Death of a Salesman Ė Faith and Integration Essay
This essay is an attempt at reflecting the play back to the reader so that they will realize that I not only read the play and internalized it in matters of faith for myself, but also integrated the motifs into my writing style. The essay speaks to several people as characters and doesnít always address them directly. It speaks both to a general reader and to a father. It doesnít use literary techniques of quotes or structure to transition, and this is intentional, as they are as apparent as the invisible walls and stage direction used to shift Willyís mind from present to past tense in the play.
ďAnd he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the land with a curseĒ (Mal 4:6, RSV).
Arthur Millerís Death of a Salesman tells the story of Willy Lomanís struggles in American society; specifically in relation to economics, family life, and individual values. Willy talks the talk of a salesman, but knows as his life is ending that he has not become the success he envisioned. I think Willy quickly realized that heíd never become that success, and this led to his desire to make his son Biff into his vision. Biff becomes a means to Willyís desired end with increasing passion at every letdown, failure, and passing day of age. This desire ends up running Willyís entire character, as his moods shift with Biffís life and not his own.
In the end, Biff rejects the life his father wills for him, understanding it to be as futile a test for him as it was for his father; maybe even more so, because Biff doesnít like the life of a salesman and certainly doesnít want to die its death. Willy may never have liked it either. He doesnít seem to recognize this specifically, but the life of the salesman symbolizes the life of the opportunistic capitalist and all that is created by such persons. These creations include disrespect for age, gender, loyalty and the like in order to pay all homage to the sale; the almighty dollar. These creations include the crowded streets and apartments now consuming Willyís home that prevent him from growing a garden, and nearly (if not completely) removing his view to the skies. Heavenly bodies, and with them heavenly things, seem removed in this system of economics that Willy has succumbed to, and his only remaining hope is to subject his son to the same life in order to prove that the system can be conquered. In the end, there are no diamonds for the Lomanís to find in the forest. The forest is burning, and time is running out for them.
Willy drains the last sands of time from his own life in order to provide one last chance of seizing that diamond to Biff. Yet, the play is a tragedy and the open ending only leaves one to consider whether the plan succeeds, or if the insurance company denies his claim. Even if the claim gets paid, does Biff take the twenty thousand dollars and start that sporting goods business? I canít imagine that he does, because I donít think his hatred of his father died with Willy. That hatred is still not buried in a grave. Happyís hatred is buried even deeper than Biffís. Completely unrecognized by his father, Happy is the real tragedy in the story. This, to me, is overflowing with irony, because Happy, not Biff, is the son made in the image of Willy.
Biff was a blessed child, gifted in sports and looks. He was the crowdís leader who was able to get away with cheating the system. He even would have overcome that one final obstacle (the failed math course), if he didnít discover his fatherís adultery; making all heíd been built up to be a lie. This may be why Willy saw Biff as his savior and Happy as an afterthought Ė because Happy reminded him of himself and he had no shot in this system; whereas Biff - with good looks, a resume of success in athletics, and the street smarts to take advantage of the willingness of others to not call him on his mistakes (stealing the football) Ė Biff, with all of this, did have a chance. Biff was the golden child to succeed in this system, a system Willy had grown to hate, and a system that would use up and destroy Happy as well.
So, what of this capitalist system in America, and how do I integrate these issues (economics and this play) into matters of faith?
These matters are of great importance to me, and matters I spent a great deal of time considering during my collegiate years. Perhaps I can explain it through a bit of a confession, or testimony. I saw myself, possibly too much, in the character of Biff, and my father, possibly too much, in the character of Willy. I wonder if dad ever read this play, or saw the film. The film was made in 1986. Had he recently seen it playing on television two years later when he, like Willy to Biff, told me to ďgo to hellĒ?
Closing in on my fourteenth birthday, it was all becoming too much to handle. Dad, an intelligent man with a smaller amount of athletic skill than passion for sports, had become so spineless that I couldnít stand him any longer. He had completely subjected himself to my motherís will, and that was a great and terrible danger that caused unbelievable pain and torture within my huge family. Dad hated this system, and still does, but he always had his eye on me with hopes to be the one to find that diamond. I had more intelligence and more skill than he did growing up. He showed up at my games, and I may have been his favorite child. I was greatly troubled from the second grade through the eighth, but my brains and skills always allowed me to overcome the crowdís objections and normal punishments. Acing their tests after missing two weeks of class got me by the teachers, and putting on dazzling displays in gym classes kept the crowd of peers at bay. High school was starting, the family pain was heightened, and I faced a larger crowd of peers and an entirely new set of teachers to manipulate. The task of handling them all was too overwhelming and I shut down. I didnít show up for those tests at the end of the two weeks of absence and I didnít care about my peers. I spent all my time at home, building up the courage to confront him (and her). When the moment arrived, I couldnít do it, couldnít speak, couldnít say what I wanted to, couldnít say anything at all. I looked, to dad, like a destruction of all his hopes, reflecting infinitely only the sloth that had destroyed him in life and he therefore wished me hell. He and mom sent me away to live with relatives.
They did this because every time I kept a teacher or peer at bay, I was unknowingly keeping my parents safe from them as well. My unwillingness to manipulate meant great danger to their family and to their secrets. Dad didnít want me to go, but mom did, and she was running this show. So, off to live with relatives I went.
The Lord works in mysterious ways. I found myself living with my aunt and uncle, a thousand miles away from home, surrounded with Christian love. That freshman year was a struggle and had two great milestones. Within two months, I had been born again. In my joy filled and now purpose-driven life, I rushed back home to bring Jesus with me. I was sure, with Him, that Iíd finally possess the courage to have that talk with mom and dad and fix everything. Jesus gave me the courage, but not the results I had expected. I crumbled and they sent me away once again.
Upon my return to my relativesí home in Minnesota, I got it back together, finished the basketball season with hopes of playing some varsity ball the next year, corrected my academic issues, and started letting my brain show again. My attendance was terrific. My relatives were better! Thatís when it happened. Grandpa, my fatherís father, died just before the school year ended. Moved by grandpaís bedside conversion through the conversation my aunt had with her dying father, from holding his bedrail as he passed from this life, and confronted by my father, who traveled alone and was sleeping on the pull out couch in my relativesí living room, and who having watched his dad die now wanted his son to return home - how could I reject him?
I returned home. The crowd was too much. The same family pain surrounded me each day. Another uncle Iíd grown closer to when I lived out of state died and he didnít know the Lord. I quickly fell apart and destroyed my sophomore year. Dad was saddened, but I was there. In that summer, I cast off anything that would prevent me from making it in this world. I started my junior year with perfect attendance, quickly found a girlfriend, a cheerleader at that, and got myself ready to play ball in the winter.
I had burned the coaches in each of the previous two years. I would have been their starting point guard. I wouldnít do it to them again. Yet, this year, they didnít trust the results. They repaid me in kind. I didnít make the cut. Surprisingly, I took it like a man. I smiled, attended games, kept up my grades and my girlfriend, got deeper and deeper into the crowds, and ignored the flames consuming my family. The next year, I started the same and tried out for the team again. I quickly knew it wouldnít work. I met with the assistant coach. I could see it in his face. I heard the rumors from the other players about what the head coach said. I could see it was all true. Theyíd repay me in kind again; two years of burning for two years of burning. I couldnít bear the cutting. I quit.
All I wanted was to have dad show up to another game. I was good enough to play. My grades were fine, my attendance as well. Iíd lost God through it all, but I was determined to get that joy for dad, who begged me home after grandpa died. It wasnít going to happen.
So, I threw it all away. It was all too much to bear. Family, even dad, school, sports, the crowds altogether Ė the teachers and the students - I crumbled them and threw them into the trash like that IQ test that read 151 in Psychology my senior year. That test I took, in the process of crumbling it all, after missing two weeks of class, sitting in the back, scoring my sheet, watching students raise their hands at different intervals about their scores. They stopped at the 130ís and asked if there were other scores. That assistant coach, loved by so many, was the teacher. I didnít raise my hand. I crumbled the paper and was done with this whole mess. Girlfriend, gone. Friendships decayed. Basketball hopes destroyed. I bought some cigarettes and a lighter. I burned my lungs and infected them with the habit that eventually took grandpaís life, because I didnít need them for sports any longer. I used the lighter to burn that IQ test and all that moment represented.
Mom raced to fix it (not me), and called my relatives a thousand miles away. My aunt was sick and grandma needed too much care. My uncle said no this time. The lights faded, and I dove into everything awful that I could. Dadís dream would die, but for some reason, even with all the things I lit, smoked, and swallowed - I didnít.
Itís funny. Had he left me with his sister when grandpa died, he probably would have had his wish fulfilled. At a small school in Minnesota, a Christian boy by my name would have graduated with a scholarship for academics and sports. Whyíd he have to be so selfish as to have it happen in front of his eyes? Was it just to override mom on something for the first time in years? I have no idea. Maybe Iíve got it all wrong. Maybe I stole the answers to that IQ test. Maybe Iím more like Biff than I realize and my skills of brains and athletics were always oversold to me, and one day Iíll realize that I too am a dime a dozen.
I could dazzle together another two pages about faith and economics and tie in the story of Death of a Salesman throughout if I had to. I could use some Dallas Willard insights about how Jesus came to make us good, and not to fix the system. I could use some Frederick Buechner and explain how struggle isnít what needs to be removed to find peace, but itís love that needs to be found. I could then tie these quotes into some fancy analogies Iíve created over my recent college days: communism is the devil with strength and socialism is the devil with brains. I could add on this weekís thought that maybe capitalism is the devilís very spirit or soul. I could, I suppose go on and talk about Marx and Adam Smith, and even some Kierkegardian views about why monarchies work better than our system for the common man. I could even paraphrase C.S. Lewis on democracy. I could quote it all and make it look nice and fancy and give theory after theory about how the system should operate in place of this one we live in here in America. I could, and maybe Arthur Miller would be honored by that, but it would all miss the point.
The point is dad. The point is that it took me another eight years of self-inflicted chaos and pain to find God again. The point is that the last six years of growing closer to God has been amazing and terrific, but I feel like a recovering addict who at any moment can take a sip from the world and it all might fade to black again. The point is that at times, I do sip from that cup, and so far in this six years, He hasnít let me slip. The point is that in the middle of those eight years of chaos, I ran 1300 miles away this time. The point is Iím still here, all this distance between dad and me, but very little between me and my heavenly Father. Ten years Iíve been working at this company. Ten years Iíve been manipulating this crowd of bosses and peers and moving right on up. Ten years, of which the last six have been extremely successful. The point is that this distance was my $20,000 from Willy, and Iím running a sporting goods store that I hate. The point is, that this essay and two hundred like it, are not meant to capitalize on the diamond of a death claim, but to leave this burning forest and to bring a smile to dadís face when he sees me now, writing about Jesus, instead of only when he thinks of me late at night while talking to the me that was one day his pride and joy. Thatís the point, and Iíll do it, even if itís through a conversation on his deathbed when my child is fourteen. Thatís the only diamond in this forest, and I found it long ago, dad, when you told me to go to hell, and leaving it up to mom like always, neither of you realized that you sent me to heaven instead. That diamond will work for her too, but that story is for another day.
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The Diamond within Death of a Salesman
by TJ Nickel