Nothing More Than a Dream: Death of a Salesman Analysis
Death of a Salesman is a tragic tale about Willy Loman, a man who desperately seeks success in a country known for its limitless opportunities. Unfortunately, few are able to attain such lofty goals.
In his journey, Willy loses sight of what is important and becomes completely blinded by the riches that he would have been able to attain. Being a modern day tragedy, Death of a Salesman reveals the tragic side of the American Dream.
Wikipedia, a company started as a result of one person’s American dream, defines the American dream as “a… freedom that allows all citizens and all residents of the United States to pursue their goals in life through hard work and free choice” (Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia 2009).
It is true that in America we have the freedom to pursue our goals no matter how lofty they may seem, but in reality few are able to attain the great successes seen by a select few. The majority of people find that the American dream is merely a dream and nothing else. Either people do not strive for such lofty goals or are unable to due to life events and bad choices.
Willy Loman is among the majority. Although, unlike the majority, the American dream has become a hindrance to Willy’s life because of his love of money, his low self-esteem, and his blinding hero-worshipping of three successful men.
Choosing Money over Love
The American dream brings hope to many, but some people become so clouded by the result of their goals that they lose sight of what is truly important. One critical essay denotes the significance of the materialistic American dream clashing with the individual. The article claims that this clash is “the downfall of Willy Loman, a salesman whose misguided notions of success result in disillusionment.” (Marowski, Danil G.; Matuz, Roger; Pollock, Sean R;, 247).
In Willy’s case, his goal is so strongly motivated by the love of money, he neglects his family. As Janet Witalec a critic of Miller points out, his love for money “keeps him from acknowledging the value of human experience—the comforts of personal relationships, family and friends, and love” (Witalec, 145). He thinks money provides satisfaction. Because he is focused on financial success, he often ignores the more important things in life.
It is clear that Willy truly loves his family, although he is very misguided. Despite his desperate desire to be rich, he makes sacrifices because he recognizes the importance of his wife and children. For instance, he chooses to support his family rather than go on adventures with Ben and become rich. Willy’s heart knows what is most important, but his love for money shadows over him. He feels a sense of shame that he has not attained the same riches as his brother and his father. Although he is aware that his family is most important, money preoccupies most of his thoughts.
In the end it is this preoccupation with financial matters that defeats him. Because he places a high significance on money, he misinterprets what he should do “when [he] realizes that his true value lies in being a good father” as Witalec explains. Instead of giving his sons his time and energy, “he chooses to sacrifice himself in order to give his sons the material wealth he has always desired” (Witalec, 145).
In one respect he realizes that he should be looking towards his relationship with his sons, but he is still blinded by his love for money. He thinks the way to bless his sons is by giving them riches in the only way he knows how. He believes he is doing the right thing for his family by committing suicide and ultimately giving his children the twenty-thousand dollars from his life insurance. As a result he misses out on life itself and takes one of the most valuable things away from his family: himself.
A Fractured Mind
In Willy’s fractured mind, there are fragments of truths where he realizes the importance of family over money. For instance, as his wife tells him that they almost have the house paid off, he states “…work a lifetime to pay off a house. You finally own it and there’s nobody to live in it” (Miller, 2330). Here he realizes that he has worked very hard to get the material things he has in life. Now that he has gained it, his children are adults and are no longer running around the house.
His wife reiterates this statement later, although she says it with a different tone. When Willy makes this statement he is speaking with bitterness over the years he had to work, and the times he missed out on with his sons. Whereas Lynda says this with sadness, because now that she officially owns her house, she is completely alone. In this, Lynda is the true victim, because she would have rather have her husband than own the house.
Unfortunately, Willy does not understand how much she values him, because he’s too blinded by his insecurities and self-absorption. To him, he sees her as his “foundation and… support” (Miller, 2331), but he only looks at the benefit she gives to him and not the benefit he gives to her. As a result, he misses out on the fulfillment of the symbiotic relationship that marriage provides. Although Willy says, “You know the trouble is, Linda, people don’t seem to take to me” (Miller, 2340), it is truly that he doesn’t “take to” himself. If only he understood the love his wife had for him, and her willingness to stick up for him like when she says, “I won’t have anyone making him feel unwanted and low and blue” (Miller, 2350), he may have been able to see the worth in himself as his wife does.
Rather than realizing his worth within his wife’s life, he continuously tries to seek importance in the world. Even when he assesses himself, he looks to physical characteristics such as appearance and personality as seen when he says, “I’m fat. I’m very—foolish to look at, Linda,” “I joke too much!” and “I’m not dressing to advantage” (Miller, 2341). These are characteristics that the world judges each other on; whereas a person’s true treasure is in the things that are not seen, such as love. Willy wants so badly to be “well-liked,” that he often overlooks the fact that he is loved, even though his wife continually reminds him.
Self-absorption is the main reason for this inability, because he only sees life from his own point-of-view. He makes decisions without fully understanding the repercussions that his actions will have on others lives and consequently his own.
One of his greatest selfish decisions is his affair. Although Witalec argues that Willie truly believes he cheats “out of loneliness for his wife, Linda. But [in fact]… he is driven by feelings of inadequacy and failure to seek himself outside of himself, in the eyes of others. ‘The Woman’ makes him feel that he is an important salesman and a powerful man” (Witalec, 234).
Willy only looks at the benefit he will get from his decisions. In the case of his affair, his benefits are words of affirmation and carnal pleasure. Unfortunately, because Biff discovers the affair, Willy becomes very aware of the immense pain that results.
In a criticism written by Marowski and colleagues, it expresses this betrayal by declaring that, “the trust Biff had given Willy now seems misplaced. Indeed, according to the flashbacks within the play, the young Biff and Happy had nearly idolized Willy, so this betrayal while Biff is yet an adolescent is particularly poignant.” (Marowski). The affair results in a strained relationship with his son, and though Biff never tells the secret, the family dynamic is forever changed. Ironically, what makes Willy feel like a successful salesman causes him to feel insecurities regarding his fatherhood and other aspects of his life as well.
His greatest insecurity is that he is never as successful as he feels he should be. It is, as Witalec says, “his vision of success [that] perpetuates crippling feelings of inferiority and inadequacy [which ultimately]… drive him to destroy himself” (Witalec, 236). He creates his view of success based on three men that he idolizes: his father, his older brother Ben, and old Dave Singleman. These men represent who he wants to emulate.
Willy’s father is the least represented in the play, because his father abandons him at a very early age. Though Willy’s father is rarely mentioned, there is a sense that his memory is always present. Whenever Willy is experiencing a flashback, Miller represents his father’s memory through a flute playing offstage. His father’s flute playing is one of the few sensory memories that Willy has of him (Witalec, 148). In fact, the only times his father is mentioned is during conversations with his brother Ben. Ben describes his father as a “Great inventor… With one gadget he made more in a week than a man like [Willy] could make in a lifetime.” (Miller, 2347). Although it is clear that Willy feels a sense of pride for his father when Ben boasts this, it is important to note that his brother is also insulting him. Rather than encouraging Willy in becoming successful like his father, he is stating that he is not capable. Since this statement is coming from someone who Willy idolizes, he is more apt to believe that it is true; he cannot make that much money.
Willy’s idolization of Ben also hinders Willy in his quest for the American dream. In Willy’s mind, Ben is the personification of the American dream. He symbolizes the riches that he could attain. Willy covets the qualities in Ben that makes him successful, such as toughness and unscrupulousness. (Witalec, 148) Although Willy does not realize he has his own strengths and tries too hard to emulate his brother. Willy, unlike his brother, is honest. Although he makes some bad choices such as infidelity, he chooses to work hard and take care of his family.
As shown earlier, he also does not recognize another one of his great strengths, which is Linda, his own personal cheerleader. Ben does not have a person in his life that encourages him and loves him. Willy neglects to notice.
Willy Makes a Right Decision
Because Willy chooses to support his family and work honestly, he is unable to attain the same level of success as his brother Ben. On the other hand, Dave Singleman embodies a success that is realistic. He represents “getting ahead by being ‘well liked’” (Witalec, 148). Willy boasts that Singleman is so well liked that “when he died, hundreds of salesmen and buyers were at his funeral” (Miller, 2363). Therefore, Willy strives for the success that Singleman has.
Willy is not completely blind, for he does see that he is aging, and his chances of having success like Singleman is getting less likely. Heyen another critic of Miller mentions as the play progresses “Willy saw the truth. He knew he didn’t have Ben’s courage…, Dave Singleman’s personality, his own father’s fortitude and ingenuity. But Willy chose, and… chose to continue dreaming even unto death” (Heyen, 49-50). He then turns his hope for success to his children. In Willy’s eyes, he dies an honorable death, because he is fulfilling his dream in the only way he knows how, by providing for his children financially and giving them a chance at the American dream.
Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman is one of the most tragic characters from a twentieth century play. He dreams of a life that he never is able to attain, yet witnesses many people around him attaining their goals with ease. Due to his “tunnel-vision,” he overlooks the things in life that can bring happiness like doing the things he enjoys like gardening or more importantly spending quality time with the one person who has devotes her heart and life to him. Although he may not have become as rich as the men he idolizes, he does share one thing with them; his self-absorption and utter disregard for the needs of other people. Though Willy may feel he ends his life with purpose, he does so without fully understanding the creation of the American dream. The dream is meant to bring hope not despair, life not death, unification not separation.
"An overview of Death of a Salesman for Drama for Students." Drama for Students. Detroit: Gale. Literature Resource Center. Gale. GRAND VALLEY STATE UNIV. 13 Apr. 2009 <http://go.galegroup.com.ezproxy.gvsu.edu/ps/start.do?p=LitRC&u=lom_gvalleysu>.
Heyen, William. "Death of a Salesman and the American Dream." In Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, edited by Harold Bloom, 47-58. New York: Chelsea House Publication, 1988.
Marowski, Danil G.; Matuz, Roger; Pollock, Sean R;. Arthur Miller (1915-). Vol. 47. Detroit: Gale Research, 1988.
The Norton Anthology: American Literature. Vol. E, in Death of a Salesman, by Arthur Miller, edited by Nina Baym, 2327-2392. NewYork: Norton and Company, 1949.
Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. April 10, 2009. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_dream#cite_note-0 (accessed April 13, 2009).
Witalec, Janet. Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller. Vol. 179. Detroit: Gale, 2004.
Questions & Answers
What challenges does Willy face in "Death of a Salesman"?
Willy is always comparing himself to his hugely successful older brother who became wealthy very young. He often tries to justify why he, himself, has not found the same amount of success, although he does not see things as they really are or were. He made many bad choices, including cheating on his wife. This really hurt his oldest son who found out. Willy blames himself for his son's failures and questions whether he truly loves him. Seeing himself as a failure served as somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy, and he never truly found success.
How does Willy Loman's dream reflect the American dream in "Death of a Salesman"?
Willy wants to become wealthy like his brother Ben, despite having grown up from meager means. The American dream is an idea that no matter how poor one person starts, in America they can achieve greatness and wealth.
What challenges does Biff face in "Death of a Salesman"?
Early on, Biff sees Willy, his father, cheating on his mother. This causes him to stop trying, as this deeply hurt him. He does not like watching his father strive so hard and fail at the American dream that he begins to resent the idea of the American dream and hates working in an office. Even before all this, he struggled in school and was failing math. So from the beginning, he did not see himself as successful at anything except football. Without passing math, he was unable to continue with his football dreams. Seeing himself as a failure, he made bad choices, including stealing from his boss. Fortunately, Biff does show growth as the play goes on.
What are the differences and similarities of Biff and Willy Loman in "Death of a Salesman"?
Willy is very driven in his career path. He wants to find control and be able to provide more for his family; whereas Biff is an idealist who wants freedom and to be an artist, yet the men are very similar. Both Willy and Biff have been less successful than their brothers and as a result are very insecure. Though they both love one another, they don't understand each other. Willy feels cheated by his father, and assumes Biff feels the same way despite Biff telling him otherwise.
© 2010 Angela Michelle Schultz