Arthur Miller in his masterpiece, Death of a Salesman, divulges diverse issues running from American culture, values, and heritage among other pertinent issues in the society. Nevertheless, the definition of an American family stands out clearly through the development of characters like Willy, the father, Linda the mother, and their two sons, Biff and Happy. This is an ideal middle working-class family and through it, Miller gives insights into what an American family looks like. Moreover, the play exposits how the American dream affects American families as people try to chase this ever-elusive dream that in reality, its realization remains surreal. Muller paints a picture of an American family as one institution that has been ripped apart, full of misunderstandings spiced with poor communication habits, poor upbringing ground for children that is constantly taunted by the ugly face of infidelity. From the play, it is evident that the American family calls for dire reforms with the sincere embracing of reality as opposed to fantasies sold to people in the name of the American dream.
Willy, the protagonist and the genesis of the conflict in his family, is a tired salesman who has missed it all in life trying to chase popularity through hard work and sacrifice. Unfortunately, he wants to instill these same failed principles to his son, Biff, who has a problem getting a well-paying job. Many fathers would want their children to have good things in life and Willy is no different. In this case, Willy wants Biff to buy his version of pursuing the American dream to have enough material things for the family. Biff, as a son he must obey his father; nevertheless, he does not have to buy everything from him. In this confusion, Biff decides to lie to his father on numerous accounts and this earns him the title, ‘phony little fake’ from Willy. This never-ending conflict between Willy and Biff depicts the depth of conflict between parents and children in the American family. Biff finally, speaking of Willy concludes, “He never knew who he was” (Act 2). Perhaps, Willy did not know who he was; nevertheless, even if he knew, Biff would not notice because of the raging conflict between the two. Miller here depicts a conflict, a conflict that might emanate from different things like preferences or even love. One of the reasons why Biff cannot understand Willy is because he loves Linda, her mother and he cannot stand Willy cheating on her, which brings in the other aspect of the American family; infidelity.
After Biff spots Willy with another woman in Boston, fury rages in his heart to a point of burning all that represented Willy in his room. When he seeks to know why Willy chose to cheat on Linda, the issue of ‘justified’ infidelity in the American family surfaces. Willy says, “She’s nothing to me, Biff. I was lonely, I was lonely” (Act 2). This is an excuse, not a reason to cheat on one’s spouse. If anything, there can never be a reason to cheat on one’s spouse; however, the notion of infidelity-free family borders fantasy and Miller is only trying to be honest with the American couples. Infidelity is a ghost that has haunted the marriage institution for a long time; unfortunately, most families end up breaking or living in a crisis like the Lomans and Miller uses this depiction to warn people nothing good can come out of such unhealthy practices. Apart from infidelity, Miller defines the American family as incompetent when it comes to raising children.
Willy is never present to bring up his family, as a father should. Whenever he shows up, he is either fantasizing or picking a fight with one of his family members. After Linda tells him of Biff’s unbecoming behavior of petty theft like stealing a football, he dismisses it as “examples of the initiative” (Act 1). This is ludicrous given the fact that a father should correct his child and lead him/her to the right way. Miller does not suggest that all fathers are bad per se; however, he cannot afford to overlook this fact; there are some ‘bad’ fathers in American families. Altogether, every dark cloud has a positive aspect and Linda epitomizes this unseen benefit amongst the Lomans. She represents family solidarity grounded on love and loyalty.
After Biff gets home infuriated by Willy’s infidelity, Linda lovingly says to him, “Biff, dear, if you don’t have any feeling for him, then you can’t have any feeling for me” (Act 1). These are words of love; Linda believes she and Willy are one, and hatred towards one means hatred towards both. Even though many American families experience hardships, there is always a ray of hope, especially from mothers who serve as the tie that binds. If it were not for Linda, the Lomans would be no more. Miller in this case insinuates that women play a major role in holding the American families together. In conclusion, Miller, in his masterpiece Death of a Salesman, defines the American family as an institution caught up in controversy, infidelity, and irresponsibility. Nevertheless, during all this darkness, there is hope; hope that lies in the American mothers of whom without, it could be hard to define the American family.
Miller, Arthur. “Death of a Salesman.” New York; Punch Productions, 1985.