Book Review: Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller

Jadon Khor, Editor-in-Chief

   It’s been 72 years since the publishing of Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, a play crafted after the collapse of Nazi Germany and the cementing of the Cold War between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. 

   Inspired by the economic boom following the World War, and a renewed sense of familial service in light of a once in a century baby boom, Death of a Salesman explores the American Dream’s implications on a family otherwise victim of the Dream. 

   Titular main character, and part antagonist to his son’s character arcs, Willy Noman is an aged salesman who fails to make a name for himself outside of disappointing his sons and causing a ruckus for his wife. 

   Though the tragedies of Death of a Salesman have special emphasis in the 21st century, where the American Dream has all but waned in the eyes of the young generations. The common notion where if one works hard they can earn money no longer applies universally, instead many are acknowledging the need for both intuitive thinking and networking connections. 

   This new generational awareness is no better exemplified than national political movements that have driven younger generations, especially that of the Millennials and Gen Z, toward a less capitalistic driven society, as portrayed in Death of a Salesman, to one more similar to the welfare states of Scandinavia. 

   Willy’s struggles to make himself a successful salesman is presented to the audience as a man who thinks people who “like” him are enough of an accomplishment to succeed in sales. For the 1950s audience, this realization of falsity in human interaction was a crack in the ideals of the American Dream. For the 2020s audience, this realization of falsity was an acknowledgment of the shortcomings of various institutions that led to their generations destined to be poorer than their parents. 

   Perhaps the more interesting, and sympathetic, character in Death of a Salesman is Willy’s son, Biff Noman. Biff has more implications for a modern audience; at the entry of the play Biff is indoctrinated into thinking promotive of the American Dream’s ideals of self-made wealth and hard workmanship, but at the end of the requiem Biff announces his disillusionment of the Dream.

   In Biff, there are very stark similarities in the road to self-awareness as the Millennial generation, who experienced the 2008 recession as a collapse of their beliefs in laissez-faire capitalist superiority. 

   Though more tellingly, Death of a Salesman lacks characters already disillusioned by the laissez-faire American Dream commonly found in the most minor generation post-9/11 and post-2008 recession. Instead, it is the proof of the failures of the American Dream as portrayed in Death of a Salesman that allows relation between Gen Z audiences and Arthur Miller. 

   This play receives a nine out of ten for me. While its discussion of the American Dream’s implications post-WWII resolates among a large audience in the U.S., slowly is it losing its shocking and tragic impact on generations inherently disillusioned by the Dream.