In Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller manages to masterfully show how dreams, combined with pride and stubbornness, are able to destroy a person’s life. In the play, Willy Loman, the main character, is fighting to face the reality and abandon the haunting illusions. Eventually, Willy’s dream of materialistic happiness and the obsessive desire to be the most successful salesman lead to a collapse, but the readers should not be too quick to judge the main character for it.
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Death of a Salesman is widely associated with the American dream. However, Miller uses this play to show how shallow and damaging some interpretations of it can be. Willy Loman seems to want everything that the term stands for: attainable prosperity, acceptance, other people’s respect. Loman believes that one can achieve all these using only a charming personality and charisma. This is the reason why Willy is so disappointed by Biff’s inability to find a meaningful occupation: “In the greatest country in the world a young man with such—personal attractiveness, gets lost” (Miller 6). The father cannot understand the son’s values, and certainly does not want to. The main character may be considered too proud to see how destructive obstinacy is. When all the dreams and hopes for Biff fall apart, Willy becomes devastated and restless. Until the end, the father does not accept the son’s aspirations, and it becomes one of the major factors that contribute to Willy’s breakdown.
Another reason why Loman’s dream fails is that while relying on personality far too much, Willy disregards the process of achieving success. On many occasions the main character claims that being “well liked” is much more important than studying hard as Bernard (Miller 23). Willy tells Ben that contacts and attractive personality are much more likely to help people get success than actions (Miller 65). However, when Bernard becomes a successful lawyer and Willy’s sons do not live up to the expectations, the man’s pride is hurt again, and Willy becomes even more frustrated and angry. The only vision of success never overlaps with ideas of self-fulfillment and non-materialistic happiness: they are merely not considered to be worthy goals.
Nevertheless, although Willy’s behavior makes the whole family unhappy, the question of guilt might need further consideration. Despite all the flaws and wrongdoings, it is difficult to blame Willy Loman for who Willy Loman is. Confusing reality with what the troubled imagination creates, the main character is seen as a profoundly unhappy man. Instead of facing all the problems and accepting the fact of failing the family, Loman gives in to “dreaming”, as it is described in the play (Miller 7). He constructs these scenes and dialogues as a child who tries to win in an argument. As Miller puts it, these scenes appear “to serve certain present needs” (Miller 3). As if living in two worlds, Willy often seems to genuinely think that life is unfair, and is haunted by many reminders of how it has been spent in vain. Not being able to implement a personal idea of happiness, Willy eventually decides to end it all.
This allows the conclusion that dreams are what leads Willy Loman to downfall. It is hard to say if this character would act differently in other circumstances. However, the circumstances are difficult and, while selfishly desiring to become the best salesman, Willy does try to provide for the family. Seeing a dream, however shallow or unworthy, falling to pieces, Willy simply does not manage to change.
Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. Dramatists Play Service, 1980.