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...My father is, literally, a much more realistic guy than Willy Loman, and much more successful as a personality. And he'd be the last man in the world to ever commit suicide. Willy is based on an individual whom I knew very little, who was a salesman; it was years later that I realized I had only seen that man about a total of four hours in twenty years. He gave one of those impressions that is basic, evidently. When I thought of him, he would simply be a mute man: he said no more than two hundred words to me. I was a kid. Later on, I had another of that kind of contact, with a man whose fantasy was always overreaching his real outline. I've always been aware of that kind of an agony, of someone who has some driving, implacable wish in him which never goes away, which he can never block out. And it broods over him, it makes him happy sometimes or it makes him suicidal, but it never leaves him. Any hero whom we even begin to think of as tragic is obsessed, whether it's Lear or Hamlet or the women in the Greek plays.
"Arthur Miller: An Interview," The Paris Review, Summer 1966
Obviously, Death of a Salesman is a criticism of the moral and social standards of contemporary America, not merely a record of the particular plight of one man. And, also obviously, it presents Willy as a victim of the deterioration of the "American dream," the belief in untrammelled individualism. The word "dream" is a key word, recurring frequently in the play; and the deterioration of American individualism is traced through the Loman generations in a descending scale, from the Whitman-like exuberance of Willy's father, through Ben, Willy himself, to the empty predatoriness of Happy, who is he admits, compulsively competitive in sex and business for no reason at all.
Brian Parker, "Point of View in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman," University of Toronto Quarterly, January, 1966
So Willy Loman wreaks havoc on his own life and on that of his sons. The blight of his own confusion is visited upon them. Unaware of what warped his mind and behavior, he commits suicide in the conviction that a legacy of twenty thousand dollars is all that is needed to save his beloved but almost equally damaged offspring. This may not be "tragic," but such distorted thinking maims a very great number of folk in the world today.
Harold Clurman, "Editor's Introduction," The Portable Arthur Miller, 1971
The particulars concerning Willy's situation also have universal significance. Willy has lived passionately for values to which he is committed, and he comes to find that they are false and inadequate. He has loved his sons with a passion which wanted for them that which would destroy them. He has grown old and he will soon vanish without a trace, and he discovers really the vanity of all human endeavor, save perhaps love. His foolishness is really no greater than Othello's raving jealousy or Lear's appreciation of the insincere, outward appearance of love. A pension would not help him, nor, had he come to be J. P. Morgan would it have helped. Linda says, "A small man can be just as exhausted as a great man," and she cries out "Attention must be paid." Inevitably, no matter what material heights a man succeeds to, his life is brief and his comprehension finite, while the universe remains infinite and incomprehensible. Willy comes to face, if you will, the absurdity of life, and it is for this reason that "attention must be paid."
Lois Gordon, "Death of a Salesman: An Appreciation," The Forties: Fiction, Poetry, Drama, 1969
Willy Loman, exhausted salesman, does not go back to the past. The past, as in hallucination, comes back to him; not chronologically as in flashback, but dynamically with the inner logic of his erupting volcanic unconscious. In psychiatry we call this "the return of the repressed," when a mind breaks under the invasion of primitive impulses no longer capable of compromise with reality.
Daniel E. Schneider, M.D., The Psychoanalyst and the Artist, 1950
Willy is one vast contradiction, and this contradiction is his downfall. He is a nicer guy than Charley. He is so nice, as someone said once, he's got to end up poor. This makes Charley untroubled and a success, and Willy contradictory, neurotic, full of love and longing need for admiration and affection, full of a sense of worthlessness and inadequacy and dislocation and a failure.
Elia Kazan, "Notebook," in A Theater in Your Head, 1960
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Murray Bromberg, Principal Wang High School of Queens, Holliswood, New York Sandra Dunn, English Teacher Hempstead High School, Hempstead, New York Lawrence J. Epstein, Associate Professor of English Suffolk County Community College, Selden, New York Leonard Gardner, Lecturer, English Department State University of New York at Stony Brook Beverly A. Haley, Member, Advisory Committee National Council of Teachers of English Student Guide Series Fort Morgan, Colorado Elaine C. Johnson, English Teacher Tamalpais Union High School District Mill Valley, California Marvin J. LaHood, Professor of English State University of New York College at Buffalo Robert Lecker, Associate Professor of English McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada David E. Manly, Professor of Educational Studies State University of New York College at Geneseo Bruce Miller, Associate Professor of Education State University of New York at Buffalo Frank O'Hare, Professor of English Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio Faith Z. Schullstrom, Member of Executive Committee National Council of Teachers of English Director of Curriculum and Instruction Guilderland Central School District, New York Mattie C. Williams, Director, Bureau of Language Arts Chicago Public Schools, Chicago, Illinois