The Failed Past and the Delusions of the Present of a Successful Life in Death of a Salesman, a Play by Arthur Miller
“Death of a Salesman” by Arthur Miller displays a man whose inability to accept change within himself, and the reality of his life led to his and his family’s loss of identity and grasp of the truth. This man is Willy Loman who’s fear of abandonment, failed career and failed domestic life were the product of his past; leading to his present dilution of a successful life and the resulting downfall. Willy’s past experiences with his father and brother created a fear of abandonment which manifested in the form of a fictitious present where he ignores the fact that his sons have also abandoned him. This concern is seen in the constant questions about the whereabouts of Willy’s father from Willy to Ben.
In act one Willy asks “WILLY [pulling Ben away from her impatiently]: Where is Dad? Didn’t you follow him? How did you get started?” (1472). Willy’s abandonment by his father and brother at a young age leaves him with many unanswered questions and concerns. This secret fear corrodes his character, making him kind of a desperate person. Ironically, this desperation eventually leads to both Biff abandoning him and Willy abandoning his family through suicide. The past marked his present, and since the truth was too much for Willy, he chose to live in an alternate world of what could’ve been, but the truth intersections that often broke down the wall of lies gave him a glimpse of his reality. Both of these things combined worked in perfect harmony to destroy Willy’s life; he died living in the past that it could’ve been and abandoned his family in the present it ought to be. The success of a flute salesman and a jackpot winner inspired Willy’s drive to be successful without working for it. Willy believes he can be successful with charm. However, the world does not work as such, leading to the downfall of a credulous salesman whose past exposure to glorious success created the irrational definition of an accomplished life. Willy’s dilution of a successful career was what kept him going, he could never accept that he was an indebted, jobless loser and since black can’t be hidden with white his real life was sometimes dissolved by the image of Linda mending socks. “WILLY [noticing her mending]: What’s that? LINDA: Just mending my stockings. They’re so expensive! WILLY [angrily, taking them from her]: I won’t have you mending stockings in this house! Now throw them out!” (1468). Willy lashes out at Linda about her mending stockings because it reminds him of his affair and inability to provide for his family. He has a distorted perception of the past; he believes that he was a successful salesman and so his wife should not have to mend stockings.
However, the truth is that he failed at his job and repeatedly had to turn to Charlie, his only friend, for money. Aside from being unaware of his failures, Willy was envious of those who had what he lacked because despite the wall he had built up between reality and him, deep down he knew that he was absolutely nothing. Willy’s past affair affects his whole family, but it had a more significant impact on his relationship with his son Biff. Because Biff knew of the affair, the mirage his father had built for him and his family broke, and Biff was able to see his father for what he indeed was. This had a tremendous negative impact on Willy because he had placed all of his dreams on Biff. He wanted Biff to be as successful as he thinks he is. “BIFF: I realized what a ridiculous lie my whole life has been. We’ve been talking about a dream for fifteen years. I was a shipping clerk” (1522). Here we see Biff’s realization of what his father had done to him, and so this created conflict and separation from Willy and Biff which partly caused Willy’s death. This one mistake Willy committed in the past haunted him for the rest of his life. Unable to regain the admiration and respect of his son, Willy in one desperate act he ended his life, hoping that Biff would be proud when he supposedly receives insurance money.
However, all Biff felt was pity and somehow a sense of relief, he had been freed from the chains his father had tied to his hands and feet which were what held him in the same place for thirty-four years. Willy’s past determined his lack of a future. Willy’s fear of being alone, of being unable to provide for his family and of being as successful as his brother caused him to become such that realization was too much for an old unachieved man, so he chose to live in a mirage with his family. This world of lies and deception along with his inability to let go of the past led to Willy’s death because when a man’s present is a deserted battlefield with only him standing in front of the inevitable loss, his only hope is to close his eyes and think of home, where he is undefeated and still fighting. Willy closed his eyes and did just that, so his opponent killed him while he was deep inside a fictitious world. But when the deed was done, nothing had changed except that his failure had been signed in the foreheads of his family.
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