July 23, 2013

Death of a Salesman

At times I was almost stunned by Arthur Miller’s pen, his gift for inking his imagination and making fiction so believable. The American playwright wrote Death of a Salesman in 1949, a story, it would seem to me, of/for today as much as it was then.

Daniel Mullen, a faraway friend in the state of Virginia, recommended I read it some weeks ago. I told him later, after devouring Act 1, I was caught off guard by how it resonated with me, how it played me like an instrument, the simplicity of the story, the depth of the characters (even if I didn’t realize it at first), the tumultuous family dynamics.

A tragedy to be sure, Death of a Salesman captures the absurdity, the insistence, of the American Dream, the zealous and hazardous optimism of mid-twentieth-century middle class.

After working his ass off his entire life for the same company, Willy Loman, a salesman and delusionally optimistic, now late in age and strapped for cash ironically, finds himself estranged from what actually matters at the end of the day: family and himself. Arguably, at the worse possible time Willy dies.

Biff, the eldest of Willy’s two sons, who had anything but a straightforward, healthy relationship with his father, in graveside honesty, wraps up, “He had the wrong dreams. All, all, wrong.” The younger son, Happy, passionately retorts, “Don’t say that!”

Biff responds, “He never knew who he was.”

In one line, one puff, Willy’s life is rendered vanity. Not just a bitter, insensitive conclusion from a critical son, I imagine this was the source of Biff’s inspiration - a man, according to Willy who had been perpetually caught in "finding himself" - to move beyond his father’s petty dream, a dream that rose out of a false-self, an exaggerated, untrue version of who he was. A distorted self, a distorted dream.

I finished Miller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama in two sittings. I recommend you do the same.