Background: Death of a Salesman is a 1949 play by Arthur Miller, which tells the story about the slow dissolution of Willy Loman’s life. It is a tragedy of unraveling dreams, and the regrettable meeting of an unshakeable optimism, and an unmoveable (and indifferent) reality. It will be considered how Willy Loman’s dreams are not merely self-deceptions, but are the necessary sustenance of his life – a life that is simultaneously condemned to misery by those dreams. It can be difficult to read Death of a Salesman and not see Marx lurking offstage, watching his insights come to life, as Marx is a political philosopher of some repute. For explicit examination of the concepts that are offhandedly mentioned in this article, the essay “Estranged Labor” by Karl Marx is recommended.
There is a set of terminology commonly tinged with Marxist connotations – labor, estrangement, alienation, wealth, capital, commodification, and so on down the list. Loosely, this set of terminology nets together into statements communicating something wrong about economic systems, political powers, and class relationships.
From Marx’s writing, one can discover many cheerful passages, such as his estimation of workers under a particular system: “the worker sinks to the level of a commodity, and moreover the most wretched commodity of all; that the misery of the worker is in inverse proportion to the power and volume of his production” (38). If the relationship between misery is inverse to the power and volume of production, then one might assume that increasing that power and volume can alleviate the misery. But mathematical optimism can be misplaced. As labor becomes more detached from the objects produced by that labor (and increasingly, no object at all is produced), the resulting alienation is not merely economic, but existential – a psychologizing force of alienation, repeatedly born out, day after workday, as labor is incessantly born out, and bears little relationship beyond an abstracted value of capital. The abstraction is rarely sufficient to give existential meaning, either in its accumulation, or in its power to purchase other values (commodified values being the only ones that can be exchanged for capital). Against this background, it becomes more commonly believed that all values can be commodified, under the myth that capital can purchase them, and that increased capital can do so more successfully. Resistance to this myth often takes the form of a related myth: aspiring to accumulate enough capital that one can purchase the complete freedom from the need to produce more. In the resulting freedom from the burden of labor, one can exist to buy as much commodified value as desired. Apart from disabusing the belief in value-commodification, this freedom is the endpoint of its full realization. Nothing remains but the values predicated on the value of capital.
Into this editorialized picture enters Willy Loman. He is a 60-year-old salesman who, as a narrator, is thoroughly unreliable from the start of the play, into the past, and up to the point of his death. We know some things with certainty: Willy exaggerates to the point of fantasy, he misremembers, he hallucinates, and he deeply idolizes his sons, especially his eldest son: Biff Loman. As a consequence of that idolization, Biff remains a poignant cause of Willy’s suffering. Ever-failing to live up to Willy’s idealized version of him, and being a dollar-an-hour type of wage-earner (it’s 1949), Biff is a constant pinprick into Willy’s fantastical projections and visions of success. The cumulative weight of being a fantasized ideal finally breaks Biff by the end of the play, “I am not a leader of men, Willy, and neither are you. You were never anything but a hard-working drummer who landed in the ash can like all the rest of them! I’m one dollar an hour… Pop, I’m nothing” (132). Marx uses different language, like sinking to the level of a commodity (and the most wretched commodity at that) – but being beaten down and landing in life’s ashtray can capture a similar spirit of assessment.
It is the refusal to live in a beaten down state that motivates Willy’s dreams, that provides his spiritual subsistence, and that supplies another coping myth. The myth of profiteering in a degenerating system without labor at all – realizing success as an adventure, a seized opportunity, a magnificent strike of fortune. This myth is embodied in the character of Uncle Ben, who, (keeping in mind the distortions of Willy’s fantasizing), is so incompetent an explorer that he set out for Alaska, and inexplicably ended up in an African diamond mine, but nevertheless tells it decidedly so: “Why, boys, when I was seventeen I walked into the jungle, and when I was twenty-one I walked out… And by God I was rich” (47). The absurdity is beside the point; it is a condensed version of a myth that isn’t so readily admitted as absurd, and is a form of eternal optimism that Willy responds to: “You see what I been talking about? The greatest things can happen!” (48). While knocking around in life’s ash can, it is vital to have visions of better things, not out of self-deception, but from self-preservation, for acknowledging the reality would culminate in the same end as the play: the death of a salesman. The alternative, however, is still the ash can.
Marx, Karl. “Estranged Labor.” The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. Progress Publishers. 1932.
Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. Penguin Group. 1949.