+ When World War II ended in 1945, the United States entered anextraordinary period of economic success. Non-farmingbusinesses flourished, and housing construction became aprosperous industry. However, the economic situation did not improve for thepoorest Americans. High inflation kept poorer people fromsaving money, and small farmers faced difficult times because ofadministrative policies that advanced larger, corporate farmers. The lowest-paid workers in the country were the migrantfarm workers, with sales clerks and unskilled laborers (suchas gas station attendants) not far above them. Happy, asales clerk, and Biff, a farm worker, represent this segmentof the American workforce in Death of a Salesman, and eachof them struggles to retain his dignity in the face of hislowly position in a largely affluent society.
Because Americans felt financially secure during thistime, they began using credit to purchase theproducts and services they desired.For the first time in history, automobiles were moreoften purchased on credit than with cash, and theuse of long-term credit, such as home mortgages,also rose dramatically.Willy Loman suffers from the effects of relying toomuch on credit, struggling to keep up his paymentswhile trying to provide the necessities for his family.
The post-war role of “superpower” led to greaterresponsibility for both the American government and theAmerican people. Suddenly we shouldered theresponsibility of keeping the world safe for democracy byprotecting it from the other world "superpower," thecommunist Soviet Union.Americans felt a need to prove that capitalism was betterthan communism during the Cold War era. Americans feltobligated to achieve economic success, both as a way ofdefeating the Soviets and as a way to show their gratitudefor the freedom they were privileged to possess by virtue ofliving in a democratic society. Willys preoccupation withhis financial status and his position in society reflectthis Cold War attitude.
Beginning with President Franklin D. Roosevelts New Deal,government became more influential in the daily lives ofAmericans. That, combined with the spread of masscommunication media, made Americans feel more like a large,connected society.With this new-found sense of belonging came a new-founddesire to conform to the accepted norms and values of themajority. Instead of being a nation of rugged individualists, theUnited States became a nation of people who wished foracceptance by their peers. Willy displays this wish foracceptance in his preoccupation with being "well liked,"which he views as the ultimate measure of success.
In The Lonely Crowd (1950) David Reisman argues thatprior to the Cold War era, Americans were driven by strictmorals and rules of conduct, but following World War II,they became more motivated by others perceptions ofthem. They altered their behavior according to acceptablesocial standards. Reisman classified the pre-Cold Warbehavior pattern as "inner-directed," and the postwarpattern as "other-directed.”Reisman maintains that "other-directed" people, likeWilly Loman, have no established sense of identitybecause they look to other people to determine theirself-image. This idea is reflected in Biff’s comment atthe end of the play when he says that Willy "didntknow who he was."
+QHQQ: What do the stockings Willy gives to “thewoman” instead of his wife, say about him?Q: Was it Willy’s own fault that he was a badperson, or external forces (father dying, Benbeing a not-so-good father figure, etc)?Q: How does “Death of a Salesman” show theAmerican Dream?Q: How do Happy, Biff, and Willy feel aboutthe “American Dream”?
+Linda says that “attention mustbe paid” to Willy despite hisfaults. Do you support Linda’sclaim or disagree with it? If Willyis a “fake,” as Biff calls him, thendoes he deserve respect?
+Examine how Biff and Hap’sadult lives show the influenceof their childhood as seen inthe flashback.
+Discuss how Miller communicatesWilly’s outlook and emotions to thereader. Note Willy’s words, hisappearance, Linda’s reactions, the setdesign, and other means.
+Describe how Willy has taken Ben’slife and his philosophy of the “jungle”as models for success. How hasWilly shaped that philosophy toencompass life as a salesman?
+HOMEWORK Read Arthur Miller: Death of a Salesman Act 2 and theRequiem 238-303 Post #29 Contrast Willy with Ben. Willy seems to think that he leads a lifesomehow like Ben’s. Besides the fact that Ben is rich and Willy isnot, what separates them? Describe why Willy believes committing suicide will provide a betterlife for his family. Will his plan work? Explore the difference between Biff and Hap’s reactions to Willy’sdeath. QHQ