The main action of Arthur Miller’s play “Death of a Salesman” is focused on the final two days in the life of an ordinary man named Willy Loman. At the opening of the play, it becomes apparent that Willy has been losing his sanity, yet he is still somewhat surprised when he commits suicide at the end. Within these two days, Miller allows his character’s failing memory to dominate the tone of the play as he shifts between memory and the present, permitting the audience the opportunity to understand Willy’s perceptions regarding his relationships.
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“Willy Loman is not the usual tragic hero; he is lower middle class and none too clever. The world he inhabits is that of amoral, capitalistic big business rather than one with any clear moral value” (Abbotson, 2000, p. 25). The confusion caused by this difference between what Willy believes of the world as compared to the actual world, he is unable to establish any kind of meaningful connection with his family members and they are unable to help him during this time of crisis. According to critic Harold Bloom, Willy Loman “has confused himself into the belief that without success he does not deserve to be loved… Loman fails to see that familial love never can be deserved, or undeserved, but only is, or is not.” An in-depth look at Willy’s use of symbolism, irony, and imagery help to reveal his highly sensitive, confused, and desperate nature.
As the play begins, Willy reveals to his wife that his mind just can’t stay focused on what’s important anymore which forces him to increasingly rely on the symbols he’d established as markers of success. For Willy, the symbol of success at home is the existence of a good relationship between father and son. However, because his understanding is based almost exclusively on the workings of the business world, he seems to be under the belief that this relationship should spring up naturally as Biff realizes and appreciates the sacrifices Willy has made for him rather than because of any effort Willy has put into it. “Willy Loman … lives by corrupt values because that is all he knows; thus he kills the whole purpose which the family held for him, the love of Biff” (Newman, 1958). Because of the concept of his role in the family and his inability to realize that his role has changed over the years, Willy inadvertently installs the roadblocks that prevent him from enjoying a closer relationship with his son.
A conversation between Biff and Willy in Act 2 illustrates how Willy continues to adopt the dominant father role with Biff rather than recognizing that his son is now an adult and has ideas of his own. In this scene, Biff asks his father for a minute to explain what happened during his meeting with Oliver and Willy automatically begins to shape the conversation: “I’ve been waiting for you to explain since I sat down here! What happened? He took you into his office and what?” (Miller, 1999, p. 82). When Biff tries to get a new handle on the conversation, Willy interrupts and brings it back onto the course Willy envisions by again asking a question demanding a specific answer. Although Biff begins to answer out of habit, he suddenly realizes what’s happening and his frustration becomes clear: “His answer was – He breaks off, suddenly angry. Dad, you’re not letting me tell you what I want to tell you!” (Miller, 1999, p. 82). Because of his inability to recognize and appreciate the change that has taken place in the relationship as his son grew up, Willy is now forced to realize that he is no longer able to connect with Biff. The symbol of close father/son camaraderie is thus broken and Willy must conclude that he has failed as a father.
Business success is another important symbol of a successful life for Willy, perhaps even more important than success as a father. Willy’s failure to provide his wife with a secure home, insurance, and pay off the refrigerator sets up a situation providing only one possible winning way out. Willy’s perspective holds that material success is the only way to ‘purchase’ his sons’ devotion and ensure he has provided for his wife. As has been mentioned, to Willy, these aspects of family are the true hallmarks of success and are completely dependent on money. Only once he has achieved this state of comfortable support of the mother and earned the admiration of the sons can Willy relax into his role as family patriarch. Anything less is unacceptable. Willy’s desperation in this regard is first illustrated through his low pay, which is revealed to be almost nothing as he works on commission and hasn’t sold anything in a while. However, within his first business discussion of the play, he is fired from his position and then refuses a position offered to him by Charley. In this scene, Charley demonstrates how not all value can be measured in terms of financial well-being. Although he can offer Willy a job with a casual comment of “You want a job?” (Miller, 1999, p. 28), he is not able to work out any means of how Willy might have managed to put up the ceiling in the living room. Charley recognizes the value in Willy’s ability to handle tools, a skill Willy himself also values in that Willy is quick to devalue Charley because he cannot. However, Willy is also quick to dismiss this skill under the weight of material success, as represented by his brother Ben.
Because he is unable to achieve a position of authority within the business world, “the Home is the only realm where Willy can be the father, the patriarchal authority, so he invests it with sanctity” (Stanton, p. 135). This dollar and cents approach to the family is the only means by which Willy can attain a sense of importance within himself. This is the motivation behind his constant bragging to his sons and his business associates. The realization that he has reached the end of his career without having achieved the proper support for his wife serves to severely threaten Willy’s patriarchal position while the reopened chasm between himself and Biff drives it home that he has also failed as a father. “It is only when Willy understands that Biff loves him, even though both are failures, that he achieves a degree of insight. It is too late to change the course of events, but he goes to his death more nearly at peace than at any time in the play” (Brockett, 1969). Willy’s suicide demonstrates both the incredible love he had for his family as well as his whole-hearted belief in the American ideal system as a system of quantifiable measures that he must provide one way or another.
In constantly working to appear successful to those he loves, Willy prevents his family from truly getting to know the real Willy and thus be able to appreciate his true gifts. Because he must constantly work to uphold this image he has created of himself, he is never permitted to reveal the lonely and frightened man he is inside and thus experience the kind of deep relationship he longs for. Early danger signs of Willy’s later problems can be found in Willy’s memories which we can “detect the seed of later difficulties as Willy tries to impress his boys by exaggerating the importance and prestige of his job” (Bloom, 1996, p. 15). An example of this kind of attempt at impressing others can be found in the first act as Willy, deep into a memory of a time when the boys were much younger, tells them about opening his own business, having coffee with the Mayor of Providence, and why he will someday be a big success: “And they know me, boys, they know me up and down New England. The finest people. And when I bring you fellas up, there’ll be open sesame for all of us, ‘cause one thing, boys: I have friends. I can park my car in any street in New England, and the cops protect it like their own” (Miller, 1999, p. 18). Through these types of exaggerations, the audience realizes that Willy is not able to find any element of success in his current relationship with his boys as for himself but must instead invent an alternate Willy that has a degree of importance in the outer world. He can find no value in himself and instead defines himself by how highly he is esteemed by those around him. Despite all this, he longs to be loved for himself.
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As he is finally brought to the realization that his slipping memory means he cannot work anymore, Willy finds himself grasping for a foundation within his family based on the truth but with no idea how to get there. Although Willy wants nothing more than an escape from the imaginary world that he’s created, he rejects every attempt Biff makes to try to pull him out by forcing the truth. The desperate way in which he steers the conversation discussed earlier with Biff regarding Biff’s meeting with Oliver is one example of how Willy evades the truth in the present. This same sort of scene takes place at the end of the play as well, only this time Biff is unwilling to back down to keep the family calm. He turns on Happy’s claims of being ‘practically’ the assistant buyer at work even though he’s only the second assistant to the assistant to the buyer. “You’re practically full of it! We all are! And I’m through with it … I stole myself out of every good job since high school! … And I never got anywhere because you blew me so full of hot air I could never stand taking orders from anybody!” (Miller, 1999, p. 101). In his speech to Willy, Biff relates his epiphany experienced after having stolen the fountain pen from Oliver’s office and the sense of freedom and peace he realized as a result of simply facing the truth: “I’m just what I am, that’s all” (Miller, 1999, p. 103).
While Biff can experience freedom in the acceptance of himself just as he is, he simply cannot convince his father that this is enough. Willy tells Biff, correctly, “I’m not a dime a dozen! I’m Willy Loman” (Miller, 1999, p. 102). He places value on himself because of who he is, the value of his name. While Biff also has found value in himself just as he is, there is a difference in how the two men perceive this value. Biff understands that it is in simply accepting those things that make one happy and doing those things that one is valuable. Willy doesn’t realize that the value of Willy Loman does not lie in the external trappings of material success and high esteem among others, but in simply being himself. “Because material success seems so necessary to Willy, he believes that his sons cannot love him if he is not successful. Love becomes an item to be bought rather than something to be freely given” (Brockett, 1969). When Biff breaks down in front of him, Willy is suddenly able to see his son’s feeling for him clearly: “Isn’t that – isn’t that remarkable? Biff – he likes me! … He cried! Cried to me. [He is choking with his love, and now cries out his promise] That boy – that boy is going to be magnificent!” (Miller, 1999, p. 103). While Willy recognizes that true value cannot be measured by dollars and cents, he is nevertheless unable to escape making the connection.
Most of what the world can know about Willy is based upon an image he has of himself. Even when he knows better, Willy continues to present an image to his family and his business associates that are designed to make him seem more important and respected. As has been discussed previously, even when Willy is demonstrated to have had a very close relationship with his boys, watching them clean the car, talking about football, and able to bring home a gift for them that is completely in keeping with what they want, he is insecure in their admiration of him. Instead of simply accepting that his position at work is that of a mere traveling salesman but appreciating the many places he gets to see, Willy embellishes his position to make himself seem more important than he is. He becomes carried away by his visions, such as when he begins planting seeds in his yard near the end of the play even though he’s well aware that the buildings now block off too much sunlight for anything to grow: “The grass doesn’t grow anymore, you can’t raise a carrot in the back yard” (Miller, 1999, p. 6). Significantly, it is carrots that Willy is attempting to plant in the backyard just before his death.
Throughout the play, there was little option for Willy to do anything other than what he did within the context of his personality and understanding. His absolute belief in the American ideal in which a father lived by certain principles to provide his family with their basic needs was inextricably tied to his ideas of his status within the family unit itself. This perspective is revealed in an examination of the set of symbols by which Willy judges his life. From this perspective, the only way to attain familial success was to first obtain business success. Upon realizing he had not achieved business success, Willy was forced to acknowledge he had not achieved familial success. The irony of his personality is that he had familial success if he would just abandon his symbols and take a look at the truth. The truth held that he wasn’t a financial success, but that made his familial success all the more profound because it simply didn’t matter to the people that loved him. There is also significant irony in Willy’s belief that the family would receive the $20,000 life insurance benefit upon his death, thus providing them with the type of success he’d dreamed of but that it was not awarded because of his mode of death by suicide. By clearing away the problem of business success through his provision of the insurance money, Willy was finally able to come to the understanding that his son had loved him all along, regardless of whether he had achieved some magic material number of dollars. In realizing this simple truth, Willy can die with a sense of peace.
Abbotson, Susan C. Student Companion to Arthur Miller. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000.
Bloom, Harold. Bloom’s Notes: Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Broomall, PA: Chelsea House Publications, 1996.
Brockett, Oscar G. “An Introduction to Death of a Salesman.” The Theatre: An Introduction. 2nd Ed. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969.
Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. New York: Viking Press, 1949.
Newman, William J. “The Role of the Family in Miller’s Plays.” Book Reviews: The Plays of Arthur Miller. Twentieth Century, Vol. 164, N. 981, November 1958.
Stanton, Kay. “Women and the American Dream of Death of a Salesman.” Feminist Readings of Modern American Drama. Jane Schlueter (Ed.). Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1989.