Arthur Miller’s iconic play Death of a Salesman is rife with symbolism, rich characters that welcome in-depth study and debate, relationships between different characters that warrant close examination and themes and motives that range from statements about the American Dream and socioeconomics to the importance of place, feminism, gender roles and familial relationships. One of the most prominent themes in Death of a Salesman is that of betrayal. Arthur Miller thoroughly and effectively examines betrayal and the different forms it can take. Betrayal and abandonment, a form of a betrayal, characterize nearly all of the significant relationships in the play, particularly the relationships between Willy Loman and other characters in the drama. Willy is also significantly betrayed by his idea of the American dream and modernity or society as a whole. Miller especially utilizes symbolism to emphasize and examine these betrayals. Some characters are guilty of betraying and others are betrayed; most fit both of these categories. To some extent, Arthur Miller’s own personal experiences or observations undoubtedly fueled his inclusion of betrayal and abandonment in this 1949 play.
Certainly, Arthur Miller’s early life and the Great Depression following the collapse of the stock market when Miller was a teenager greatly influenced some of the premise and themes of Death of a Salesman. Arthur Miller’s father, Isidore Miller, arrived to the United States from Eastern Europe in 1891. Although illiterate, Isidore began working at a sewing machine for his Jewish family’s garment business before becoming a salesman. He began to accumulate wealth, married a girl from an Uptown Jewish family and eventually started his own garment business. Arthur was born in 1915 and enjoyed a luxurious home in Manhattan, complete with hired help, although Arthur was considered the “odd one out” of the family, less athletic an academically-capable than his older brother and although he eventually found himself excelling at sports in high school he still failed to achieve good marks in high school (Carson 2).
Like many of his contemporaries, Isidore Miller invested his entire savings and much of his capital in the stock market. He was left virtually bankrupt when the stock market in 1929 and the Miller family was forced to adapt. Arthur Miller’s family moved into a cramped house in Brooklyn and Arthur, as a teenager, had to share a bedroom with his maternal grandfather. The Brooklyn Arthur moved out to as a teenager is the same Brooklyn that Willy Loman remembers fondly in Death of a Salesman. Brooklyn also hosts two of Miller’s other plays: Broken Glass and A View from the Bridge. Steven A. Marino discusses Arthur Miller’s feelings about Brooklyn and its use as the setting for the play in a critical essay:
Miller often describes Brooklyn as if it were a rural, frontier outpost, and it certainly must have seemed so to the boy who had lived his thirteen years in Manhattan and to his family whose financial and cultural lives had embraced the city (87).
In the same essay, Marino provides quotes from a piece that Arthur Miller wrote for Holiday magazine in 1955 about his teenage years:
As a flat forest of great elms through which ran the elevated Culver Line to Coney Island, two and a half miles distantThere were streets, of course, but the few houses had well-trodden trails running out their back doors which connected with each other and must have looked from the air like a cross section of a mole run; these trails were much more used than streets, which were as unpaved as any in the Wild West and just as muddy.
The collapse of the stock market at an age when Arthur Miller was still in the midst of his formative years but old enough to understand most of what was happening around him had a significant, enduring influence on his work. The familial tension of the new world he found himself in also made for excellent study. Neil Carson’s biography of Miller describes his family under the new circumstances:
His father, whose success in business had been so astonishing, seemed overwhelmed by the catastrophe. The severely straitened circumstances of the family also affected his mother who became increasingly bitter and critical of what she considered to be her husband’s foolhardiness in investing so heavily in the market. His brother, Kermit, characteristically generous, dropped out of university to help his father revive the family business. Arthur, on the other hand, resolved not to go down with the general collapse, although what he could do to escape was still not apparent (4).
The success of Arthur Miller’s 1947 play All My Sons transformed his life. A ten percent share of the play’s gross receipts netted him two thousand dollars per week for about a year, the play found its way into international productions and landed a lucrative movie contract. He bought a house in Brooklyn and a farm in Connecticut. After starting but not finishing a few projects, Miller was inspired by an encounter with an uncle of his who came to see a version of All My Sons and did not offer comments on the play but instead told Miller that his son, Arthur Miller’s cousin, was “doing really well.” Miller began to examine this sense of competition or rivalry and preoccupation with success, interviewed his cousin and write Death of a Salesman while on his farm in Connecticut (Carson 20).
It was the security of his position that allowed Miller to distance himself from the character of Willy Loman and write Loman in the way he did. In an interview, Miller said, “Willy Loman is there because I could see beyond him” (Gelb 199). Miller’s relationship apart from Willy Loman also grants the audience sufficient distance from the character and makes it possible to better analyze Willy and his actions and relationships.
As the main character at the center of the play, Willy Loman is party to many of the betrayals that pepper the various relationships between different characters.
Observers of the play discover, through Willy’s interaction with the apparition of his dead brother, Ben, that Willy was abandoned by his father and brother when he was less than four years old. Willy’s memories from that time are few and he desperately begs Ben for any information about their father. According to Ben, their father was a flute maker and seller and the family would travel around the country in a wagon selling the flutes. Ben adds that their father was a “Great inventorwith one gadget he made more in a week than a man like you could make in a lifetime.” A betrayed, abandoned son and brother, Willy tries desperately to impress the revered Ben with his sons, selling them as “rugged” and possessing “nerves of iron”—traits Willy considers necessary to achieve success in Ben’s version of the “American dream”-- and small projects he has accomplished around the house and yard. In the same scene he makes fun of Charley and Bernard for their lack of these characteristics, further setting up Charley and Bernard as foils for Willy and Biff. Willy attempts to open up to Ben as the apparition of Ben is leaving, again betraying Willy both by abandoning him and reinforcing his parenting goals:
BEN: I’ll stop by on my way back to Africa.
WILLY, longingly: Can’t you stay a few days? You’re just what I need, Ben, because I—I have a fine position here, but I—well, Dad left when I was such a baby and I never had a chance to talk to him and I still feel—kind of temporary about myself.
BEN: I’ll be late for my train.
They are at opposite ends of the stage.
WILLY: Ben, my boys—can’t we talk? They’d go into the jaws of hell for me, see, but I—
BEN: William, you’re being first-rate with your boys. Outstanding, manly chaps!
WILLY, hanging on to his words: Oh, Ben, that’s good to hear! Because sometimes I’m afraid that I’m not teaching them the right kind of—Ben, how should I teach them?
BEN, giving great weight to each word, and with a certain vicious audacity: William, when I walked into the jungle, I was seventeen. When I walked out I was twenty-one. And, by God, I was rich! He goes off into darkness around the right corner of the house.
WILLY:was rich! That’s just the spirit I want to imbue them with! To walk into a jungle! I was right! I was right! I was right!
Even Willy’s surroundings, his neighborhood in Brooklyn and modernity have betrayed him as time has passed. The house he has nearly finished paying off a mortgage on is, at the time of the play, surrounded by apartment buildings, presumably the same ones that were being built when the boys were young. Brian Parker, in his 1988 essay “Point of View in Death of a Salesman” astutely observes that “Willy Loman is trapped in a society which prevents him establishing anything to outlast himself, ruining the lives of his sons as well as his own.” This betrayal by society and modernity makes the symbolic use of vegetation, especially trees, resonate especially. Early in the play Willy reminisces with Linda about the way their neighborhood in Brooklyn used to be and bemoans its current state. He says “they boxed us in hereThere’s not a breath of fresh air in the neighborhood. The grass don’t grow any more” and reminds Linda of the “two beautiful elm trees” eventually cut down by the builder of the neighboring apartments and the fragrant flowers that are no longer present. Arthur Miller directs specifically that the stage lighting involve a dappled green leafy pattern whenever Willy is remembering.
In his 1955 writing for Holiday magazine, Miller, in words not wholly unlike those of Willy’s, laments the physical changes that Brooklyn has undergone:
Inevitable changes had helped to destroy so much that was human and lovely in my neighborhoodThe woods were gone now and there were houses everywhere and even the last lot left to play football on was turned into a fenced-in junk yardIt was a village, and the peopled died like the elms did, and I do not know those who live in their houses now
It is also no coincidence that Willy names watching tree-filled scenery as the cause for his driving accidents, the jungle is the place Ben enters and returns from wealthy, the opportunity Ben offers to Willy in Alaska involves looking after timber and Willy shouts “The woods are burning” in panic (Parker 27). The seeds Willy hope to plant in futility—he knows nothing will grow in the yard—return even more desperately after Biff and Happy leave Willy behind at the restaurant near the play’s end and Willy gets directions from the waiter, Stanley, to hardware stores where he may be able to find seeds. Willy exits the restaurant, saying “Oh, I’d better hurry. I’ve got to get some seedsgot to get some seeds, right away. Nothing’s planted. I don’t have a thing in the ground.”
The use of the flute music, as directed by Arthur Miller, which appears throughout the play, and all other music, including whistling, becomes even more important for the story and to the audience once the audience becomes privy to the knowledge that Willy’s father was a flute maker. Barbara Lounsberry, in her discussion of expressionism in Death of a Salesman (55), delves into an examination of the flute music and whistling. According to Lounsberry:
The father and Ben’s themes, representing selling (out) and abandonment are thus in opposition to the small and fine theme of nature that begins and ends the play. A whistling motif elaborates this essential conflict. Whistling is often done by those contentedly at work. It frequently also accompanies outdoor activities. A whistler in an office would be a distraction.
Thus, Miller effectively engages the audience with the symbolic flute music, deepening the emotions behind the abandonment and betrayal Willy has felt through the actions of his father and Ben, whose presence is accompanied by a specific idyllic melody. The whistling of Howard Wagner’s daughter on the recording is practically tormenting Willy, or at least the audience that is familiar with the role of the music in the play and Willy’s view of whistling, especially in the workplace.
Just as Willy’s relationship (or lack of relationship) with his brother and father are characterized by betrayal and abandonment, betrayal also plays a significant part in Willy’s other familial relationships.
The most blatant, acute and broadly-recognizable instance of betrayal in Death of a Salesman is perhaps Wally’s infidelity. The audience is exposed to the knowledge of Willy’s betrayal of this relationship when he is in the kitchen with Linda discussing his insecurity about his appearance with her while she is meaningfully darning stockings. Willy recalls an instance from his affair with a woman, who remains unnamed through the play, when the mistress offers encouraging words about having picked him over all other salesman because he was sweet and had a sense of humor. Willy was able to fully provide for this woman as their relationship dictated—the only thing she is presented as wanting is stockings—something he finds himself incapable of doing for Linda and his sons. His guilt at his infidelity is evident when he notices Linda mending stockings, telling her with passion to not mend stockings and to throw out the stockings.
Linda’s betrayal of Willy is far more subtle but still exists. She is aware of Willy’s struggles, confesses to Biff that Willy has been lost in his memories of late and admits that she knows that Willy has been contemplating suicide. Linda fails Willy by not forcing him to abandon his illusions and standing by when he fails to discipline the boys or prepare them appropriately for maturity and she does not confront him about the inquiry into his driving accident or the rubber hosing in the basement.
Linda’s confused betrayal-through-ignorance makes for one of the most moving moments in Death of a Salesman, as she is responsible for the last dialogue in the play:
Forgive me, dear. I can’t cry. I don’t know what it is, but I can’t cry. I don’t understand it. Why did you ever do that? Help me, Willy, I can’t cry. It seems to me that you’re just on another trip. I keep expecting you. Willy, dear, I can’t cry. Why did you do it? I search and search and I search, and I can’t understand it, Willy. I made the last payment on the house today. Today, dear. And there’ll be nobody home. A sob rises in her throat. We’re free and clear. Sobbing more fully, released: We’re free. Biff comes slowly toward her. We’re freeWe’re free
Willy and Biff have the most combative relationship in Death of a Salesman. In this father-son dynamic, Willy alternates between admiring Biff, putting him up on a pedestal, and expressing his disappointment in Biff. Before Biff even arrives on stage, the dialogue between Willy and Linda about their son expresses Willy’s complex feelings about Biff:
Biff Loman is lost. In the greatest country in the world a young man with such—personal attractiveness, gets lost. And such a hard worker. There’s one thing about Biff—he’s not lazy.
Willy considers Biff’s failure to achieve greatness a betrayal. Like his father, Biff is torn between two versions of the American dream. He longs to return to the west, buy a ranch and spend his time working hard and living out in the open, a version of the American dream reminiscent of what the audience knows of the lives of Willy’s father and brother. However, he still feels pressure to succeed as a salesman, spending a significant part of the play building himself and his father up for a meeting he does not even have scheduled with Bill Oliver. Trapped in limbo between these two versions of the American, Biff finds himself confused and develops the habit of betraying the trust of his employers by stealing. Willy betrays Biff in this regard by failing to discipline him appropriately from a young age, not taking it seriously when Biff steals from the football program or the neighboring construction site and instead taking these actions as signs that Biff is in healthy pursuit of the exploring, westward-looking American dream. He also fails to guide Biff to maturity well when it comes to academics. Willy additionally betrayed Biff at the same time he betrayed his wife and the shock of Biff’s discovery that Willy was unfaithful prevented Biff from conducting a careful examination of his own actions, taking summer school math and effectively setting himself on a different course than he is on during the play.
One of the most resonating betrayals in Death of a Salesman is Willy’s unpleasant exit from the company for which he has worked for over three decades. He enters the office of his boss, Howard Wagner, while Howard is paying more attention to a recording machine, symbolic of the mechanistic way Howard and society have come to view business. Howard fires Willy, who begs him for his job without a shred of dignity.
Miller, in writing and organizing the three scenes around Willy in Howard’s office, Charley’s office and Frank’s chop-house, where his sons physically abandon him, swiftly takes the audience through a wrenching series of betrayals as Willy grows more transparently desperate and frantic. Willy, even in his last actions, is setting himself for post-mortem betrayal. The life insurance company is aware that his car wrecks are anything but accidents and is not likely to award his family the payout despite his years of loyally paying premiums. Willy, in committing suicide, is also betraying Linda, who had fewer concerns about their monetary situation or economic and geographical status than he did and built her version of the American dream around Willy and her household. Willy has not been a pawn, completely innocent and ignorant, but instead betrayed himself, in a way, by aligning himself with the wrong values or not committing completely to an ideal and working for it.
Carson, Neil. Modern Dramatists: Arthur Miller. 2nd ed. Hampshire, England: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. Print.
Cohn, Ruby. “The Articulate Victims of Arthur Miller.” Modern Critical Interpretations: Death of a Salesman. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988, 39-46. Print.
Gelb, Philip. “Morality and the Modern Drama: Arthur Miller.” Educational Theatre Journal October 1958: 199. Electronic.
Lounsberry, Barbara. “‘The Woods are Burning’: Expressionism in Death of a Salesman.” Approaches to Teaching Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Ed. Matthew C. Roudane. New York: The Modern Language Association of America., 1995. 52-61. Print.
Marino, Stephen A. “It’s Brooklyn, I know, but we hunt too”: The Image of the Borough in Death of a Salesman.” “The Salesman Has a Birthday: Essays Celebrating the Fiftieth Anniversary of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Ed. Stephen A. Marino. Lanham: University Press of America, 2000. 87-98. Print.
Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. New York: The Viking Press, 1949. Print.
Parker, Brian. “Point of View in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.” Modern Critical Interpretations: Death of a Salesman. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988. 22-38. Print.