Sales and Imaginations
In Arthur Miller’s Play Death of a Salesman, the dreams of the major characters are the central focus of the plot. The Lomans, particularly Willy, struggle to realize their dreams while fearing that these goals are unreachable. Yet this fear is necessary to the hope; Willy would much rather dream than succeed. It is the destruction of his dream that destroys him, not merely its failure.
Willy Loman, the central character of the play, dreams of success in business. He wants to be well-liked, the quality which he believes is the key to success. He also wants his sons to follow in his footsteps and be popular. During the actual time of the play, however, Willy’s dreams have obviously failed. He is a sixty-year-old salesman whose friends have all died and who gets fired halfway through the play. One of his sons is a farmhand, the other is in the business world as assistant to an assistant. Willy spends the play thinking back on his better days and often believing that they are reality. His obsession with dreams prevents him from seeing the wreck of his life.
Willy does not want to acknowledge the state of his life, and uses his daydreams to escape the knowledge. He even acts on them, refusing to salvage the present if it means breaking from his goal. He desperately entreats Howard, his boss, to give him a job, and is willing to accept absurdly low wages to continue being a salesman, even a salesman who does not sell anything. After Howard refuses, the unemployed Willy will not accept a gift of fifty dollars a week from his pragmatic friend Charley. To take this salary would be to concede defeat, even though it would save his family. Charley repeatedly asks Willy, “When are you going to grow up?” and Charley’s son Bernard, a practical, studious teenager who becomes a high-placed lawyer, advises Willy that sometimes the best thing to do is to walk away from failure. Yet Willy will not walk away from his dreams.
Yet sometimes he wonders if he was right to dream in the first place. His doubts take the form of his dead brother Ben, who made a fortune in African diamonds and Alaskan lumber. Ben urges Willy to seek the real, the practical, that which can be felt, inviting him to go to Alaska to work with real lumber. Still, Ben is nothing more than a phantasm, a shape who is himself unreal. He is the only one of Willy’s imaginings who addresses him in the present world, noticing his surroundings and having conversations that are clearly not memories. He may be a symbol of Willy’s distress, but he is no more substantial than that: he is Willy’s model for an imaginary success and his very presence emphasizes the impossibility of Willy’s goal. Men who walk into the jungle at seventeen and come out rich at twenty-one do not exist; the only truly successful people in the play are the solidly pragmatic Howard, Charley, and Bernard.
This does not keep Willy from trying to foist his hopes onto his family, and to wreck it by doing so. His wife Linda, while she does not appear to have any sights of her own, is constantly trying to protect Willy from reality, encouraging her sons to lie about their own fortunes to him. Happy does so gladly, too gladly; he follows his father’s dream even though he recognizes that he does not enjoy the fruits of his labor, suggesting that the reason is his “competitive nature.” This early realization hints at why Willy pursues the dream: because it is a dream, and because he needs something to pursue. After Willy’s death, Charley verifies this, saying, “A salesman…[has] got to dream,” because what a salesman does is so insubstantial. The supreme salesmanly virtue of being “well-liked” is vague and transitory, suitable only to the glimmering world of fantasy.
Biff, Willy’s other son, also realizes this, although somewhat less eloquently than Charley does. Biff announces that his father hates him because he knows Willy “is a fake.” Biff wants to concentrate on farming and physical labor, things that are real and perceptible. He only agrees to Happy and Linda’s scheme when he is convinced that it is the only way to save his father’s life. Even then he keeps trying to intrude with the truth, attempting to tell Willy that their impractical plan to open a sporting-goods chain failed, in part because Biff stole a pen from Bill Oliver, his prospective backer. Biff’s gradually-revealed history of theft shows his need for real items, and that this need destroyed Willy’s hopes; it is the invasion of reality upon Willy’s future.
Biff refuses to dream because he has seen the truth behind his dad’s fantasies. When Biff was young, he was a football star who dreamt more than Happy did and was the focus of Willy’s hopes. He wanted to get an athletic scholarship, but would not take a remedial math class that he needed in order to graduate from high school. He made this decision because he accidentally caught Willy’s mistress in a hotel room. Biff saw that even when Willy’s dreams seemed at their height, falsehood stood behind them.
Biff’s presence is the catalyst for Willy’s suicide, the visible sign that his ambitions destroyed his family. Willy’s guilt over betraying his family is clear; he worries that it is his fault that Biff did not go to summer school, and he rages at Linda for darning stockings in his presence, because they remind him of his mistress. But where Linda tries to comfort him, Biff insists on telling Willy that his ambitions are failed. Willy not only desires to earn something real, the twenty thousand dollar life insurance policy, but also to earn it for Biff.
In Willy’s suicide is the final destruction of the dream. He thinks that he will have a salesman’s funeral that everyone will attend, and that the insurance money will put Biff ahead of Bernard. He kills himself by driving the car that was the subject of his nostalgia, or, more appropriately, by crashing it. In the moment when he does get something real, he kills his dream and himself. He had always lived on expectancy and hope; actually having what he works for kills him, as it may well have Ben.
The insurance money never appears in the play, nor is Biff’s future ever resolved. Willy is dead, and this comes as a surprise neither to the audience, who know the play’s title before ever walking into the theater, nor to the major characters, who have all known about Willy’s designs since at least halfway through the play. Once Willy and his dreams, which controlled the entire play, are dead, the powerful reality of their deaths is all that remains.
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