Interpretation of a Drama – Death of a Salesman

ARTHUR MILLER, Death of a Salesman, Act II: Leave-taking scene

1. Place the scene in the context of the drama Death of a Salesman.

(Verlangt ist die Darstellung der Grundsituation und Herstellung des Zusammenhanges mit der vorhergehenden Handlung.)

The scene is to be found almost at the end of act II of ARTHUR MILLER's drama Death of a Salesman. It presents the dialogue that arises from Biff's intention to take leave of his father. The scene centres on Biff and his father, Willy Loman; his mother, Linda, and his brother, Happy, are on stage, too, but are hardly involved in the action. At the beginning, the scene is set in the garden where Willy Loman has been planting seeds. The action, however, soon shifts into the kitchen.

The drama deals with a father-son relationship between Willy Loman and his son Biff. Willy Loman, a travelling salesman already in his sixties, has not been up to his job lately and is failing to earn enough money. His wife Linda still loves him and gives him her emotional support. His sons Biff (34) and Happy (32) are a disappointment to him, as both have failed to fulfil all the hopes he had placed in them. Instead of studying at a university Biff has become an itinerary farmhand, whereas Happy, a notorious womanizer, does an unimportant job as the assistant to an assistant buyer. All the same Willy Loman is still unable to admit that he has been following ideals for which he and his sons were unsuited, namely economic success and wealth. Although Willy Loman has a knack for building and fixing things, all his life he has had the ambitionto be a successful salesman. Step by step, the drama reveals the discrepancy between what Willy Loman pretends himself and his sons to be and what they really are. Simultaneously, the audience is made to realize that what brings about his downfall is not merely the failure to reach his goals, but the attempt to keep up a façade of success.

In this scene towards the end of act II, the revelation of the truth on the one hand, and Willy Loman's blindness to that truth on the other, are brought to a head.

2. Explanation: Explain why Biff's attempt at communicating with his father fails in this scene.

(Darstellung der Ziele und Motive, mit denen Biff in dieses Gespräch eintritt; Darstellung der Motive und Einstellungen Willy Lomans, die Biffs Versuch scheitern lassen; Erläuterung der Gesprächsrichtung und der Figurenreaktionen)

Unlike the way Biff left his father in the past, (“Every time I've left it's been a fight that sent me out of here.”) this time he intends to leave his father peacefully and for good. He does not wish anybody to take the blame for what has become of him; he rather wants the conflict between himself and his father to be settled before he leaves (“To hell with whose fault it is …”). At the beginning of the scene Willy Loman passively resists Biff's approach. The stage directions describe his immobility. He is filled with disbelief when he hears that Biff hasn't got any appointment applying for a job the following day. By pulling away, he physically shows his resistance towards telling his wife that he accepts Biff's decision.

When Biff tells his mother on his own that he has decided to leave she accepts it at once. Willy Loman's silence and lack of response are an expression of utter rejection. When Biff gently tries to make his father understand his intentions, Willy reacts rudely and full of anger (“erupting fiercely”; “May you rot in hell if you leave this house.”). Quite at a loss, because he does not deserve such hatred, Biff wonders what his father expects of him. From Willy Loman's reply, his lack of understanding becomes evident. He imagines Biff is acting out of “spite” and he fears having to take the blame for Biff's life.

When he even accuses Biff of dealing him a fatal blow (“You're trying to put a knife in me …”), Biff's behaviour in the dialogue changes. He is no longer gentle and considerate but outspoken and straight to the point. Producing the rubber tube that Willy Loman used for his attempted suicide, is meant to provoke. He forces his father to face the truth. Still, Willy Loman is evasive and pretends never to have seen the tube nor to have heard of it. Now it is Biff's turn to raise accusations and to pronounce the shattering truths Willy Loman is afraid of hearing: “We never told the truth for ten minutes in this house!” that Biff has become a notorious thief and even been in prison for this, because of his father's idealization of him, “blew me so full of hot air that I could never stand taking orders from anybody!”.

In the ensuing monologue Biff describes the sudden moment of self-realization which he experienced a day or two before: that working outdoors is what he loves and he is not ashamed of admitting to it; that he does not want to pretend any longer and try to become what his father has planned for him. Becoming aware of what is good for him and what he is suited for means that Biff has found his identity, has become independent of his father, and this is an important turning point in his life (“I know who I am!”). This is, thought, not enough to convince Willy Loman and to tear down whatever blinds him from the truth.

The argument between Biff and his father reaches a climax and becomes rather violent when Willy Loman refuses to admit his personal failure: “…turning on him in an uncontrolled outburst: 'I am not a dime in a dozen! I am Willy Loman ( …).'” Only when Biff's anger is spent and he breaks down crying does his father feel touched (“astonished: 'What're you doing?'”). Biff is completely exhausted from trying in vain to make his father aware of the fundamental mistake he has made in his life. Willy finally realizes that Biff has spoken to him out of affection (“(…)elevated: '(….)Biff - he likes me!'”), but only to turn towards the next illusion (“That boy - that boy is going to be magnificent!”).

In the conversation with his father, which eventually turns into an immensely emotional and violent argument, Biff tries in various ways to explain what he has realized for himself. What he says appeals to his father's reason; first he treats him gently, and when this is of no avail, he provokes him and becomes violent with frustrated anger. All his attempts are pointless, however, and meet with his father's utter lack of understanding, because Willy Loman still desperately clings to his dreams of success. He is blind to the fact that by trying to live up to the values propagated by society, he has missed the chance of a loving and sincere relationship with his sons. What is more, he has possibly ruined his sons' chances of living fulfilled lives.

3. Discuss whether ARTHUR MILLER's Death of a Salesman can be considered a tragic play.

(Bestimmung der Literaturgattung)

A tragedy is defined as a serious play with a fatal or disastrous outcome for the protagonist. In Death of a Salesman the tragic hero, who is presented as a victim of circumstances and who has made the wrong decision, is Willy Loman. Already when he first comes on stage he is presented as a person utterly defeated. His job is extremely taxing; he has bouts of amnesia and is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. He has always blindly believed in values which society claims to be important and has allowed these values to control his and his sons' lives. Just as blindly, he sacrifices his life in the end. He talks himself into the absurd idea that the last thing he can do after having lost his own job, is to give Biff another chance with 20,000 dollars of life insurance money. His tragedy lies in his lack of self-awareness.

Whereas Willy Loman's problems accumulate in the course of the play and make his situation unbearable to him, Biff is the main character who benefits from the change he undergoes. Though he loses his father in the end, and will never be able to repair the damaged relationship he had with his father, he cannot be considered a tragic character, because he has gained the self-awareness his father lacked, which will help him towards a fulfilled life.

Aufgabentypen, die alternativ zur Evaluation gestellt werden können:

  • Persönliche Stellungnahme: z. B. Comment on Biff's decision to leave his parents for good.
  • Text production: a) In order to cope with his frustration, Biff, after one of the fights which made him leave home, decides to write a letter to his father. What, in your opinion, will he write?
    b) Write a soliloquy that reflects what went on in Biff's mind when he had the moment of self-realization in the office building.
ARTHUR MILLER (1915 bis 2005)

ARTHUR MILLER (1915 bis 2005)

Interpretation of a Drama – Death of a Salesman - Porträt Arthur Miller

Stand: 2010
Dieser Text befindet sich in redaktioneller Bearbeitung.

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