Willy Loman in Utter Despair

Published 14 Jun 2017

In the Death of a Salesman, the protagonist is an aging, unsuccessful salesman with calluses in his hands. He is a deeply embittered man, disillusioned with his life as if tricked into believing that America is the land of opportunity. Because of his agony over his unfulfilled dreams, he tries to commit suicide several times. He is someone that anybody can easily empathize with, even heightening the essence of the tragedy because the audience can readily feel pity for Willy. He is such a foolish and pathetic being, All through his life, Willy Loman lived in an illusion of grandeur of himself and his sons. Little did he know that the American dream is all but a legend unless pursued with relentless hard work. This paper maintains that Willy Loman was crushed under the burden of despair, events conspiring for that one last decision to end it all because nothing else matters after he loses track of the reality around him.

The setting of the story is in the 1940s, where America is regaining its economy, and more and more people are penetrating the ranks of middle-upper class. Willy is swallowed in this era of rising materialism. He measures success solely in terms of material things and one’s ability to provide well for his family. However, he was shortsighted for believing that success is determined by “who you know”, emphasizing outward appearance and personality as the key to reach the top of the ladder. These are the values he taught his sons, who like him, are also suffering from different levels of dissatisfaction. Biff, the older son, at the age thirty-four can not hold a steady job and has been constantly stealing from all his previous employers; Happy is a chronic womanizer, and a successful professional though he admits that he is never happy with his life because he never risked failure.

This is only the start of the conflict. As the story progresses, we see Willy, realizing the discrepancy of their lives (especially after he was fired), despite being jealous of his neighbor’s affluence, acknowledges his pathetic state, telling Charley almost tearfully that he is the only friend he ever has.

Willy is a man who finds it hard to confront the realities of his life. Thus, another important aspect of the story is Willy’s hallucinations, which are mostly about the ‘better days’ when he was full of hope and vigor, believing that his sons, who are born “looking like Adonises” will make it big in the business world. These hallucinations are presented as flashbacks. It provides the play with both an air of realism and surrealism.

It was Willy Loman’s dream to die a “salesman’s death” just like his famed colleague, Dave Singleman. For Willy, Singleman lived and died the way a salesman should for he was successful, popular and well liked.

Unfortunately, the hero of Arthur Miller’s award-winning play had a life so much different from what he dreamed of, and during his untimely death, his son Biff, contemplated that he certainly had the wrong dreams and “didn’t know who he was.”

Arthur Miller encapsulates into the character of Willy Loman the dilemmas of the common man, and in the process, created a modern tragedy out of the life of a lowly salesman living in Brooklyn. During that time, materialism and capitalism flourished along with the growing middle-classes. It is therefore, in this scenario that Willy Loman forms his ideals. He measures success in terms of material wealth and ascent in the corporate ladder. What he fails to realize, however, is that character and good looks are not enough to reach this success, and that not everyone can simply get lost in it.

Willy Loman had a penchant for carpentry when he was young, but he gave it up in order to pursue a job in sales, which for him holds a brighter promise of prosperity. Because he gave up a part of himself, he lived an illusive life. He grew old in sales until the company consumed him, yet he never fulfilled his aspirations. Nevertheless, Willy was not able to break away from his priorities of wealth and recognition, so he turned to his sons and transferred upon them his ideals of worldly success.

The neighbors, Charlie and Bernard, are the antithesis of the Lomans. They do not have false delusions and they work hard to do well instead of rely on physical appearances and other people’s goodwill. Charlie opened Willy’s eyes for a brief moment, but it was Biff’s words during a row that resonated the loudest. Biff argued with Willy, who still believes that they have what it takes to be successful, that they are just common people, “dime a dozen” in other words.

Unlike his father, Biff discerns what he really wants in life, not wealth and renown, and decided to settle down in a cattle ranch. Through this act, he departs from the conventional measure of man’s success and identity, something that Willy would never understood. Willy is after all the tragic hero who becomes ensnared in his “tragic flaw.” His redemption comes back when he drives to his suicide so that his family can have the $20,000 insurance money. This is tragedy, according to Arthur Miller (1949), since it is when man strives to “gain his ‘rightful’ position in his society” even if it means giving up his life that greatly touches the audience. Willy ends up a sad, confused and disillusioned man.

Even before the curtain finally closes, a great irony of this tragedy is unveiled: On that same day of Willy’s funeral, Linda has made the final payment of their house. For a man who worked for thirty-five years building his security, who once stated that, “Once in my life I’d like to own something outright before it’s broken! I’m always in a race with the junkyard.” Willy indeed had a pitiful death and a worthless life.

Work Cited

  • Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. Penguin (Non-Classics). Oct. 6, 1998.
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