The use of machines in Arthur Miller’s ‘Death of a Salesman’ – Dong Liu


Dong Liu is a postgraduate in British and American Literature from Beihang  University in Beijing. She is interested in fiction, psychology and cross-cultural communication.

arthur miller
Arthur Miller

The use of machines in Arthur Miller’s ‘Death of a Salesman’

In Death of a Salesman, the most successful of Arthur Miller’s plays, Miller insightfully foresees the negative effects that the technological advancement embodied in various machines could impose on human beings, especially on human identity and personal relationships. Trapped in the past and full of self-contradiction, the protagonist Willy Loman loses his identity in face of the technological wave. Other characters also lose themselves in the changing world. Through analysis of the imagery surrounding machines in the play, we can see the complex relationship formed between man and machine. This paper holds that it is machines that lacerate personal relationships and deprive people of their self-identity, which also contributes to Willy’s collapse in the play.

Critics have commented on the machine-related imagery from various angles. For example, some think that Willy’s helplessness before the wire recorder in Act Two represents those who are restrained by materialistic American culture (Jerz, 126). With technological development, some say that it is natural for human beings to become almost obsolete (Sterling, 100-102). Another critic holds that Willy is able to resist social mechanisation, distinguishing between the actions of humans and the influence of the machine (Sterling, 114). However, the negative effects that technological advancement could impose on human identity and personal relationship are often neglected. A re-evaluation of the machines featured in the play will reveal the influence of machines on human beings and will deepen our understanding of the characters in the play.

Howard’s wire recorder is the most noticeable technological device and the most complex machine in the play. In Act Two, where Willy goes to his young boss Howard, the son of his former employer, to ask for a desk job, we find that the bond and affinity amongst humans has been lacerated by the machine. Howard is totally occupied with his new gadget, the wire recorder. In showing off the audio of his daughter, son and wife, Howard shows his pride and fascination for the machine. He is so absorbed by it that not until after a long smug showcase does he start to face Willy, asking: ‘What happened? What’re you doing here?’ Such questions are what we might ask at the beginning of a conversation, but here they are displaced to the end of the dialogue, indicating not only Howard’s coldness but also the distance between the two men. He appears to be more interested in the sound and technology of the machine than in Willy, who is fighting for his job. He no longer needs Willy’s services, and fires him without concern.

Although Howard’s family take turns recording their voices, there is no interpersonal interaction between them. All interactions happen between human and machine instead of human and human. Everyone only cares about what the machine could bring to them. Without talking, or singing, or praying, or doing anything together the family has been split up by the machine. Howard’s attention has been drawn away by the wire recorder, as has that of his children. Being trained to memorise names of capital cities and knowing that “It’s nine o’clock […] so I have to go to sleep” (78), Howard’s son, who is only five years old, has lost the energy and vigour of his youth. He becomes too mechanical.

And what is Willy’s reaction? After a few perfunctory remarks, he begins to contradict himself. “I think I’ll get one myself ” (78), “I’m definitely going to get one” (78). Willy, in fact, cannot afford to buy one for himself. When Howard goes out, Willy accidentally switches on the recorder, and instantly Howard’s son’s voice comes out. Willy leaps away with fright, shouting for Howard to shut it off, and presses his hands to his eyes: “I gotta get myself some coffee. I’ll get some coffee…” He is so paralysed he needs coffee to calm himself down. Here, the recorder becomes a symbol of Willy’s obsolescence in the modern world. He cannot deal with innovation.

As we can see, on the one hand, Willy claims to want to buy a recorder for himself without any regard of his economic conditions. But on the other hand, he cannot deal with the recorder, and feels terror and fear towards it. So he is not only contradictory and unrealistic, but also unable to control himself in front of the machine. Besides, for Howard, his seven-year-old daughter’s talent was best expressed in the recording of her whistle. Willy comments on her whistle – “That is lifelike, isn’t it?” (77). Is the voice coming out of the machine lifelike or is the machine playing the sound of human beings lifelike? Here we can see that there are no clear or strict boundaries between human and machine. As Haraway states, “the difference between machine and organism is thoroughly blurred; mind, body, and tool are on very intimate terms” (Haraway, 43). “It is not clear who makes and who is made in the relation between human and machine” (74).

Howard’s wire recorder shows us not only how personal relationships are smashed but also how people’s identities are threatened by the machine. In this case, the conflict between Howard and Willy can be seen as the conflict between machines and humans. In addition, people tend to lose themselves when faced with the machine. Willy’s “lifelike” comment prompts us to rethink that relationship: can we always control the machine and still maintain our human identity? Apart from Howard’s wire recorder, Willy’s refrigerator is also noteworthy. When Linda informs Willy that there is another payment on the refrigerator, Willy complains angrily that “I told you we should’ve bought a well-advertised machine…” (Miller, 73)

Again, the machine results in the deterioration of personal relationships. Soon he transfers his resentment from the machine itself to the people who made the machine: “They time those things, they time them so when you finally paid for them, they’re used up” (73). Does the machine represent the people who produce it? Should the people take full charge of the machine? Willy apparently ignores the distinction between human and machine. When the machine is broken, his unreasonable and extreme speculation reflects his loss of clarity that is an essential part of self-identity.

One small machine that is easily overlooked is Ben’s watch. The action of Ben repeatedly looking at his watch, in some critics’ eyes, shows that Ben can predict Willy’s death (Holocek). Although as one of the few successful figures in the play, even serving as Willy’s business model, Ben is never a positive character or empowered with any predictive abilities. On the contrary, the watch, noted in each of Ben’s appearances, reveals Ben’s indifferent personality. The watch represents the endlessness of time, keeping going and never stopping. Even after a long separation with his brother Willy, who longingly begs “Can’t you stay a few days? You’re just what I need” (Miller, 51), Ben leaves with the excuse that he’ll be late for the train. He will not stay for one extra minute. He goes as if he must, begging the question: Why can’t he come earlier or take a later train? Here Ben shows another characteristic – cold-heartedness.

Evidently, a fine watch must embody the latest high-level technology, showing people’s wealth and taste. In the business world, watches signify materialistic wealth and social status. For a seemingly successful businessman like Ben, it is only natural for him to choose a tasteful and expensive watch. Ben’s repeated glances at the watch are, therefore, symbolic of his constant chase for material wealth. He is so obsessed with the idea of making a fortune and becoming the master of the technological forces that he himself is mechanised at the expense of his human side. After finding out about the death of his mother, he has no tears to shed and only comments as “That’s too bad. Fine specimen of a lady, Mother”, and  “I’d hoped to see the old girl” (46). At that moment, he is almost like the watch himself in his lack of emotional reaction. Ben’s indifference and coldness hits Willy heavily. Yes, Ben is Willy’s business model, but more importantly, he is the only clue to finding their father. In this sense, Ben is the last small warmth that Willy can obtain from his original family. But such a weak kinship is easily cut off by the machine. Willy’s last hope is gone.

Some critics believe that Willy becomes the victim of his car (Brucher). But it’s not convincing to define his death only by its cause. The car is further proof of Willy’s contradictory and tragic character. It also reveals the intimate relationship between man and machine. Firstly, the car shows Willy’s inconsistency. “No, the windshields don’t open on the new cars” (Miller, 18) says Willy, and is straight away contradicted by Linda (18). Secondly, it triggers Willy’s nostalgic emotions. Even with the new car, Willy misses the old one – “I was thinking of the Chevy. 1928…when I had that red Chevy” (19), “Remember those days? The way Biff used to simonize that car?” (19). The car opens a window to another side of Willy. It is the unhappiness of reality that motivates people to recall old memories. Despite being 63 years old, Willy can still remember in which year he bought the Chevy, indicating that machine has permeated his whole life. The boundary between man and machine becomes even more indistinct.

All the technological and mechanical elements have fully integrated into the characters’ interpersonal relationships, but sometimes this can escape critical notice. The machine is accountable for man’s loss of self-identity, and his distrust of and lack of concern for others. Willy’s collapse is thanks to all his social relationships – including his relationship with himself – being destroyed by machines. He represents the common man attempting to gain his ‘rightful’ position in society (Bigsby, 66). While this technological society exposes us to a series of challenging questions – how can we maintain personal identity in face of technological power? How can we protect humanity from contamination by cold machine? – Willy apparently fails to give a right answer. In using the machine as a symbol of the age, Carlyle says that neither the causes nor the consequences of mechanisation can be confined to the ‘outer’ or physical world. The onset of machine power leads to a huge change in our whole manner of existence (Marx, 173-174), and we are challenged to consider the relationship between man and machine. As Haraway interprets it: the machine is us, our processes, an aspect of our embodiment. We can be responsible for machines; they do not dominate or threaten us. We are responsible for boundaries; we are they (Haraway, 81).

Works Cited

Jerz, Dennis G. “Technology in American drama, 1920-1950 : soul and society in the age of the machine.” Talk Technology/archive (2003). Google Book Search. Web. 8 Jun. 2017.

Sterling, Eric J. ed. Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. 2008. Library Genesis. Web. 8 Jun. 2017.

Miller, Arthur. Death of A Salesman. New York: The Viking Press, 1971. Print.

Haraway, Donna. A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century. New York: Routledge, 1991. Library Genesis. Web. 8 Jun. 2017.

Holocek, Sister M. Bettina. “Willy Loman’s Brother Ben: Tragic Insight in Death of a Salesman.” Modern Drama 4.4 (1961):409-412. Project Muse. Web. 8 Jun. 2017.

Brucher, Richard T. “Willy Loman and ‘The Soul of a New Machine’: Technology and the Common Man.” Journal of American Studies 17.3(1983):325-336. JSTOR. Web. 8 Jun. 2017.

Bigsby, Christopher. ed. The Cambridge companion to Arthur Miller. Cambridge UP, 1997. Library Genesis. Web. 8 Jun. 2017.

Marx, Leo. The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America. New York: Oxford UP, 1964. Library Genesis. Web. 8 Jun. 2017.

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