Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman takes on a lot of different themes in the course of the story. It focuses quite clearly on the idea of the American Dream and how the American Dream affects and influences people. While there are certain features of the American Dream that remain unchanged from person to person, Miller’s play reveals how other elements of the Dream differ from person to person. The audience is exposed to several different versions of the American Dream in the course of the play which are compared and contrasted as the conversations between the characters unfold.
But these conversations reveal more than the hopes and dreams of the characters in the play; they also reveal a great deal about the relationships between the characters. The main relationship of the play is the one between Willy, the titular salesman, and his son Biff. A lot of criticism focuses on their dynamic, suggesting that ultimately that relationship contributed to Biff’s inability to please his father and Willy’s (ambiguous) decision to commit suicide. But there is another relationship that bears closer examination: the relationship between Willy and his wife Linda. These two appear to talk “around” important subject matter, and this habit reveals several things about their relationship as well as about the characters, including the lack of trust between them, the disintegration of Willy’s mind, and Willy’s lack of respect for Linda.
When one speaks of talking “around” a subject, sometimes it is because the people involved – or maybe just a single person – aren’t sure they’re on the same page. Sometimes one person isn’t sure how much the other person understands. Perhaps, such as may be the case with Linda, as suggested by Miller, the people involved in the conversation simply lack “the temperament to utter and follow to their end” their inner feelings and desires (12). But one must also consider that their mutual refusal to directly engage on important topics is founded in a lack of trust.
When Willy returns home at the beginning of Act One, she asks him twice whether something has happened to make him return early, with the second question being surprisingly direct: “You didn’t smash the car, did you?” (Miller 13). Willy, of course, answers “with casual irritation” that “nothing happened. Didn’t you hear me?” Her asking that question twice implies that she didn’t trust the first answer, and his response of “Didn’t you hear me?” suggests that he doesn’t believe she listens to him. And at the end, after Willy’s death, Linda still can’t open up and say the words she wants to say to him. He can’t mock her or hurt her anymore, and yet she cannot ask him “Why did you kill yourself?” She can only ask “Why did you do it?” (Miller 139). This suggests that their intimate connection ended even before his death and continues in death, that her ability to trust any answer that might come from him or as regards him is gone.
One might also consider their inability to talk directly about things to be a symptom of Willy’s disintegrating mind. It seems obvious from the beginning of the story that something is going on with Willy mentally. Willy tells Linda at the beginning of the play about losing track of himself coming home: “Suddenly I realize I’m goin’ sixty miles an hour and I don’t remember the last five minutes. I’m – I can’t seem to – keep my mind to it” (Miller 13). He tells her it’s not his glasses when she proposes that that could be the problem, answering that “No, I see everything.” The idea that he sees everything is contradicted throughout the play, from his ability to truly see his own shortcomings to understanding how his behavior affects those around him (especially Linda) to his ability to acknowledge his suicidal tendencies.
Additionally, when Linda tries to engage with him, it is almost as though he cannot hear her, so wrapped up as he is in his own mind. In Act One Willy has a memory of his Uncle Ben describing how he walked into the jungle 17 and then walked out rich at 21, but the memory seems as much hallucination as it does memory. Linda finds him in this conversation and tries to engage with him, but he’s still stuck in the memory/hallucination of wealth. When he attempts to go take a walk, she tries to stop him – “But in your slippers, Willy!” (Miller 53). He seems not to hear her and wanders off. He cannot find comfort in her or her support – he only seems to find comfort in dreams and delusions. His inability to reveal to her his inner life, and her unwillingness to admit that there might be something wrong with him, are revealed in their inability to talk about things directly.
This inability to talk directly also reveals Willy’s disrespect of Linda, which says a lot about each of them separately. In Act Two, Willy tells Linda he wants to plant some seeds in the backyard; she replies that “not enough sun gets back there. Nothing’ll grow any more” (Miller 72). Willy’s response suggests that he’s not really listening to her, that she doesn’t know what she’s talking about, that her opinions aren’t worth noticing. Linda, for her part, instead of asserting herself or defending her opinions, simply replies, “You’ll do it yet, dear” (Miller 72). She allows Willy to dominate her and stream-roll her opinions, revealing her as a submissive, placating character, while Willy is revealed as a dominating, dismissive, disrespecting character.
Sometimes what isn’t said is just as telling as what is said. The fact that Willy and Linda talk “around” important topics reveals things about their relationship and about who they are as individuals. Their interactions reveal a lack of trust between them. They also reveal the disintegration of Willy’s mind (that is, maybe he’s not a jerk, he’s just losing his grip on reality). But regardless, those interactions also demonstrate that Willy doesn’t respect Linda, and she allows him to disrespect her, as she is submissive and his is dominant.