Willy Loman: Character Analysis in Death of a Salesman

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      Willy Loman our hero, stands out as the brightest star in the firmament of this luminous gallery. Miller has immortalized Willy as a tragic character, as one of the most controversial of modern tragic heroes. One should not be surprised if in future, Willy wins a coveted place for himself, in the rank of Orestes, Hamlet, Medea, Macbeth, Oedipus etc.

Willy is modern

      The reader or the audience does not only sympathize with him, but also has empathy for him; Willy’s sigh seems to come from the depths of our hearts. He represents what urbanization, artificiality, modernity and the blind chase for success is doing to every sensitive soul.

      To be more precise, Willy is a modern American salesman. Like all others, Willy has also pursued success which keeps eluding him like a mirage. He is a salesman who has been fed on, and lives on, the myth of success. His values are essentially those of an American salesman today. He believes “personality” to be the arch-stone of success. His ideals and dreams are constantly being shot at. In fact, Willy is a man who is a failure, is completely broken and limps behind others, trying to keep pace with a world which is getting degenerate and dehumanized every moment. Yet his fanatic adherence to his dreams is admirable and his retreat in his shell of illusions is fantastic. When the scene of the play opens ‘ Willy "is past sixty years of age,” but he has nothing to fall back on, either materially or emotionally. A sense of economic and social insecurity gnaws Willy from within. His massive dreams and his modest-achievement form a ridiculous contrast. Willy has been a misfit in his society. He is a complete failure in life. He has failed as a salesman and as father to he has been a tremendous failure. He has incurred the displeasure of his boss and has been dismissed by him. As a father, he now commands no respect from his song.

Willy is an incorrigible dreamer

      He dreams and dreams and dreams. When, he was a young salesman, he dreamt: “someday I’ll have my own business, and I’ll never have to leave home anymore.” At that time his son Happy said that he hoped that it would be as big as that of Uncle Charley. But Willy’s optimism and enthusiasm have superseded Happy’s hope. Willy had confidently asserted: “Bigger than Uncle Charley! Because Charley is not liked. He is liked, but he is not well-liked.”

Illusions are like islands in his ocean of failure

      Without these islands, our hero would perhaps have been annihilated. Willy has no power left in his fragile frame, to face the world of reality. Whenever he encounters a new shock, or is reminded of some old ones, he immediately takes refuge in illusions. In fact, in his mind the past and the present exist in a fluid concurrence: he is always living an agonized moment in the present of re-living a happy or a depressing moment of the past. Perhaps for him, illusions are the only reality. He never comes out of the world of dreams, illusions and false beliefs. To maintain his dignity as an individual, he boasts to his sons and wife too, as he does to other people. He tries to cling to the feeling of momentary consolations that these illusions have to offer.

Willy Loman is a low man

      He is a salesman who sells not only goods but also his very “self”. Willy is a salesman through and through. In his lifetime he sells goods and in his death he sells his life: he commits suicide so that his sons can venture out anew in life with twenty-thousand dollars. This is the money that they will inherit as the price of Willy’s life, through insurance premiums.

      Willy Loman is just drab and average. His very ordinariness emerges through adherence and commitment to standard ideals, popular brands of commercial products and the common language which includes slang. His highly-fanatic allegiance to the American dream of success is the alpha and omega of the play—the very core and essence of the play. He believes in this dream in its final form, as it has been passed down to him and his contemporaries. Since long the Americans have been trying to pin-point the basic cause of success. The first among these, Horatio Alger preached that success came through virtue. Herbert Spencer and his American disciples popularised the notion that success was the reward of physical strength. Then came Dale Carnegie, with his theory that success is the reward of one’s capacity to make friends and influence people; that success can only be tested by a person who has the knack of making friends, is impressive, persuasive, well-liked and self-confident. Willy’s brother Ben, who is a symbol of success for Willy, seems to belong to the Spencerian or social Darwinist school which believed that success came through physical strength. But Willy himself believes in the latest form of the dream. He believes in the theory propounded by Dale Carnegie, that success comes-through an impressive personality and a persuasive manner of talking. Willy feels that successful men must be having a secret that could be passed on to others. He thinks that simply by knowing the secret of success, one could really be successful. Besides Ben, Willy knows intimately, one more person who has achieved success. This man is Charley, who is a very practical-minded person. He has achieved success through sheer commonsense and a sound knowledge of tactics to be used in a mammon-worshipping society. Willy implores Ben and Charley to reveal the secret of their success: but all in vain. Charley evades the issue. Ben replies: “William, when I walked in the jungle I was seventeen. When I walked out, I was twenty-one. And by god; I was rich !” The mystery remains a mystery and Willy remains as puzzled as ever.

Willy’s misfortune is one of the most poignant and inevitable mishaps; common to the American society of our time

      To quote Miller: “Willy is a baby...Willy is a victim...” He represents the whole mass of American civilization, ‘a slogan out of the 193O’s,’ ‘a banner to literate people,’ ‘a criticism of society’. He is an indictment against mechanization and increasing organization, at the cost of man’s affinity with nature and mental peace. Willy is, indeed, an average American. Miller himself said: “I didn’t write Death of a Salesman to announce some new American man, or an old American man. Willy Loman is, we think, a person who embodies in himself, some of the most terrible conflicts running through the streets of America today” and that Loman is Everyman. Who could know better than the author? In this play, the intentions of the author are in perfect corroboration with the effect produced.

      The various theories trying to simplify and rationalize the phenomenon of progress, Horatio Alger, Herbert Spencer and Dale Carnegie, have contributed their share in making current a feeling, that failure is a crime. People have developed an approach which, far from sympathizing with the weaklings and failures, says that a failure in society has no right to exist. The acquisition of success is almost a right that every American insists on; he expects to get it as naturally as his fundamental rights. In fact he takes it for granted. A citizen may perhaps rightly and logically ask: “If Edison, Goodrich, and Red Grange can make it, why not me, why not Willy Loman? This is precisely what Willy asks his brother Ben. There is no simple clear-cut answer to it. Hence the disappointment, depression, sense of not belonging and alienation that Willy feels. A weak nonentity though Willy is, he gains importance in voicing one of the most poignant and heart-rending exasperations of modern American sensibility. Hopelessly desperate and having failed to achieve something as an individual, he tries to postpone the realization of his anguish by transferring his ambitions to his sons. He wants them to achieve what he himself could not. Free play of time and concurrence of the past and the present, permits us to witness a magnificent spectacle of ambition and failure: the younger generation perhaps being a great failure and ending in a greater waste of human potential.

Willy pursues success with great fervor and perhaps an inexhaustible fund of resoluteness

      This is reflected very clearly in his language. The world of one’s dreams, one’s ideas is realized only through the world of words. The extent of one’s vocabulary, the images used are a direct reflection of the expanse of mental horizons and the subtle shades and hues that color it. Willy’s world of word is a very narrow world. It is devoid of words for anything but the necessities of life and the ingredient of success. This worlds is full of aspirin, arch-supports, saccharin, Studebakers, Chevrolets, shaving lotion, stockings, refrigerator, washing machines etc. Like the machines and electrical gadgets, Willy, too, sometimes breaks down, he has to grope for proper words. In the most excited moments the characters exalt their language only through the popular slangs. The language generally used is very commonplace. Though Willy is commented upon, with some leniency after his death, it is his profession that is eulogized, not Willy Loman. Even in death Willy is not allowed any more individuality than he has given proof of, in his lifetime.

Willy is a lost man

      Willy is confused and bewildered. The very steps he takes to ensure success, lead him to his failure. One of the major reasons of his failure is his misplaced faith in the power of personality. The second possible reason is his extraordinary concern for the well-being of his sons. He wants them to remain adolescents (mentally) as he himself is. He wants to shelter them and to bring them up with the same illusions and beliefs that he has. He does not allow his children to find out things for themselves, to discover values for themselves. He does not even want them to commit their own mistakes. Third, and perhaps the most important cause is society in which he is placed.

      It is this third cause that is responsible for most of Willy’s tension and psychological problems. He is a man who has values that are in complete opposition to the values that exist in a money-oriented society, where cut-throat competition thrives. Some critics say that Willy has no values. Had Willy cherished no values, he would have had no problem. The question of adaptability would not have arisen. Rarely do we hear of a hardened sinner or a habitual robber having pangs of conscience. The real trouble with Willy is that he has the wrong values, that should not be cherished in the type of society in which Willy Loman lives.

Willy has no fixed views or conception of things

      Willy is full of contradictions. He will say one thing about a thing in a sentence, and will refute it in the same breath.

Willy himself is aware of his emptiness

      In fact he is always haunted by a sense of inadequacy and inferiority. At times, he talks of things he does not know about. The action and dialogue of the play gives ample evidence of Willy’s sense of insecurity, a loneliness and the lack of communication. He cannot always articulate what he wants to. He lives from moment to moment always fearing that the edifice of his life might collapse any moment.

Controversy has immortalized Willy

      He will be remembered by the ages to come; not as a grand, towering personality like Hamlet or Lear but as the universal man, as everyman’s hero. He is not merely an individual, a particular character in a particular place. He is a philosophy, a belief, an item of faith, and an intuition. He seems to walk out alive from the pages of the play, and join the vast ocean of humanity. Willy Loman, gains dignity and importance in its merger and collation with the eternal ocean of humanity. He has immortalized the common man, everyone of us.

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