Arthur Miller, acclaimed American playwright, essayist, and recipient of the 1949 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, was a prominent figure in twentieth-century American theater. His Death of a Salesman is considered to be one of the best plays in the history of American drama. The play centers on the common man as represented by a sixty-three-year-old salesman named Willy Loman who has a wife, Linda, and two sons, Biff and Harold (also known as “Happy”). Nervous and irritable, Willy is insecure and feels a terrible sense of disappointment with his life, the meaning of which has been defined by a striving for the American dream, absolute confidence in his likeability, and a belief in the uniqueness of his sons, especially the older one, Biff.
Willy Loman is certainly a tragic hero. Ultimately, his tragedy is that he has the wrong impression of himself and his sons. He lives in the illusion of his success as a salesman, and he is convinced that he has an attractive personality and a great number of friends and connections: “I never have to wait in line to see a buyer. ‘Willy Loman is here!’ That’s all they have to know and I go right through” (Miller 1568). This vision of himself influences how he instructs his adult sons about how to lead a proper life and achieve success. As a salesman whose job is to gain people’s favor, he believes that personality matters above everything else: “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it — because personality always wins the day” (Miller 1583). However, his salesmanship is, in fact, quite poor, and when his boss tries to say it, Willy hotly denies this fact:
WILLY. …in 1928 I had a big year. I averaged a hundred and seventy dollars a week in commissions.
HOWARD. Now, Willy, you never averaged—
WILLY. (Banging his hand on the desk) I averaged a hundred and seventy dollars a week in the year of 1928! (Miller 1592)
Unwilling to admit to his failure as a salesman and the general commonness of his personality, Willy also stubbornly believes that his sons are born to succeed.
Willy is not particularly concerned about the fate of his youngest son, Harold “Happy” Loman; instead, he continually repeats that the elder Biff can achieve everything he wants. Willy endlessly remembers that Biff was a football star in high school and dreams about him becoming a businessman: “They’ll be calling him another Red Grange. Twenty-five thousand a year” (Miller 1595). Willy confuses Biff’s sporting success with an entrepreneurial talent that would allow him to work effectively in the commercial sphere. He cannot accept the fact that Biff, who likes to be outdoors, chose to be a farm worker.
In fact, Willy is very unsure of himself and needs the approval of others. In a conversation with his older brother, he admits that to having a “temporary” feeling about himself (Miller 1577). The fact that he had been abandoned by his father and did not have paternal support or a male role model explains his insecurity and lack of a talent for being a father himself.
Willy’s unique understanding of success, which was formed under the influence of his insecurity, is one more notable characteristic. According to him, being liked should be the primary objective of any man who seeks success: “Be liked and you will never want” (Miller 1568). When he talks about Dave Singleman, a successful salesman who inspired Willy in his occupation, the reader realizes that for Willy, the greatest achievement of a person’s life can be measured only by the number of people who mourn him: “He died the death of a salesman… hundreds of salesmen and buyers were at his funeral” (Miller 1591). Willy does not appreciate what he has: a wife and two sons. Being “happy right here, right now” is not enough for him (Miller 1593). He is convinced that his life does not live up to his dream, and he cannot understand why.
Willy’s faith in the American dream is firm. He believes that with a big smile and the ability to “be well-liked,” a person can achieve anything: “… that’s the wonder, the wonder of this country, that a man can end with diamonds here on the basis of being liked!” (Miller 1594). When his life does not meet his expectations, he tries to escape from reality, seeking comfort in mistresses and denying his failures. Even in the closing moments of his life, he does not stop believing in the American dream. Willy’s tragedy is that he is unable to understand and accept his own weaknesses and the imperfections of others.
Willy Loman is a deluded, insecure, and at the same time rather arrogant, somewhat despotic personality with an unwavering faith in a version of the American dream that only comes true if a person has the ability to be liked by other people. In this character, Arthur Miller perfectly describes personal traits that to some extent can be found in nearly everyone, which makes Death of a Salesman a timeless classic of American drama.
Miller, Arthur. n.d. Death of a Salesman. n.d. Web.