Manhood and Misogyny in Death of a Salesman
An important aspect of Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” is the play’s denouement — which is commonly accepted as being the moment that Loman commits suicide, and in doing so, hopes to provide his son, Biff, “with insurance money for a fresh start” (Phelps 239).
This ending is commonly construed to represent a pyric victory on Loman’s behalf because it implies that he has — in the end — acted out of love for his family.
However, as H.C. Phelps points out in his very astute article “Miller’s Death of a Salesman” (1995) the emotional climax of the play is not at the moment of Loman’s actual death, but earlier when Loman “makes his final, irrevocable decision after the play has reached its undoubted emotional climax, Biff’s dramatic declaration to his father” (Phelps 239) which is essentially a confession of his self-perceived worthlessness.
The play’s emotional climax, viewed in one way, seems to offer closure which hints at possible happiness, even in suicide, even in death — but according to Phelps’ explication, the true resonance of Loman’s suicide and death is not heroic but only tragic and ironic.
In “Death of a Salesman,” the theme of happiness or completeness of life is central to the play’s dramatic impact. The play explores how the lives of a man and his sons are connected through contemporary ideas of manhood and family. In the play, many aspects of masculinity are presented in a way that promotes irony.
Part of the identification with manhood which exists for the male characters in the play is steeped in misogyny or in the objectification of women. This misogyny is important to the overall theme of family and manhood in the play because it shows, through irony, that the diminishment of womens’ experience and labor by men contributed to the fragmentation of the family.
Part of this fragmentation includes the degradation or de-evolution of male-bonding and particularly the bonding between a father and his sons. As Phelps points out in his brief but penetratingly able essay, the perceived closure of the play’s end is really better perceived as ironic and as a natural extension of the play’s essentially fragmented and misogynistic presentation of American social realities.
A good example of this fragmentation is the character of Linda who is presented in the play as being both subservient to her husband, Willy, and held in low esteem by her own sons.
While the overt dramatic impact of this arrangement of characters might seem to suggest only the cold detachment of the modern male or the inability of the modern male to overcome chauvinism against women, a careful reading of play reveals that this disconnect between the male characters of the play and the character of Linda is symbolic of the incompleteness of modern male experience.
In fact, the main sense of distress for the Loman family comes not from poverty or emotional barriers, but merely from Loman’s absence from his domestic sphere. This absence is symbolic of the western, primarily American, male experience.
When Linda implores Willy to “Talk to them again. there’s no reason why you can’t work in New York” (Miller) she is imploring that Willy take more of an interest in his familial than professional life. This familial perception of male-responsibility is a crucial aspect of Loman’s suicide because it is “primarily due to their insistence on Biff’s love for his father, not to any explicit comment by his son, that Willy decides to take his own life” (Phelps 239).
However, as Phelps points out, “Linda and Happy are repeatedly shown to be among the most deluded, obtuse, and mendacious characters in the play” (Phelps 239) so their assurances to Willie that Biff loved him are, for the alert reader, according to Phelps, mere lies which are rooted in misogyny and fragmentation of relationships.
Later in the play, Willy’s involvement with “the Woman” shows clearly that the misogynistic aspects of masculinity as represented by Miller extend not only to the domestic and familial spheres, but to the erotic and sexual spheres. When The Woman asks Willy “Whyn’t you have another drink, honey, and stop being so damn self-centered?” (Miller) Loman’s reply is “I’m so lonely” (Miller) and the deeper meaning of his answer lies in the fact that his very misogynistic attitude has cut him off from feminine love or even feminine erotic response.
Because Loman is unable to relate to his wife’s need for his patriarchal presence in his own home and also unable to relate to The woman’s need for erotic stimulation and celebration, Loman is in fact cut off from the primary energy-sources of true manhood: fatherhood, husbandry, and Eros. The impediment to Loman’s happiness is not actually poverty but misplaced male-identity and misogyny.
Loman’s discord with femininity is reflected also in the behavior of his sons who recklessly abuse women and conduct themselves as womanizers. Similarly, when Biff and Happy talk about Betsy they “they refer to [her] as a pig […] and a pig suggests “pigskin,” the material that footballs were traditionally made of, and compares their relationship with Betsy to sport” (Ardolino).
Because the misogyny of Loman’s sons is manifested primarily through their sexual response and sexual behaviors, the thematic impact of their relationships with women as represented in the play seems to suggest that the corruption of Eros is the first casualty of misogyny and that the deterioration of the family and finally of manhood and the self follow quickly thereafter.
The corruption of Eros is a symbol and symptom of the degeneration of family values which has taken place under the predominantly materialistic society which is represented in “Death of a Salesman;” however, the sexual function is merely a preliminary casualty of the malaise and “soul derangement” which Miller perceives in the society which he is endeavoring to dramatize in the play.
Closely associated with erotic love is … love itself, and even this emotion is so tainted by mendacity, by corruption, and by atrophy within the social microcosm of the play, that the absence of true love is what actually drives the play’s climax: not reconciliation or closure, but tragic despair and loneliness. Biff’s final words to his father are “I’ll go in the morning.
Put him—put him to bed” (Miller) and as Phelps points out, these words are “a tepid and ambiguous expression of concern” (Phelps 239) adn reveal, not love, but the absence of love which is, in fact,the true motivation for Loman’s suicide.
The key aspect of the lack-of-love interpretation is to realize that it is a misogynistically determined outcome: a symptom of a male-ordered social-universe which has sacrificed essential elements of human survival, like love, to the more expedient materialistic concerns of the moment.
In conclusion, while the interplay between men and women in Death of a Salesman seems at surface level stylized almost to the point of cliche, penetrating and revealing themes emerge from a careful reading of the gender-based themes of the play.
Primary among these is the idea of corruption of male authority and male energy by the disconnect from erotic love and finally a misogynistic bearing toward women in general. To put it in simplistic terms, the play is trying to show that turning away from the nurturing energy and experience of what is usually called “feminine” in American society has corrupted American society’s sense of manhood and allowed the disintegration of the family to follow.
The key to retrieving the balance of family lies not in riches or material success but in finding harmony between the masculine and feminine natures which are the focal energies of all families.
Phelps’ article, while eschewing lengthy examinations of gender-based, or socially based explications, does manage to uncover, according purely to the characterizations of the play itself, a continuity of expression which inverts the commonly associated emotional resonance of the play’s close and offers and incisive and very ably expressed interpretation of the play’s climax which seems to me much more faithful to the overall tone of the play as Miller intended it to be experienced.
Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. Penguin Books, 1976.
Ardolino, Frank. “Like Father, like Sons: Miller’s Negative Use of Sports Imagery in Death of a
Salesman.” Journal of Evolutionary Psychology 25.1-2 (2004): 32+.
Phelps, H. C. “Miller’s Death of a Salesman.” Explicator 53.4 (1995): 239-240.
Rosefeldt, Paul. The Absent Father in Modern Drama. New York: Peter Lang, 1996.