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.