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“Jesus … help him”: Lostness and Arthur Miller’s Commentary on Death of a Salesman

December 28, 2011

In the first conversation of Death of a Salesman, Willy and Linda Loman review an argument earlier that day between Willy and Biff. The argument began when Willy asked Biff if he was making any money. Linda defends Biff to Willy: “You know how he admires you. I think if he finds himself, then you’ll both be happier and not fight any more” (15). But Willy will have none of that explanation, discounting the very possibility that Biff could find himself while working on a farm. If he has not found himself by the age of thirty-four, according to Willy, it is because “Biff is a lazy bum” (16). Biff would not have to be finding himself if only he were making thirty-five dollars a week. Linda does not agree that Biff is lazy, but mystified by his problems, she says, “I think he’s still lost, Willy. I think he’s very lost” (16). That makes no sense to Willy: “Biff Loman is lost. In the greatest country in the world a young man with such—personal attractiveness, gets lost. And such a hard worker. There’s one thing about Biff—he’s not lazy” (16).

Within just four speeches, Willy contradicts himself on the nature of Biff’s character. While Linda agrees that Biff is not lazy, the contradiction itself shows the irrelevancy of Biff’s work habits to the question of identifying causes for his difficulties. Irrelevant to any possible solution are the facile patriotism of identifying oneself with “the greatest country in the world” or of depending on the exterior of “personal attractiveness.” Even though Linda is characterized as confused and overwhelmed, her explanation for Biff’s problem has the basic advantage of consistency—that he is lost and is therefore trying to find himself.

At least temporarily, Willy comes around to seeing Biff as a troubled young man. By the stage direction “with pity and resolve,” he tells Linda, “I’ll have a nice talk with him. I’ll get him a job selling. He could be big in no time” (16). For Willy, his conscious notion of his own identity is never separated from his sales occupation; he becomes his own commodity, validated by his ability to sell himself. Such insipid self-affirmation is what he thinks could also help Biff identify himself.

Willy’s idea that Biff “could be big in no time” parallels the images of puffery and inflation in the play’s later conflicts. Happy, for example, is not what he has been telling his parents he is:

Happy: We always told the truth!
Biff, turning on him: You big blow, are you the assistant buyer? You’re one of the assistants to the assistant, aren’t you?
Happy: Well, I’m practically—
Biff: You’re practically full of it! We all are! And I’m through with it. (131)

To be big in no time is to assume an identification having no interior basis, taking no time to develop emotionally or morally because of having no expectation of development, but simply to inflate. “I never got anywhere,” Biff tells Willy, “because you blew me so full of hot air I could never stand taking orders from anybody” (131).

Linda’s description of Biff’s ontological dislocation as his being “lost” parallels the use of “lost” in the gospels. In Luke 19:10, Jesus describes his mission thus: “For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost.” That verse is echoed in Matthew 18:11, and in Luke chapter fifteen are the three parables of lostness, of the lost coin, the lost sheep, and most significantly, the prodigal son who left his father. The prodigal son himself has an ontological crisis, concluding that when he returns home, he should offer himself as one of his father’s servants. The father in this parable says of his son, “He was lost, and is found” (Luke 15:24).

Arthur Miller seems to have conceived of the salesman story in theological terms, and he encourages such a reading in the language of his comments on the play in his theater essays. Miller’s earliest characterization of a salesman occurs in a short story, “In Memoriam,” which he wrote when he was seventeen. It is told from the point of view of a youth observing the life of a neighbor:

I turned from him [the salesman Schoenzeit] in order to get the nickels required, and when I lifted my eyes to his figure I prayed, until my temples seemed to burst, for his salvation. At that moment, he looked so broken, so dejected and lost, that I hastily lowered my gaze. (1995, emphasis added)

Like most of even the best fiction of seventeen-year-olds, this story overstates its point: Schoenzeit “had lost something vital,” “he never was complete,” “the soul inside had crumpled and broken beyond despair,” “I deeply pitied such a dejected soul,” “my heart bled for him at that moment,” and on the story goes. Here, the salesman’s ontological crisis seems to be caused solely by the vapid depersonalization of the “dignified slavery” of selling: “he never became entirely molded into the pot of that business” (1994, 1995).

At the end of “In Memoriam,” the youth finds out that Schoenzeit is dead—a fact that gives the youth a sense of relief on Schoenzeit’s behalf—but nothing is ever said of the cause of his death. However, when Arthur Miller donated the manuscript of “In Memoriam” to the University of Texas, he attached a note stating that the salesman on whom he based Schoenzeit had committed suicide by jumping in front of an El train (1994). By omitting the suicide from the story, Miller also left out the aspiration of the human that would support his characterization of Schoenzeit as needing salvation. Salvation from what? Is it sufficient to say that Schoenzeit needs salvation from misery?

Soon after Death of a Salesman opened on Broadway in 1949, the critical debate centered on whether or not the play is a tragedy. In his responses to the debate, Miller redefines the generic terms set in Aristotelian criticism. His youthful story “In Memoriam” would be more pathetic than tragic in Miller’s own later criticism: “The possibility of victory must be there in tragedy. Where pathos rules, where pathos is finally derived, a character has fought a battle he could not possibly have won” (7). Salvation may be nice for the Schoenzeits of the world, but in a pathetic presentation, there is no basis for understanding their need for it.

That need is more appropriately represented in tragedy by a character’s hamartia. Miller identifies hamartia as Aristotle’s term for the trait usually translated as a “tragic flaw.” In Miller’s earliest theater essay (1949), the “tragic flaw” hardly connotes any moral judgment: “The flaw, or crack in the character, is really nothing—and need be nothing—but his inherent unwillingness to remain passive in the face of what he conceives to be a challenge to his dignity, his image of his rightful status” (“Tragedy and the Common Man” 4). One might hear just a possibility of pride in that description. But in Miller’s introduction to the 1957 Collected Plays, hamartia is transformed from the literary “tragic flaw” to the religious “sin.” Miller argues that Willy achieves a kind of victory in coming to understand that Biff loves and forgives him. But then Miller echoes the Apostle Paul (Romans 6:23)  in explaining why this victory does not last:

That [Willy] is unable to take this victory thoroughly to his heart, that it closes the circle for him and propels him to his death, is the wage of his sin, which was to have committed himself so completely to the counterfeits of dignity and the false coinage embodied in his idea of success that he can prove his existence only by bestowing “power” on his posterity, a power deriving from the sale of his last asset, himself, for the price of his insurance policy. (147, emphasis added)

Miller presents Willy’s failure as a misplacement of faith in a law of success rather than in the system of love, which he has a glimpse of when Biff is finally able to confess his own shortcomings to Willy.
After his introduction to the Collected Plays, Miller consistently returns to religious language to theorize the meanings of tragedy. In an interview with Phillip Gelb (“Morality and Modern Drama”), Miller claims that Death of a Salesman shows the wages of sin with “a man who dies for the want of some positive, viable human value” (1958, 195). In his 1966 Paris Review interview, he comments that “The tragic hero was supposed to join the scheme of things by his sacrifice. It’s a religious thing, I’ve always thought. He threw some sharp light upon the hidden scheme of existence, either by breaking one of its profoundest laws … or by proving a moral at the cost of his own life” (269).

Within Death of a Salesman, the characters’ lostness appears clearest when we see the failures from their commitments “to the counterfeits of dignity and the false coinage embodied in his idea of success”; lostness, in other words, is indicated by each character’s sin (hamartia). Happy, for example, observes that as far as his ambitions are concerned, he has achieved some measure of success: “Sometimes I sit in my apartment—all alone. And I think of the rent I’m paying. And it’s crazy. But then, it’s what I always wanted. My own apartment, a car, and plenty of women” (23). That success, however, is no substitute for a viable human value. In a curious explication inserted in the stage directions, Happy, “like his brother, is lost, but in a different way, for he has never allowed himself to turn his face toward defeat and is thus more confused and hard-skinned, although seemingly more content” (19). Happy’s moment of greatest truthfulness is his conclusion about having his own apartment, car, and plenty of women: “And still, goddammit, I’m lonely” (23).

The difficulties both Happy and Biff experience with lostness have, as one cause, Willy’s failure to raise them with an ethical sensibility. Even while excusing Biff’s petty thefts, lying, and cheating, Willy tries to justify his parenting: “What did I tell him? I never in my life told him anything but decent things” (41). But one of the clearest moments of Willy’s own lostness occurs when Biff realizes that Willy has betrayed his own family. When Biff finds Willy having an affair, Willy confesses, “I was lonely, I was terribly lonely” (120). Biff finds the emptiness within of all of Willy’s values: “You fake! You phony little fake! You fake!” (121).

This confrontation in the hotel room occurs seventeen years before the primary time of the play, but Willy’s own current lostness is constantly alluded to, from his driving around Yonkers at the play’s opening (13-14), to his “los[ing] himself in reminiscences,” (16), to the single word “lost” used as a stage direction in the middle of one of his speeches (17), to his telling his brother Ben during one of his recollections, “I still feel—kind of temporary about myself” (54). And Biff still carries the knowledge he learned years earlier about Willy: “I know he’s a fake and he doesn’t like anybody around who knows!” (58).
In his autobiography Timebends, Miller claims that his notion of salvation is not exactly Christian: “The Jew in me shied from private salvation as something close to sin. One’s truth must add its push to the evolution of public justice and mercy” (314). Miller also condemns Pauline theology as a fix “as seductive as justification by faith alone” (396). As a Christian reader of Miller, one who accepts a Pauline theology, I believe he is somewhat attacking a straw man; if one’s private salvation does not aid to increase justice and mercy, then that person’s faith is dead. And if not as directly as in his short story “In Memoriam,” Miller still presents his characters as needing a salvation. This, I suggest, he does with the feature of the play that has most offended some Christian readers, its profanity and the uses of God’s name.

For example, should Happy’s loneliness really be taken as God-damned? At the climactic moment of the play, when Biff and Willy arrive at a moment of understanding, Biff says, “Will you let me go, for Christ’s sake? Will you take that phony dream and burn it before something happens?” (133, emphasis added). I would suggest that it would precisely be “for Christ’s sake” that Willy should relinquish his phony dream. That would start the kind of salvation that would show some mercy to Biff as well.
But the most theological cry for help occurs in a confrontation between Biff and Happy in the restaurant:

Biff: Yeah, but he doesn’t mean anything to you. You could help him—I can’t! Don’t you understand what I’m talking about? He’s going to kill himself, don’t you know that?
Happy: Don’t I know it! Me!
Biff: Hap, help him! Jesus … help him … Help me, help me, I can’t bear to look at his face! (Ready to weep, he hurries out, up right.) (115)

In a play in which expletives become prayer, this passage looks much like a cry for salvation, for oneself and another which would answer Miller’s concern about private salvation. Once again, as a Christian reader, I find this looks like what is needed for lostness and hamartia, help from Jesus. And much of the power of Death of a Salesman comes in its portrayal of the theological implications of human lostness.

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