A Man Is Not A Piece of Fruit
Arthur Miller was a bona fide Marxist when he wrote Death of a Salesman, and the Marxist sensibility wafts through the air as one read the play. Miller hoped that the play would be a “timebomb underneath capitalism.” But when Mr. Bigsby, in his introduction to the Penguin version of the play, suggests that the political message is not why the play is world famous, he misses the point. Marxism stems directly from a fusion of humanist thought with economics and simplified Hegelian theory. The core of the Kritik upon capitalism comes from capitalism’s inability to utilize humans as anything but cogs. Thus, the book attacks capitalism with the same sensibility it attacks everything else. In short, the book attacks one half of the American dream and the connected values, but reveres the other half.
One of the play’s main virtues that it expounds is the idea of strong interpersonal relationships. Willy fails in the world of capitalism because his opinion of the worth of people and feelings is too strong. In order to get a transfer from Howard, he does not do what the alienated capitalist sentinel, i.e. describe his qualifications, ability to work hard, value as a worker, age, etc. Instead, he conjures personal memories: “promises were made across this desk”, “I named him Howard”, “a man is not a piece of fruit”. The value he holds as a non-productive member of the society is equal only to his worth as a high-quality widget. Thus, Howard gives Willy the boot. The theme of strong interpersonal relationships is most eloquently presented at the Loman house. Biff and Happy vie for Dad’s attention; Linda adores her husband and endures his quicksilver machinations through thick and thin. Willy has a strong personal magnetism that would have led to success, if only he had understood the farce he had to play in the system. Miller clearly presents the love and caring the household as positive. Here, Willy’s failure is only a lack of understanding about his game. The clear villains that acts as the sin to this virtue is Howard, the unfeeling, parasitic bourgeois, to use the terminology.
The play also attacks success, as defined by the world of mammon, but celebrates hope. Marx advocates a utopian realm where all objects and production would be communal. For a Marxist to dispense of hope would be counterproductive. Here, however, all but one character in the capitalist fantasy. Willy, Happy and Linda all demonstrate the unquenchable human emotion of hope, but they do so in terms of material items. To Linda, freedom is being free of debts. To Happy, the only dream one man can have is to scrabble and push his way to the top of the heap of while kicking others in the neck. Willy is paralyzed by a hope for the future based upon how “liked” he is, upon wild gimmicks and propositions, upon having family members return from the grave. When he realizes his future holds no hope for him, he turns inward, to fantasies of the past, where the sun is shining and Biff can still make it and the car is bright and red and Ben can still come back. Only Biff redefines what he is hoping for. Biff hopes to work with his hands, to taste the sun and the breeze, to play games with his brother. By abandoning the world of mammon and returning to a simpler life, Biff stays true to the real spirit of his father.
The play celebrates exploration of the self, but not at the cost of inaction or exploration of oneself in a material sense. In the end, only Biff says, “I know who I am.” The unreality of the play comes to a head at this point. Biff repeats the mantras of “knowing myself”, “talking the truth in this family”, throughout the entire play. No other character gives a glancing comment. The remarks he has made are too spiritual to fit those dogmatized by the religion of money. Biff says that Willy didn’t know what he was because he let himself be defined by his job, not by his person or his activities; he became the mask. Happy, Linda, Charley, and Willy all talk about debts, about money, about being the biggest man, and Biff becomes a man with an incisive scalpel and no patients. Biff wants to change himself, to humble himself, to work with his hands and his soul. Willy, Linda and Happy see all personal attributes (success, freedom, friendship, happiness) as being defined by some kind of widget.
The play walks a fine line between dichotomies of seemingly identical traits by magnifying the sick tissue of the malignant trait and showing the cancer at an exaggerated size. The American dream does expound personal awareness and interdependence; hard work and charity; strong community and an eye for the future; personal development and potential. But the spirit of the pioneer was somehow trapped in a suit, disarmed and shaved, and turned into a salesman. Biff wants to go back to the frontier, to celebrate the ephemeral aspects of the American life possible only away from Western civilization. Willy, Happy and Linda are all pioneers trapped as city-slickers, celebrating the capitalist corruption of their ideals, blinded by dogma so they cannot see their captivity. Only Biff celebrates the natural form of each of the values, without capitalist subversion.