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In Arthur Miller's critically acclaimed play, "Death of a Salesman," lies the tragedy of the American Dream. Though the meaning of the American Dream has changed over the course of history of achieving a number of things such as prosperity or success, either way the American Dream can inevitably becomes one's drive for a better life or man's greatest fall. In the late 1940's, Willy Loman, a 63 year old salesman that is obsessed with achieving greatness by coming out on top of this world as a successful, wealthy man, finds himself going through a downward spiral based on life not going the way he would have wanted it to be. This overall places his health in a psychologically degrading state in attempts of suicide thinking this cannot happen to him because he believes that since he is a well respected, popular man he can achieve greatness. This drive that Mr. Loman possess to be the best and achieve his American Dream not only physically and more so mentally consumes him, but affects his family as well. Throughout the play, Willy's family shows an unconditional love for him no matter what trials he is going through. Willy's wife, Linda Loman acknowledges her husband's illness. Though she lives in denial and does not confront him about this, she instead continues to love and care about him for the man Willy is and believes that no one else, not even their two estranged sons Biff and Happy feel the same way. Biff is nothing like his father. Though he is the most favored son out of the two, Biff is trying to find his own purpose in life traveling near and far but in the end is unsuccessful and unemployed. Happy is a relatively successful salesman that on the other hand inherits his father's views on life in a different way based on his unrealistic views of self-confidence fueled by living a "bachelor's life." Though the two have their own way in showing their love for their father, tension has seem to separate Willy from the boys especially towards Biff due to not being able to make a name for himself. Willy could have been satisfied with the fact that his family's love for him is very significant, yet it is not enough. Thus, Willy focuses more on being well liked outside of the family.
Willy Loman needs the recognition in order to feel that he is in fact doing a great job and is successful. According to John von Szeliski, author of "Tragedy and Fear: Why Modern Tragic Drama Fails," evaluates Willy Loman and points out that like Willy, "we all desire recognition, and we want him to have it, wrong and false though it may be" (Szeliski 19). Though we know that Willy Loman's intentions are wrong, it's almost as if he needs the recognition to fuel his fire so he can feel like he is on top. It all comes down to not just from Willy's kids who look up to him because they believe that Big Daddy Willy is something special, but it also comes down to the women in Willy Loman's life. Though Willy's wife plays a big part being supportive of her husband stating, "you're doing wonderful, dear. You're making seventy to a hundred dollars a week" (1659) and as she calculates his commission money and comes up with "Two hundred-my God! Two hundred and twelve dollars" (1658)! It's as though she has no intention of making his ego as big as it already is, Biff takes this in and feels like not only is he "Big Daddy Willy," but he is "Mr. Big Shot Willy." But notice how I said "The women." Yes, Mr. Big Daddy does in fact have a mistress. His excuse? "I was lonely, I was terribly lonely" (1701). It is noted that this proper-looking woman that is the same age and in fact a secretary that works in the same company as Willy because she "sits at the desk watching all the salesman go by, day in, day out" (1660). Also, Willy uses her because she has the ability to put Willy "right through to the buyers" (1660). Though we do not know how long this was going on with Willy and "The woman" (this is how she is referred to in the play), Willy does in fact feel superior based on the attention coming his way with complements such as "you've got such a sense of humor, and we do have such a good time together" (1660) and "because you're so sweet" (1660). It seems that whenever Willy is going away for business, specifically in Boston, he is having an affair.
Willy Loman is indeed a stubborn man that is some what stuck in his ways. According to M. Bettina Sister's critical essay, "Willy Loman's Brother Ben: Tragic Insight in Death of a Salesman," she describes Willy Loman in a nutshell as man that "did struggle against self-knowledge trying not to know "what" he was; but he had always a superb consciousness of own individual strength as a "who." Meaning Willy could not either swallow what kind of a person he really was or the weaknesses he possess in his pursuit to become successful, but instead he is in denial. Even after his son Biff confronts him for being suicidal as he shows his father the rubber tube out of his pocket and places it on the table stating "All right phony! Then let's lay it on the line" (1706). Though Willy does not look at it, he denies it stating, "what is that?" and "I never saw that." This wasn't the first time Biff confronts his father for being a phony and in return denies it. "You fake! You phony little fake! You fake!" (1701) says Biff himself finds out that his father is having an affair. It was at this point where the "who" Willy is all along is not true, thus, Biff who looked up to his father and believed anything is possible through him, came to a realization of his father's false life which changes his course of his own future. Though many things have happened to Willy to confront him and his false life he presents to himself and others, he still believes that he is not like everyone else because Willy believes "I am not a dime a dozen! I am Willy Loman, and you are Biff Loman" (1707)!" Willy is in fact set in his ways due to being over confident of who he thinks is and what he's capable of as a strong well liked man who can get what he wants based on his image of self worth and belief that he is well liked by others. He believes that though times are tough, things will pull through because of being liked especially in "Hartford. I'm very well like in Hartford" (1659). Also, it is Willy's achievements in sales that he brags about in the beginning of his career that solidifies his difference from the rest. He brags about this during his termination from a company that he has spent 34 years to his boss stating in anger as he banged his hand on Howard Wagner's (former boss and son of the man that hired Willy) desk stating "I averaged a hundred and seventy dollars a week in the year 1928" (1682)! Though Wagner states Willy "never averaged" (1683), it is Willy that denies this because his pride has taken over. This is also evident as Willy brags about his achievements to his Wife stating, "I did five hundred gross in Providence and seven hundred gross in Boston" (1658) and "I was sellin' thousands and thousands, but I had to come home" (1658).
Willy believes that appearance rather how hard of a worker you are will place one from rags to riches. According to David Johansson's evaluation of Willy Loman in the Salem press, he believes "For Willy, the success of that dream (referring to the American Dream), hinges on appearance rather than substance, on wearing a white collar rather than a blue one. It is snobbery, combined with a lack of practical knowledge that leads to his downfall." There were times that Willy Loman believes that things aren't going to his own way based on assumptions of "not dressing to advantage, maybe" (1659) or the way his body looks as he states "I'm fat, I'm very foolish to look at" (1659). According to Johansson, Willy himself was never a successful salesman." He also raises addresses, "What is the nature of success, and how does one attain it? For Willy, it means wearing a suit and tie and making a lot of money." When things started to look up for Biff, Willy primarily focuses on what Biff should be wearing when he goes off to see his former boss Bill Oliver for a loan. Biff says, "He always said he'd stake me" (1672) because just like his father, Biff's believes his plan will work because Oliver "always liked me" (1673). He suggests to Biff to wear "a business suit, and talk as little as possible, and don't crack any jokes" (1673). He also suggests that Biff should act a certain way such as "start off with a couple of good stories to lighten things up" (1673) and "don't crack any jokes" (1673). Willy stresses that "It's not what you say, it's how you say it-because personality always wins the day (1673). Willy was excited about this because he believes that the idea for Biff and Happy to start the "Loman Brothers" sporting goods store and start with two basketball teams with two water-polo teams will be a great idea, in fact a "million-dollar idea" (1673)! Willy is indeed infatuated with this because of the million dollar status, let alone he knows that it will work because in Willy's eyes, Biff's legacy as a football player will help seal the deal and is supported with Biff stating he's "in great shape as far as that's concerned" (1673).
Willy Loman even defines success for his sons based on their strong physical features and personality. In Terry W. Thompson's critical essay, "Miller's Death of a Salesman," he points out Willy stating the physical greatness that his sons possess which will benefit their lives in the future. "I thank Almighty God you're both built like Adonises. Because the man who makes an appearance in the business world, the man who creates personal interest, is the man who get's ahead." At one point, Thompson brings up Willy who is very proud knowing that his kids will make it in life based on their striking good looks, athletic physiques, and youthful vigor. Willy doesn't place much emphasis on Biff's academic situations, especially around more than 10 years ago during high school when Bernard, Biff and Happy's childhood friends, warns Willy and Linda that if Biff "doesn't buckle down, he'll flunk math" (1661). Though Willy hears this, he disregards it and believes that Biff will not fail because Biff "got spirit, personalityâ€¦ Loaded with it! Loaded" (1661). Though he plans to whip his son if he doesn't get his act together, he is agitated and orders Bernard by saying, "You'll give him the answers" (1660) in order for Biff to get by and pass math. Though more than ten years have passed, Willy cannot fathom the fact that Biff is not settled down and "he has yet to make thirty-five dollars a week" (1648)! He even goes as far to call his son "a lazy bum" (1648)! He believes "Biff Loman is lost. In the greatest country in the world a young man with such- personal attractiveness, gets lost" (1649).
Willy Loman lives his life yearning for the attention of others in order to come out on top. This ultimately consumes not only him but also consequently his family his family as well. Though he has every good intention, he ultimately disregards the most significant attention that is more than enough, the unconditional love that his family has for him.
Johansson, David. "Death of a Salesman." Masterplots II: Juvenile and Young Adult Literature Series, Supplement (1997). EBSCOhost. Web. 28 Feb. 2011.
Miller, Arthur. "Death of a Salesman." The Norton Introduction to Literature. Eds. Alison Booth, Kelly J. Mays. New York: WW Norton and Company, 2010. 1646-1709. Print.
Sister, M. Bettina. "Willy Loman's Brother Ben: Tragic Insight in Death of a Salesman." Drama for Students (1998). Literature Resource Center. Web.
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Szeliski, John von. "Tragedy and Fear: Why Modern Tragic Drama Fails." Willy Loman. Eds. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1991.
Thompson, Terry W. "Miller's Death of a Salesman." The Explicator (2005). Literature Resource Center. Web. 28 Feb 2011.