Victimization of the Hero in Death of a Salesman

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      A materialistic competitive, callous society. Much of the malaise that afflicts Willy has its roots in American society, a society that sets store by initiative, industry and the drive to run the show of life by overcoming obstacles through one’s own ingenuity and caliber. It is highly commercialized and competitive. If Miller focuses his emphasis on the apparent discrepancy between what America seems to promise and what she actually delivers to those who have familiarised the ethic of success, he is by no means an unqualified critic of the American dream. Society is flayed by Miller, not for filling people with false hopes and pipedreams, but for subtly betraying their cherished illusions and fond hopes!

      Willy’s dreams, his ‘hubris’, based on myth of success. Willy Loman is the staunchest believer in the romantic American dream that states a person possessing sufficient enterprise can rise from a lower to an exalted station in life. He is cocksure that a person can scale glorious heights by means of personal attractiveness, personal charm, initiative, poise and contacts. His hubris is that he possesses these qualities made for success. He applies this view to himself as well as to his sons. He speaks of himself in almost eloquent epithets when he remarks that he is ‘vital’ to the Wagner Company as its salesman in the New England territory. He runs into rhapsodies when he uses such expressions as ‘knocked them dead’ and ‘slaughtered them’ to convey his conquest of the territory, New England. He brags that he is so popular that the cops in his territory would look after his car no matter in which street of a town in New England he chooses to park it.

      Willy’s expectations about his sons’ bright future, similarly, assume the scale of pathological obsession, although Biff has hardly achieved anything astounding in life upto the age of thirty-four. Biff, Willy believes, has ‘spirit’ and ‘personality’ and he is molded of a sterner and sumptuous stuff as he looks like an Adonis. His fondness for Biff is so intense that he is even prepared to pardon the petty pilferage to which Biff has become prone because, he thinks, Biff is an exceptional young man who would mend himself as he matures! Willy is convinced of his sons’ capacity so much so that he holds the view that his sons, because of their personality and attractiveness, would do better in life than Bernard, the book-worm and that he himself would build up a more thriving business than Charley has built up.

      Willy: a product of his society. In keeping with these opinions, which evidently seem to be absolutely false, Willy is hoodwinked by the characteristic American dream. This is not the flaw in Willy’s constitution, as he is, after all, a product of a social system that glorifies the cult of success and the survival of the fittest! The recipe for success, which depends more on personal charm, the art of cultivating people, the amiable smile and aplomb, has been deeply embedded in the psyche of Willy, so much so that he imparts the same spirit with renewed emphasis to his two sons. But though they too nourish these illusions, they don’t succumb to the tempting glamour of success, as they are content with leading a life of ease and lust.

      Willy’s tragedy: part of the social system. Willy’s victimization is also a part of the great capitalist system which the American society upholds in the true letter and spirit of the term. His confrontation with his employer Howard brings to surface the simmering discontent the old man has been nourishing all along these years in the cockles of his heart. When Willy pleads for a transfer of job that does not subject him to the travails of traveling at this old age, his employer Howard is not only unsympathetic to his pathetic plight but refuses outright such a transfer. Willy scales down his demand from sixty to fifty and then to forty dollars a week for the job that he is asking. Howard shows interest only in listening to the tape-recorder that he has just bought instead of the problems that are faced by Loman. What is worse, Loman gets sacked for having persistently pleaded for a change. This signifies in no small measure the depravity of American cult of success and craze of materialism in the place of an abiding faith in hitman values like love, esteem and Loyalty. In fact, the way in which Loman’s dreams are demolished and the manner in which his company has treated him are deemed to be the major motives behind his decision to end his life instead of living with a sense of dejection and despair.

      Willy not merely a victim of society: tragedy is also due to his own fault. However, it would be wrong to brand Willy as a victim of the social system. His own failings and foibles do contribute to his downfall in no small measure. In fact as said by A.C. Bradley the famous Shakespearean. critic, character is destiny; Willy has unwittingly evolved his character by hinging himself upon hallucination. That proves lethal to him. Had he not been lured by false ideals—if only his character was firm and immaculate—destiny would not have driven him to the eventual end with that maddening speed! As it were, the flaw in Willy’s character, that of cherishing overwhelming and unrealizable ambitions, proves his undoing and therein lies the crux of the tragedy of the play. Willy himself is aware of his limitations and yet he ignores them under the sheer intensity of his illusions! He confesses to Linda in moving words that people do not ‘take to him’, that they ‘pass him by’ and that they laugh’ at his obesity; he also confesses that he had miscalculated his selling potentials. But, unfortunately all these truths were out in a moment of lassitude or introspection than when he is conscious and aware! All in all, these illuminations, though desultory, do not prevent him from maintaining his delusions of a prosperous period ahead and eventually with the wreckage of each of his fond hopes, we see him heading for his slide-and-ultimate suicide! Viewed from this perspective it is conclusively evident that Willy’s tragedy is not only the result of American society and the system of values it imbibes in the minds of weaklings like Willy, but most of the blame for the tragedy is also because of Willy’s own inability to contain his vaulting and unrealistic ambitions and false set of values.

University Questions

Most of American drama revolves around the story of the victimization of the hero by the forces of society? How relevant is this remark of Miller to Death of a Salesman?
Critically examine the view that Willy is ‘a victim of society, but he is also his own victim’.
The hero (Willy Loman) is not simply an individual who strives desperately to attain a determined objective; he is also representative of an American type who has accepted an ideal shaped for him and pressed on him by forces in his culture.’ Discuss.
Discuss the destructive nature of the false values woven into Willy Loman’s personality.
‘Willy Loman’s ‘hubris’ is in believing the propaganda of a success-oriented society? Discuss the character of Willy in the light of this statement.
How much of Willy’s tragedy is the result of American Society and how much of it is caused by himself?

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