Thematic Content and Structure
This is not the story of a salesman: It is the story of Willy Loman who just happened to be a salesman. This is not the story of Everyman. Willy’s passion, love and drive go way beyond the norm. Perhaps most people will relate to Willy, be moved by him and, most importantly, think, contemplate and learn from his life and his mistakes.
Willy, like Eddie Carbone in Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge, demands to be “totally known”. Like Eddie, he could never settle for half. He must attempt everything even if it means ending up with nothing. He will risk his very life to achieve his “due”, what he considers his rightful status. As Arthur Miller says, “The commonest of men may take on that [tragic stature] to the extent of his willingness to throw all he has into the contest, the battle to secure his rightful place in the world”. Of course, this willingness automatically removes him from being the commonest of men.
Self-esteem based upon the approval of others is evanescent and leads to self-delusion and self-destruction. This, to me, is the primary theme of Death of a Salesman. All of Willy’s other problems--his lack of self-knowledge, his refusal to follow his natural instincts, his constant self-doubt, confusion and lack of confidence (no sooner does he make a decision then he needs to be reassured that it’s the right one), his stubborn, pigheaded determination to do things his own way, positive that he’s right and yet in the next moment afraid that he’s wrong, begging for another opinion, the very bad influence he is on his sons--all of this stems from the primary theme.
Having achieved his self-esteem through the approval of others, Willy has watched these ‘approvers’ go to their graves and take his self-esteem with them. As the play progresses, it becomes more and more difficult for Willy to lie and delude himself. One after another, all the myths he has created in the past are exposed before his eyes. There is no self-pity, only frustration, bewilderment and epic struggle. The more he struggles the faster his decline. Subconsciously, Willy knows where he went wrong, but consciously is unable to come to terms with it. The constant and horrendous turmoil Willy endures is based upon his subconscious awareness and conscious refutation.
Both Biff and Happy, his sons, are confused, but Biff is desperately searching for answers; Happy is under the delusion that he is searching, but in many ways has found his niche. Like most womanizers, he’s mindless and self-gratifying. In no way is Hap a young Willy as has sometimes been stated. He lacks the love, passion and depth. Hap is puerile where Biff is undisciplined. Biff, being deeper and more sensitive than Happy, suffers more from Willy’s influence.