(Bloom 1988) Death of a Salesman takes place a few years after World War II has ended. America is enjoying a postwar economic boom, but the war has caused a shake-up in American society, changing the way people view business, leisure, themselves, and others. Not everyone can keep up with the times. The Lomans live in Brooklyn, a busy suburb of New York City. In the years they have lived there they have watched their house being gradually surrounded by new apartment construction. The set of Death of a Salesman presents Willy as living in a claustrophobic urban setting indicative of the harsh life he has chosen. (Bloom 1988) His home is surrounded by apartment houses that emanate a threatening orange glow. When memory takes over, this glow gives way to a more dreamlike background with shadowy leaves and music, evoking a happier pastoral era. At the close of the play, however, we see the looming "hard towers of the apartment buildings" dominating the setting once more. (Miller 1957) Without Willy's memories, the dream of a happier, Edenic life cannot exist in this city. In a conventional realistic play, the events that take place in 1931 would be treated as exposition, probably related by one character to another in an early scene in order to provide the motivation that drives Willy's actions in 1948. By creating a dual time frame for the play, Miller enables the audience to experience these events just as Willy does, simultaneously with the "objective reality" of the events in 1948. In doing this, he gives the audience's empathy with Willy a greater immediacy and a greater depth. He also provides a second plot line that creates interest and suspense.
If the audience were simply watching Willy plod inevitably on to his suicide, the experience of watching the play would be relentlessly bleak and somber. Miller uses the events of 1931 to create another source of suspense with the question, What happened between Willy and Biff? By treating the scenes in the past as they are colored in Willy's mind, with an idyllic hopefulness, Miller is also able to change the mood of the play in these scenes to an upbeat and even humorous one that contrasts with the hopelessness of the Lomans' current reality. Analysis of the play's social statement has centered mostly on its treatment of the "American Dream" or "success myth," the notion that any American can achieve material success and a comfortable life through hard work and devotion to business. (Bloom 1988) While there has been some effort to defend Miller as an upholder of the American Dream, most critics who have written on this subject have attempted to explain Willy's demise as a failure on his, and often Miller's, part to comprehend American history and values. (Bloom 1988) Willy's failure to achieve the American Dream is a personal one, this line of reasoning goes, not an inevitable result of the American economic system. Willy fails because he never understands what is really needed to succeed in business, insisting to the end that "personality wins the day," when, as Charley says, he ought to know from experience that "all you have is what you can sell." (Miller 1957) Miller sees the constant American quest to be successful, especially in terms of wealth, as a potentially destructive and harmful one. Competition itself often creates negative values that may lead to success, but at what Miller sees as too heavy a price. Such people often place their very humanity in serious danger. Miller is keenly aware that those in power have a responsibility to those who are not--a responsibility toward which they all too often blind themselves. In some ways, Willy's inability to be really successful is tied to his intrinsic humanity. He cannot quite let go of his basic humanity and sense of responsibility to others. Willy Loman is living in a time when the nature of business itself is undergoing intrinsic changes, partly due to capitalist pressures to make more money and become more efficient, disregarding the kinds of ethical and honor systems that had guided many American "gentlemen" of business in the past. Systems designed to share wealth were shunned as containing the dangerous seeds of communism, and it was considered respectable to strive all out to make as much money as possible for oneself, regardless of who got left behind or trampled upon. A number of the characters in Death of a Salesman underline a definite clash between business and morality. Since the nineteenth century, individualists like Henry David Thoreau have warned that business is in danger of taking over people's lives if they become too concerned with profit margins and becoming wealthier than necessary. "Life Without Principle" bemoans what Thoreau sees as a dangerous scramble for wealth inspired by the 1849 gold rush. He asks his readers to consider the difference between laboring to acquire material possessions and laboring toward cultural or spiritual growth. Thoreau is concerned with the way Americans perceive work, taking the viewpoint that people should work to live rather than live to work. It is useful to try to assess the importance of work to the various characters in Death of a Salesman and to consider whether or not work takes priority over everything else in their lives. While some cultures have eschewed the acquisition of wealth as rapacious and unseemly, in American culture, the desire for wealth and status has become an almost virtuous pursuit. This is the point argued by Alexis de Tocqueville. However, there is a rather unpleasant side to living by such beliefs, as Tocqueville suggests when he discusses what he sees as the moral incongruities of many Americans. We need to consider just how far Willy's desire for wealth has led him into morally lax situations, such as his dalliance with a secretary in order to ensure that he gets in to see her boss. We should also consider the moral rectitude of other characters, especially Ben, Howard, and Hap. It seems that the best way to survive in a capitalist system is to become a better and more ruthless capitalist than your fellow workers; the road to wealth is only realized by treading on the backs of others. As Max Lerner points out, once the business spirit permeates the whole of American culture and making money becomes everyone's priority, morality itself becomes endangered. However, a character such as Charley seems to have found a way to survive with his morality intact; we should look closely at what he says and does in the play that enables him to do this. In many countries, in many languages, in all kinds of productions, from the most sophisticated efforts of London, Broadway, and Hollywood to a high school classroom reading, Death of a Salesman has had the power to move audiences profoundly. In this play, Arthur Miller has captured something that is essential in the human experience of the twentieth century. Willy Loman, it seems, will live in our consciousness for some time to come.