Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The American Dream
Willy believes wholeheartedly in what he considers the promise of the American Dream—that a “well liked” and “personally attractive” man in business will indubitably and deservedly acquire the material comforts offered by modern American life. Oddly, his fixation with the superficial qualities of attractiveness and likeability is at odds with a more gritty, more rewarding understanding of the American Dream that identifies hard work without complaint as the key to success. Willy’s interpretation of likeability is superficial—he childishly dislikes Bernard because he considers Bernard a nerd. Willy’s blind faith in his stunted version of the American Dream leads to his rapid psychological decline when he is unable to accept the disparity between the Dream and his own life.
Willy’s life charts a course from one abandonment to the next, leaving him in greater despair each time. Willy’s father leaves him and Ben when Willy is very young, leaving Willy neither a tangible (money) nor an intangible (history) legacy. Ben eventually departs for Alaska, leaving Willy to lose himself in a warped vision of the American Dream. Likely a result of these early experiences, Willy develops a fear of abandonment, which makes him want his family to conform to the American Dream. His efforts to raise perfect sons, however, reflect his inability to understand reality. The young Biff, whom Willy considers the embodiment of promise, drops Willy and Willy’s zealous ambitions for him when he finds out about Willy’s adultery. Biff’s ongoing inability to succeed in business furthers his estrangement from Willy. When, at Frank’s Chop House, Willy finally believes that Biff is on the cusp of greatness, Biff shatters Willy’s illusions and, along with Happy, abandons the deluded, babbling Willy in the washroom.
Willy’s primary obsession throughout the play is what he considers to be Biff’s betrayal of his ambitions for him. Willy believes that he has every right to expect Biff to fulfill the promise inherent in him. When Biff walks out on Willy’s ambitions for him, Willy takes this rejection as a personal affront (he associates it with “insult” and “spite”). Willy, after all, is a salesman, and Biff’s ego-crushing rebuff ultimately reflects Willy’s inability to sell him on the American Dream—the product in which Willy himself believes most faithfully. Willy assumes that Biff’s betrayal stems from Biff’s discovery of Willy’s affair with The Woman—a betrayal of Linda’s love. Whereas Willy feels that Biff has betrayed him, Biff feels that Willy, a “phony little fake,” has betrayed him with his unending stream of ego-stroking lies.
More main ideas from Death of a Salesman
I'm the New England man. I'm vital in New England.Willy Loman, Act I
Willy's self-definition is centered around his career. He isn't the man who does sales for New England - he's the New England man. He believes himself to be vital to the company, but in reality it's the company that's vital to him and his feelings of self worth. When he discovers that he isn't vital anywhere, his worldview crumbles.
He's liked, but not well-liked.Biff, referring to Bernard. Act I
Willy's recipe for success is based entirely around a cult of personality. Most people are liked by their friends and acquaintances. But only great men, according to Willy, are truly well-liked - and that is what brings them success. In this quote, we see that Willy's belief in personal connections has been transferred to his sons as well, as they dismiss their friend Bernard for only garden-variety likability.
The man knew what he wanted and went out and got it! Walked into a jungle and comes out, the age of twenty-one, and he's rich!Willy, regarding Ben. Act I
This is a principal refrain for Ben. Although Willy is the first one to use this line, Ben repeats it many times throughout the play, making it clear that Ben is only a figment of Willy's imagination. He does not speak normal words, but is the personification of a symbol - Willy has attached all his ideas of success and worth to the abstract concept of his brother Ben, whether Ben merited it or not.
I don't say he's a great man. Willie Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He's not the finest character that ever lived. But he's a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He's not to be allowed to fall in his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person.Linda, regarding Willy. Act I
This is the play's direct cry to human dignity. The thesis of Linda's speech - and of Salesman as a whole - is that all men deserve respect and attention. No human being is disposable. No man should die without feeling he mattered.
You can't eat the orange and throw the peel away - a man is not a piece of fruit.Willy, act II
This is Willy's articulation of Linda's "attention must be paid" speech. But Willy's appeal is not for some abstraction of attention or dignity. He is arguing directly to his employer that there must be responsibility taken for employees. Willy gave his youth to the company, and now the company must take care of him.
After all the highways, and the trains, and the appointments, and the years, you end up worth more dead than alive.Willy, Act II
Willy is bemoaning the worthlessness of all his years of work. He never earned enough to save anything, and he didn't build, and he didn't grow, and now that his job is done he has nothing left. He was a subsistence worker. It is this realization - along with the realization that he has a life insurance policy with a large premium - that drives him to suicide.
I realized what a ridiculous lie my whole life has been.Biff, act II
This is Biff coming to terms with the fact that his father's illusions of success for him were truly just illusions and nothing more. Biff has spent his life trying to live up to - or react against - an impossible falsehood and a vision of himself that never existed. Willy's illusions about success impacted every part of his sons' lives.
I've got to get some seeds. I've got to get some seeds, right away. Nothing's planted. I don't have a thing in the ground.Willy, act II
Willy realizes that his whole career has built up to nothing. He worked for 40 years and has nothing to show for it. This leads to his obsession with seeds late in the play - it is too late to grow anything for his sons, but at least he can plant some vegetables, something that will outlast him and provide some use.
I'm gonna show you and everybody else that Willy Loman did not die in vain. He had a good dream. It's the only dream you can have - to come out number-one man. He fought it out here, and this is where I'm gonna win it for him.Happy, Requiem
This shows that Happy has become the idealist, while Biff is leaving town to start over as a man who accepts his mediocrity. But now Happy has the urge to try, to become something. Perhaps he will succeed - but more likely, he too will fail. Willy did die in vain, and Happy cannot change that.
I am not a dime a dozen! I am Willy Loman, and you are Biff Loman!Willy, Act II
Biff has just cried that he is a dime a dozen, and so is his father. Willy refuses to believe this, cannot believe this. He and his sons must be special. The Lomans must stand out from the pack. All of Willy's feelings of self-worth and identity come from doing better than the next guy, and to realize that he is no different than anyone else would be to realize that his life was false.