Important Themes in the Play “Death of a Salesman”
Arthur Miller’s play “Death of a Salesman” has various themes and characters that transcend racial and cultural boundaries. The universal themes we can see in this play are the relationships between father and son and the conflicts that arise from them, betrayal, and the American Dream. Christopher Bigsby wrote in the introduction, “As Miller explained to the actor playing the role of Biff in the Beijing production, ‘your love for him blinds you, but you want it to free you to be your own man’”(xxiii). This clearly shows the play’s universality by being displayed in other cultures. However, John Lahr, does not share the vision that this play is universal. He rejects the idea that the play works with a cast made up of black characters, stating in his “Hard Sell” article, “Wilson proves to have been prescient; the experiment doesn’t work, for the same reason that staging an all-white production of one of his plays would be folly” (p.1).
Miller’s play has many features that make it universal. For example, the theme of father and son relationships and the conflicts that arise from them. In most father-son relationships, sometimes the father wants to intervene more than he should in the lives of his sons. In the play, Miller is able to reflect these actions through Willy’s intervention in the lives of his sons, especially Biff’s. This theme is demonstrated when Biff returns home to find himself because he does not know what he wants to do in his life. However, Willy sees this as a failure by saying to Linda “Not finding yourself at the age of thirty-four is a disgrace!” (p.5). Willy desperately wants his son to be successful in all possible ways. So, while he is having conversations with his wife, he says “I’ll get him a job selling. He could be big in no time” (p.6). This shows the attempts of a father to intervene in the life of his son by trying to make some decisions that don’t correspond to him.
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In the play, we can also see that the theme of betrayal is universal and relevant. For example, Willy’s betrayal on his family in various ways, especially when he betrays Linda by having an affair with The Woman. As a result of this, Biff begins to question the perfect man and role model his father is. When he discovers his father with another woman in Boston, he tells him “You fake! You phony little fake! You fake!” (p.95). Later in the play, in scene two, Willy and his son have an argument, where Biff says to him “Exactly what is that you want from me” and Willy responds trying to deny his guilt about Biff’s failure in life and his infidelity. So, Willy says “Spite, spite, is the word of your undoing! And when you’re down and out, remember what did it. When you’re rotting somewhere besides the railroad tracks, remember, and don’t you dare to blame it on me!” (p.103). Willy’s betrayal affected Biff because after that nothing good ever happened to Biff. Miller shows us that the theme of betrayal is relevant in the play because it can happen in any social class and culture.