Culture Education

I am not a Dime a Dozen!

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Among my favorite texts to teach every year in AP Literature is Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, which never fails to move me—and even occasionally has the same impact on teenagers who seem a bit more jaded than I am. I’ve had students weep in the last few moments of the play while we read it aloud, when Willy, the protagonist of the play, is confronted by his eldest son Bif.

If you haven’t read or seen the play, do yourself a favor and skip over this clip until you’ve had a chance to do so.

 

Lee Siegel, writing in the New York Time, worries that audiences today might not see the characters the way that Miller intended:

Mr. Miller’s outrage at a capitalist system he wanted to humanize has become our cynical adaptation to a capitalist system we pride ourselves on knowing how to manipulate. For Mr. Miller, Willy’s middle-class dreams put the system that betrayed them to shame. In our current context, Willy’s dreams of love, dignity and community through modest work make him a deluded loser.

Perhaps there is a simple, unlovely reason “Death of a Salesman” has become such a beloved institution. Instead of humbling its audience through the shock of recognition, the play now confers upon the people who can afford to see it a feeling of superiority — itself a fragile illusion.

I know some students react to the play in the way that Siegel describes, struggling to see him as a tragic figure because his dreams seem so mundane. The play breaks my heart because Willy, flawed though he is, represents values that still awfully important to me—an honest day’s work, building a little something for your family, and hoping for something better.

About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is a seventeen-year teacher of English, former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.

His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.

In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

4 Comments

  • I see Willy less as someone who believes in an honest day’s work than someone who believes that we can get by if only we’re “liked,” if we can please others with our personalities rather than our actual job performance. Imitating Willy, Biff tried to cut corners and became a failure.

    I know that Miller was a socialist. But I’m not sure the play is an indictment of capitalism. It’s an indictment of shallowness, the idea that you can get by with a smile and a shoe-shine.

    • I think there’s some truth to what you say. Willy is certainly deluded and believes that being “well-liked” is the key to success. For me, his tragedy is his inability to see what he has accomplished, despite his flaws.

  • While I haven’t seen the production of Death of a Salesman to which Mr. Siegel refers, I have never felt superiority nor can I imagine today’s audiences feeling superior.

    Classical Greek tragedy was supposed to warn an audience what might happen if they should make the same mistakes. We don’t feel good because we haven’t killed our fathers and married our mothers as Oedipus did. Instead, we feel cautious: we know we shouldn’t act in haste, shouldn’t ignore warning signs, and shouldn’t imagine we can avoid consequences.

    With Willy we feel a similar caution: dreams must be grounded in reality. And today’s reality tells us how random the marketplace can be. If we imagine ourselves as superior to Willy, we are missing something very basic: “Attention must be paid.”

  • Capitol vs. labor. Always has been war in this country, and used to be an actual shooting war. But the war is now over. The robber barons won. The one percent now owns ninety-nine percent of the wealth. The corporate fascists have pretty much complete control of the country. It didn’t have to be this way, but the people of this country stopped fighting. And now, the younger generation has forgotten their history completely, and hence, they are doomed to repeat it.

    I fault my generation, the boomers. They got sucked into thinking that they didn’t have to invest in anything except money. Selfishness became their creed. The Greatest Generation handed us a great country with all the ingredients for tremendous potential, but we dropped the ball.

    We are now a third world country. And that is very sad. But I say that when the one percent does ninety-nine percent of the WORK in this country, they can’t keep all the capitol they want. But until then, it’s time for more class war! It’s the right thing to do!

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