Willy has lived a life full of hopes and expectations. But his aspirations are not unreal or fantastic. His anxiety is the anxiety of every man; his concern is the concern of every parent for his sons. But he is a man who cherishes false dreams. He is disillusioned too. He thinks that he has countless friends that everything will be alright, that he is a success, and that his boys will be success too. His ill-fortune is that he has gone through life as an adolescent, as someone who does not know who he actually is. He mixes personality with profession; his energy with protection. His main ambition is not only to be liked, but well-liked. His ideal for himself and for his sons has stopped with an easy, back slapping, sports loving, and locker room popularity. More than ruining so that one has become a woman chaser and the other a thief, his standards have turned both boys against their father. So he remains an epitome of “American Dream” with all its positive and negative effects and characteristics. This paper will analyze all these characteristics and will take into account his persona that corresponds to the American dream as well the traits that bring his tragic downfall.
Willy Loman is a disillusioned sixty-three year old man who has trouble distinguishing between past and present, and reality and illusions. His illusory beliefs draw an iron curtain before his sensibilities and he refuses to see the reality of his abject conditions. His tragedy lies in the fierce determination to fight an impossible battle and to seek facile solutions to his severe economic problems. In his relentless pursuit of an unrealistic dream, Willy Loman submerges himself in a complete disengagement from reality that brings an end even more tragic than his life. “Loman wants success, but the meaning of that need extends beyond the accumulation of wealth, security, goods and status” (Jacobson 247) and hence there is tragedy.
It is the story of a salesman who is now in the dusk of his lifetime. Willy Loman is a salesman who lives in Brooklyn but travels extensively for his job. He is sixty-three years old. He is completely exhausted both physically and mentally and is on the verge of collapse. He has a feeling that he can no longer fulfill the demands of his profession. His wife Linda is his sole support and he loves her a lot. There are of-course flashes of courage and bravery at times; but it is just like occasional lightening in a life behind which the shadows of self-destruction in stint loom large. Though he has the love and support of his wife but even then he feels hollow and terribly lonely. Willy’s tragedy is summarized in Charley’s statement which provokes a great deal of sympathy and pity in the hearts of the readers and audiences! “You don’t understand. Willy was a salesman. And for a salesman, there is no rock bottom to the life. He does not put a bolt to a nut he doesn’t tell you the law or give you medicine. He’s a man way out there in the blue, riddin’ on the smile and a shoe-shine. And when they start not smilin’ back – that’s an earthquake. And then you get yourself a couple of spots on your hat, and you’re finished. Nobody dast blame this man. A salesman is got to dream boy. It comes with the territory.”(45)
“Death of a Salesman” is not the tragedy of Willy alone. It is the tragedy of the family, that of Linda, the mother, and that of Biff, the son. Willy loves his wife and sons. The play in its theme comes near King Lear. Both plays try to explore the ‘unnaturalness between the child and the parent’ ‘the bond crack’d between son and father’. Biff idolizes his father and looks up to him for ideals, but there he finds filth and corruption (adultery) and is shocked into severing the bond of filial affection and respect. Once trust has been betrayed, shame and disapproval come in way of a real reconciliation. In this process of discovery and shock, both father and son get some amount of self-knowledge. But Willy is making an attempt to achieve self-fulfillment by making his son turn out a loyal and worthy son. He is obsessed with it and will not accept his failure. He finally commits suicide not only as an escape from shame and exposure; it is his last attempt to maintain the family’s integrity and stamp it with his confidence. Thus, the two major characters of the play are like irreconcilable opposites- they want to do good to each other but their directions are contra posed. In their final compromise is the meeting of two opposite poles.
Depression, as a result, kept on piling up on him. He also feels that failure has become family inheritance. Even his sons are not able to fulfill what they aspired for. His son Happy is happy-go-lucky person. He is shallow and vain and is not serious about life. Willy had pinned most of his hopes and faith on his elder son Biff, who is nothing more than a petty thief and at the age of thirty-four, he is still wandering about aimlessly. Willy constantly tries to instill his own values of salesmanship in his sons. Willy lost his respect with his elder son because of the discovery of an affair of his with a woman. It is only towards the end that they reconcile. His sons come home and the father considers it as an opportunity to bring the family together again. The sons go back to their employees but their endeavors ended in failure. Willy asked his employer for an increase in pay but got himself fired. Biff confided his disillusionment to his father and weeps realizing the pitiable condition of his father. His weeping made his father realize that his son still love him. In order to make atonement for the past lapses and misgiving the father decided to kill himself so that with the help of the insurance money the sons could start a new life. He feels that he is giving biff something concrete, in return for the love he has tendered; he gives up his life to make his sons lay hands on a substantial amount of money, which he still sees as the key to his son’s success. Love indeed reigns supreme in this play.
“Death of a Salesman” is the story of a man who has given up conscience for a place in society that can never be his. Biff partly hints at this state when he says: “they’ve never laughed at Dad for years, and you know why? Because we don’t belong in this nuthouse of a city! We should be mixing cement on some open plain, or –or carpenter.” So Willy becomes a victim of (1) his own dreams which are beyond his status, (2) of the society he belongs to, and (3) of a lost conscience. In losing his identity in an illusion of success and security, Willy Loman is strongly influenced by the same idea that dominated the Gatsbys and the Babbitts.
Willy Loman is essentially an American. He is afflicted with the ills that have afflicted the modern American society, in general. Articulating this eloquently, Benjamin Nelson says: “Death of a Salesman is a drama thoroughly centered in the mainstream of American theatre. It presents a critical outlook on contemporary American society.” Reared on the American story of success, Willy watches his brother Ben go into the jungle poor and come out rich. Ben constantly exemplifies for Willy the glory of going from rags to riches. At times Willy actually questions the values he is teaching to his sons and admits that he feels “temporary” about himself. In his bewilderment and wilderness of confusion, he seeks Ben’s advice. Ben (in other words Willy’s other self) advises him: “William, when I walked into the jungle, I was seventeen. When I walked out I was twenty one, and by God, I was rich!” (33) Ben is just the spirit Willy wants to imbibe his sons with! “To walk into a jungle! I was right! I was right! I was right!”
So Willy regards material security as something greater and higher than everything else in the world. And this is another proof of the loss of his conscience. Man does not live by bread alone. Secondly, he thinks that the key to success in man’s personality is well likedness as he says, “I’m very well liked in Hartford.”(Act 1, Part 3, pg. 23) Such a notion too is an outcome of a man’s loss of conscience. Now the question arises: what are the factor and people responsible for Willy’s loss of conscience. First and foremost are Willy’s own dreams and aspirations. It is a mistake to live by dreams alone. Secondly, his sincere and devoted wife Linda, instead of encouraging him to be himself—to be a carpenter or a plumber or a bricklayer and to identify himself with real and fundamental values, she urges him to remain as he is in the name of security. Thirdly it is the environmental fault that Willy Loman loses his conscience.
Being an irrepressible old man he never really evaluates or understands the false and incomplete values of a venal American society. He fails to understand the vacuous idea behind the ‘Great American Dream’ and his limitless hope. Willy’s persistent struggle against the forces of entropy in his life leads him to neurosis, and finally suicide. Theater is an imagined world, inhabited by imaginary characters, but tragedy strikes one and all, and the nature of tragedy is to hit our deepest consciousness and invade our sensibilities with its prolonged stay. Robert A Martin says in his essay, “The Nature of Tragedy”: “What the performance of a play gives an audience is less a set of ideas, propositions or abstraction about life and how to live it than what Arthur Miller has called ‘ a felt experience’, the imaginative sharing and participation in the lives and actions of imaginary characters.” (Merton 97)
Willy Loman’s tragedy does not lie just in his miserable economic condition, but also in his misplaced sense of pride. In the play he takes loans from his neighbor Charley to make both ends meet, but refuses to accept the offer of a better job from him. His warped sense of pride comes in the way of his chances to improve his conditions. His refusal to accept reality is a tragedy bigger than his dismal life, and it exasperates his son Biff with whom he had a troubled relationship. Willy refused to accept that his sons are also ‘failures’ such as him, and in order to make their lives better he falls into a trap of further hopelessness. Kilnghoffer sums up this phenomenon in this way;
“A man’s descent to failure is horrendous to contemplate. Whatever line of work you are in, we are all salesmen, selling our products, our services, our selves”. Says Will’s meighbor Charley , in a line that crystallizes the anxiety of uncountable men everywhere, not just in America: “ And when they start not smiling back.” –employers, partners, customers- “ That’s an earthqauke.” ( Kilnghoffer).