Death of Salesman Analysis
Women assume various roles in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Mainly we find them in the home, or the “workplace”. For us, they serve as windows to observe and formulate an opinion of the main character, Willy Loman and his boys Happy and Biff. For reference, the women include, Linda Loman (Willy’s wife) the boy’s childhood and current girls/women, “The Woman” (Willy’s mistress), and Jenny (Charley’s secretary). Notably, there are several aspects that unify these women.
First, they are subordinate to the men; second, they are emotionally or materially dependent; third, the men are mutually dependent on the women for emotional or physical needs; and fourth, they serve as male ego supporters. Moreover, the women are portrayed as weak. Granted, societal views of women’s roles have drastically changed over the past seven decades, the women’s characters in Death of Salesman have not.
Miller skillfully navigates us through the past and present in order to capture a complete image of Willy’s life.
I will attempt to do the same with Linda Loman. I selected her because of her distinctive propensity to be overly protective of Willy. My intention is not to understate the relevance of the other women. Yet, my focus on Linda is based on my opinion that she is the central female figure and best ambassador to reveal Willy’s dynamic nature.
Willy: “You’re my foundation and support, Linda.” (1216)
We are introduced to Linda in the present. For the time and even for today, she is the ideal American wife. Caring, nurturing, supportive, and loyal to her husband and children. Yet, today, one may say overly supportive. A captive of the time period, she is limited; and therefore, emotionally and financially dependent on her husband. While here, we are able to feel her comforting and sheltering nature. She selflessly protects Willy from his insecure thoughts, his children, and acknowledging his financial failures. Yet, she cannot guard him from his depression and suicidal attempts and ideations.
The scene opens with Willy prematurely returning from a sales trip. He is explaining to Linda that he could not maintain mental focus and that the car kept veering off onto the shoulder of the road. As we will come to know, she is well aware that Willy’s mental status is declining. She deflects the blame by saying, “Oh. Maybe it was the steering again. I don’t think Angelo knows the Studebaker.” (1213) Willy accepts responsibility, “No, it’s me…” (1214) Nonetheless, she continues to divert the cause by saying, “Maybe it’s your glasses…”(1214) Her well-intended effort to be supportive is unfortunately enabling Willy’s serious “nervous breakdown” to be ignored. In the literary sense, it is an example of situational irony. Her intention to be helpful is not actually helping. For us, it is in this moment with Linda, that we immediately realize that Willy is undergoing serious internal and external stress. It is manifesting into depression, mumbling, mental and physical wandering, and severe depression. It will proliferate throughout the play, and tragically, be the cause of his final decision.
During their conversation we are also introduced to the adult boys, Biff and Happy. Linda informs Willy that the boys are both sleeping, and that, “Happy took Biff on a date tonight.” (1214) The report automatically generates interest in Willy. Which, we can translate to mean, Willy is in favor of his boys being in the company of women. As the conversation continues we are made aware of the tension that exists between Willy and his oldest son, Biff. As well, Linda let’s us know that Willy has a temper. She tells him, “You shouldn’t have criticized him, Willy, especially after he just got off the train. You mustn’t lose your temper with him.” (1215) For me, his temper is validated by his response, “When the hell did I lose my temper?” (1215)
Typically, a non-temperamental person would not respond in that manner. As they continue on the topic of Biff, we get the first glimpse of Willy’s contradictory nature. At one moment Willy says, “Biff is a lazy bum!” (1215) While in a follow up comment he says, “Biff Loman is lost. In the greatest country in the world a young man with such—personal attractiveness, gets lost. And such a hard worker. There’s one thing about Biff—he’s not lazy.” (1215) Well, which is it? Is Biff lazy, or not? Willy’s contradictory tendency will be further exemplified. I find a touch of comical irony, when prior to going to the kitchen, for a glass of milk, he asks, “Why am I always being contradicted? (1215)
While in the kitchen, we go back in time with Linda and Willy. We see that her support of Willy has endured the test of time, as have his inconsistencies. The younger Linda asks, “Did you sell anything?” (1224) At first Willy says, “I did five hundred gross in Providence and seven hundred gross in Boston.” (1224) Linda wants to tabulate his commission so she retrieves a pencil and paper from her apron pocket. She “number-crunches” and replies, “Two hundred—my God! Two hundred and twelve dollars!” (1225)
Once he realizes that there will be an expectation to produce that money, he back-peddles and says, “Well, I didn’t figure it yet, but…” (1225) She is persistent, “How much did you do?” Then a more realistic figure emerges, “Well, I—I did—about a hundred and eighty gross in Providence. Well, no—it came to—roughly two hundred gross on the whole trip.” (1225) As easily as Linda can do the math, so can we. Willy’s original report claims approximately 1,200 gross. When realistically his entire trip probably netted 200 gross. If we are inclined to believe that estimate as honest, he has overinflated his sales by six times the actual amount.
After realizing that the actual commission amount is not enough to cover the monthly expenses, a dialogue ensues that reveals another incongruence and his insecurity. Willy states, “Oh, I’ll knock them dead next week. I’ll go to Hartford. I’m very well liked in Hartford. You know, the trouble is Linda, people don’t seem to take to me.” (1225) Again, in the same sentence he contradicts himself. I think we can all relate to feeling “less than” at some point in our lives. Since, I know I can, his previous and following statement elicits empathy on my part. He claims that people are laughing at him when he goes to his sales calls. He doesn’t know the reason, he is just aware. Linda’s perpetual support of Willy continues, “Oh, don’t be foolish” and “Why? Why would they laugh at you? Don’t talk that way, Willy”. (1225) She continues to console him and coddles his fragile ego by replying, “But you’re doing wonderful, dear. You’re making seventy to a hundred dollars a week.” (1225) There is something to admire about her positive outlook.
Willy continues to share his feelings about his diminished sense of self-worth. This time, it comes from his critique of his physical image, “I’m fat. I’m very foolish to look at, Linda. I didn’t tell you, but Christmas time I happened to be calling on F.H. Stewarts, and a salesman I know, as I was going in to see the buyer, I heard him say something about—walrus. And I—I cracked him right across the face. I won’t take that. I simply will not take that. But they do laugh at me. I know that…” (1226) I would like to draw your attention to the opening scene where Linda cautions Willy about his temper. We are now in the past, and we have a tangible example of Willy’s temper. In this case, it has even erupted into violence. Linda doesn’t even bat an eye when he tells her that he hit someone. Instead, she is the constant pillar that supports his ego, “Willy, darling, you’re the handsomest man in the world—” (1226) Really, Linda? I can’t imagine my husband telling me he hit someone and not be compelled to probe him further about the incident.
Through Willy’s reminiscent daydreams, we hear the laughter of a woman, who will later be revealed as “The Woman”, his mistress. (1226) Willy has just added another criteria to analyze him against. He is unfaithful to his committed and loving wife. Until now, I could sympathize with Willy’s insecurities, even understand his need to overinflate his earnings and maybe even relate to his temper. But, positioned against my own moral standards, I don’t care for a womanizer. Nor would I make an exception if the roles were reversed. He pulls away from the memory and declares, “You’re the best there is, Linda, you’re a pal, you know that?э On the road—on the road I want to grab you sometimes and just kiss the life outa you.” (1226) Anyone who understands simple psychology realizes that it is guilt that moves him to profess affection for his wife. Yet, a key term he uses provides insight to how he actually views her, “you’re a pal”.
These words cannot be misconstrued to mean: I love you, you mean the world to me, and I can’t wait to rush home to you. As a matter of fact, he retreats into his memories and we spend time with “The Woman”. In this brief moment we can conclude that his mistress provides an outlet when he’s on the road, she fuels his ego, and she suits his purpose by being able to send him directly into the buyers. In return, he fulfills her material need for stockings. (1227)
Back from his memory of “The Woman”, we are still in the past where he is remembering a scene of Linda mending her stockings. He commands her to throw them away. Although we already know Biff and Happy from their own earlier dialogues and Willy’s memories (which I did not address), it is here that Linda provides insight into younger Biff. She tells Willy that Biff must return a football that he stole from the school, and that he is also too rough with the neighborhood girls. (1227) Willy is annoyed with Biff and he explodes at Linda when she urges him to do something about Biff’s behavior. (1228). It is important to know, all of Willy’s past memories and mumblings have occurred while he went down to the kitchen for that glass of milk.
Finally, we arrive at the kitchen, in the present. This part does not include Linda. Yet, I find it important to include because this exchange contains a missed opportunity. Not that there weren’t several others. Happy comes down to check on Willy. He finds his father mumbling, and out of concern and sadness, Happy tells him that he will financially provide for the rest of Willy’s life. In expressing his frustration with Happy’s claim to “retire” him for life, Willy makes an explicit cry for help, “You’ll retire me for life on seventy goddam dollars a week? And your women and your car and your apartment, and you’ll retire me for life! Christ’s sake, I couldn’t get past Yonkers today! Where are you guys, where are you?
The woods are burning! I can’t drive a car!” (1228) And there it is! A desperate, agonizing plea for attention, ‘Where are you guys? The woods are burning!’. He realizes his condition, he is begging to be acknowledged, begging for attention, and begging for help! He feels alone in his suffering. I could imagine his desperation, and we would not be human if we too did not feel his pain. The neighbor, Charley enters, and Happy is sent away. In the interest of focusing on Linda, we will fast forward through this part. Yet, during Charley’s visit and through Willy’s memories, we meet an influential character in Willy’s life (his successful brother Ben). Charley leaves after a heated round of cards. Yet, we remain in the kitchen while Willy heads outside.
Linda comes looking for Willy in the kitchen. Both boys come down to discuss their father’s apparent troubling condition. Instead of addressing it, she scolds them both for being judgmental of their father. Happy transfers his anger onto Biff and blames his father’s condition on Biff’s failures. This scene foreshadows the underlying trouble between Biff and his father. Linda asks Biff, “Why are you so hateful to each other? Why is that?” (1235) Biff is reluctant to admit that he is resentful towards his father. She cautions that one day the boys will try to come home and there will be strangers in the house. Biff replies, “What are you talking about? You’re not even sixty, Mom.” She reminds him that his father is not doing well and goes on to say, “Biff, dear, if you don’t have any feeling for him, then you can’t have any feeling for me.” (1235)
This is an endearing symbol that all families are interconnected, and we each play an integral role. In a passionate plea she proclaims, “You can’t just come to see me, because I love him.” She goes on to acknowledge Willy’s character flaw, “I know he’s not easy to get along with—nobody knows that better than me—but…”(1235) Willy enters the kitchen and he is delighted to see Biff. His erratic behavior is puzzling, and Biff asks, “What the hell is the matter with him?” Linda defends Willy, as if from a physical threat, “Don’t—don’t go near him!” Out of disgust, Biff snaps, “Stop making excuses for him! He always, always wiped the floor with you. Never had an ounce of respect for you.” (1235) This is a loaded, emotional and hurtful comment. But, we will easily unpack why Biff feels that his father has not cherished his mother.
Another scene, that does not directly involve Linda, is a mandatory addition. Nearing the end, we come to know that the younger Biff caught his father with “The Woman” in a hotel, while his father was on a business trip. (1267) The experience grants Biff a moment of clarity, it also permanently shatters his image of his father. Ultimately, she is the measure that Biff judges his father by. In that hotel room, the reality of his father’s pretentious persona crystallizes. He calls him a liar, and a fake. (1268) We will come to understand that this pivotal moment created a fissure that could never be filled. Inevitably, it altered the chain of events in Biff and Willy’s lives, not to mention Linda’s. They remain distant from that moment forward. Poor Linda is never directly told about the affair, which is the sole reason of why Biff resents his father, and the ultimate reason that has caused Willy to be so depressed.
The most important detail I have saved for last. As I first claimed, I found Linda to be the most important woman that brings Willy into perspective for us. Early on, Linda confesses to her boys that Willy has deliberately smashed the car on two separate occasions, (1237) and that she has found a hose in the basement that he intended to connect to a gas line. Just prior she delivers a very heartfelt command to her boys. For us, Linda sums Willy up, “Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person.” (1236)
There we have it, Willy has attempted suicide and continues to be tormented with his ideations. Unfortunately, his final suicide attempt is successful. What a strange word, ‘successful’ can be when used to describe death by suicide. But, in Willy’s mind, through death he could attain financial success, make a lasting impression with his sons (mainly Biff) another form of success to Willy, leave 20K for Linda (huge success), and have everyone acknowledge him with a big “send off” (success in the form of recognition). As we know, in the end, it did not play out that way. The few people in attendance did not view his death as a success. What he left behind was pain.
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