Review of “Death of a Salesman” (1951)

Death of a SalesmanIn the 1951 movie version of Death of a Salesman, we see a well thought out critique of the sales profession (and also a level of ignorance perhaps by those who think they know what sales is all about); and more than that, a critique of the anxious family man with no faith in God that overly pressures his kids for job performance. Now that my career path in going in the sales direction, I thought it would be helpful for me to evaluate this movie and consider the thoughts it highlights. Having only one d-word, I thought most of the movie was tolerable enough for the Christian. It is a depressing, negative movie. It centers around the main character, Willy Loman, and his descent into insanity; and the reasons for it.

The Plot.

Willy is an ambitious, but worried, father of two sons. He was always worried that he was failing to train them to perform economically. His one son, Biff, in particular is a good-looking athletic young man, who Willy constantly pressures to be the best of the best someday. Willy shows no real love for his sons; the only thing Willy has to offer them is a spirit of worry and pressure. Biff is turned off from economic performance entirely, because his father was so overbearing on this point. Rather than lovingly coaching his sons into successful careers, all he did was yell at them and fill their heads with financial pipe dreams; and then get frustrated when they didn’t amount to anything in his eyes. Ephesians 6:4, NIV, KJV: “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord…Fathers, provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” Colossians 3:21: “Fathers, provoke not your children to anger, lest they be discouraged.” Willy’s way of thinking bears no point of reference to Jesus, the Gospel, or the Christian life: its a totally secularized mindset; its only about money and jobs or lack thereof; his whole mind is wrapped up in meaningless thoughts about toil and cares. Ecclesiastes 2:17: “So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.” Would to God that all the Willy Lomans of the world would put their faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ and be filled and guided by the Holy Spirit!

Lessons Learned.

The movie preaches against a great deal of things that a salesman (or other such businessmen) might encounter over the course of their working lives:

1. BAD PARENTING. As already mentioned, one of the prominent sins that is highlighted in the movie is that of harshly pressuring your kids to perform in business life, so much so, that they grow to resent their father’s overbearing sense of worry and fear of their adult children living in poverty. At times, it seems to advocate more of a hands-off approach to parenting, assuming that kids will find their way, without any pressure. But personally, I think the answer is in the middle (law and grace with the Gospel). Proverbs 22:6: “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” The Puritans saw this as an apprenticeship verse, not merely a Sunday School or taking your kids to church verse. They saw it the same way Joseph did when he trained Jesus to be a carpenter (Matt. 13:55). Faith in God for providence (supernatural provision), love and attention to your kids, and spending time with them for cautious career coaching: see David Montross’ Career Coaching Your Kids. These things are the right thing to do, the way to treat your kids right: and not the faithless, anxious, fear-inducing, setting yourself up to be disappointed at your kids because they don’t fulfill your man-made dreams for high level job success. Without coaching your kids and teaching them specifically what to do (especially in their high school and college years), they will fail, as you fail to transfer your experiences to them. Whenever his son Biff ran into obstacles or job-related difficulties, his dad would just get frustrated and try not to help him specifically. He would not be willing to face the negative facts of life; there was no willingness to solve the boy’s problems in the trenches of battle. He just left him to himself, gave him no coaching or training, and then yelled at him whenever he still wasn’t succeeding. Yelling and screaming at your kids for lack of economic wisdom is unjustifiable if you haven’t offered them any wisdom yourself. Willy also overemphasized getting Biff to be an all-star athlete rather than being an all-star scholar: he emphasized athletics more than academics. Biff grew to resent his father so much that he came to disrespect all authorities: he would steal from his employers and could never hold down a job. At the end of the movie, at Willy’s funeral (the result of a suicidal car crash), a friend of the family says to Willy’s son Biff:

“Willy was a salesman. And for a salesman, there’s no rock bottom to the life. He don’t put a bolt to a nut, he don’t tell you the law or give you medicine. He’s a man way out there in the blue riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back—that’s an earthquake. And then you get yourself a couple spots on your hat and your finished. Nobody dast blame this man. A salesman is got to dream boy, it comes with the territory.”

2. ADULTERY. Willy is so unhappy with his life that he becomes distant from his wife and kids emotionally. He is traveling on business and runs into an attractive young woman during a sales deal; and ends up getting her drunk and committing adultery with her. Biff, the athletic son, finds out that his Math grades were poor and that he would not be able to graduate from high school on account of it. In a panic, he tracks down his father in his hotel room to see if he could get his dad to talk to his Math teacher to see if a compromise could be made and Biff could graduate. But Biff catches his father with the adulteress in the hotel room; and Biff’s frustration with his father’s plans and pressures comes to a complete climax as he realizes his father is living a lie and can’t be trusted or respected. It is at this point that Biff totally gives up on pursuing any worthwhile career goals. What’s even worse, is that the father is not willing to confess his sin to his wife or seek reconciliation with God. He rationalizes it to his son, saying that he got lonely; and still demanded that his son respect and obey his directions! The book of Proverbs issues many warnings against seductive, adulterous women:

5:8: “Keep to a path far from her, do not go near the door of her house.”

5:18-20: “May your fountain be blessed, and may you rejoice in the wife of your youth. A loving doe, a graceful deer – may her breasts satisfy you always, may you ever be captivated by her love. Why be captivated, my son, by an adulteress? Why embrace the bosom of another man’s wife?

6:25-26, KJV: “Lust not after her beauty in thine heart; neither let her take thee with her eyelids. For by means of a whorish woman a man is brought to a piece of bread: and the adulteress will hunt for the precious life.” In this passage “the precious life” is referring to married life: a family man with a wife and kids serving the Lord together.

6:32-33: “But a man who commits adultery lacks judgment; whoever does so destroys himself. Blows and disgrace are his lot, and his shame will never be wiped away.”

7:10: “Out came a woman to meet him, dressed like a prostitute and with crafty intent.”

7:18-19, 21, the adulterous woman says: “‘Come, let’s drink deep of love till morning; let’s enjoy ourselves with love! My husband is not at home; he has gone on a long journey’…With persuasive words she led him astray; she seduced him with her smooth talk.” Note: the fact that the adulterous woman’s husband has “gone on a long journey” implies that he is a salesman that goes on long business trips (which we will touch on in just a moment); and that this tends to kill the love a wife has for her husband, and she falls prone to looking for love from other men. Adam Clarke, commenting on 7:20, says, “Literally, ‘The money bag he hath taken in his hand.’ He is gone a journey or itinerant merchandising (i.e., traveling salesman activity). This seems to be what is intended.”

7:25-27, KJV: “Let not thine heart decline to her ways, go not astray in her paths. For she hath cast down many wounded: yea, many strong men have been slain by her. Her house is the way to Hell, going down to the chambers of death.”

Hebrews 13:4, KJV: “Marriage is honourable in all, and the bed undefiled: but whoremongers and adulterers God will judge.”

3. BAD SALES JOBS. There were certain job-specific warnings that the movie highlights. It takes a very negative view of Willy’s job situation: which is a 100% commission based, outside sales job, that requires 100% travel. Willy was a “company man” and he never thought outside of the box. He kept thinking that one day he would be promoted from within the company, make the big bucks, and work in an office, in an inside sales position. Willy would have done well to read Fredrik Andersson’s Moving Up or Moving On[1] which proves with statistics that the most effective way to experience financial growth or upward mobility is through CHANGING COMPANIES to work in the same JOB TITLE or something similar for a HIGHER SALARY. This would require a willingness to call many recruiters every so often, and be willing to change jobs as much as possible, until the desired salary requirement and working conditions are met. But Willy had no such recruiter-friendly thinking. He commits himself to just one bad sales company and hopes they will promote him some day.

4. THE FEAR OF RELOCATION. Willy locks himself down to his home being centered in just one geographical location, because he has a 25-year mortgage he wants to pay off (the thought of transferable home equity is absent). His wealthy brother Ben, who once spoke of wealthy business prospects in Africa and Alaska, offers a dream and an answer to Willy’s financial struggles. But Willy refuses to take up these offers, because he is committed to his one company, and to his home being based in just one geographical location. Although Willy travels all the time for work, he is AFRAID of taking the RISK of changing companies and moving his home. Once he reaches his 60s, he has a nervous breakdown, and gets fired (with no thought of retirement planning). Instead of seeking a higher base salary through ongoing communication with recruiters, Willy instead settled to live off of 100% commission, and ended his career with no salary (and, we are led to believe, little to no retirement savings).

5. SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS. This was another of Willy’s vices; he would criticize the idea of being too happy, positive, or joking on the job. He took himself way too seriously. He cared far too much if the people he worked with did not like him.


[1] This outstanding book description is from the Russell Sage Foundation website: For over a decade, policy makers have emphasized work as the best means to escape poverty. However, millions of working Americans still fall below the poverty line. Though many of these “working poor” remain mired in poverty for long periods, some eventually climb their way up the earnings ladder. These success stories show that the low wage labor market is not necessarily a dead end, but little research to date has focused on how these upwardly mobile workers get ahead. In Moving Up or Moving On, Fredrik Andersson, Harry Holzer, and Julia Lane examine the characteristics of both employees and employers that lead to positive outcomes for workers.

Using new Census data, Moving Up or Moving On follows a group of low earners over a nine-year period to analyze the behaviors and characteristics of individuals and employers that lead workers to successful career outcomes. The authors find that, in general, workers who “moved on” to different employers fared better than those who tried to “move up” within the same firm. While changing employers meant losing valuable job tenure and spending more time out of work than those who stayed put, workers who left their jobs in search of better opportunity elsewhere ended up with significantly higher earnings in the long term—in large part because they were able to find employers that paid better wages and offered more possibilities for promotion. [ed: This teaches that CHANGING COMPANIES for a similar JOB TITLE with a HIGHER SALARY is the most effective way to experience upward mobility.]

Yet moving on to better jobs is difficult for many of the working poor because they lack access to good-paying firms. Andersson, Holzer, and Lane demonstrate that low-wage workers tend to live far from good paying employers, making an improved transportation infrastructure a vital component of any public policy to improve job prospects for the poor. [ed: This teaches that LIVING IN OR BY A LARGE CITY where high-paying companies exist, is necessary for upward mobility: living far out in the country is counterproductive. It also implies that MOVING FOR A BETTER JOB must be embraced.]

Labor market intermediaries can also help improve access to good employers. The authors find that one such intermediary, temporary help agencies, improved long-term outcomes for low-wage earners by giving them exposure to better-paying firms and therefore the opportunity to obtain better jobs. Taken together, these findings suggest that public policy can best serve the working poor by expanding their access to good employers, assisting them with job training and placement, and helping them to prepare for careers that combine both mobility and job retention strategies. [ed: This teaches that poor people can improve their situation by calling what are variously called “temp agencies,” “employment agencies,” “staffing firms,” or simply “recruiters”: these can be found effectively in two or three ways: 1. Typing “Employment Agencies” in the search bar on nearby a large city you willing to work with. 2. Typing “Employment Agency Atlanta, GA” (or some other city) in Google Maps. 3. Connect with 500 – 1000 people on LinkedIn, recruiters, and people in a strong industry you are focusing on (for example, Information Technology or IT).]

Moving Up or Moving On
offers a compelling argument about how low-wage workers can achieve upward mobility, and how public policy can facilitate the process. Clearly written and based on an abundance of new data, this book provides concrete, practical answers to the large questions surrounding the low-wage labor market.

About Wesley Gospel is self-published in the spirit of John Wesley and the Reformers, as when they used the printing press. The truth of God won't be censored or suppressed!
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