Jonathan Terrington's Reviews > Death of a Salesman

Death of a Salesman by Arthur  Miller
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bookshelves: plays, classic-literature, favourites, gritty-reads

"I don't say he's a great man. Willie Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He's not the finest character that ever lived. But he's a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He's not to be allowed to fall in his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person."

Attention, attention must finally be paid... So sounds out Arthur Miller's cry to observe that every individual, every human being must have attention paid to them. It is a tragic irony that it seems impossible for the limited human love and kindness to engage with all people, for there is always something that turns us away. In the case of this drama, the slowly grinding wheels of a tiredness created through the every pressing need to possess more and more.

Death of a Salesman is often called the dark drama of the American Dream. In many ways this is true, as Miller recreates a world where human wants are turned on their head into 'human needs'. As part of my research for travelling to the States myself, I've been reading up on the concept of the American Dream in novels and theoretical articles. It seems that as I've read an interesting proposition has sprung up: can any author when writing about America escape the whirlpool of literature that is the American Dream? I doubt that any author can, for in writing a play about multiple failures - the failures of family, success, love and ultimately the many failures of relationships - Miller wrote a play that has come to be known as a play about the failure of the American Dream in its many formats. Yet, this failure is one which seems to me to be connected to all humans everywhere, in how our drives towards false dreams will only end in failure.

Ultimately I believe Miller's story is one which is about success and visionary dreams as much as it is about failure. As Biff says at the end of Willy Loman, "He never knew who he was." Miller seems to have created a work which analyses and observes that chasing after false dreams never brings satisfaction. It is a theme as old as time, seen in such writings as those of Solomon in Ecclesiastes when he states that 'Everything is meaningless.' And certainly everything is meaningless when you base your identity solely in your set dream. For if your dream fails it becomes a failure of yourself as an individual. The ultimate warning of Miller's play is to seek satisfaction in yourself as an individual and not to chase after what you are not: not to be complacent but to be satisfied.
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Reading Progress

December 31, 2012 – Shelved
June 23, 2013 – Started Reading
June 23, 2013 – Shelved as: plays
June 23, 2013 – Shelved as: classic-literature
June 23, 2013 – Shelved as: favourites
June 23, 2013 – Shelved as: gritty-reads
June 23, 2013 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-18 of 18 (18 new)

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message 1: by Lynne (new) - added it

Lynne King Jonathan,

I really enjoyed your review.

I actually own this book but have never read it, to my shame. One of those things. But having read the play "The Night of the Iguana" the other week by T. Williams, I thoroughly took to the atmosphere of the stage with the asides and the "shoutings and roarings" from the actors.

So I will definitely read this - when I get the time of course.


message 2: by Jonathan (last edited Jun 24, 2013 01:05AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jonathan Terrington Lynne wrote: "Jonathan,

I really enjoyed your review.

I actually own this book but have never read it, to my shame. One of those things. But having read the play "The Night of the Iguana" the other week by T...."


There is something unique about each type of literature: poetry, plays and short stories. I quite enjoy reading plays from time to time and definitely suggest this. The Crucible is also an excellent play, perhaps the better of these two I've read by Arthur Miller. I mean to read more plays. I have to get onto A Streetcar Named Desire at some time shortly having loved the movie when I viewed it.


message 3: by Sketchbook (last edited Jun 25, 2013 06:16PM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Sketchbook Very nice review. ~ Miller's life is one of disappointment becos of furies within. He became a celebrity after marrying that film star (whose talent exceeded his) and his creativity dried up. Then, in the '60s, his 3d wife gave birth to a retarded son which he excised from his life and refused to see. Kid was shut up in institutions. One asks, "Who was Arthur Miller?"


message 4: by Valerie (new)

Valerie I would suggest Margaret Mead's book ...And Keep Your Powder Dry. Written in 1942 as a companion volume to Ruth Benedict's The Chrysanthemum And The Sword (about Japanese society), Mead's study deals with such issues as how Americans give directions to someplace, why Americans tend to respond to the question "Where are you from?" differently than less mobile peoples, and other matters. Some of these characteristics have changed, but many remain as fresh as the first edition of the book.

One thing that Mead, as an anthropologist, would notice more than purely internal observers is that American society since there was such a thing (well before the revolution codified matters) has been a product of and a contributor to the breakup of the EXTENDED family. The answer to the question "Where are your cousins?" is one many Americans can't give: they don't know.

Mead pointed out that this not only robbed people of traditional sources of identity, support, etc; it also resulted in generations of novice parents. The neolocal residence pattern meant that most people couldn't ask their great-aunts why the baby keeps crying and rubbing its ears, for example.

One of the reasons Doctor Spock was such a success was that he gave many of those unsupported parents their own manual of what their extended family might have told them, if the novices had had a chance to consult them. He became, by default, the resident great-aunt they'd moved away from.

The American Dream became such a substitute for too many people. But unfortunately, it was an inflexible one. It didn't take into account the variability of human aspirations.

I would like to think that things had improved since the times depicted in Miller's play, but I fear I can't. It worries me deeply how many people are getting 'Business' degrees. Those of us who have neither aspirations towards salesmanship nor talents that can be used in that way were always ill-served by their mythology, and improvements are slow, when they come at all.


Jonathan Terrington Sketchbook wrote: "Very nice review. ~ Miller's life is one of disappointment becos of furies within. He became a celebrity after marrying that film star (whose talent exceeded his) and his creativity dried up. Then,..."

Well he's mainly known in Australia for writing the Crucible because of all his works it still gets taught. Interestingly something connected to the American Dream touched on by Miller is the failure of the children and how that connects to whether the Dream is a success.


Jonathan Terrington Valerie wrote: "I would suggest Margaret Mead's book ...And Keep Your Powder Dry. Written in 1942 as a companion volume to Ruth Benedict's The Chrysanthemum And The Sword (about Japanese society), Mead's study de..."

Thanks for the recommendations, I'll check them out when I return home. I'll also have to see what I can learn about the modern American Dream in context though it seems to be something no one can really describe.


Sketchbook For another viewpoint, read Albee's superb one-acter, "The American Dream." ~~ While in NYC, take subway to Brooklyn Heights at Fulton Landing and see the NYC skyline from there, if poss. Best ever.


Jonathan Terrington Thanks I will have a look at doing that! I'm doing the Empire State Building observatory also.


message 9: by Sketchbook (last edited Jun 26, 2013 04:52PM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Sketchbook You take subway to CLARK Street...(7th Ave sub), turn left and keep walk-walk-walking toward Brooklyn Bridge.
Then follow the now-highway down a hill (w Bridge above you), to bottom of hill. Fulton Ferry Landing. There's a huge park and promenade : the East River, the Bridge above you and wowzie skyline. It's a knockout "scene." (If lost, destination is Fulton Ferry/Street Landing).


message 10: by Valerie (new)

Valerie I couldn't say what the modern American Dream is like: it's never been my own dream. But I can point out that the growing class of indentured servants (those with massive student loan debt which they can't escape by bankruptcy or even death) have become so entrammeled that one of my cousins was complaining the other day that she was working fourteen hours a day at two jobs just trying to get caught up.

A case of running as fast as we can just to stay in the same place, as if we had somehow passed through the mirror into Looking-Glass land.


Jonathan Terrington Valerie wrote: "I couldn't say what the modern American Dream is like: it's never been my own dream. But I can point out that the growing class of indentured servants (those with massive student loan debt which ..."

Wow that is a powerful metaphor - the mirror. Do you mind if I use it in a reflective journal entry (no pun intended).

Sketchbook wrote: "You take subway to CLARK Street...(7th Ave sub), turn left and keep walk-walk-walking toward Brooklyn Bridge.
Then follow the now-highway down a hill (w Bridge above you), to bottom of hill. Fulton..."


Those are perfect directions, thanks so much! Do you know any interesting shops to buy souvenirs for my family back home?


message 12: by Valerie (last edited Jun 28, 2013 10:47AM) (new)

Valerie I was specifically referring to the Red Queen in Alice Through The Looking-Glass. At one point she explains to Alice that in Looking-Glass Land, it's necessary to run as fast as one can just to stay in the same place. To get anywhere, one must go faster than that.

Which reminds me, I have to get hold of an annotated version of Lewis Carroll's complete works. I often feel a need to quote them (as in the above, but also as in the explication of 'jam every other day': jam yesterday and jam tomorrow, but never jam today); but too often, I can't remember the exact passage to quote from--and an annotated version really helps with that.


Sketchbook At Empire State Bldg and nearby shops on 5th Ave are tons of shops w souvenir stuff. ~~ You might try to visit the stupendous > Strand Bookstore < ..downtown, at 12th & Bwy, miles of old, new, rare books. Discount prices. ~~ Also, checkout Rockefeller Center, at 50th & 6th-5th, where the outdoor dining plaza-area is skating rink in winter.~~ The Museum of Modern Art is a thrill. (Usually packed w gorgeous Euros)~~ FYI: Like Paris, NYC is great WALK city.


message 14: by Sketchbook (last edited Jun 28, 2013 11:14AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Sketchbook (a) Avoid eye contact on NYC subways, always take sang-froid attitude (b) no wallets in back pockets. (c) Washington Sq, at bottom of 5th, is historic site, though schtummpfed today is beloved and surrounded by New York University, which, ironically, has helped trash the site with added buildings. Henry James would weep.~~ So would Willa Cather. ~~ And Mabel Dodge, who lived at 5th & 9th St.


message 15: by Sketchbook (last edited Jun 28, 2013 06:18PM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Sketchbook Fyi - Good (cheap) eats are at the "Au Bon Pain" sandwich-soup shops scattered across NYC (see Google). You won't get sick.


Jonathan Terrington Thanks a bunch for the info, looking forward to applying it in the few days I'm in New York. Shall have to top up my money card likely and pay for the extra luggage back to Australia...


David Sarkies You certainly have captured the essence of this play and the problems with the idea of the American Dream. To me the whole concept of the American Dream could fill bookshelves trying to interpret it apparent success, or failure.


Jonathan Terrington Definitely - and it does. There are many, many American Dream novels, plays and nonfiction works


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