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"Death of a Salesman": Willy Loman Is Not Only a Fool but Also Tragic

Billy Zhang loves to share his wealth of knowledge spanning numerous disciplines, including literature!

"Death of a Salesman" book cover

"Death of a Salesman" book cover

Tragedy or Fool?

In Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman is a complex character that is a modern tragic figure and is not simply a fool. He is not only the victim of society but also the victim of his own incapability to grasp who and what he is in any positive sense. This leads to his subtle and gradual deterioration, and ultimately to his tragic death.

Arthur Miller has developed in Death of a Salesman, a modern tragic hero in which he explores modern man in the ordinary struggles of life. He intended to portray Willy Loman as a common man, who is a character who destroys himself to maintain his sense of personal dignity as well as attempt to gain his rightful position in society. Willy is easily relatable to modern audiences because he shares numerous similar fears, hope, and flaws. For example, Willy ‘works a lifetime to pay off a house.’ signifies the end of his payment on his mortgage, which many families hope to achieve. Also his […uncontrolled outburst]: ‘I am not a dime a dozen!’ displays his dread of becoming one of many and not being unique or extraordinary.

Willy has been influenced by events and circumstances beyond his control, which has guided him towards his misplaced values. He has adopted his role model, Ben’s and Dave Singleman’s values, and then inculcated these into his sons. Willy's obsession with popularity, ‘He’s liked, but he’s not well liked.’ is due to his admiration of Singleman’s prolonged success. Willy interprets having people ‘remember’ him as the ultimate satisfaction, as he claims to his boys ‘ they know me up and down New England’ and ‘I have friends’. Furthermore, Willy’s lack of integrity originates from Uncle Ben, who ‘never fights fair’. His high regard for Ben is seen when he tries to impress him, by showing how fearless his sons are by sending them to ‘get some sand’, which in fact is Willy telling his sons to steal from the neighboring construction project.

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"Death of a Salesman" play photograph

"Death of a Salesman" play photograph

Willy Loman spirals downwards because of the overwhelming sense of sadness about his failures. Ben, who is conjured up by Willy and represents his alter ego, constantly overshadows his fruitless search for the American Dream, which depicts America as a land of opportunity and freedom for everyone. As Willy fails to see the folly of his dreams, he ends up passing on not only his dreams but in addition to the confusion to Biff and Happy. Their dilemma is a constant reminder to Willy of his ineptitude as a father. This produces conflict within Willy and is a clear sign of him struggling with his failures as a father. He wanders in and out of illusions, often contradicting himself. For instance, Willy says of Biff, ‘The trouble is he’s lazy. Biff is a lazy bum!’ yet later he says, ‘There’s one thing about Biff – he’s not lazy.’ In a short moment of reality, Willy is seen truthfully criticizing Biff, but he then returns to his illusions that ‘personal attractiveness ‘ is all a man needs to succeed. When Willy sees his failures reflected in the lives of his sons, his guilt is further intensified and his decline is hastened.

Is Willy Loman a fool?

Is Willy Loman a fool?

Willy Loman is a tragic figure through the inspiring pursuit of his forever elusive identity as the perfect father. He persuades himself that only his death can reestablish his importance in his family’s eyes and furthermore reclaim for him, his lost sense of honor. He believes that he must die immediately after realizing he had never lost Biff’s love, [after a long pause, astonished, elevated]: ‘Isn’t that – isn’t that remarkable? Biff – he likes me!’ This is so he can preserve Biff’s love before any further arguments with him may jeopardize it. By in fact selling himself, Willy considers the twenty thousand dollars given to Biff as evidence of his indisputable nature as a respectable father.

Taken together, Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman is a modern tragic figure and is not purely a fool. His similar struggles to a modern man portray him as an everyman, who has been guided by role models with misplaced values. In addition, his own overpowering sense of sadness over his failures, and his pursuit for his lasting image as a perfect father in Biff’s eyes, demonstrates Willy Loman is a complicated character and can not be simply called a fool.

© 2016 Billy Zhang

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