I’ve never been able to make time real for myself. I can’t remember whether something happened two weeks ago or three years ago, or when I was in England the last time. The calendar doesn’t seem to exist in my head. It all melts together. It always has. It’s probably a form of insanity. I thought I would try to write that way – simply melt the days, the months, and the years, because I really do believe that we move through the world carrying the past and that it’s always alive in the back of our head. We are making constant references between what we see now and what we saw then. Between what we hear now and what we heard then. This face reminds us of a face long gone. (Arthur Miller, October 15, 1995)
The flashback scenes in Death of a Salesman are the most useful sections of the play. These periodic glimpses into the history of Willy and the Loman family provide more than just a literary element. Flashbacks are often used to recount events that happened prior to the story’s primary sequence of events or to fill in crucial back-story. It is a term which probably derives from the cinema, and which is now also used to describe any scene or episode in a play, novel, story or poem. It is inserted to show events that happened at an earlier time. Willy’s flashbacks can be interpreted as much more; as a representation of his guilt felt for things he did, and did not, accomplish in his life. The flashbacks take on a psychological aspect, encompassing the notion of repressed memories and the feelings of shame and guilt. The flashbacks in the play serve more than just detailing the history of Willy but also show the painful memories he has tried to repress throughout the years. These memories stand for his feelings of longing for the life he never had and the life he wishes he could forget. The fluid treatment of time: past and present flows into one another seamlessly and simultaneously as various stimuli induce in Willy a rambling stream-of-consciousness. It is important to remember that the idyllic past that Willy recalls is one that he reinvents; one should not, therefore, take these seeming flashbacks entirely as truth. The idyllic past functions as an escape from the present reality or a retrospective reconstruction of past events and blunders. Even when he retreats to this idyllic past, however, Willy cannot completely deny his real situation. He retreats into his daydreams not only to escape the present but also to examine the past. He searches for the mistake that he made that frustrated his hopes for fame and fortune and destroyed his relationship with Biff. Arthur Miller does show that the past is as alive as the present in Death of a Salesman. Miller’s decision to have Death of a Salesman takes place “in a single setting, in a night or day” has a dramatic impact on the play. The past and the present are represented on stage simultaneously, making one day and night span many years in the life of Willy Loman. There are no scene breaks in either act of the play so the action runs fluidly.
The play is mostly told from Willy's point of view, and it shows previous parts of Willy's life in his time shifts, sometimes during a present day scene. It does this by having a scene begin in the present time and adding characters onto the stage that only Willy can see and hear, representing characters and conversations from other times and places. Many dramatic techniques are also used to represent these time shifts. For example, leaves often appear around the current setting (representing the leaves of the two elm trees which were situated next to the house, prior to the development of the apartment blocks). Biff and Happy are dressed in college football sweaters and are accompanied with the "gay music of the boy's". The characters will also be allowed to pass through the walls that are only obeyed to in the present as told in Miller's stage directions in the opening of ACT 1:
Whenever the action is in the present the actors observe the imaginary wall-lines, entering the house only through its door at the left. But in the scenes of the past these boundaries are broken and characters enter or leave a room by stepping 'through' a wall onto the forestage.
However some of these time shifts or imaginings occur when there are present characters onstage, one example of this is during a conversation between Willy and his neighbor Charley. During the conversation, Willy's brother Ben comes on stage and begins talking to Willy while Charley speaks to Willy. When Willy begins talking to his brother, the other characters do not understand who he is talking to and some of them even begin to suspect that he has "lost it".
Willy: I’m awfully tired Ben.
Charley: Good, keep playing; you’ll sleep better. Did you call me Ben?
Willy: That’s funny. For a second there you reminded me of my brother Ben. (Death of a Salesman)
However, at times it breaks away from Willy's point of view and focuses on the other characters, Linda, Biff and Happy. During these parts of the play, the time and place stay constant without any abrupt flashbacks as usually happens while the play takes Willy's point of view. Willy dies self-deceived.
The play's structure resembles a stream of consciousness account: Willy drifts between his living room, downstage, to the apron and flashbacks of an idyllic past, and also to fantasized conversations with Ben. When we are in the present the characters abide by the rules of the set, entering only through the stage door to the left; however, when we visit Willy's "past" these rules are removed, with characters openly moving through walls. Whereas the term "flashback" as a form of cinematography for these scenes is often heard, Miller himself rather speaks of "mobile concurrences". In fact, flashbacks would show an objective image of the past. Miller's mobile concurrences, however, rather show highly subjective memories. Furthermore, as Willy's mental state deteriorates, the boundaries between past and present are destroyed, and the two start to exist in parallel.
Ben’s remarks, the flute music, and the offstage voice of the Woman illustrate Miller’s concept that everything exists at the same time-at least within the human mind. The Salesman image was from the beginning absorbed with the concept that nothing in life comes next, but that everything exists together and at the same time within us; that there is no past to be ‘brought forward’ in a human being but that he is his past at every moment and that the present is merely that which his past is capable of noticing and smelling and reacting to. Music sets the mood of past:
· Opening stage direction ‘a melody is heard, played upon a flute. It is small and fine, telling of grass and trees and the horizon.’ Flute is an expressionist device.
· Flute is an instrument associated with nostalgia and it can be heard playing when Willy begins to imagine a happier life in the past.
A source of conflict in the play is Willy’s inability to distinguish between illusion and reality. Much of the action unravels in flashbacks from Willy’s mind, and as a result the drama lies not so much in reality but in Willy’s own perceptions and recollections of events. Willy is under the illusion that a man can be successful as long as he his popular, this is his own delusion and at the end of the play we are able to see the reality as the only people to attend his funeral are Linda, Biff, Happy and Charley. Willy is also under the illusion that he and his sons will make something of themselves despite their setbacks, yet the truth seems to be, in the new capitalistic and technological world, they are all destined for failure. The mingling of the past and the present shows Willy’s internal conflicts. Inconsistencies which Willy displays show the conflict inside of him. Willy says that his car is ‘the greatest car ever built’, but later contradicts himself when he changes his opinion to ‘that goddamn Chevrolet’ He has always been a figure of several faces to the boys he must be the successful father, to Linda the provider, and to himself the great salesman. He needs to believe in himself in order to survive. He cannot accept the supposed hurt to his pride that a job offered by Charley might inflict upon him.
It is important to examine the evolution of Willy’s relationship with his family, as the solid family is one of the most prominent elements of the American Dream. In the present, Willy’s relationship with his family is fraught with tension. In his memories, on the other hand, Willy sees his family as happy and secure. But even Willy’s conception of the past is not as idyllic as it seems on the surface, as his split consciousness, the profound rift in his psyche, shows through. No matter how much he wants to remember his past as all-American and blissful, Willy cannot completely erase the evidence to the contrary. He wants to remember Biff as the bright hope for the future. In the midst of his memories, however, we find that Willy does nothing to discourage Biff’s compulsive thieving habit. In fact, he subtly encourages it by laughing at Biff’s theft of the football. As an adult, Biff has never held a steady job, and his habitual stealing from employers seems largely to be the reason for this failing. Over the years, Biff and Willy have come to a mutual antagonism. Willy is unable to let go of his commitment to the American Dream, and he places tremendous pressure on Biff to fulfill it for him. Biff feels a deep sense of inadequacy because Willy wants him to pursue a career that conflicts with his natural inclinations and instincts. He would rather work in the open air on a ranch than enter business and make a fortune, and he believes that Willy’s natural inclination is the same, like his father’s before him. Willy settles on Biff’s discovery of his adultery as the reason for Biff’s failure to fulfill Willy’s ambitions for him. Before he discovers the affair, Biff believes in Willy’s meticulously constructed persona. Afterward, he calls Willy out as a “You Fake! You phony little fake! You fake!” He sees beneath Willy’s facade and rejects the man behind it; to be exposed in this way as a charlatan is the salesman’s worst nightmare. Assuming a characteristically simplistic cause-and-effect relationship, Willy decides that Biff’s failure to succeed is a direct result of the disillusionment that he experiences as a result of Willy’s infidelity. Despising Willy for his affair, Biff must also have come to despise Willy’s ambitions for him.
The Woman: You had two boxes of size nine sheers for me, and I want them! (Death of a Salesman)
Willy’s earlier preoccupation with the state of Linda’s stockings and her mending them foreshadows the exposure and fall that the Boston incident represents. Until the climactic scene in the restaurant, when Biff first attempts to dispel the myths and lies sinking the Loman household, the only subconscious trace of Willy’s adultery is his insistence that Linda throw her old stockings out. The stockings’ power as a symbol of his betrayal overcomes Willy when Biff’s assault on his increasingly delicate shield of lies forces him to confront his guilt about his affair with The Woman. When Biff, the incarnation of Willy’s ambition, rejects the delusion that Willy offers, Willy’s faith in the American Dream, which he vested in his son, begins to dissolve as well.
It is Loman’s psychic poverty that appeals to us that nearly overwhelm us. Essentially a dreamer, Willy is fated to dream only dreams of guilt, the guilt of a bad father and a bad husband who wanted only to be the best of fathers and the best of husbands. Arthur Miller begins this play at the point at which all hope is almost gone. Willy has already attempted to commit suicide. The main action of the play is intended to show what pushes him over the edge, and how the people around him influence and react to his downfall. Willy is a victim not of society but of his own faults. Miller used the flashback scenes in order to illustrate those flaws and the slow development of them. The scenes guide readers to identify Willy's motivations and lead readers to the themes of perception and the American Dream. The American dream pervades miller’s seminal drama. Willy Loman covets all the trappings of success that define the American dream, just as George F. Babbitt does in Sinclair Lewis’s Babitt, a novel that probably influenced Miller. Loman follows advice regarding the attainment of societal success derived through charm, style, and popularity – advice popular in that era and perhaps attributable to the publication of Dale Carnegie’s bestseller, How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936). Loman informs his sons that Bernard will not succeed in a career because high grades and diligence do not carry as much weigh in America as appearance and charm: “Because the man who makes an appearance in the business, the man who creates personal interest, is the man who gets ahead. Be liked and you will never want”. Throughout his play, Miller seems to criticize this ideal as little more than a capitalist's paradigm. Though Willy spends all of his adult life working for a sales company, this company releases the salesman when he proves to be unprofitable. Willy confronts Howard, his boss (and Miller indicts free market society), when he charges, "You can't eat the orange and throw the peel away-a man is not a piece of fruit." Here, Willy feels that Howard has gone back on his father's word by forgetting him in his golden years, throwing away the peel after eating the orange, so to speak. Thus, Willy is unable to cope with the changing times and the unfeeling business machine that is New York.
Despite his desperate searching through his past, Willy does not achieve the self-realization or self-knowledge. The quasi-resolution that his suicide offers him represents only a partial discovery of the truth. While he achieves a professional understanding of himself and the fundamental nature of the sales profession, Willy fails to realize his personal failure and betrayal of his soul and family through the meticulously constructed artifice of his life. He cannot grasp the true personal, emotional, spiritual understanding of himself as a literal “loman” or “low man.” Willy is too driven by his own “willy”-ness or perverse “willfulness” to recognize the slanted reality that his desperate mind has forged. Still, many critics, focusing on Willy’s entrenchment in a quagmire of lies, delusions, and self-deceptions, ignore the significant accomplishment of his partial self-realization. Willy’s failure to recognize the anguished love offered to him by his family is crucial to the climax of his torturous day, and the play presents this incapacity as the real tragedy. Despite this failure, Willy makes the most extreme sacrifice in his attempt to leave an inheritance that will allow Biff to fulfill the American Dream. Ben’s final hymn of “The jungle is dark, but full of diamonds” in Act II turns Willy’s suicide into a moral struggle and a matter of commerce. His final act, according to Ben, is “not like an appointment at all” but like a “diamond . . . rough and hard to the touch.” As opposed to the fruitless, emotionally ruinous meetings that Willy has had with Howard Wagner and Charley, his death, Ben suggests, will actually yield something concrete for Willy and his family. Willy latches onto this appealing idea, relieved to be able finally to prove himself a success in business. Additionally, he is certain that with the $20,000 from his life insurance policy, Biff will at last fulfill the expectations that he, Willy, has long held for him. The diamond stands as a tangible reminder of the material success that Willy’s salesman job could not offer him and the missed opportunity of material success with Ben. In selling himself for the metaphorical diamond of $20,000, Willy bears out his earlier assertion to Charley that “after all the highways, and the trains, and the appointments, and the years, you end up worth more dead than alive.”
Willy Loman seemed to be somewhat a man of importance for a small period of time, unfortunately because of his irresponsible actions and high expectations of fulfilling the “American Dream”, he had to spend most of his life struggling through feelings of guilt and failure. Willy’s obsession with his own personal tribulations and lack of insight destroyed all his relationships and caused him to betray his own set of values, proving to be a failure of societies “American Dream”. He is simply an ordinary man, whose dreams and expectations have been shattered by the false values of the society in which he has put his faith. Throughout Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, the flashback narrative technique or the mobile concurrence was used to help illustrate Willy's loss of reality from the world, the drastic change within Willy and his son Biff's relationship, and most evidently the causes that ultimately led to the destruction of Willy and his inner conscience. The present lifestyle of an individual is always a representation of their past. In order for the reader to truly understand the life of Willy Loman the "flashback narrative technique" was necessary.
· Barron’s Book Notes: Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman
· Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman: edited and with an introduction by Harold Bloom
· Microsoft ® Encarta ® 2009.
· Class lectures