Forgetting Family, Finding Freedom
Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie capitalize on the theme of abandonment. In both plays, the protagonists experience abandonment and later desert their respective families; as a result, they illustrate the idea that freedom can be achieved by leaving family and its accompanying responsibilities.
In Death of a Salesman, there are several incidences where the anti-hero Willy Loman is left behind, which then inspires him to leave others behind to reach his personal goals. The earliest references to Willy being abandoned is when he mentions his father, claiming that the man had a “little streak of self-reliance” that prompted him to leave the family in favor of moving to Alaska (Miller 1407). However, rather than condemning the betrayal, Willy dubs his father an “adventurous man,” thus praising him for his independence (1407). In such a light, Willy chooses to prioritize independent ventures—more specifically, ventures that lead to success—over family life. Another example of abandonment is with Willy’s older brother Ben; Ben discards him claiming that he “[hasn’t] the time” to talk to Willy (1409). However, Ben does extend a hand to Willy, demonstrating the pull of familial ties, when he encourages his brother to join him in Alaska to explore a “new continent at [his] doorstep” (1410). That offer does not amount to much, though. When Willy refuses the offer upon Linda’s urging, Ben shrugs him off and leaves without him. Much like their father, Ben also emphasizes the importance of freedom that can be found by becoming independent of family.
Similarly, The Glass Menagerie also utilizes the technique of having protagonist Tom’s family desert him, and him later deserting them to follow his personal goals. In his case, his father was the abandoner, because the man “fell in love with long distances” and gave up his family for wanderlust (Williams 1440). The father is portrayed as being happy despite his betrayal, though; the photograph of him is characterized as “smiling, ineluctably smiling…smiling forever,” which implies that trading his family for his personal goals was worth it (1439). In truth, the reason for the father’s abandonment is ambiguous. The abandonment is not necessarily a deliberate act of hurting family; it is, instead, choosing to place a higher value on self and personal freedom. As Tom makes repeated references to his father’s actions, he foreshadows his own familial abandonment in pursuit of personal goals. As Tom speaks to Jim, he notes that his father, who has been “absent going on sixteen years,” is grinning in the portrait (1468). That again conveys the idea that happiness and personal freedom can be found by becoming independent and leaving behind the burden of family.
In both works, there is a duality in the theme of abandonment; first, the protagonists experience the desertion, and that later inspires them to do the same. Outside of family, Willy finds himself betrayed by his work although he “put thirty-four years into this firm” (Miller 1407). He is crushed by how easily he is discarded once he is no longer of use to his boss. Outraged, he asserts that he should not be abandoned so easily, because “there were promises made” to him (1407). The reason Willy is largely affected by him being fired is because it proves that he has been unsuccessful. He recognizes that he is “worth more dead than alive,” which is a sobering thought (1415). With this realization, Willy makes his final decision to abandon his family. His abandonment is for the purpose of achieving freedom from his failures. He dreams of Biff’s “magnificence with twenty thousand dollars in his pocket,” which is what inspires him to commit suicide to attain that insurance money (1434). In the end, Willy finds freedom in giving his full efforts towards being successful—or at least making his son successful—so he abandons his family. Much like Willy in Death of a Salesman, Tom from The Glass Menagerie also decides to ultimately abandon his family. Tom’s decision is more apparent throughout the play, as he is a dreamer who “like[s] adventure” and incessantly watches movies to get his fix of it (Williams 1453). This restless nature and desire for a different life indicates that his discontent will lead to Tom taking action eventually. That is proven at the end, when Tom is tired of being harassed by his mother and leaves for St. Louis to “[follow], from then on, in [his] father’s footsteps” (1481). He also chooses to pursue his dreams of adventure and freedom; in doing so, he sacrifices his responsibilities to family.
Both plays feature protagonists who are originally abandoned by others and later choose to propagate the cycle by deserting their own families. Whether for the sake of finally becoming successful, as in Willy’s case, or in the search for adventure, as per Tom, both characters prioritize their individual wants over their obligations to family. Instead of considering the family’s desires, they prioritize their own, which ultimately leads to them abandoning family to achieve personal goals and freedom.
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Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie capitalize on the theme of abandonment. In both plays, the protagonists experience abandonment and later desert their respective […]