“Death of a Salesman” Summary
The play “Death of a Salesman” by Arthur Miller has a centralized theme in the gender roles that men and women play in their different capacities in both the family and the society at large. The story depicts the gender situation in the 1940’s, when the book was written. Miller deftly incorporates his views and the general feeling about how men and women interacted those days into the text of the play, and he gets his point across.
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In the story, women clearly come out in two categories. There are women who, like Linda Loman and display a sense of dutifulness towards their families. The other category are the women who, like Miss Forsythe, and are only seen by the men as objects of sexual desire. What is common about both categories of women in the play is that they live in a society where they are downtrodden by men and their opinions are not considered important.
Linda Loman is the epitome of the homemaker in the 1940’s. While her husband, Willy, goes out to work, she stays at home, performing simple house chores and supporting her husband. She is always there for her husband, and she considers him the most precious thing she has. The fact that Willy Loman keeps shooting down her opinions and proposals is indicative of the fact that Willy holds women in a very low opinion. In fact, many critics have argued that the real tragedy in the story is the fact that Linda cannot stand up and make her voice heard. She accepts the condition as it is.
The society in the play “Death of a Salesman” is considered extremely patriarchal and oppressive of women. Both sons of Linda and Willy Loman treat women with extreme contempt, referring to them as “gorgeous things” rather than “women”. They cut an image of people who look down upon women and treat them as objects to fulfill their sexual desires. Throughout the book, the two men do not once recognize the paradoxical nature of their actions. They do not treat themselves with the same contempt that they treat women with, although they are also immoral and virile people.
The roles that the genders play in “Death of a Salesman” by Arthur Miller are a central theme of the play. The play is a true depiction of how the society viewed men and women in their interaction and roles in the 1940’s.
In the play “Death of a Salesman”, one of the prominent thematic concerns that Arthur Miller puts across is the role that each gender plays and the gender-based discrimination that is rife in the society. Some of the things that happen in the book paint the perfect picture of what it meant to be a man or a woman back in the 1940’s when the play was written. Deftly and exhaustively, Arthur Miller spells out the relationship between men and women, elaborately converting his view and sentiments into the occurrences of the play. Arthur Miller is somehow able to make the reader appreciate the downtrodden state of the women in society during those days. Indeed, the picture that Arthur Miller paints in his play concerning the relationship between the genders helps the reader to contrast the society of that days and the nowadays society. The underlying message in the book is that women occupied a lower position in the society then, and their whole lives were dependent on the men.
“Death of a Salesman”
One of the things that come out clearly in “Death of a Salesman” is that women in the society were divided into two categories. One category consists of women like Linda, who are responsible, dutiful and committed to their families. The other group is the women whose character resembles that of Miss Forsythe, who seems to have no role in the society other than act as an object of pleasure to men.
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These two categories of women succinctly depict the roles that women played in the society of the play by Arthur Miller. On the one hand, there are women who are viewed as the ideal women, playing out the roles that wives and mothers should play in an exemplary fashion. For instance, Linda Loman is the perfect housewife. She is supportive of her husband in all aspects and at all times, and she stands by her husband’s side no matter what he does to her. Right from the outset, Linda dutifully tries to calm her husband after his cancelled business trip. She receives him with warmth and love and tries to give him suggestions, which she hopes will help her husband to unwind. In spite of her husband’s occasional harsh tone, she keeps on soothing him with kind words and a loving tone. When Linda attempts to find out what is bothering her husband, this is what he says: “WILLY (with casual irritation): I said nothing happened. Didn’t you hear me? LINDA: Don’t you feel well?” (Miller 1986, pp.6-7).
Not only does she encourage her husband not to give up at his workplace. She also makes her husband feel valued by telling him that he is incomparably handsome: “LINDA: Willy, darling, you’re the handsomest man in the world...” (Miller 1986, pp. 256).
Linda incessantly has a warm feeling in her heart because of her family. She not only supports her husband unceasingly, but she attempts to reconcile her sons with her husband on many different occasions. As a mother, she is resolute, stern and tough-speaking to her sons. She instructs treat their father with respect and love him:
LINDA: No. You can’t just come to see me, because I love him.
(With a threat, but only a threat, of tears.) He’s the dearest man
in the world to me, and I won’t have anyone making him feel
unwanted and low and blue. You’ve got to make up your mind
now, darling, there’s no leeway anymore. Either he’s your father and you pay him that respect, or else you’re not to come here. I know he’s not easy to get along with — nobody knows
that better than me — but... (Miller 1986, pp.441).
On the other hand, she is soft-spoken to her husband, and she reminds him that their sons love and admire him:
LINDA: And the boys, Willy. Few men are idolized by their children the way you are.
Linda plays the role of reconciling her sons with their father so dutifully that one would think she is paid for it! Indeed, Linda is the epitome of the perfect housewife in the 1940’s. She does not slacken to perform her duties with dedication, and she is the perfect homemaker.
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The other category of women is typified by Miss Forsythe. This category of women is viewed by men like nothing more than objects of sexual desire. The men look down upon them so much that they do not even hide their feelings about them, and yet they still sleep with them:
“HAPPY: Isn’t that a shame now? A beautiful girl like that? That’s why I can’t get married. There’s not a good woman in a thousand. New York is loaded with them, kid!” (Miller 1986, pp.377).
Happy speaks ill of the lady whom he meets at a restaurant, and yet he is the one who approaches her. He does not see his own shortcoming; all he sees is the girl’s cheapness. His comment speaks volumes about his own view of women, which, by and large, represents the views of most men in the society. The fact that he says he cannot get married suggests that his opinion on women does not go beyond sex. He does not consider them to be anything better than sex objects. In fact, Happy does not refer to women as human beings. Rather, he chooses to call them “gorgeous creatures”. Indeed, Happy’s opinion on women is degrading and his treatment of them reflects this view.
Although the story ends in the tragic crash which kills Willy Loman, the real tragedy of the play is his wife Linda (Robinson 2012). This is because although she is a shrewder and more psychologically stable character than her husband, her opinions and views on important matters are constantly trivialized by her husband. She is not allowed to express her opinions on the matters that are considered important, and any time she attempts to make a contribution to a discussion, Willy shuts her down: “LINDA: All the mothers... WILLY: Shut up!” (Miller 1986, pp. 393).
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While it is true that Willy is a discourteous man with a short temper, the way he treats his wife is exceptionally rude and demeaning. In the end, the noble and brilliant ideas appear that Linda has never seen the light of day. They are constantly suppressed by her overbearing husband Willy. This is a depiction of the role of a woman in the 1940’s, where their voices were severely thinned by the men’s overly inconsiderate actions.
Arthur Miller also endeavors to depict the role of the genders in terms of who did what in the family. From the play, it is clear that men were the breadwinners and homemaking roles were consigned to women. Willy is constantly disturbed by the fear of his inability to provide for his family (Robinson 2012). He does not see an alternative breadwinner in his wife Linda. Moreover, his conscience is not at peace because he knows that he has not been the absolute perfect example to his sons, and this is a constant pain in the neck for him.
In spite of the fact that the patriarchal society in which the play is set engenders a feeling of sympathy for the female characters, some critics have argued that women in this society can also be viewed as victimizers. Kate Loman, for instance, could be seen as a victimizer of her family (Yao, Zhou and Long 2012). In spite of the roles she beautifully plays, she also shares a part in the formation of the tragedy. This is paradoxical, because the depiction of Linda in the story is that of a character whose wish and dream is to see a happy ending for everybody involved. She plays the role of Willy’s anima, and helps to exaggerate, mythicize and falsify the achievements that Willy may have had. In effect, she serves to prompt his illusions. Linda is an unaware accomplice in Willy’s pretentious self deceptions (Hurt 1995). She never challenges the idealized dreams of her husband, and she never confronts him about the overrated hopes he has in his sons. She helps him build his dreams on destructive foundations. Even after a number of cases that have proved potentially lethal, she does not take any firm action to help put to an end the destructive self deceptions. Her confidence in him is unwavering when he discloses to her that his business is becoming shaky: “WILLY: A hundred and twenty dollars! My God, if business don’t pick up I don’t know what I’m gonna do! LINDA: Well, next week you’ll do better” (Miller 1986, pp. 298).
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It would be best for her to be honest with him and chastise him when he grew too overconfident or built too many castles in the air. For instance, she insists that her sons admire their father very much, when this is not the case. It would, perhaps be better if she told him that he has problems with their sons, which he needs to sort out as soon as possible. In that way, he may have stopped being idealistic and become pragmatic, hence the tragedy might have possibly been avoided.
Women are portrayed in this play as people who are the subjects of male domination. Female subjugation is quite prominent in the book. The women seem to remain firmly outside the realms of business and they happily and ungrudgingly serve the role of homemakers. They are depicted to have no thoughts or desires of their own apart from making the men in their lives happy and satisfied. Linda Loman is firmly fixed on the idea that she must reconcile her husband and sons so that they may restore happiness in their family. In essence, she makes the happiness of her husband and sons her own. Throughout the play, her only worries seemed to center on the joy of the male members of her family. None of the issues that she discusses is focused on her. In fact, when she admonishes: “LINDA: Biff, dear, if you don’t have any feeling for him, then you can’t have any feeling for me” (Miller 1986, pp. 440).
The fact that Linda tells her son, Biff, that the only way he can demonstrate his love for her is if he also loves his father, casts a bright light on the fact that Linda has reduced herself to be a shadow of her husband. She does not believe that she can be happy if her husband is not equally happy.
Arthur Miller explores masculinity as it portrayed by the main male characters of the play. Willy does not have qualms about sleeping with women, and although his wife loves him so much and cares about him, he goes ahead to get involved in an extramarital affair. This does not necessarily mean that he does not love his wife; only, he does not respect her. The fact that he does not respect Linda is demonstrated over and over again in the way he scolds her and makes some thoughtless demands on her. He does not let her have her say in anything, because he does not value her contributions. Whenever she tries to get him to talk to her about his problems, Willy gets angry with her. It really is a sorry situation, because Willy demonstrates the height of patriarchy and masculinity, which, in effect, only serve to show his uttermost disrespect for members of the female gender. His sons, Biff and Happy, despite the fact that they love their mother, find no mistake in treating other women the exact same way that their father treats their mother. This is an unfortunate thing, but it is what happens in patriarchal societies.
For instance, in the course of the play, it is revealed that the real reason why Biff has lost direction in his life is that he found out that his father was having an affair with some woman: BIFF: You — you gave her Mama’s stockings! (His tears break through and he rises to go.)
WILLY (grabbing for Biff): I gave you an order! BIFF: Don’t touch me, you — liar!” (Miller 1986, pp.565).
The fact that Biff is so disoriented by finding out that his father is having an affair with another woman should enable him treat women better, at least from the reader’s perspective. But his mother confesses that he is rough with girls, and that all mothers are afraid him. Thus, the reader is given the cold truths about a patriarchal society. The truth is that whether or not a man has had an awful experience such as Biff had, their views about women do not change. They are still the same and they are likely to treat women no different from other people who degrade them.
The sad part about this story is that women are resigned to the position that men have placed them in. They do not seem to complain. They are pretty comfortable about it. Within the confines of her house, Linda seems perfectly comfortable. She is at peace with the fact that she has to sit and wait for her husband to put food on the table for her. She does not feel any guilt or sense of inadequacy about having to completely depend on her husband for the most basic needs. However, that is perhaps not half as bad as the fact that she also has to take in the insults that her husband keeps hurling at her. Neither does she protest the fact that she has no say in matters of the home. If she says anything, it is more an opinion than a plan of action. The buck stops with Willy Lowman, and that is the final position. Linda is not expected to argue or comment on anything beyond that point. In fact, Linda hardly expresses any anger towards Willy or her sons, not only because she has a gentle personality, but more because the women of her time were no expected to be assertive (Yasinski 1995). This is truly the tragic part of the story.
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The depiction of the different roles that the genders play is a central theme in the play “Death of a Salesman” by Arthur Miller. Indeed, Miller plainly brings out the roles that members of the different genders play in the family and in the society at large. Miller paints a sorry picture of women, depicting them as subjects and subjugates to their male counterparts, whereas males are portrayed as overbearing beings with little thought for the opinions and importance of women in their society. While this it seems too harsh and even unrealistic for the both genders today, it was a reality that had to be accepted back in the day when the piece was written. There is hardly a better way to depict what roles the genders played in the 1940’s than the way Arthur Miller beautifully slots it into the play “Death of a Salesman”.