Condolence for Willy Loman
Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” is a domestic tragedy that centres around the dysfunctional Loman family, most notably Willy Loman – a failed salesman so captivated by the American Dream and his desire to be a good father that it ultimately leads to his suicide. However, Miller’s tragic character is quite different from the idea of the tragedy that Aristotle put forward. Aristotle claimed that tragic figures had to be noble and high-achieving, which Willy is most certainly not. Despite this definition of a tragic hero, Miller himself says, “The common man is as apt a subject for tragedy as a great man,”, an echo of Linda’s words towards the middle of the play.
The decision to make Willy an everyday man instead of somebody of a higher status, as Aristotle suggested, means many people, particularly those who can draw on aspects of Willy’s life, can easily relate to Willy and, therefore, it is much easier to feel sympathy for him. Furthermore, Miller identifies the villain, not as a person, but the society the tragic hero is a part of. To say that Willy is a “congenital madman”, however, is untrue. Miller never introduces the audience to any relations of Willy’s during the course of the play with the exception of Ben, and even then, he is a figment of Willy’s imagination and consequently an unreliable source. Genetics, therefore, is not to blame; rather, as David Calder says, “the system that has exhausted this man,”. Miller’s view, which went against the typical American view at the time, was that capitalism and the American Dream could harm a person despite the great image it projected. This idea was seen as radical at the time of publication – so much so that the first movie adaption of the play characterized Willy as psychotic. People simply could not see that someone could be against capitalism, or at least find faults within it.
Throughout the play itself, Willy’s character is one that evokes sympathy but also pity and anger. Some of his actions are hard to justify, and he does not have the typical stature of a tragic figure like Othello. Despite Willy not being a high achieving, noble figure, Miller still gets his audience to feel for him, despite his “mercurial nature, his temper,” and his failure to admit the truth to himself.
From the beginning of the play, Miller describes Willy as exhausted. He is going mad, yet denies this vehemently and is encouraged by his devoted wife Linda that there is nothing overly wrong with him: “Maybe it’s your glasses”, she says, and “Your mind is over-active”. Within the first few lines of the play, Miller exposes capitalism through the voice of Willy: “the way they boxed us in” and the stage directions of the house: “towering angular shapes … surrounding it on all sides” which suggests isolation, especially when it is taken into account that Willy is quite a small man both physically and in comparison to society. By writing this, Miller implies that it is not Willy himself, but the pressure the American Dream puts on people and the corrupt American society that has driven Willy mad. He is trapped in a system where the most important things in life are money and luxurious possessions, and Willy firmly believes that being liked is synonymous with success. His madness, therefore, is definitely not inherited, but the product of the country in which he lives.
Willy’s ability (or lack thereof), however, is something that is quite hard to define. It is easy to argue that he has less than average ability in many aspects, which contrasts quite considerably to Aristotle’s view of a tragic figure who is very capable. Willy’s career certainly fails completely when he gets fired: “there just is no spot here for you”, and Miller presents Willy as a failed salesman well before he is fired by Howard – he does not earn much and his family is very poor, as proved by their lack of material possessions (again linking to the fragility of the American Dream), and we are reminded that for some to be fabulously wealthy there must be some who are correspondingly poor. Willy’s continuous protests that he is a “big shot” in the business world prove false at the dénouement of the play: his own funeral, where instead of the hundreds of people Willy imagined, there are only five. As Miller says in his essay, Willy has a “need for immortality” which he never quite achieves. The audience is left feeling sympathetic towards Willy because of this – he has “destroyed the boundaries between now and then”, and is truly convinced he is well loved and remembered when in fact the opposite is true.
As well as his failure in the working world, Willy also fails in the personal one – his paternal qualities are deficient, although it is obvious at the end of the play that a motivating factor in his suicide is to get a large sum of money for his family. Despite this, he encourages Biff to steal in his younger years with complete disregard for moral guidelines: “Coach’ll probably congratulate you on your initiative” which leads to a huge flaw in his son that climaxes with Biff confesses that he “stole a suit in Kansas city” which resulted in him being sent to prison for three months. He also pushes Biff to follow not his own dreams, but the dreams society thrusts upon him: “How can he find himself on a farm?” – and although this can be seen as Willy wanting the best for Biff, which he obviously does, it is still not the right thing to do. The audience loses sympathy for Willy because of this, as he puts forward the good of material success he has followed in vain. Happy, on the other hand, is relatively ignored by Willy in comparison to Biff. He frequently tries to get his father’s attention (“I’m losing weight, you notice, Pop?”) yet never succeeds as he wishes to. The audience, therefore, lose some sympathy for Willy because of his failing abilities as a father, and it is a great skill of Miller’s to evoke it in other ways.
The way other characters think about and react to Willy is key to Miller’s evocation of sympathy for him. The only person who truly loves him throughout the entire course of the play is Linda: “Willy is the dearest man in the world to me’. Despite this, however, Willy is often intolerant of her, and his anger towards her is wholly unjustified: “Why am I always being contradicted?” It could be argued, however, that Willy is so overcome with guilt because of his affair that the negative reaction towards his wife is a reflection of the guilt he feels for abandoning her. In addition, the relationship between Willy and his children is arguably the most important one of the play. Biff and Happy do not appreciate Willy and are frequently embarrassed by him: “No, that’s not my father”. This complete disregard of their father increases the sympathy the audience feel for Willy – he tries hard, especially in the case of Biff, to make sure his sons succeed in a materialistic society: “never leave a job till you’re finished”, and instead of being concerned and helping Willy, they abandon him in his times of need – most notably in a restaurant “babbling in a toilet”.
A key character that Miller uses to evoke sympathy for Willy is Linda. Throughout the play, she is the only character that is consistent in her feelings for Willy – she loves him unconditionally, and the anger she expresses when her sons are unkind to their father is key in allowing the audience to sympathise with Willy. Linda insists that “a small man can be just as exhausted as a great man”, which is a quotation that truly defines the idea Miller is trying to portray: no matter what your status, you are susceptible to the pressure your government and society places on you.
As the play progresses, it becomes clear that Miller is presenting contrasting sides of Willy throughout, with neither the positive nor the negative side being truly dominant in the end. It seems that Miller wants the individual to make up their mind, though the attack on Capitalism is quite clear: “those bastards!” However, many different interpretations have been made of Willy over the years that blame not just Capitalism but attribute the failure of Willy to Willy’s lack of ability. Wolcott Gibbs, for example, describes Willy as “a failure of a man”. Similarly, some critics argue that Willy’s tragedy is completely of his own making – he alone makes his decisions (“if I could take home … sixty-five dollars a week”) and has the dreams he does. These people are therefore much less sympathetic at the climax of the play, as they see Willy’s suicide as cowardly as opposed to an act of heroism that some other audience members see it to be. This is possibly because Willy’s suicide aims to gain insurance money for his family, yet Miller deliberately leaves it unclear as to whether this reward is achieved.
Willy Loman is a very complex character, and Miller has definitely not made it simple to define him easily. It is unarguable that Arthur Miller’s characterization of Willy can be seen in a variety of different ways – yet no matter what opinion the individual has of Willy Loman, it is undeniable that Death of a Salesman is a tragedy about a tragic character and his desperate fight against a system that refuses to accept him. As Miller writes in his essay “Tragedy and the “Common Man”: “I believe that the common man is as apt a subject for tragedy in its highest sense as kings were.”
- 1, 3, 4 Arthur Miller – “An Introduction to the Play” from “Arthur Miller Collected Plays” (2006)
- 2 David Calder speaking in a BBC clip on the Learning Zone (http://www.bbc.co.uk/learningzone/clips/death-of-a-salesman-willy-lomans-character/5300.html)
- Credited source: Corbis, ‘Death of a Salesman 1985’ provided by Castle Hill Productions Inc.
- 5 Arthur Miller – “Tragedy and the Common Man” (1949)
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