When Arthur Miller wrote "Death of a Salesman" many considered it a modern masterpiece. It has spurred debate among academics and stirred the emotions of hundreds of thousands of audiences and readers alike. However, there is a growing trend among many who approach this play to condemn Willy Loman out of hand. Entire new generations of readers feel nothing for the plight of Willy Loman; they believe his actions merit his destruction. Why is this? Has there been a fundamental but subtle shift in societal attitudes not just toward literature but toward life in general? If so, does this affect the validity of Miller's vision as presented in "Death of a Salesman"? This play must be seen as something more than an invigorating academic challenge, a pawn in the petty games of academia. It is so much more than that. Attention, attention must be paid to such a person and such a play. Late twentieth century society has made the transition from agrarian and rural communities to massive urban industrialization. These changes can and have been monitored; they are tangible. Small family operated businesses and farms have been gobbled up by multinational conglomerates. The days of the employer as a sort of surrogate parent to his or her loyal employees are over. Our world no longer has time for Willy Loman. We discard these people as inefficient, burdensome, and unnecessary, all in the name of progress. Willy Lomans are expendable commodities to be used up and cast aside. This change in societal attitudes, though perhaps not as tangible, is very real. A social theory as well as a literary one is needed, therefore, to reconcile Miller's play with the modern world. Marxist literary criticism is one such theory. It relates literature to the society which produced it and the society that consumes it. Examining the ideological basis and historical context which surround the play result in a better understanding not only of the text but of the changes in our society as well. We must begin beneath the surface of the play, in abstraction, to search for the ideologies that control the action of the play. To the Marxist, ideology is more than a doctrine or set of doctrines; it is an amorphous body of free-floating images that pervades and manipulates all aspects of life. Terry Eagleton goes so far as to say, "...that literature is nothing but ideology in a certain
artistic form-that works of literature are just
expressions of the ideologies of their time" (Eagleton 17). Ideology could be thought of as the skeleton upon which the musculature of form, plot, and character are hung. It is the primary purpose of the Marxist critic to expose and comment on any and all ideologies present in a work. In effect, a Marxist literary critique tries to weaken or fracture the bones of the play. In "Death of a Salesman," two major ideologies come into direct conflict: the cult of the personality and the profit motive. The play moves from the homespun myth of the fierce individualist who has pulled himself up by the bootstraps and into fame and fortune (i.e. Willy's father and Ben, his brother) to the harsh realities of industrial capitalist society. The ideologies are not mutually exclusive. They both fuel the insatiable greed at the heart of the American dream. They equate happiness with economic success.
Willy thinks he can achieve this goal with a smile and handshake. He places image before substance. "Be liked and you will never want" (Death 1360). This idea coupled with a belief that the simplest and most humble can rise to the greatest heights form the core of Willy's motivation. It is also the source of his greatest struggle. Willy becomes Miller's ideological champion of the common man. Though he fails, Willy challenges the fixed notion of a class system. "The revolutionary questioning of a stable environment is what terrifies. In no way is the common man debarred from such thoughts or actions"...