentioning the bills. The climax of the play is when Biff reveals himself to his father, Willy, as a failure and begs him to give up his dream on him. Distressed, Willy commits suicide to Biff to be able to take his insurance money and fulfill his dream.

Arthur Miller introduces three broad themes of the play: contradiction, order versus disorder and denial. The contradiction is revealed by Willy’s behavior, which is inconsistent throughout the play. The order versus disorder occurs when Willy retreats to the past to deny the present. Every member of Loman family who is living in a cycle of denial depicts the theme of denial.

Thesis Statement: The Death of a Salesman is a classic tragedy, cutting the critiques of capitalism and the empty promises of the American Dream.

Repression, Oedipal Complex and Characters Behaviors Critics

Psychoanalysis helps us to understand the reason as to why characters’ act differently. This criticism focuses mostly on the family (Tyson 239-297). The play, the Death of a Salesman, is psychoanalytic due to the problems faced by Willy and his dysfunctional family. Willy is angry with his older son, Biff, because at 35 years old he has failed in life according to his father’s deductions. Additionally, Willy restrains the current memories to the happy memories he is used to share with his sons. Willy also represses his thought at the time he goes to Alaska with his brother at a diamond mine, which could have made his family better-off. This repression problem is described in a psychoanalysis perspective to be a pleasurable moment with people’s seeking for pleasure and avoiding pain. Willy is significantly affected by suppression of his principle to be taken as an example to Americans, since salesmanship hard work has abetted to the psychological regression. Whenever Willy faces regression, he would talk to himself and have hallucinations, which persuade him to be right. They make him believe to be Loman, the great businessperson, who is well-liked by many people.

Despite Willy being abandoned by his father at a young age, he still emphasizes on his sons whom he admires to be his father and they are also proud of him. The rivalry between Willy and his brother, Charley is also explained by psychoanalysis. The pride in Willy makes him reject the job offer his brother has given him, despite him being fired and in need of money. Additionally, Willy makes Biff compete with Bernard at school. He forces Biff realize to be better with no academics when he has discovered that he could not win over Bernard in such deal.

Willy denies his sons to have problems due to his fear of his ing blamed for the things he has fulfilled if things come back to him. Willy avoids unpleasing things, and he keeps on selecting only pleasing moments. For example, he boostes to be loved by everyone, and remembers Biff’s being a football player. Furthermore, Willy avoids situations, things, or people who can remind him of the past. This is illustrated when he finds Linda mending stockings, and he yells at her to stop doing so. A stocking given to a woman proves to Biff that his father has cheated on her mother.

Linda blames others for her husband misfortunes, then, she is determined to bring her husband back to a good state and fix their broken family. She fears to be abandoned, hence deciding to stick with her husband despite his bad behaviors. Happy experienced a sibling rivalry with Biff. His father the same way he loves Biff does not love him, therefore, he attempts to show him to be someone successful. The Oedipal complex may have resulted to Happy having affairs with other women. The oedipal complex is when a boy is fixated on his mother to contest with his father for parental care. This makes the son feel that he has established a rivalry with his father over his mother. Happy sleeping with engaged women is an act of expressing his unsympathetic feelings to his father who hates him.

Towards the end of the play, Willy commits suicide because he realizes he could not achieve the “American Dream”; characterized by wealth and success. He discovers his life to be all about failure, hence, deciding to kill himself out of love for his family. The American Dream destroyes him psychologically, and since Biff do not respect him anymore, he feels that they will be better off without him. He knows that crashing the car hence killing himself will lead to the insurance paying his family so that they can live a better life. This is also an illustration of the oedipal complex since the responsibility of caring for Linda will move from the father to the sons because Willy died because Biff failed to respect him. This can be viewed as a case where a son kills his father to care for his mother.

Criticism Based on Capitalism, Imperialism, and Classism

This play is enriched in fundamental Marxist beliefs and ideologies. Marxist criticism relies on maternal production, which is used to determine attitudes, beliefs, ideas, and values that establish the perception of a given class. Marxist bases his arguments on dialectical materialism. According to him, capitalism can lead to greed, then, he advocates for communism. From his view, the means of production are to be handed to the people to operate them and not on those few who owned them. People would be happy when they do work with their own two hands. Marxist beliefs are revealed by the characters of Biff and Willy. Willy is consumed by capitalistic ideals when he views money and power to be the most important. Willy is so much engaged in treasure and public standing, that he overlooks essential things in life. He seems to have a distorted notion of reality when he said, “be liked, and you will never want.” Despite Willy working hard to succeed, his prejudiced notion that reputation brings success eventually leads to his downfall. This idea of being successful just due to his bieng liked blinded him not to achieve what he wanted.

Marxist is also related to the corruptness of capitalism within obsession of materialistic and consumerism which can lead to own destruction. This is revealed by Willy, who is much obsessed with money, social standing, and economic success which led to his ultimate death. The relationship between Howard and Willy proved that the dominating group dominated the subordinate groups. Howard would never acknowledge anything good that Willy did despite naming him to his father. Willy wanted to be offered a job in New York, but Howard remained impassive and fired him despite being a successful businessman when he worked for Howard’s father. Howard told him he does not want Willy to represent them and he has been waiting for a long time to tell him that, “I think you need a good long rest,” (Miller 59)

Criticism Based on Patriarchy

The feminist belief that men and women should be treated equally with same rights and responsibilities. The feminism advocates for organized activities that support women’s interests and rights, and also for economic, social, and political equality of all sexes. The play also focuses mostly on men since it is centered around men with only one woman mentioned by name, Linda. The plot also surrounds Willy and his sons, Biff and Happy discovering the workstation, which suggests that there is no place for a woman in the office. In this play, women are not treated well. This is illustrated when Biff refers to Linda as, “Pal,” and refers to Willy as, “the boss” (Taylor 123). This shows that men are viewed as the head of the households.

The use of symbols in the play such as Linda mending the stockings suggests that women are considered in second place, and their needs are not more important than those of me (Miller 53). Willy is portrayed mistreating his wife Linda, by cutting her off without finishing her sentences, and showing her that her opinions are not important to him. Nowadays, such action cannot be tolerated by contemporary feminists since they would criticize and rebuke Willy for lack of respect towards her wife.

Gender oppression is portrayed where Biff has been described to disregard women by separating himself from them, he shows little interest in relationships, has a tainted view on women from seeing his father’s mistress, and he shy and acts cold to women. The gender difference is revealed when Willy and his sons ignore Linda’s ideas and guidance. They also cut off her conversations or act as if she has not said a word. Additionally, the mistress barely talks about in the play despite having a significant impact on Biff future and also changes his respect for Willy when she finds her with her father. On the other hand, Biff’s old boss Barley is talked about in length, and he barely has any impact on Biff’s life. Gender inequality is revealed in the play whereby, in Act II, Miss Forsythe at the restaurant, the only purpose was to show to the other women that Happy has skills in womanizing where she was not rewarded indicating that it was her job.

Happy describes himself as a person who has an, “Overdeveloped sense of competition,” when regarding women (Miler 15). This shows that women object to being won and after Happy has his way with a lady he brags that he does not want her anymore: “But I went and ruined her, and furthermore I can’t get rid of her.” (Taylor 15)


To sum up, to achieve a conclusion regarding social issues and social criticism would be challenging. This play has been designed to prove or disapprove categorizing the play as a social one. The main message of this play is that one can achieve the American Dream if he/she has the right perception towards it. Willy places all his faith on a material and social aspect of American Dream, and he loses direction towards working for the dream, which leads to his suicide. The characters of Willy and his family are used to deliver the awful results of unmistaken devotion to the American dream.

Works Cited

Miller, Arthur. The Death of a Salesman (rev. ed.). Penguin, 1996.

Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today : A User-Friendly Guide (3rd ed.). Routledge, 2014.

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