The Chains Of Labor English Literature Essay

Published: Last Edited:

This essay has been submitted by a student. This is not an example of the work written by our professional essay writers.

A rapid change in society took place after World War II. The premise of work shifted from accountability, work history, and experience to profitability and personal associations. Materialism became increasingly important and a symbol of success. For Post-World War II American men, rejecting their traditional views and adapting to more sinister practices presented an intense challenge. Willy Loman of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman personifies the physical and psychological struggle of men to succeed in a ruthless, iniquitous society that compromises the individual and his family. An aged and experienced traveling salesman, Willy Loman spends years devoted to his job and his family. Despite his love for his sons and his longing for them to be successful, Willy's constant traveling, and busy life takes away from his ability to be an effective parent. His son, Biff, is a high-school drop out with no decent job, and Happy has yet to make a real name for himself. Willy influenced his sons by encouraging the boys "to steal," advising them to be "well liked" and to "make a good appearance" in order to succeed in life (Centola). Willy instills these corrupted values partially because of the influence that his brother had on him. Growing up without a father, Ben, his older brother, was the only male role model for him growing up and the only man who "knew the answers" (Miller 2.1). Ben reflects the business path of being the man on top, with no passion for family but for money and power. Willy constantly looks for Ben's approval of how he is as a father. His insecurity about his job as a father is expressed through his confession to Ben about feeling "kind of temporary" about himself (Miller 1.2). He looks for advice from him on raising his sons:

Willy: Ben, my boys--can't we talk? They'd go into the jaws of hell for me, see, but I-

Ben: William, you're being first-rate with your boys. Outstanding, manly chaps!

Willy: (hanging onto his words) Oh, Ben, that's good to hear! Because sometimes I'm afraid that I'm not teaching them the right kind of--Ben, how should I teach them? (Miller 1.2).

inadequate understanding of fatherhood, salesmanship, and success in one's personal life as well as in the business world in American society. For example, when Willy says, "personality always wins the day" he is expressing a long-held belief that has taken on the sanctity of a religious doctrine for him (Salesman 151). The source of such success formulas may very any particular influence, we can see that, in Willy's mind, such maxims are weighted with great authority; to him they represent nothing short of magical formulas for instant success. Like so many others in his society, he fails to see the banality in such clichés and is actually using bromidic language to bolster his own faltering self-confidence. By passionately repeating hackneyed phrases, Willy simultaneously tries to assure himself that he has made the right choices and has not wasted his life while he also prevents himself from questioning his conduct and its effect on his relations with others. Ironically, though, his speech says much more to anyone carefully listening.

This problem is particularly evident in the way Willy approaches the profession of salesmanship. Instead of approaching his profession in the manner of one who understands the demands of the business world, Willy instead convinces himself that his success or failure in business has significance only in that it affects others'--particularly his family's--perception of him. He does not seek wealth for any value it has in itself; financial prosperity is simply the visible sign that he is a good provider for his family.

The confluence of the personal and the professional in Willy's mind is evident as Willy tells Howard Wagner about a time when a salesman could earn a living and appreciate the importance of "respect," "comradeship," "gratitude," "friendship," and "personality" (Salesman 180-81)--terms that are repeatedly used by various members of the Loman family. Also significant is the fact that when explaining to his boss how he was introduced to the career of salesmanship, Willy does not use his brother's language or refer to the kinds of survival techniques which Ben undoubtedly would have employed to make his fortune in the jungle. Willy's speech to Howard suggests that Willy chooses to be a salesman because he wants to sell himself, more than any specific product, to others--a point underscored by the obvious omission in the play of any reference to the specific products that Willy carries around in his valises.

The value that Willy attaches to his role as a father is evident throughout the play in numerous passages that reveal his obsession with this image. Soon after the play begins, Willy's concern over his duty to "accomplish something" (Salesman 133) is evident.. This feeling of futility makes him wonder whether he has failed as a father and impels him to explore his past--a psychological journey made effective theatrically by need to win Ben's approval of how he is rearing Biff and Happy. In scenes where he is congratulating Biff on his initiative for borrowing a regulation football to practice with (Salesman 144), or encouraging the boys to steal sand from the apartment house so that he can rebuild the front stoop (Salesman 158), or advising his sons to be well liked and make a good appearance in order to get ahead in the world (Salesman 146), Willy is unknowingly instilling values in his sons that will have a definite impact on their future development. He also does the same when he counsels Biff to "watch [his] schooling" (Salesman 142), tells his sons "Never leave a job till you're finished" (Salesman 143), or sentimentally praises America as "full of beautiful towns and fine, upstanding people" (Salesman 145). Even in scenes where he is troubled by Biff's stealing, failure of math, and renunciation of his love and authority after discovering his infidelity in Boston, Willy is probing only that part of his past that in some way calls into question his effectiveness as a father.

A look at the memory scenes also helps to explain why Willy values his family more than anything else in his life. Abandoned at an early age by his father, Willy has tried all his life to compensate for this painful loss. When Willy also suffers the sudden disappearance of his older brother, he nearly completely loses his self-confidence and a sense of his own identity as a male. His insecurity about his job as father is expressed through his confession to Ben about feeling "kind of temporary" about himself (Miller 1.2). He looks for advice from him on raising his sons:

Willy: Ben, my boys--can't we talk? They'd go into the jaws of hell for me, see, but I--

Ben: William, you're being first-rate with your boys. Outstanding, manly chaps!

Willy: (hanging onto his words) Oh, Ben, that's good to hear! Because sometimes I'm afraid that I'm not teaching them the right kind of--Ben, how should I teach them? (Miller 1.2).

While he idolizes Ben and treasures his advice and opinions, Willy rarely does what Ben suggests and never imitates his pattern of behavior. In fact, until the end of Act II, when Ben appears entirely as a figment of Willy's imagination in a scene that has nothing to do with any remembered episode from his past, Willy implicitly rejects Ben's lifestyle and approach to business. There can be no doubt that in Willy's mind Ben's image stands for "success incarnate" (Salesman 152). Likewise, enshrined in Willy's memory, Ben's cryptic words magically ring "with a certain vicious audacity: William, when I walked into the jungle, I was seventeen. When I walked out I was twenty-one. And, by God, I was rich!" (Salesman 160). And there is always the tone of remorse in Willy's voice whenever he mentions Ben, for he associates his brother with his own missed opportunity: the Alaska deal which Willy turns down and with it the chance to make a fortune.

Clearly, then, Ben embodies more than just the image of success in Willy's mind; he also represents the road not taken. In other words, he is, in many ways, Willy's alter ego. Ben is the other self which Willy could have become had he chosen to live by a different code of ethics. Therefore, his presence in Willy's mind gives us insight into Willy's character by letting us see not only what Willy values but also what kinds of choices he has made in his life as a result of those values. For while Ben is undoubtedly the embodiment of one kind of American dream to Willy, so too is Dave Singleman representative of another kind--and that is part of Willy's confusion: both men symbolize the American dream, yet in his mind they represent value systems that are diametrically opposed to each other. The memory scenes are important in bringing out this contrast and showing what Willy's perception of Ben reflects about Willy's own conflicting values.

Unlike Willy, Ben functions comfortably in the modern business world. His life history provides confirmation of Howard Wagner's pronouncement that "business is business" (Salesman 180), and like Charley, he is a realist who has no illusions about what it takes to be a success. He is a survivor who undoubtedly made a fortune in the jungle through the kinds of ruthless acts which he performs in his sparring session with Biff. He suggests as much when he warns Biff: "Never fight fair with a stranger, boy. You'll never get out of the jungle that way" (Salesman 158). Ben's drive for self-fulfillment is undoubtedly predicated upon his denial of any responsibility for others and his repudiation of the values which Willy cherishes and associates with his romanticized view of family life and the past.

In dramatic contrast to the image of this ruthless capitalist stands the idealized figure of Dave Singleman. In Willy's mind, the image of Dave Singleman reflects Willy's unfaltering conviction that personal salvation can be linked with success, that business transactions can be made by people who respect and admire each other. Willy practically worships this legendary salesman who, at the age of eighty-four, "drummed merchandise in thirty-one states" by picking up a phone in his hotel room and calling buyers who remembered and loved him (Salesman 180). The legend of Dave Singleman so strongly impresses Willy that he decides that success results from "who you know and the smile on your face! It's contacts ... being liked" (Salesman 184) that guarantee a profitable business. Willy clings to the illusion that he can become another Dave Singleman--in itself an impossible task since no one can become another person, a fact underscored by the name Singleman, which obviously calls attention to the individual's uniqueness--even though Willy knows he lives in an era when business is "all cut and dried, and there's no chance for bringing friendship to bear--or personality" (Salesman 180-81).

Biff knows that he does not belong in the business world but still feels obligated to build his future there since that is what his father expects of him. He would prefer to work on a farm, performing manual labor, but he has learned from Willy not to respect such work. In Willy's mind, physical labor is tainted with the suggestion of something demeaning. When Biff suggests that they work as carpenters, Willy reproachfully shouts: "Even your grandfather was better than a carpenter. ... Go back to the West! Be a carpenter, a cowboy, enjoy yourself!" (Salesman 166). With gibes like this in mind, Biff never feels completely satisfied working as a farmhand and tortures himself with guilt over his failure to satisfy Willy's demand that he do something extraordinary with his life.

spends most of his life mistakenly believing that values associated with the family open the door to success in the business world.

Biff is horrified to find his father with Miss Francis. This sudden revelation of the naked soul in all its weakness and imperfection is more than Biff can bear because he has been trained to elude reality and substitute lies for truth. Beneath Biff's scornful gaze, Willy becomes nothing more than a "liar," a "phony little fake" (Salesman 208). Such condemnation leaves Willy feeling disgraced and alienated, so he retreats into the sanctuary of the past in a frantic effort to recapture there what is irretrievably lost in the present: his innocence and chosen identity. He opts for self-deception as a way of maintaining his distorted image of himself--a costly decision that eventually causes his psychological disorientation and death. He goes to his grave, as Biff puts it, without ever knowing "who he was" (Salesman 221).

As Willy reflects on the failure of his sons, he begins to devolve, characterized by "contradictory statements" and "emotional outbursts" (Centola). These outbursts serve as constant embarrassment for his family as well as a painful reminder to Willy of his unusual behavior towards others. Willy exhibits bizarre behavior, including eccentric speech rhythms, impulsive utterances, and incessant contradictions that reveal his mental breakdown. One moment he is "jovial" and the next, "loud and insulting" (Centola). Such a psychological toll interferes with Willy's ability to work, leading to his being fired, and putting an end to his life-long career. Willy's speech and behavior in the play can be attributed to the complexity of his confusion between what society dictates and his personal ideals, and these ideals explain his love affair and devoted effort to escaping from mindful recognition of the role he played in Biff's failure. Willy's difficulty to evaluate himself expresses the "anguish, and alienation" from being torn away from "our chosen image of what and who we are in this world" (Tragedy). "The man who makes an appearance in the business world, the man who creates personal interest, is the man who gets ahead" (Miller 1.2).

Willy commits suicide because he "cannot settle for half but must pursue his dream of himself to the end." He convinces himself that only his death can restore his prominence in his family's eyes and retrieve for him his lost sense of honor. Perhaps without ever being fully conscious of his motives, Willy feels that his sacrifice will purge him of his guilt and make him worthy of Biff's love. When he realizes that he never lost Biff's love, Willy decides that he must die immediately so that he can preserve that love and not jeopardize it with further altercations. In his desperation to perform one extraordinary feat for his son so that he can once and for all verify his greatness and confirm his chosen image of himself in Biff's eyes, Willy turns to what he knows best: selling. He literally fixes a cash value on his life and, in killing himself, tries to complete his biggest sale. Willy thinks that by bequeathing Biff twenty thousand dollars, he will provide conclusive proof of his immutable essence as a good father, a goal that has obsessed him even since the day Biff discovered Willy's infidelity in Boston.

In the end, Willy's failure, guilt, and loss overwhelmed him to the breaking point of his life. He dies with nothing; nothing but the love his family and his sole friend Bernard had for him. In an effort to win back his family's love and respect, Willy confusingly fuses the values of his work and family, creating a strong and chaotic clash in his family. While Willy never properly raises his sons or explores his true identity, his death helps his sons understand themselves and how they would like to spend the rest of their lives. Happy remains convinced that the dream to be number one and to win in business is the key to success, but Biff realizes that business held his father back. For business, his father sacrificed his passion for carpentry, his time to raise his sons, his faithfulness to his wife, and his happiness. Willy Loman fails in his work but leaves a lasting legacy with the only people that truly mattered to him- his family.