The character of Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is a montage of the millions of working class men thrown into the accelerating economy and increasing consumer-based culture of mid-twentieth century America. The play is set in the late 1940s, as the American economy is enjoying a post-war economic boom, and materialism is on the rise. For a man like Willy, who is sixty-three when the play takes place, this is a brave new world in which he feels alienated and lost. Willy is an everyman who has always struggled with his identity, looking for external cues to define his existence, and perceiving material success as the confirmation of the legitimacy of the American Dream.
Willy demonstrates a naivete and shallowness that leave him vulnerable to constant disappointment in his work and his home life. He is suffering from intermittent bouts of dementia, and fantasizes that he is talking to people or reliving scenes from his past. From these scenes, the audience learns that he was disconnected from his family at an early age, and never really developed a sense of who he was in his youth. In a scene in which hallucinates that he is talking to his brother, Ben, who left the family to follow their father who had abandoned them, Willy complains that: “…Dad left when I was such a baby and I never had a chance to talk to him and I still feel—kind of temporary about myself” (Miller, 1949).
Because he has such a fragile sense of himself, Willy depends upon external sources for validation. He clings to the belief that charisma and charm are the keys to success in life. He constantly comments on whether this character or that character is likable. To him, this is the most important quality that a person can have, and is integral to being successful. Willy passes this shallow philosophy on to his two sons, Biff and Happy, who are warped by his delusions in ways specific to their personalities. Biff, the elder son, who was a star athlete in high school, finds himself at a loss after he graduates and drifts from one meaningless job to another. Happy becomes an expert at cutting corners, deceiving his employer and exploiting women to whom he is attracted. Willy’s wife, Linda, excoriates her sons for their neglect of and disrespect for Willy. “Is this his reward—to turn around at the age of sixty-three and to find his sons, who he loved better than his life, one a philandering bum…” (Miller, 1949).
Linda continues to criticize her sons’ behavior toward Willy over their objections, asking Biff why he has become so cold to the father that he loved so much as a child. Linda does not know that Biff discovered Willy with another woman when Biff was a teenager, and had lost all respect for Willy. Linda refuses to recognize that the flaws that she sees in her sons are the product of being raised by a father who has no sense of who he is. He passes his identity crises on to his children.
Willy Loman has become an iconic figure in American culture as a symbol of failure (Smith 56). He represents the ‘everyman’ of the American working class, who follows the dream of unlimited success based on the power of charisma. Because Willy has no internal sense of who he is and what he wants, he adopts an empty, externally sourced framework around which he bases his life. Ultimately, it proves impossible to base a successful life on an empty structure, and Willy collapses, choosing suicide as the way to resolve the growing sense of failure that he experiences.
- Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman, 1949. www.pelister.org/literature/ArthurMiller/Miller_Salesman.pdf
- Smith, Susan H. “Who Was/Is/Are Willy Loman?” The Arthur Miller Journal, vol. 8, no. 2, 2013, pp. 43-56.