I. GIVEN CIRCUMSTANCES
A. ENVIRONMENTAL FACTS
The play is set in Brooklyn, a neighborhood (and one of the five boroughs) of New York City. Brooklyn is known as being a hotspot for many different cultures including Italian, Russian, Irish, Polish, and German Americans. Although this is the physical location for the Loman home, Willy's imaginary conversations occur in and around New York City and Boston.
When Willy first moved in, the Brooklyn neighborhood was a distant, quiet suburb of the city. It represented Willy's American dream home for his future as there was plenty of open space for development and gardening. However, as time went on, the house began to reflect Willy's diminishing optimism. The house became overwhelmed by apartment buildings as well as the noise and pollution of New York City. Soon there was barely any light able to reach the garden in the backyard. This densely urban setting conflicts with Willy's idea of the American dream being lived on the wild frontier.
Late 1940's, early spring, taking place over the course of one day.
The action in DEATH OF A SALESMAN take place "today" (aka the present) in Brooklyn New York. This meaning, either the late 1940s or the time period in which the play is being produced. However, "Daydreams" take us into Willy's past. All of the action takes place during a twenty-four-hour period between Monday night and Tuesday night, except the "Requiem," which takes place, presumably, a few days after Willy's funeral.
Willy Loman, as a salesman is living soley off of his commissions, and is clearly not able to make ends meet as he frequently seeks loans from Charley. The economic environment is the keystone of this work, with much of Willy's frustration and agony centering on wealth.
Towards the beginning of the play, we see Willy's conversations with Ben, his wealthy brother, who had millions by his 21st birthday- Willy is clearly extremely envious of this fame, and although being unable to replicate it for himself, seeks to pass the wisdom to his sons Biff and Happy.
One of the strongest motifs in the play is Willy's desire for his children's financial security, something which he will never know. In his internal conversations about their planned sports franchise in Florida, he dwells on the duo turning a profit and making money. Willy does never discover this for himself though and remains stuck in his economic class without ambitions for his own success.
It is likely that due to his brothers amazing and unbelievable ease of making money paired with his back breaking and agonizing over every cent which passes through his wallet, that we find the motivation of Willy's character.
Given the time period in which the play is set, it is clear that the United States is in a strong position politically speaking. After the victory of World War II, the U.S. has a great deal of power and influence on the world stage. In the years after the war, Democrat and former Vice President Harry S. Truman is elected president in a historical election in which he narrowly beat Thomas Dewey, Republican.
This election is important in the world of Death of a Salesman based on Willy Loman's moral stance. Willy believes in independent achievement to rise to a position of distinction in the world, success by "pulling yourself up by your bootstraps." These philosophies are considered conservative, or traditionally republican in nature. This is important to realize since the current president is a democrat – signaling that Willy's views are considered "traditional" or possibly "old fashioned."
There are three strong social circumstances in the play, mainly surrounding class, gender, and age.
As World War II ended so did a time of struggling and saving in order to "help our troops!" There were many initiatives in wartime that kept Americans from buying certain products, or encouraged them to grown their own vegetables and collect cans and bottles to go toward the war effort. Naturally then, in post-war America, there became a strong focus on materialism and wealth. It no longer was about the hard work or the struggle to succeed, but merely the benefits that wealth could afford you. This is completely evident in Death of a Salesman as well, as most of the characters that are considered Willy's peers are defined by what they own.
Most instances of this materialism are exhibited in Willy's discussions with or about Ben, Charley, and Howard. In the flashbacks with Ben, Billy's brother who "was a millionaire by the time he was twenty one" Willy often begs Ben to come and visit again to which Ben replies "I'll stop by on my way back to Africa." In a later scene Willy asks Linda, if she remembers when Ben "gave you a watch fob with a diamond in it?" To which Linda replies, "You pawned it." This is an illustrious description of Ben's class status as he is both able to travel to Africa as well as purchase a gift that had enough value to serve Willy's family.
Howard, Willy's boss, also provides subtle hints to membership in a higher class than Willy. In the beginning of the scene in which Willy goes to see Howard for a new position in the company, most of the scene is taken up by Howard showing off his new voice recorder. While he is playing back the tape, the tape stops to which he says, "The maid kicked the plug out." Clearly Howard has the ability to pay for a maid as well as recently developed piece of technology – while Willy is asking for fifty dollars a week to "get-by."
Charley though has the most vivid examples of his class status based on material goods. In the first scene Charley is in, Willy and Charley are playing cards. Willy asks him if he's seen the ceiling that he's put in, to which Charley replies, "To put up a ceiling is a mystery to me." But ultimately it's Willy talking about Charley that better articulates his class status. While Linda and Willy are discussing what payments need to be made, Willy gets frustrated. "Whoever heard of a Hastings Refrigerator? Charley bought a General Electric it's old and it's still good€¦once in my life I would like to own something outright before it's broken" (77). So although Willy's challenges in being able to pay for some of his purchased items articulates his economic circumstances it is the brands and types of items he actually owns that describe his class status when compared against his peers. In the context of the times, it is clear that everyone's wealth is defined by the items they own – in brand names and actual cost. Willy clearly cannot compete in this area when compared against his peers, putting him in a lower social class.
What is most notable about the roles of gender in Death of a Salesman is that it is clear throughout the text that women are treated as second-class citizens. There are also only two types of women seen in the play, those that may be classified as "working girls" and mothers. The "working girls" referred to are those that Biff and Happy go after. While Biff and Happy are talking in the bedroom, Biff says "I'd like to find a girl – steady, somebody with substance" (25). It is clear at the play goes on then, that the girls the boys have been seeing are not the type of girls they bring home to mom. The girls in the restaurant that they pick up during their dinner with their father agree to go with them based on Happy's stellar pick-up line that he sells champagne. Happy then even goes as far to ask, "Do you sell?" which is a not-so subtle double entendre, and even though the girl says no, the fact that he even asks says a lot about him and the girl.
Similar to the women in the restaurant is the woman in Boston from Willy's past. This girl is urging Willy to open the door while they're in a hotel room together, and when Willy finally agrees to get the door, he says the following: "All right, stay in the bathroom here, and don't come out. I think there's a law in Massachusetts about it, so don't come out." There is nothing in the text to prompt the mention of a law, unless Willy is referring to the fact that SHE is against the law in Boston, i.e. is a prostitute.
Contrasting to all of these women is Linda, who is seen as the stereotypical housewife. Many women took jobs during the war to fill positions left by men who were fighting oversees, and although many were "sent back to the kitchen" when the troops returned, it began a chance for women to emerge in the working world. In the text there is no evidence that Linda was one of these women. However considering her family is in a financial struggle, it is interesting that she did not seek work while there was a movement for women to work outside the home. However there is evidence that shows that she is there solely to support Willy and her family, fulfilling her traditional gender role as the capable wife and mother.
Although this is a social issue that is somewhat easily overlooked in comparison with the other two, there are very strong examples of ageism in this play, mostly in regards to Willy. Toward the end of the play when Willy goes to see Howard and Charley he has two encounters that shows intolerance for the fact that he is aging. The most prominent example of this is in his discussion with Howard who is clearly delaying firing Willy. The reason he is firing Willy is because Howard feels that Willy "needs a good long rest." He asks Willy where his sons are and why can't they support him – even though it's clear that Willy still wants to be able to support himself. He states "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!" This is probably the strongest example of the discrimination Willy faces due to the fact that he feels discarded. Although there is evidence that Willy has boasted about his accomplishments, Howard doesn't not contest the length of time Willy has worked for the firm, which leads to the conclusion that Willy is one of the oldest members of the company, and though Willy is in a rough state, firing him now still seems extreme.
Then when he goes to see Charley, there is a line that hints at this same issue though it is much more subtle. While he is waiting to see Charley, Willy talks with Bernard, his nephew who is around the age of Biff and Happy. During the discussion, Willy gets fairly emotional and Bernard tries to comfort him by saying, "Take it easy, kid." Although "kid" is used as a term of endearment here, it is a term that is usually used by someone older to someone younger. By Bernard using this term, it does not show much respect for his elder and shows that Bernard views him as child-like or possibly simply incompetent. Although this is a very minor example in comparison to the scene with Howard, the fact that it is used makes it sound like Bernard is talking down to Willy, implying a lack of respect for him.
Willy's struggle and hardhips throughout his time reveals the pressure of society to not only achieve but to achieve greatness. In order to achieve and live the American Dream (either that of society or of Willy), social, political and economic envirornments are affected. Throughout his life Willy experiences much despair and abandonment which in the end affected his feature and him as an individual. From early on Willy's visions and ideas of society are tainted leaving him wanting more for something he didn't have. Things which society projected as good and successful traints. Wi Willy's father leaves him and Ben when Willy at a young age which leaves him wanting the tangible (money) nor an intangible (history) legacy he has always yearned to have. Willy's actions as well as thos events which ahve affected him, eventually push him to strive for the unreachable American Dream. Willy considers his son Biff to be the embodiment of promise and wants to achieve success and reach his dream through him / for him. However, Biff is unable to succeed in business which further estranges the two. This shows how much society and Willy's outlandish ideas derived from societal beliefs has affected Willy to the core.At Frank's Chop House, Willy finally believes that Biff is on the verge of succes. However Biff and Happy shatter this illusion of Willy. It is then that Willy has reached a point where he loses all control. This "let down" leaves Willy derranged and babling in the washroom. Not only can Willy no achieve his warped American Dream but neither can his son. Willy values money and business success over the true success and hapiness of himself as well as his family. He believes that if he reaches that unreachable dream he will be happy because society says he should be happy. If he has a pretty wife, a good job where he makes good money, a car, and a nice house that he will be happy. However, even if Willy ever achieved these things – would he even be happy?
Although religion is never really discussed in the play, at least in terms of the characters' relationships to a God or other omnipotent power, there is still a strong religious environment that is apparent in the text. The constant theme of "the American Dream" is accompanied by a need for work ethic – a need of individual to make something of him/herself in order to prove his physical worth. Historically, this idea would be called a "Protestant work ethic" due to the fact that Protestants believe that whether they will go to Heaven or Hell is determined by the work that they complete in their lifetime, as opposed to the Catholic belief that iterates that the final destination of each person's spirit is predetermined by God. However, within the world of the play, the connection to the Protestant faith is not really relevant since the characters' drives are not necessarily related to the divine. Instead merely the belief in a work ethic, that hard work will allow one to succeed, is the religion within the play. Characters ultimately live and die by this rule.
The examples of this driving force within the text are prevalent, as Willy's character has a strong focus on success, and is the character who is most driven by this dogma. In the first scene of the play, Linda and Willy are discussing Biff's return home, which upsets Willy. He says, "Not finding yourself at the age of thirty-four is a disgrace!€¦The trouble is he's lazy goddammit!" The conflict between Willy and Biff only intensifies as the play goes on, but it is mostly centered on the idea that Biff was the member of the family who was going to "make a name for himself" but failed to do so in the prime of his life. When Willy finally learns that Biff never really will succeed (at least in Willy's terms) after the deal with Bill Oliver falls apart, Willy truly hits rock bottom. In his final hours the audience sees his desperation and his limited attempts to leave a legacy behind.
In Willy's final meeting with Charley, he utters a phrase that sums up Willy's devotion to the doctrine of work ethic. "Funny, y'know? After all the highways, and the trains, and the appointments, and the years, you end up worth more dead than alive." In this statement, Willy sums up what his life was, and how much he has gained for all of that hard work – which is nothing, since he has just borrowed money from Charley to pay his insurance. Finally though, Willy's desperation to fulfill his dream is noted when Biff and Happy leave the restaurant. He says to Stanley the waiter, "Oh, I'd better hurry. I've got to get some seeds. I've got to get some seeds right away. Nothing's planted. I don't have a thing in the ground." By saying this, it points out that Willy feels as is he has left nothing, no imprint on society, which is something he has always dreamed.
B. PREVIOUS ACTION
-Willy's brother Ben went into the jungle when he was seventeen and came out rich when he was twenty-one.
-Willy accepts a job as a salesman.
-Willy decides not to take a trip with Ben to Alaska.
-Willy promises that he will start his own business and spend more time with his family.
-Biff stole a number of basketballs from Bill Oliver.
-Biff nearly flunks math class and has poor grades in school, but Willy encourages him to use his personality and looks.
-Happy moved out of the home and lives in an apartment, drives his own car, and has lots of women.
-The company which Willy works for as a salesman reduces his pay to straight commission.
-Biff lost his job again, this is something which happens almost yearly in the spring.
-Biff sent a letter home saying that he would be returning soon.
-Willy was out driving and had to return home because he could not keep his mind on driving and was dreaming.
C. POLAR ATTITUDES OF PRINCIPAL CHARACTERS
Willy's need to be well liked most likely stems from his abandonment issues with his father and brother. Ben describes his father as a masculine man who was skilled with his hands and had an entrepreneurial spirit. According to Ben, Willy's father was a successful salesman who produced what he sold. We see Willy's fear of abandonment in his memory of Ben's visit. When Ben says he must leave to catch a train, Willy frantically searches for ways to delay his departure. He shows off his children to Ben in a desperate plea for approval. With his father and Ben gone, Willy is unable to develop a normal concept of self worth. Therefore, he models that self worth after the American dream which is highly unrealistic. He ends up downplaying more important measures such as family love and support, and the freedom to choose what to do with your life. It becomes fairly clear that Willy made a poor choice in becoming a salesman after we see his dream of living in the Alaskan woods which related to the American dream of living life on the frontier. The image of the American pioneer who searched for riches began to change in the late 1940s as people realized that the real place to strike it rich was through capitalism and consumerism. Business entrepreneurs replaced the explorers of the old west. Ben represents a character that was actually able to get rich by literally searching for riches in the wilderness of an African Jungle. In the end of the book, Willy may be alluding to the fact that he regrets becoming a salesman when he uses gardening as a metaphor for his legacy. Just as Biff had enjoyed his time working on a ranch, it seems that Willy preferred working in a more natural environment.
Willy's thought processing ability is marred by a lifetime of him creating his own realities to conceal his own failures in achieving his dreams. His delusions are often revealed in the contradictions that arise from his multiple mindsets. For example, he refers to his car as a piece of trash at one point and then claims that it is "the finest car ever built." He says that Biff is a lazy bum in one instance, and later says that he is anything but lazy. Willy acts as an enabler to Biff's compulsive thievery which later becomes a crippling habit. He never reprimands Biff for his bad grades or the stealing and even laughs when Biff first steals the football and is impressed with his ability to get away with theft. It is possible that Willy doesn't reprimand Biff because he fears damaging Biff's ego or that he fears that Biff will no longer like him.
At the beginning of the play, Biff and Happy have come back home and are currently sharing their old room. Biff is the oldest son who was a football star in high school with several scholarships, but for the last fourteen years he has been unable to find himself and he has lost a great deal of his confidence. He is a war veteran and has had six or seven jobs since his time in the war (including one job as a worker on a ranch which he enjoyed). He taught his younger brother about women although he has no idea how to act around them. Biff is in a cycle of going home every time that he gets fed up with a job and then leaving home because of a fight with his father. He recently returned from somewhere in the West because his mother asked him to see his father. Biff and Happy went to school with Charlie's son, Bernard, who is now a prominent, successful lawyer. Happy works in a department store and has his own apartment in different part of New York. Willy has clearly favored Biff over Happy during their childhood because Biff represented a potential for the American dream with his reputation as a football star and his various scholarship offers. Happy began to emulate the high school Biff in an attempt to get his father's approval. Willy would praise Biff's success with women and his ability to get away with theft. As a result, Happy competed with more successful men by sleeping with their women as a form of theft that also established his sexual dominance.