Table of Contents
2. Willy Loman and his concept of success
3. The importance of being well-liked
4. The importance of physical prowess
The plot of Arthur Miller's Pulitzer Prize-winning play Death of a Salesman revolves around the last days in the life of Willy Loman, an aging salesman, whose pursuit of a prosperous and rewarding life for himself and his two sons, especially his oldest one Biff, comes to a tragic end. One of the reasons why he fails is because he values the wrong things and leads his life guided by wrong dreams.1
Willy Loman, the protagonist of Miller's classic, which critics label "as one of the most powerful and affecting plays in American theatrical history"2, appears to overemphasize such things as success, physical ability or personal attractiveness and looses his sense of the real forces of life in his attempt to achieve his "(American) dream"3. He holds onto his dream and his ideas long after they cease to correspond with reality. This is his biggest flaw and dooms him at last.
In the following paragraphs, I want to explore some examples of these values and dreams which seem to dictate Willy Loman's life and also, mostly because of him, the lives of his sons Biff and Happy and will eventually lead to his death through suicide, which , in the end, "will create the fortune that his life could never accumulate."4
In the subsequent chapter, I will show by whom the main character Willy Loman is influenced. The question that should be investigated is: Who could be the sources of Willy's philosophy of life?
After that, in chapters 3 and 4, I want to go into further detail and provide specific examples of the major motifs that Miller sustains throughout the play, which in particular are: the importance of "being well liked" and the importance physical prowess.
2. WILLY LOMAN AND HIS CONCEPT OF SUCCESS
"Willy Loman is a man who wishes his reality to come into line with his hopes [...]"5 These hopes, and therefore his concept of success, are predominantly brought upon him by certain people of his past — which would be: his father, his brother Ben and salesman-idol Dave Singleman. 6
First of all, Willy's father made a living by selling handcrafted flutes on his way around the country. In the illusionary encounter with his brother Ben, Willy listens to Ben who refers to their father by saying: "Great Inventor, Father. With one gadget he made more in a week than a man like you could make in a lifetime"7. One gets the impression that Willy assumes that following in the footsteps of his father, being a salesman, automatically guarantees success. But Willy does not realize that his father was not only a salesman, he was a daring and adventurous individual, too, who even had his own business. Because he produced his own flutes and sold them he was an artist and a businessman at the same time, as compared to Willy who only sells things that he does not produce nor own.8
Another person who most likely has been an influence to the development of Willy is his idol Dave Singleman, who he met when he was young. Singleman was an eighty-four year old salesman in the Parker House. Willy was, and still is, fascinated by him because in order to make a sale all he had to do was "[...] pick up his phone and call the buyers, and without ever leaving his room, he made his living [...]."(63) Willy considered this way of selling as very pleasing and "the greatest career" that you can imagine. (63) The above quote describes Singleman's success as a salesman and the almost legendary status given to him by Willy.
He believes that Singleman's success was based on personality, respect, comradeship and gratitude9. But he does not take into consideration that Singleman might be an exception who has taken a lifetime to build up a reputation and to develop into a personality. Willy's mistake is that he thinks one has got to possess these qualities first and success comes because of these qualities. But in reality it is the other way around.10
In addition to his father and Dave Singleman, the person Willy admires the most is his brother Ben because he has become extremely successful in life — which in the end makes him the only member of the Loman family to achieve something great. He is the best example of the success story that Willy envisions for himself. Ben repeats again and again his "self-made man"11 philosophy: "When I was seventeen I walked into the jungle, and when I was twenty-one I walked out. And by God I was rich!" (37) This almost ritual quote by Ben is the foundation of Willy's beliefs for himself and his family. This is emphasized when Willy talks to his sons. "Listen to this. This is your Uncle Ben, a great man! Tell my boys, Ben!" (37) When Willy states this he wants his boys to have the same thought on life as he himself has. Though, like their father, the two sons are led to the idea that success will somehow come to them.
Material success, such as money and luxury, but also popularity are Willy Loman's goals and his definitions of success. He only thinks about the end product, being successful, and not the process he may have to go through to achieve that kind of success. Instead of choosing self-fulfilment and happiness through hard work he settles on relying solely on personality:
[...] it's not what you do, Ben. It's who you know and the smile on your face! It's contacts, Ben, contacts! The whole wealth of Alaska passes over the lunch table at the Commodore Hotel, and that's the wonder, the wonder of this country, that a man can end with diamonds here on the basis of being liked!
(Salesman, p. 67f.)
The above quote offers one example of Miller's technique throughout the play to familiarize certain characters. He's having them repeat key phrases over and over. Willy Loman's most common phrase is that businessmen must be well-liked, rather than just liked.
1 See Bigsby, Christopher, A Critical Introduction to Twentieth-century American Drama, Vol. 2. (Cambridge: University Press, 1989) 181.
2 Bigsby, Christopher, A Critical Introduction 174.
3 Abbotson, Susan C. W., Student Companion to Arthur Miller. (Westport: Greenwood Press, 2000) 46.
4 Bigsby, Christopher, A Critical Introduction 175f.
5 Bigsby, Christopher, Arthur Miller: A Critical Study. (Cambridge: University Press, 2005) 101.
6 See Abbotson 4'.
7'Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968) 38.
8 Bigsby, Christopher, A Critical Introduction 184.
9 See Miller, Salesman 63.
10 Bodden, Horst Dr., Arthur Miller 'Death of a Salesman', Lehrerhandreichungen. (München: Langenscheidt-Longman, 1988) 40.
11 Bodden 28.