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Death of a Salesman | Study Guide

Arthur Miller

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Death of a Salesman | Context


Arthur Miller wrote Death of a Salesman, which was first performed in 1949, only a few years after World War II ended in 1945 and within a decade of the end of the Great Depression (1929–1939). Both eras had a significant impact on the work of Miller and on Death of a Salesman in particular, which is set in the late 1940s in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Boston.

The Great Depression

With the crash of the stock market in 1929, America plummeted into the worst economic downturn it had ever faced. Many banks, companies, and individual families lost everything, leaving a bruised national psyche that lacked confidence about the future.

For Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman illustrates the personal effects of the Great Depression. The shattered dreams of Miller's family, and of the American people, are reflected in the shattered dreams of Willy Loman. As the protagonist of Death of a Salesman, Willy is unable to attain financial or emotional stability despite a lifelong career as a salesman and a long marriage to a faithful and devoted wife.

World War II

The limping U.S. economy improved as parts of the globe plunged into World War II in 1939. The economy shifted into high gear as manufacturers began to develop mechanized weaponry, communication technology, advancements in medicine, and improved transportation to support the war effort. By the time the war ended in 1945, new technologies focused on domestic improvements, including everything from washing machines and refrigerators to automobiles.

Turning away from the horrors of the Great Depression and the war to the reaffirmation of life back at home, many Americans availed themselves of new technology, creating and embracing a new American consumerism. Thanks to advertising and the new mood of optimism, many people believed they could "have it all"—a nice home, a happy family, and all the products that could keep life running smoothly.

The American Dream

The well-known phrase "the American Dream" was first used by historian James Truslow Adams in his 1931 book The Epic of America. In part Adams describes the dream as a place where "life should be better and richer and fuller ... with opportunity for each according to ability." However, he cautions that the dream is not focused on "motor cars and high wages" but rather on a "social order" in which people are empowered to reach their highest capabilities and "be recognized by others for what they are," an idea Willy Loman returns to again and again as he wrestles with the importance of being well liked.

However, the goal of making the American Dream something concrete rather than philosophical has often eluded Americans such as Willy Loman, as they have struggled to define it within the reality of American living. Some have translated the dream into materialism, while others emphasize simple living. Some view America as the land of opportunity, where everyone has an equal chance of reward as the result of a productive work ethic. Still others argue that aspects of culture such as poverty, classism, racism, and sexism keep the dream elusive for millions of Americans. Writer Thomas Byrne Edsall cautions that America's "growing gulf between the affluent and middle classes [is] anathema to the American Dream." However, for Eleanor Roosevelt, the American Dream remained an "essential task" for Americans, who must be constantly reminded of its "brightness ... splendor and beauty." These contrasting statements testify to the continuing challenges for Americans of both defining and achieving the American Dream.

The American Dream of the 1940s is reflected in Willy Loman's desires to achieve social recognition and material success, but his sense of optimism has long been frustrated, and the technology that promises to make life better and more fulfilling perpetually frustrates Loman. In the end, the promises of the future ring hollow as Loman's sense of identity is unfulfilled, his relationship with his older son is fractured, and he is unable to adapt to the changing world around him.

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