“Why am I trying to become what I don’t want to be when all I want is out there, waiting for me the minute I say I know who I am.”
~Arthur Miller, from Death of a Salesman
Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is the tragic story of Willy Loman, a man destroyed by false values that are not his own. The hardest question to answer is this: What do I want? The answer is rarely evident. You must first know who you are before you can understand the desires of your heart, and that is always a painful process. The fortunate learn quickly, but they are the exception.
In Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me Karen Swallow Prior writes:
In many areas of life, self-knowledge is crucially important to making wise choices, the sort of choices that lead to a fulfilling life. For what would be the wise choice for you, might not be the wise choice for your neighbor. Of course, in making choices between right and wrong, right is always the wise choice, but many, if not most, of our daily choices deal not with right or wrong, but with shades of right. Probably the most significant area in which this is true is in our choice of daily work, and it is in the area of work that Willy in Arthur Miller’s 1949 Death of a Salesman experiences the tragic consequences of failing to know who he is.
Another spoiler alert: the salesman dies. But what makes this death tragic—in the classical sense—is that death could have been avoided. Arthur Miller purposely emulated the classical tragedy model in writing his modern tragedy of the “common man.” In this case, the fatal error of the tragic hero, the salesman Willy Loman, is combined with the force of fate manifest in the social context of the hyper-capitalist, consumer culture of mid-1950s America. As in classical tragedy, all is not entirely lost, for illumination is gained, arguably, for Willy, and even more clearly for his son, Biff.
What are some of the ways a person comes to know him or herself?
20Wisdom calls aloud outside; She raises her voice in the open squares.
21She cries out in the chief concourses, At the openings of the gates in the city She speaks her words:
22“How long, you simple ones, will you love simplicity? For scorners delight in their scorning, And fools hate knowledge.
23Turn at my rebuke; Surely I will pour out my spirit on you; I will make my words known to you.
24Because I have called and you refused, I have stretched out my hand and no one regarded,
25Because you disdained all my counsel, And would have none of my rebuke,
26I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when your terror comes,
27When your terror comes like a storm, And your destruction comes like a whirlwind, When distress and anguish come upon you.
28“Then they will call on me, but I will not answer; They will seek me diligently, but they will not find me.
29Because they hated knowledge And did not choose the fear of the Lord,
30They would have none of my counsel And despised my every rebuke.
31Therefore they shall eat the fruit of their own way, And be filled to the full with their own fancies.
32For the turning away of the simple will slay them, And the complacency of fools will destroy them;
33But whoever listens to me will dwell safely, And will be secure, without fear of evil.”
Arthur Asher Miller, (born October 17, 1915, New York, New York, U.S.—died February 10, 2005, Roxbury, Connecticut) American playwright, who combined social awareness with a searching concern for his characters’ inner lives. He is best known for Death of a Salesman (1949).
Miller was shaped by the Great Depression, which spelled financial ruin for his father, a small manufacturer, and demonstrated to the young Miller the insecurity of modern existence. After graduation from high school he worked in a warehouse. With the money he earned he attended the University of Michigan (B.A., 1938), where he began to write plays. His first public success was with Focus (1945; filmed 1962 [made-for-television]), a novel about anti-Semitism. All My Sons (1947; filmed 1948), a drama about a manufacturer of faulty war materials that strongly reflects the influence of Henrik Ibsen, was his first important play. Death of a Salesman became one of the most famous American plays of its period. It is the tragedy of Willy Loman, a small man destroyed by false values that are in large part the values of his society. Miller received a Pulitzer Prize for the play, which was later adapted for the screen (1951 and several made-for-television versions).
Encyclopedia Britannica (Chicago, IL: 2016).
Karen Swallow Prior
Karen Swallow Prior is Professor of English at Liberty University and an award-winning teacher. She is a contributing writer for The Atlantic.com and for Christianity Today, where she blogs frequently at Her.meneutics. Her writing has appeared in Relevant, Think Christian, and Salvo. She is a Research Fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, a member of INK: A Creative Collective, and a member of the Faith Advisory Council of the Humane Society of the United States.
Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me
Booked draws on classics like Great Expectations, delights such as Charlotte’s Web, the poetry of Hopkins and Donne, and more. This thoughtful, straight-up memoir will be pure pleasure for book-lovers, teachers, and anyone who has struggled to find a way to articulate the inexpressible through a love of story.