A Critical Analysis of Capitalism in Death of a Salesman (Reflective Essay)

              Slavoj Zizek philosophizes about the depredations of the capitalist system in his books The Spectre is Still Roaming Around, The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology, and NATO as the Left Hand of God. He describes the tendencies of capitalism to materialize everything down to its worth in a commodity-analysis as the root of all the atrocities that occur in the world. This correlates to the central conflicts in the play Death of A Salesman in the sense that there is a very definite corruption of the American dream as something that trivializes everything besides the objective of obtaining more money. Arthur Miller uses the dialogue, conflict, and characterization of Willy and Happy as tools to convey that the ideals that Americans tote as the American Dream actually create a disillusioned society filled with poverty, suffering, and a general loss of purpose.

            Most of the dialogue in the play is oriented around the objective of schemes to get rich, keeping up with the work load, and paying for items. There are countless times where Linda goes down the list of utilities, appliances, and miscellaneous items that have bills waiting to be paid. The entire family also is always immersed in the next way that the future can be better in the realm of monetary affairs. Intricate plans, such as Biff asking a sports store owner that he never knew on good terms for a large sum of money to start up a boxing tour, are laid out time and again but never come to fruition. These are examples of the get-rich quick mindset that is entrenched in minds of the majority of Americans. When these plans do not pan out, a little bit of disillusion sets into the consciousness of the subjects but it is quickly forgotten until the next failure, thus setting up a vicious cycle of hope and failure. Every time that Biff comes home, he is questioned by Willy about the type of job that he has and he returns with the repetitive reply of “I’m looking for another one.” Willy is also always talking about how he is falling behind in his sales and how he needs to be just like all the other salesmen. All of these things feed into the pursuit of making money and making it big. It is the American Dream at its finest, yet their situation never improves, in fact it continually erodes into a bigger mess.

            The conflicts in a play reveal a lot about the theme that the author is trying to establish. The conflicts in the play Death of a Salesman seem to be intrinsically linked to the tyrannies of the capitalistic system and the hoax of the American Dream. The main conflict is that of never having enough money and it is brought on almost every single page of the play. The characters are always trying to search for more and more of the lucrative green paper that apparently makes the world go round. The interesting observation about their desire for riches is that they don’t even realize how often they broach the subject. It crops up in almost every situation in the play from Biff failing high school and therefore becoming a precursor to his future as a failure to Willy slowly being grinded down to a salary based purely off commission. The characters notice its presence on the surface level meaning that they acknowledge that their plight keeps getting worse but they don’t realize how often they invent outlandish schemes to “get-rich quick,” complain about the state of affairs, converse about the growing debts, and reminisce about a time when money came easier and in greater volume. This implies a kind of habitual insouciance towards a subject that is slowly becoming their entire life focus, at the risk of trivializing all other aspects including family, friends, love, faith, and pleasantries. Some other examples of conflicts that relate back to the prevalent nature of the money in the play include Willy being fired quite nonchalantly at a job that he has worked at for three decades, Biff’s perpetual cycle of unemployment, and all the piling up of bills that have to be paid for all of the family’s accessories. The sheer number of references to this subject shows that it is a big issue in today’s society.

            Death of a Salesman distinguishes the many different types of people that exist in a society such as America. These range from Happy and Willy at one of the spectrum being hopeful optimists but never having the technical skill or finesse to allow their dreams to come to fruition to Biff at the other end who spends his whole life trying to recreate himself in his father’s image and finally making the assertion that he will start looking at the world through the lens of realism. The main difference in these two groups is that Happy and Willy are caught up in the American Dream whereas Biff is one of the select group on the periphery who recognizes that it is all a sham. He recognizes that the only true happiness that can come from the business realm is being employed in an occupation that brings joy. Monetary aspects should still be a significant aspect of a job, but a person must enjoy their work. Willy has a utopian view of the world that comes from his personality traits of being overly-optimistic, willing to please, gullible, and narrow-minded. Numerous times throughout the novel, he dispenses with his opinion of how to be a successful businessman. He proposes that simple charisma will carry over into real-world gains, which is a hopeless interpretation of how the capitalistic system works. Aspirations to be the next Birnbaum, with hundreds of customers attending his funeral, encouraged him to go into the profession of sales which is and was a dying trade. He passed all of his attributes onto Happy, who followed them to the letter since all he ever wanted was to earn his father’s praise. Their characteristics made them victims of the system. The repercussions of this were pretty severe as well. Happy constantly focuses on money and therefore considers women to be mere possessions, abandons and effectively dehumanizes his father, and never sees his family. Willy faces the stark reality of being fired from a job that he held for over three decades, apparently as a pioneering force for the owner’s father, without so much as a second thought by the owner. Before this event, he was confronted everyday by huge, foreboding cities full of unfamiliar faces. His sales dropped off and he became disillusioned with everything that had once been so clear. The alternative to this system was the path that Biff and Bernard took. They were both strong-willed characters who saw things for how they were. While Biff didn’t have the best work-ethic in school, he had a lot of determination and astuteness for real-world concepts. All of these attributes allowed both of the characters to pursue careers that they truly desired. It took Biff the entirety of the novel to realize that in order to be happy, he would have to do what he wanted. In the realm of characterization, Miller shows that weak, gullible characters were more susceptible to the allure of the false prospect of the American Dream and were therefore abused by the system whereas those characters that carried out lives determined by practicality could actually function.

            Throughout the play of Death of a Salesman, Miller uses the literary devices of dialogue, conflict, and characterization to shed light on the fact that the capitalistic does not always lead to lives of luxury and happiness. For many of the characters, the impacts of believing in a flawed system led to many undesirable ramifications including disillusionment, suffering, a loss of morals, and suicide. However, he also offered another conclusion. For those people that don’t throw their well-being into the system whole-heartedly, there is the chance of a good life. It is all about making intelligent decisions and not pursuing every wild goose chase. Miller’s final assessment seems to be that everything should be pursued in moderation or the perils of the capitalistic system will be brought to bear.


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