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Death of a Salesman is a critique on the American Dream as a capitalistic exploitation of the working class. Mirroring the society in the late 1940s, especially bringing to light the corruption of the American Dream, Arthur Miller’s play characterised Willy Loman to represent the common man caught up in class struggles when subjected to a capitalist manipulation. This essay will be taking on a Marxist approach to examine the immoral exploitation caused by the vicious capitalist ideology at play in Miller’s work. The Marxist analysis of Death of a Salesman is based on his critique on the capitalist mode of production in his book Capital, Volume 1: A Critique of Political Economy. Marx saw that within the capitalist system all methods for raising the social productiveness of labour are brought about at the cost of the individual labourer and transform themselves into means of domination over, and exploitation of, the producers (Capital 320). The capitalist mode of production is characterised by the merciless exploitation of the proletariat through the means of wage-labour. Death of a Salesman is a striking commentary on the class struggle due to the exploitation of a lower social class by the higher ones, further accentuated with the American Dream used as bait.
Death of a Salesman reflected the capitalist system in the 1940s that fueled the American Dream as a perfect bait for the working class to feed on. The American Dream allowed the opportunity for “the pursuit of a better, richer, and happier life for all our citizens of every rank” (Adams 20) which closely tied in with The Declaration of Independence, which promised that all men are granted “unalienable Rights…[to] Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” (Jefferson 5). The original ideal was that prosperity and happiness could be achieved through hard work. The dream encouraged “The Protestant work ethic” which emphasised that “the way to contentment lies through hard, honest labor, thrift, and a pride of craftsmanship” (Murphy and Abbotson 15). This compelled the working class to pursue “Happiness” for themselves and their families diligently. Willy represented the bulk of the capitalist society: the proletariat whose needs were not satisfied despite his labour.
How it works
The capitalist system functioned on the basis of capitalist production where labour was required but disdained. The capitalist society then meant success brought prestige and respect, and the prospect of being so attracted both the bourgeoisie and the proletariat alike. Linda lamented that Willy, as the proletariat, had to “borrow fifty dollars a week and pretend to [Linda] that it’s his pay” and that he was left “exhausted” in his pursuit of success when Howard just “take[s] his salary away” (Miller 45). Willy’s recurrent borrowing of money “a week” shows that he was not receiving the expected salary every week and was only rewarded with underpayment from the bourgeoisie. The word “take[s]” showed that Howard took Willy’s salary so effortlessly and naturally, without having to, say, steal or extract, that Willy himself hardly realised what was going on. Howard represented the capitalist bourgeoisie. He owned a wire recorder that cost “only a hundred and a half” (Miller 63), when Willy was begging Howard for just “forty-dollars a week” (Miller 67).
The word “only” displayed Howard’s flippant attitude towards his wealth; his insensitive remark made the difference of livelihood between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat very clear. The exploitation of the working class was revealed in Howard’s expenditure of “only” hundred and half dollars. The wire recorder cost more than Willy’s weekly pay, who could not even pay “ninety-seven fifty” “to fix the hot water” (Miller 45). Howard clearly underpaid the working class like Willy and disregarded their efforts in order to enjoy a life of extravagance, manipulating their ambition, manipulating the American dream they could not actually achieve in such a capitalist society.
However, the darker side of the American Dream, one that was used in the capitalist system to brainwash the working class into a vicious cycle, was displayed in Death of a Salesman. The direction of the American Dream, which originally pointed to the pursuit of a happier life in a positive light, changed drastically to the pursuit of riches when the individualistic American society, encouraged by the competitive nature of capitalism, praised those “who, with nothing but pluck and ingenuity, created financial empires that towered over the national imagination” (Cullen 60). This ideal of individualism especially affected Willy, who was brought up in a family with “quite a little streak of self-reliance” (Miller 66). His father was a “wild-hearted man”, making more money “in a week that a man like [Willy] could make in a lifetime” (Miller 38) just by selling one of his inventions. His brother found “diamond mines” in Africa and became rich instantly (Miller 37). He met Dave Singleman who “drummed merchandise in thirty-one states” and had “hundreds of salesmen and buyers” at his funeral (Miller 66).
In the play, Willy’s life was full of the quintessential successful, “self-reliant” individual praised in the American society that Willy himself looked up to, and clearly at a higher class than him: His father, his brother Ben, as well as Dave Singleman. As Marx had recognised in a capitalist society that just as a man is governed, in religion, by the products of his own brain, so, in capitalist production, he is governed by the products of his own hand (Capital 308). Willy’s subjects of admiration were mainly Dave Singleman and Ben Loman. Willy’s motivation to be a salesman was Dave Singleman, who was creating a reputation for his own self. Singleman’s name itself signifies the individualistic culture then. Similarly, his brother Ben Loman was the one who found a shortcut to achieving success and redefined, in other words, corrupted the beliefs of American Dream from the pursuit of happiness to the pursuit of material wealth, a mindset that plagued the working class.
As a lower-class worker who was influenced by this corrupted American dream, Willy was strongly tempted to go to Alaska to gain riches, mainly because his ideal brother had introduced to him the prospect of hitting gold. Willy wanted to be like Ben and achieve the corrupted American Dream. In reality, as Linda had reminded him, he was “doing well enough…Enough to be happy right here, right now” (Miller 70). Willy could have been content with his life and been “happy right here, right now”. Alas, the capitalist environment ingrained the corrupted American Dream deeper in the culture of Americans, hence sixty-year-old Willy still held on tightly to his dreams of wealth and grandeur at the expense of a sense of reality.
Miller’s play demonstrated how the American Dream had corrupted, yet continued to exert its power over the minds of the success-thirsty working class, leaving Willy exhausted in trying to achieve wealth yet unsuccessful all the same. The power the American Dream had on the working class was thus manipulated in the capitalist society. The American Dream did not simply just motivate them to pursue a better life; it pushed them to strive religiously towards money and status, when they could have been content, just so that the upper class could exploit the most out of them. Hence, the working class was propelled into a vicious cycle, a class struggle, of trying to gain wealth and status, ending up empty-handed, and trying again.
Death of a Salesman also exposed the brutality of capitalism that all classes of men in society suffered. For the working class, they were fierce believers of the American Dream and Willy was the paragon of such people, who devoted himself to the American Dream self-destructively. He was “demanding of the market and of his job some real return psychically” (Conversations with Arthur Miller 297-298). The destructiveness that the manipulated American Dream engendered was reflective of the immorality of capitalism, where common men in “the pursuit of a better, richer, and happier life” (Adams 20) were driven to their demise. By creating a main character like Willy, Miller’s play unmasked the iniquitous capitalist system that heartlessly discarded those viewed as useless in contributing to the profit of the capitalists, after being pushed to his limits by their exploitations. When Willy was fired by Howard, he had exclaimed indignantly, “I put thirty-four years into this firm, Howard, and now I can’t pay my insurance! You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away—a man is not a piece of fruit!” (Miller 67). Willy had described himself accurately — a piece of fruit which the bourgeoisie had sucked the juice out of and exploited to the fullest. Marx had exposed the brutal system, that Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it “sucks”. (Capital 120) Willy, like many of the lower class citizens, suffered the cruel essence of capitalism. He had his labour ruthlessly sucked by the bourgeoisie, and then, when they were done with him, discarded him like an “orange…peel”.
Yet, the brutality of the capitalist system does not stop here — despite being sucked dry and discarded, the American Dream continued to exert its power over Willy’s mind. In Willy’s last moments, he had an imaginary conversation with Ben. When Willy was contemplating the “twenty thousand dollars” of insurance money, Ben had told him that “it was a perfect proposition all round” (Miller 116). Willy’s mind was obsessed with the achievement of material wealth that he believed Ben would have encouraged him to commit suicide for profit. Furthermore, the imaginary fact that Ben, the epitome of success to Willy, would have encouraged him in doing so pushed him to his demise. Ben symbolised the corrupted American Dream; it was not actually Ben who urged Willy to sacrifice himself for money, it was the American Dream which the capitalist society had corrupted, that had Willy voluntarily choosing death.
At the same time, the brutal capitalist society did not leave the bourgeoisie unaffected. Howard, as a representative of the bourgeoisie, displayed the ruthlessness that the capitalist system had made him to be. In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will (Marx Critique 11). Although the upper class took up authority, they were forced to be oppressors by the base structure of this capitalist society which was the oppressed. As the upper class in a base-and-superstructure society, Howard inevitably had to exploit the working class to make a living, even if he had been more generous in salary-giving. Had he given his employees the rightful value of their labour, he would not have earned anything. Yet regardless of their wealth and status, the bourgeoisie, also known as the oppressors, were still locked in an interdependent relationship with the oppressed. When Willy could not “sell merchandise”, Howard had told him, “it’s a business, kid, and everybody’s gotta pull his own weight” (Miller 65).
The livelihood of Howard, as well as the other bourgeoisie, relied on the productivity of their workers. Willy was evidently not pulling his own “weight”, and Howard was aware of that, which was why he did not want Willy to represent his business anymore. The American Dream not only manipulated the working classes to strive towards an illusional grandeur, but also had the higher classes like Howard greedy for wealth and profit at the expense of humanitarian values. It was this greed that then turned him into a coldhearted bourgeoisie who was only directed by monetary gain and not his moral compass, therefore exploiting Willy and firing him later. Willy, the proletariat, held on tight to the corrupted American Dream, and thus stayed subservient under the power of Howard, the bourgeoisie, while Howard, also looking towards the American Dream with greed, ruthlessly exploits Willy. Death of a Salesman shone light on the harsh capitalist positions that both the upper class and the lower class were stuck in.
Death of a Salesman is a raw and brutal account of the capitalist society in America, but while it criticised the flawed system and exploitation of the working class, it did not advocate for socialism as the current success of America is indeed attributed to the capitalist system. Instead, Miller’s play shed light on the extreme capitalist ideology that forced the Americans into a class struggle that most would never overcome, with the lower classes still toiling away for a better future and the upper classes performing their duty of exploiting the lower classes. Just as Marx had said, if the accumulation of capital were to cause a rise of wages and an increase in the labourer’s consumption, unaccompanied by increase in the consumption of labour-power by capital, the additional capital would be consumed unproductively (Capital 285). The capitalist exploitation of the working class demonstrated the futility of the American Dream for personal gain, but its utmost effectiveness in contributing to the great capital of America.
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