Death of a Salesman premiered in 1949 on the brink of the 1950s, a decade of unprecedented consumerism and technical advances in America. Many innovations applied specifically to the home: it was in the 50s that the TV and the washing machine became common household objects. Miller expresses an ambivalence toward modern objects and the modern mindset. Although Willy Loman is a deeply flawed character, there is something compelling about his nostalgia. Modernity accounts for the obsolescence of Willy Loman's career - traveling salesmen are rapidly becoming out-of-date. Significantly, Willy reaches for modern objects, the car and the gas heater, to assist him in his suicide attempts.
In Death of a Salesman, woman are sharply divided into two categories: Linda and other. The men display a distinct Madonna/whore complex, as they are only able to classify their nurturing and virtuous mother against the other, easier women available (the woman with whom Willy has an affair and Miss Forsythe being two examples). The men curse themselves for being attracted to the whore-like women but is still drawn to them - and, in an Oedipal moment, Happy laments that he cannot find a woman like his mother. Women themselves are two-dimensional characters in this play. They remain firmly outside the male sphere of business, and seem to have no thoughts or desires other than those pertaining to men. Even Linda, the strongest female character, is only fixated on a reconciliation between her husband and her sons, selflessly subordinating herself to serve to assist them in their problems.
Madness is a dangerous theme for many artists, whose creativity can put them on the edge of what is socially acceptable. Miller, however, treats the quite bourgeois subject of the nuclear family, so his interposition of the theme of madness is startling. Madness reflects the greatest technical innovation of Death of a Salesman--its seamless hops back and forth in time. The audience or reader quickly realizes, however, that this is based on Willy's confused perspective. Willy's madness and reliability as a narrator become more and more of an issue as his hallucinations gain strength. The reader must decide for themselves how concrete of a character Ben is, for example, or even how reliable the plot and narrative structure are, when told from the perspective of someone as on the edge as Willy Loman.
Cult of Personality
One of Miller's techniques throughout the play is to familiarize certain characters by having them repeat the same key line over and over. Willy's most common line is that businessmen must be well-liked, rather than merely liked, and his business strategy is based entirely on the idea of a cult of personality. He believes that it is not what a person is able to accomplish, but who he knows and how he treats them that will get a man ahead in the world. This viewpoint is tragically undermined not only by Willy's failure, but also by that of his sons, who assumed that they could make their way in life using only their charms and good looks, rather than any more solid talents.
Nostalgia / regret
The dominant emotion throughout this play is nostalgia, tinged with regret. All of the Lomans feel that they have made mistakes or wrong choices. The technical aspects of the play feed this emotion by making seamless transitions back and forth from happier, earlier times in the play. Youth is more suited to the American dream, and Willy's business ideas do not seem as sad or as bankrupt when he has an entire lifetime ahead of him to prove their merit. Biff looks back nostalgic for a time that he was a high school athletic hero, and, more importantly, for a time when he did not know that his father was a fake and a cheat, and still idolized him.
Tied up intimately with the idea of the American dream is the concept of opportunity. America claims to be the land of opportunity, of social mobility. Even the poorest man should be able to move upward in life through his own hard work. Miller complicates this idea of opportunity by linking it to time, and illustrating that new opportunity does not occur over and over again. Bernard has made the most of his opportunities; by studying hard in school, he has risen through the ranks of his profession and is now preparing to argue a case in front of the Supreme Court. Biff, on the other hand, while technically given the same opportunities as Bernard, has ruined his prospects by a decision that he made at the age of eighteen. There seems to be no going back for Biff, after he made the fatal decision not to finish high school.
In a play which rocks back and forth through different time periods, one would normally expect to witness some growth in the characters involved. Not so in Death of a Salesmen, where the various members of the Loman family are stuck with the same character flaws, in the same personal ruts throughout time. For his part, Willy does not recognize that his business principles do not work, and continues to emphasize the wrong qualities. Biff and Happy are not only stuck with their childhood names in their childhood bedrooms, but also are hobbled by their childhood problems: Biff's bitterness toward his father and Happy's dysfunctional relationship with women. In a poignant moment at the end of the play, Willy tries to plant some seeds when he realizes that his family has not grown at all over time.
Death of a Salesman Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Death of a Salesman is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
Themes is Death of a Salesman include gender relations, the dangers of modernity, insanity, nostalgia, and opportunity. For a detailed look at these themes, simply follow the link to Gradesaver's theme page for the unit.