Monday, July 20, 2009

The Salesman's Dream and Hamartia

In 8th grade, while cruising the library for guys, (right) I checked out Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman I had heard of Miller (He was married to Marilyn, right?) and figured I would love it, being as I felt like such an enlightened 13 year old. Love it. Wrong. I did not understand it, this simple play; where was the part that made this man an icon of literature and the stage? Years later, while in college studying Miller in a Drama class, I would understand. At the time I was working 40 hours a week and carrying a full load plus at school. I came to fully understand the "American Dream" and how easily it can become a nightmare. Miller made sense. Miller was a genius.

I had reviewed two crisiticsms for the play, one by Harold Clurman, a theater director and critic. his focus is on Loman's American Dream and his loss of reality. The second was written by B.S.Field, Jr. and directs its attention to Willy's hamartia. (4 years for an English degree and all I get to do is throw around big words on my blog and feel important. yup. feel better.) These two critiques go hand in hand. The first speaks to his attempt to follow his dream and his gradual deterioration of reality and perspective, the second to why that happened; what exactly his fatal flaw was.

Willy Loman, the salesman the play focuses on, is a working class man, struggling for that white picket fence dream. Miller's predecessors had focused on kings, queens, and other such noble figures. "Perhaps the chief virtue of the play is the attention that Miller makes us pay to the man and his problems, for the man represents the lower middle class, the $50-a-week-plus-commission citizen, whose dream is to live to a ripe old age doing a great volume of business over the telephone (Clurman, 308) In our society today this working man is seen everywhere with our slagging economy. The play has tremendous impact because in the years since it was written, it still makes the audience recognize itself. "Willy Loman is everybody's father, brother, uncle or friend, his family are our cousins; Death of a Salesman is a documented history of our lives" (308). Though it is not as realistic as life as we know it, everyone can still relate to at least one Loman at some point. "We had the wrong dreams," says Biff, and the audience sighs, as the realization sinks in. This "wrong dream" is one still held close to the hearts of many of us.

The play picks up as the audience sees Willy as a has-been salesman. The competition Willy encounters is too tough for his talents. The life he has chosen denies his true being at every step, as Biff says he should have worked with his hands. That was what he loved. However, he cannot let go of the dream. "he idolizes the dream beyond the truth of himself, and he thus becomes a romantic, shadowy nonentity, a liar, a creature whose only happiness lies in looking forward to miracles, since reality mocks his pretensions. His real ability for manual work seems trivial and mean to him " (308).

His comment to his sons that their grandfather, even their grandfather, was more than a carpenter proves he could never really let himself do what he loved. he had to hold fast to this dream of wealth, popularity, and happiness. I believe in his head he saw himself as all the above and that is why he comes off as a mad man to some readers. As Clurman says, "from this perpetual self denial he loses the sense of his own thought; he is a stranger to his own soul; he no longer knows what he thinks either of his sons or his automobile; he cannot tell who his true friends are; he is forever in a state of enthusiastic or depressed bewilderment (309).

Willy was never a content man and his sons suffer the guilt of the father. "Biff, the older, with increasing consciousness; hap, the younger, stupidly' (309) Hap seeks his satisfaction from women, lots and lots of women. Biff can't get no...Sat-is-faction from women because the only satisfaction he seeks is making his father proud. Constantly feeling like he is not doing enough, he wants nothing more than to work on t he land, his father's secret dream only Biff decodes. Not till the end of his father's life does Biff, the dynamic of the two brothers, discover the lie his father has made of his life; the wrong path his "ideals" are leading him down, tormenting his heart and mind. "With his father's death, Biff has possibly achieved sufficient self-awareness to change his course; Hap-like most of us-persists in following the way of his father" (310).

Arthur is an outright moralist. "his talen is for a kind of humanistic jurisprudence: he sticks to the facts of the case" (310). His play is clearer than those of other American playwrights because of this quality. Using similar insight s those whose "lyric gifts tend to reflect the more elusive and imponderable aspects of the same situation," Miller can relate this play to somebody we all know, if not ourselves.

Clurman retains that "there is poetry in Death of a Saleman-not the poetry of the sense or of the soul, but of ethical conscience" (310) I believe this, as this is the one play that stands out in my mind. This is the one play I think, hey, I can totally see myself in Willy Loman. My dream was-is-to write and make a living from it. A path less taken, littered along the way with struggle, failures, self-doubt and poverty all pulling me down their little side ways. Or at least I think they would. I wouldn't know. I didn't take that path. Too chicken. However, after reading Miller's play, I realized how real the failure is in every profession, especially given the current economic state. Not only did Willy Loman not follow his true dream, he failed at his fake one. From his brother, who we see only from Willy's perspective as rich but could very well be poor in the ways of love, to Hap with his many women but no true love, to Willy with his constant battle for money, this play speaks to people. "We cry before it like children being chastised by an occasionally humorous, not unkindly but unswervingly just father. Death of a Salesman is rational, dignified, and profoundly upright" (310).

How could this dream so easily be shattered? Where did Willy really go wrong? The dream itself was broken because he was unsuccessful as a salesman. Willy, however, could have changed other things in his life. Blinded by money, however, Willy could only see happy people equal to rich people. he never took the blinders off long enough to realize his family was something he could have been happy in, if only he would have listened a little more, and perhaps criticized a little less.
Field describes the end of the play as a "catastrophe" in which we see his flaw and the consequences that follow. Field poses the question, "how does Willy's catastrophe stand as a poetically just consequence of his hamartia (323)? This idea fascinates me. There have been many different answers to that question and many resolutions as a result. However, what was Willy's crime that lead to this catastrophe? "Willy's crime is that he has tried to mold his sons in his own image, that he hs turned them into wind bags and cry babies (323). He goes on to say they are "not sexually impotent, no more than Willy is, but they are impotent in a larger sense" (323). Happy complains of the meaninglessness of his life in Act I when he says, "sometimes I sit in my apartment- all alone. And I think of the rent I'm paying. And it's crazy. But then, it's what I always wanted. My own apartment, a car, and plenty of women. And still, goddammit, I'm lonely."

We know that Willy's dream was to own that house, have his car, and have his family. Hap has followed in those footsteps in a sense, yet finds quantity over quality of women. However, he is still lonely. Willy did not lead him directly to that error, but we know that he had many lovers unbeknownst to his family. Could all of these years of sneaking around subconciously rub off on Hap? Is it hereditary? It is possible that the way he treated Hap's mother and the message he gave out about women after all these years of womanizing effected Hap in a deeper capacity.

The boys seem to be morally and socially retarded. Willy himself has no basis for making moral choices. "It is not so much that he chooses or has chosen evil, but that he has no idea how to choose at all" (323). Throughout the play everyone, including Willy himself, is contradicting him. "he lives in a morally incoherent universe, an incoherence that is the most striking element of the play which describes his torments" (324). Since he is morally incapacitated, this leads to his social incapacitation. He wants so much to be liked and be popular, yet everything is against him. The city itself is slowly killing him throughout the play, along with the competition in his line of work.

Worst yet, not for nothing can he get along with the son he lvoes most. "the very seeds he plants no longer grow. Nothing he does has any consequences. He simply cannot make anything happen" (325). Trying to describe a person like Willy, who has no "character" in the sense that Miller implies in his dialogue, one might say that he has no initiative. Or, from Fields:"One may say he has no balls" (323) I personally like Fields' description. More visual. He goes on to say that "neither have his sons" that "Willy's efforts to mold these boys in his own image have not been a failure but a success" (323). The boys have turned out just like him, and what a success that is! "they offer two aspects of the same personality, Happy taking more after his mother, perhaps, but both sharing the same defect with their father. They cannot make anything happen. They are morally and socially castrated" (323) To know that Willy was still unhappy with his sons even though he had accomplished making them out to be like him, to me, is a reflection of how unhappy Loman truly was with his own life. That was his hamartia; that is what lead him to suicide.

This play offers up so much in such simple words. Miller truly does speak to the common man, to the Willy Loman in all of us. This is truly one of the darkest, most depressing plays I've ever read. Why? Because it's the one I can most easily relate to. Medea-Mythological creature from ancient time and place. Romeo and Juliet? Don't even get me started. Hamlet? That whiny little rich boy? Nope. Loman's are everyman and if you haven't read it, I definitely recommend you do.

Both Clurman and Fields' works can be found in Drama Criticism, Volume 1

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