EESE 7/2005


Meaning is Meanings and the Semantics of Social Humanism:
A Study of Arthur Miller's The Death of a Salesman and All My Sons.


Arunachalam Angappan
(Hadhramount University, Republic of Yemen)


Even in real life every human utterance is poetry, and every human action is drama which most of us find, at least at the first instance, quite perplexing. A keen observer of men and matters will discern poetry and drama in what happens at street corners as well as in what transpires in the private chambers of potentates. Hence, the art form 'Drama' which is a representation of a combination of both poetry and action in real life has endless possibilities for meaning. In our approach to drama what we consider as of foremost importance is the problem of understanding the quintessence of the issue/s that underlie the obvious utterances and actions that are encoded in declamatory, histrionic, semiotic, and semantic representations. Our daily life is one endless, continuous drama. In this great drama, each one of us - big or small, literate or illiterate - plays his part to a finesse masquerading his complex interior personality under the outward veneer of simplicity and straight-forwardness that, though most parts are fairly understood, there are still certain parts played by certain persons which trick the understanding of a great many of us. In an impasse-situation like this, we deploy our various faculties to untie the Gordian knot. A drama, whether it is presented in the theatre or printed in the book, also poses enormous difficulties to the viewers/readers to make out what it means as it deals with the obviously simple but actually complex and camouflaged human thoughts and deeds as well as baffling situations.

Thus meaning-making is a highly sophisticated and complex activity requiring a specialized knowledge to unravel the mysterious process of the theatrical/literary creativity of the dramatist/playwright and the assimilating critical faculty involving a series of assessments and reassessments. To reinforce this view, we can quote Styan who says, "To understand how much meaning is made in the theatre we must distinguish between what happens on the stage and what happens in the imagination of the spectator." (49) Only in a constant interaction of these two, the meaning evolves. Meaning evolves through a process which can be compared to the musical process culminating in the grand finale. Random notes do not compose a symphony. They must be orchestrated systematically and harmoniously in an ascending or descending scale leading gradually to a crescendo. Remember the frustration of Andrea del Sarto.

A drama is born out of the dramatist's conceptualization of certain aspects of human relationships. The meaning of this conceptualization is conveyed through the 'words' and 'gestures' of the 'characters' which are human counters and placing those characters in a series of 'situations' which are replicas of the happenings in life. Aristotle used the term mimesis in the sense that drama imitates life. As an imitative art, it has to be to some extent, true to reality; and to ensure that imitated reality, Aristotle insisted on the three unities as the basic elements of a drama proper. But such unities are collapsed and nullified in the modern drama as also his other dictum that tragic heroes should be of high and exalted positions which has come to be replaced by the practice of investing common persons with tragic dimensions.

The Greeks insisted on the chorus whose comments, songs and dance movements helped throw some light on the course of action and the fate of the hero. It helped in our meaning-making activity by filling the gaps left out by the dramatist by cunning or by necessity, and by supplementing our cognitive insufficiencies. We see, in the modern drama, this choric function either taken over by various other functionaries or totally absent. In Miller's Death of a Salesman, we come across a good example for the replacement of the classical chorus by one of the characters who is an integral part of the action of the drama viz., Biff. His opinion of his father coming towards the end of the play like the conventional chorus of the epilogue, sums up the latter's tragedy:

Biff: [...] You were never anything but a hard-working drummer
who landed in the ash can like all the rest of them!

Biff's remark serves as a kind of a choral commentary facilitating the understanding of the audience of the tragic character of the protagonist.

In the dramas of the modern and postmodern writers of the twentieth-century, many of the vital and traditional elements are rendered inessential. Take for example, in the theatre of the absurd of Ionesco, Brecht, and Pinter, action is reduced to a few inert movements, language (read dialogue) to mere mono or disyllabic words and short snatches if not to mere noises of hums and whimpers, settings to a mere roadside dried-up tree as in Beckett's Waiting for Godot or at the most a living room as in Pinter's The Caretaker, dress to pieces of rags, characters to tramps and so on. In the post-modernist context, wherein human worth is measured in terms of one's materialistic achievements, there has been an inevitable paradigm shift in human values and, by extension, literary pursuits have thrown overboard all that is good and desirable in life and art. Dramaturgy has turned to hairsplitting on the questions of ontology, existential predicament, negation of the individual as also the individual as a limb and part of society and to the creation of characters who, in the words of Erika Fischer-Lichte, "no longer have a definable individual ego at their disposal". (301) There is also a stasis of action as such. The bodily gestures are so mystifying that the plays ceased to put forth claims to any intrinsic worth of their own in terms of spectacle, too.

Even the so called simple, straightforward realistic plays as those of Miller offer endless opportunities for interpretations. The characters can be deconstructed to suit individual reader's standpoint and dialogues shown to carry numerous implicatures. They are mercilessly left to the vagaries of the varying perceptions and mindsets of the readers/audiences who could make as many meanings as their numbers. They may misconstrue a heaven out of hell, a hell out of heaven. There are certain qualities like fragmentariness, randomness, indeterminacy, collage, hybridization and so on which alone unified these plays and bound them into a group from which not a single play/character can stake any claim to the greatness of a Sophocles's or Shakespeare's.

The blame for the above situation cannot be shifted entirely on to the playwright. The salient feature of the above schools of play-writing which is a complete breakdown of values concomitant to the emphasis laid by humanity on economic aspects of life alone to the total exclusion of moral and sentimental aspects is due largely to the human condition. The contemporary life, especially after getting disenchanted with nearly two centuries of industrialization, decades of mind-boggling scientific and technological advancements, and the two great wars, became disillusioned, disinterested, dispirited, ugly, sordid, fragmented, materialistic, irreligious, unspiritual, sexual, directionless, illogical and, to put it in one word, absurd. Naturally in an ambience like this, old conventions are silently swept away under the carpet and new conventions in tune with the changing world-views emerge and come to rule the roost.

Religion, anthropology, and classical learning which, in the past, served as rich repertoires of myths and rituals for the dramatists to draw parallels from vanished from the domain of dramatic art. The writers started exploring every avenue of modern life with its unashamedly materialistic orientations to create new myths, archetypes and legends for symbolizing the condition of the contemporary individual and the social milieu in which he exists.

The contemporary life, especially that of the U.S. which is spreading its tentacles quite silently but speedily, making a virulent foray into the tradition-bound, convention-centric, ethnic-oriented African, Asian and Arab societies and unobtrusively replacing the human equations, has become ugly, sordid, fragmented, materialistic, disoriented, dehumanized, random, and indeterminate. These tenets of contemporary life have led to a shift in the notions of syntax, semantics, semiotics, and pragmatics of language and redefined the rhetoric and metaphor of literature.

In an absurd situation like this, one is dismayed over where life and art, as its reflector, are heading for. In a meaningless situation like this, we can not at all argue in favour of a going-back to the great tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Shakespeare and other Classical and Renaissance writers. At least we can demand that plays dealing with social realism or the so-called problem plays/plays of idea invented by the Norwegian Henrik Ibsen, and effectively and extensively utilized by G. B. Shaw, may be re-studied/re-enacted. Following the tradition of Ibsen and Shaw, Miller, in All My Sons, presents Joe Keller, the protagonist who is a member of the typical American bourgeoisie, as a corrupt, callous and selfish businessman selling his conscience for materialistic considerations. He also makes it clear through the dialogues between Keller and his son Chris which powerfully deliver the theme and sustain the tempo that the former is motivated to be what he is by the dictates of the American society and its dream for a wealthy, comfortable, and successful life. Keller is a product of a system which can be defined as follows in the words of Poupard: "The business of America is business." (1) Joe Keller is a limb of a corporation (read American society, and by extension, any society) that is madly rushing towards success. Miller, in his "Introduction" to his Collected Plays, writes, "He is not a partner in society, but an incorporated member [...]." (19) Keller tells his son Chris: "You lay forty years into a business and they knock you out in five minutes, what could I do, let them take forty years, let them take my life away?" (CP 115). This is the typical American mind-set. A man's life is his business, his money and nothing else. And a little later he adds: "Sixty-one years old you donít get another chance, do ya?" (CP 115). Joe Keller's statements are the quintessence of the murderous materialistic ground reality of the American society and throw light on the aspirations of an average American in the existing situation. He, in his mad-rush for economic success in a stiffly competitive society, symbolizes the American Dream.

His two sons, Chris and Larry, and the children of his partner, Ann and Frank, on the other hand, symbolize the other side of the American national character, viz., the concern of the well-meaning individuals for the common good of the society. They are the proponents of the rational man's love for his fellow men. In fact Chris and Larry are scathing and virulent in their attack on the inhuman, materialistic aspirations of their own father. Chris seethes with rage and fury:

What is that, the word - the business? What the hell do you mean, you did it for me? Don't you have a country? Don't you live in the world? - What the hell are you? You're not even an animal, no animal kills his own, what are you? (CP 116).

And that Larry also suffers from similar sentiments will be understood through our knowledge of how he felt when he read about the wicked deed of his dad through the papers. He writes about it to his love, Ann:

I can't tell you how I feel - I can't bear to live any more. [...] How could he have done that? [...] I tell you, Ann, if I had him there now I could kill him - . (CP 126)

With the utmost economy of words, the author effectively creates explosive situations and fire-brand characters. Just four words: "I could kill him." The grand image of a soul in distress emerges. The same economy of words is adopted in the creation of other characters and situations also.

The American dichotomous attitude to life is poignantly brought out in the dialectical materialism of the mother, Kate Keller. She wanted money, of course, but not the way her husband made it. She is categorical that her husband's evil cannot be exonerated even though he committed it for the welfare of the family. She tells him: "[...] I don't excuse it that you did it for the family." (120) What a situation the man who did whatever he did only out of love and concern for his family finds himself in! With an extreme economy of language, the author arouses the imagination of the audience/readers, and there emerges a colossal picture, looming larger and larger, in the mind's eye leaving indelible impressions.

Following the great realistic and socialistic dramatic tradition of Ibsen and Shaw, Arthur Miller promoted such plays in the American scenario. Most of his plays are very sensitive dramatizations of contemporary problems arising out of the materialistic pursuits of man. They have potential enough to make a tragic hero of none too extraordinary a wartime arms manufacturer like Joe Keller or none too significant a salesman like Willy Loman. True to his realistic leanings and a flair for attacking the materialistic ambitions of the Americans, he raises ordinary citizens who could be the neighbours of anyone of us to the exalted position of tragic heroes. He does not invest his characters with any heroic, romantic, or divine qualities. There are no old world charms about them. Still they carry about them all the tragic aura of a king or a prince of the classical dramas. According to G. J. Watson,

Arthur Miller, who has been deeply influenced by Ibsen, clearly agrees with the great Norwegian's implied position, that the social status of the protagonist is irrelevant to the tragic effect, and emphasizes rather the importance of 'the self-conceived role'. (125)

According to Raymond Williams, "Tragedy, for us, has been mainly the conflict between an individual and the forces that destroy him." (1) This exactly is the thesis of Arthur Miller. He places his characters in a context bombarded by materialistic and humanistic forces and ensures the destruction of those individuals who stand by materialism.

Miller's heroes, Keller and Loman are two very real products of the post-wars, economically-depressed but morally not bankrupt America wherein everyone was madly engaged in a pursuit for success, the infamous 'American Dream', by the side of a few fellow citizens voicing a serious concern about the depleting humanism in interpersonal and social contexts. The constructs were and still are: materialism sans humanism, an amalgam of materialism and humanism, and a humanistic materialism. In the complex American dichotomous situation, Miller's tragic protagonists get trounced. He wants the Americans to introspect and find a way out of this moral chaos which could be the worst form of a society's malaise.

Joe Keller of All My Sons and, Howard, the young boss and Biff, son of Willy Loman of Death of a Salesman stand apart as the proponents of the position 'materialism sans humanism'; the mothers of both the plays, Ann of the first play and the salesman Willy and his somewhat compassionate son Happy of the second symbolize the neutral position of 'materialism and humanism'; Chris and Larry, the two brothers of the first, though uncompromising in their espousal of 'humanism in its purest form' may be taken to incarnate the agreeable position of 'humanistic materialism'. This, the dramatist accomplishes to show through the words and attitudes that constitute the 'character' of the dramatis personae and deeds and events that decide the action of the play, keeping both all the time within bounds of reality so that the audience/readers can have less difficulty in piecing together his intended meaning of the human situation in this spacio-temporal world.

In the American dramatic tradition of realism, though Eugene O'Neill, Strindberg, Albee, Miller and Williams are all shining stars with an irrefutable place and importance of their own, it is Miller who has successfully portrayed the American Dream with its merciless materialistic pursuits and the tragedy of the next door neighbour who has fallen a pathetic victim to and risen as a tragic hero in the race for success. Willy is also a tragic figure in that he woefully lives in a world of limited knowledge about his own ultimate success. He is not able to perceive the reality that he has already conquered the world materialistically as the last due on the housing loan has already been cleared by his wife out of the savings from his own proud selling career. If the foolish king, Lear, who fails to perceive the true worth of his daughters, is a tragic hero then our salesman must also be one of that kind. The tragedy of the ignorant is rather more poignant than that of the enlightened.

Miller creates an unforgettable character in Willy Loman, the hardworking but star-crossed salesman. America is a country which exists solely on its ability to sell itself. The play was considered as a reflection of the depressing market conditions in the aftermath of the Second World War. The play, which focused on the failure of the career of a salesman, shook the whole country and made people sit up and review the whole business of selling. What the Americans, driven by their materialistic ambitions, woefully failed to perceive was that the failure of the salesman was only an interface juxtaposed with the falling standards of humanism in the American context. It must be identified as a metaphor not only of American middle-class yearnings and failures but of the entire world; the life, dreams and ultimate defeat of Loman symbolizes the tragic dimensions of everyman everywhere in the world. The particular experience of a frustrated salesman rises to universal scales and that speaks for Millerís greatness of thematic conceptualization and an appropriate characterization which convey the meaning holistically.

In their fall from grace to disgrace, we find Keller and Loman fully discharge themselves heroically and end tragically having exhausted themselves fighting for what they fanatically believed to be the good, fanatically insisting upon their self-conceived roles. Both Joe Keller and Willy Loman consider themselves too smart, clever, several cuts above the ordinary who surround them, and under that impression proceed to realize their full potentialities in terms of the infamous American Dream only to be bewildered by the realization through a resistance of their own sons and also that of the social forces, and end up choosing to take away their lives bravely instead of giving up.

In his perseverant attempt at a realistic portrayal of the American Dream which means hard work and lot of money, Miller candidly analyses and lays bare how unethical, and unsocial the pursuit of his fellow citizens is. And this he does without any recourse to any of the orthodox views and beliefs, a creative pitfall which many a writer could never fully and successfully escape all through his career. According to Chinua Achebe, "Orthodoxy, whether of the right or of the left, is the graveyard of creativity." (254) In the case of Miller, in spite of his well-known Marxist affiliations, we do not come across any display of his ideological leanings.

He takes up issues that stare at the face of society, presents both sides of the issue and leaves it in such a way that the audience will invariably walk over to his side. In the opinion of Lois Gordon, Miller's "[...] aim is a theater that teaches, not by proposing solution but by defining problems." (450)

Thus the plays succinctly and clearly present the dichotomous character of the American life even though many meanings were read into them by differing audiences depending upon their position as father, mother, son, lover, and so on. For example, varying significations were attached to one and the same signifier, All My Sons, like it being the tragic story of a father who thanklessly strives for the welfare of the family, loving wife/ mother who is pulled in various directions by a paradigm of relationships and values, brothers for whom the semantics of social humanism is far more important than the semiotics and pragmatics of a father-son relationship, a lady-love who sacrifices her father and lover only to forgive an anti-social father-in-law, a brother who gives up revenge in order not to upset the apple-cart of his sister's love and marriage and so on. But, in spite of all these surface meanings, none can miss the holistic theme that this play is about the American dichotomy of material aspirations and humanistic concerns. If the history of colonial England is a metaphor of political imperialism with its concomitant economic affluence and opulence without humanism in its relations touching the colonized, the history of post civil-war America is a metaphor of economic imperialism resulting in a rat race of bourgeois materialism which knows no qualms in swallowing its own fellow beings, not to mention the other races and nations which are also subsumed.

Alexander Pope says, "The poetry of Shakespeare was Inspiration indeed: he is not so much an Imitator, as an Instrument, of Nature; and 'tis not just to say that he speaks from her, as that she speaks thro' him." (24) In the same vein it may be said that Miller is not just an imitator but an instrument of the culture, the split culture of America, that is, the interface of the materialistic and humanistic elements that are so deeply entrenched in it. This split culture of America speaks through Miller. We may also conclude on the basis of the above analysis that these two plays of Arthur Miller have been thematically conceptualized to portray the American dichotomy of materialism and humanism with the intention of giving, to put it in the words of Kaplan, "a major role" to "literature in interpreting the ethical imagination of a democracy." (xiv)

To sum up, it may be said that any work of art has the potential for any number of meanings and the artist has endless means at his disposal to embody the same. Likewise, the consumers of that art, whether they are connoisseurs of aesthetic art or mere recreational audiences/readers, also have at their disposal a battery of tools to interpret it in their idiosyncratic manner. No artist, even a dramatist whose forte is realism, not to mention the classicists and the romantics, serves his dish straight, if at all he has one. That is artlessness. He dresses it up quite embellishingly which must be stripped off piece by piece by the art-lovers to arrive at the core of the matter. Every individual goes about this decoding activity in his own way looking for something of his taste and choice unmindful of what the artist has encoded in the artifact. But, above all such differentially motivated or influenced meanings, there is always one meaning and that will speak for the universal appeal of that particular author's work. To arrive at that universal appeal, we shall count upon the following: the established artistic (literary/theatre) traditions, the contemporary trends, the views of the artist himself, the views of the critics, and so on. The artist being a product of the context in which he lives and not an isolated phenomenon, his art also survives in relation to the context in which it is created.


Works Cited

1. Styan, J. L. 1960. The Elements of Drama. New Delhi: Vikas Publishing House Pvt Ltd, 1979.

2. Miller, Arthur. "Introduction", Collected Plays. Ed. Arthur Miller, 1957. Bombay: Allied Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 1973 rpt.

3. Fischer-Lichte, Erika. "Postmodernism: Extension or End of Modernism? Theater between Cultural Crisis and Cultural Change." Ed. Ingeborg Hoesterey. Zeitgeist in Babel: The Postmodernist Controversy. Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1991.

4. Popourd, Dennis. "An Introduction". Twentieth Century Literary Criticism, Vol.26. Detroit, Michigan: Gale Research Company, 1988.

5. Raymond Williams. Modern Tragedy. London: Chatto and Windus, 1969.

6. Achebe, Chinua. Arrow of God. London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1964.

7. Gordon, Lois. Qtd in Contemporary Dramatists. Ed. K. A. Barney. London: St. James Press, 1988.

8. Pope, Alexander. "Preface to The Works of Shakespeare." Qtd in Critics on Shakespeare. Ed. Wyndham T. Andrews. London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd, 1973.
9. Kaplan, Harold. Democratic Humanism and American Literature. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1972.


HOD of English, Faculty of Education,
Hadhramout University of Sc. & Tech.,
P.B.No. 9256, SEIYUN, Rep. of Yemen.