Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman Releases the Pressure to be Perfect

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Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman is a cautionary tale of the dangers of blindly conforming to the American Dream and the materialism that goes hand and hand with it. Personally, I benefited greatly from the read. It made me question my pride, my example as a leader, my definition of success, and how far I would be willing to go to achieve said success. For that reason, along with my genuine enjoyment of the play, I believe that every Honors Program student should read Death of a Salesman.

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The story chronicles the life of Willy Loman, a father, husband, and traveling salesman, in the days preceding his suicide. Willy’s tragic life is one that he made for himself. If it were not for his failed character, he could have had a supportive wife, great neighbors, and children he was proud of. However, because his pride blinded him from these great parts of his life and his poor decision-making skills exasperated any problems, Willy lived a miserable life, a cautionary tale of pride for Honors College readers.

Willy’s tragic choices begin long before he becomes suicidal. As he fathered his teenage children, Biff and Happy, he instilled in them completely backward principles. He taught them to seek popularity above all else, to be self-serving in all you do. This behavior is evidenced when Biff failed math class and was not able to graduate high school. Instead of disciplining his son or even acknowledging that he did wrong, Willy immediately blames Biff’s classmates and teachers. Willy also indoctrinated his children with a sense of pride as strong as his own, which kept them from succeeding just as it did him. The only Loman who even approaches happiness, Biff, does so by humbling himself and doing lowly work on a farm. Willy’s decision to raise his children in his own image, prideful and selfish, leads him being ever ashamed of them, which corresponds directly with his suicide. Honors College students should consider this not only in the context of parenthood, but leadership in general, asking themselves what example they are setting for those around them and learning from their answer.

Just as Willy’s parenting decisions lead to misery, so do his career decisions. From the beginnings of his career in sales, where he did poor work as he focused on his love affair, to the end as he became outright delusion about his talent, Willy’s behavior in the workplace was never up to par. His inadequacies as a salesman climaxed when he was in his boss’s office, begging to be promoted to a stationary salesman, to work in New York exclusively rather than throughout New England. He insists so heavily on his promotion, using petty tactics in an attempt to get his way, that he is fired. His bad decisions do not stop here, however. Willy’s pride again show itself as a fatal flaw when he is kindly offered a job by his neighbor. Even though it would allow him to mend his family financially and emotionally, Willy refuses because he cannot humble himself. His desperate need for success again leads a straight line to his mental decline, something Honors College students should consider when defining and chasing success.

Seeing the cause-and-effect between Willy’s selfish, prideful decisions and the shame that causes his suicide allows the Honors College Student to face the realities of fear and failure in a materialistic, success-driven society. It lets them see how destructive the “American Dream” can be, how striving for the white picket fence fantasy can keep one from living an honestly joyful life. Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman releases the pressure to be perfect because it reveals what happens when the pressure becomes too great. Willy’s poor decision making skills that lead to his tragic suicide tells the student not only to avoid decisions like his, but tells why they do not need to pursue the trivial things that made Willy’s life so miserable. If the goal of learning is to expand horizons and prepare for the future, Death of a Salesman is an essential read.

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