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The roles played by the characters in Arthur Miller's, Death of a Salesman, can be considered stereotypical at best. The characters fall into the trap of not being able to thing outside of what their station in life is or should be. Their outlook on life is completely dependent upon what is considered society's norms at that time. Women were to be seen and not heard, while the husbands were the primary breadwinners. A man's sole purpose in life was to get a job, support their family, and make enough money to retire on. If they were unable to do that, then they were considered a failure to their gender (237). Some seem to think that the sons of men if gender failure were the ones that suffered the most.
Some influences that Miller had while writing this play could have a direct impact on the depth and attributes of the characters in the play. Miller wrote this play during a time when the world was changing. Gone were the days of the nuclear family. Between the political climate and social community, things in the world were in a state of unrest. McCarthyism had taken hold of the world (236). Miller shows criticism for American consumerism which was thought to be part of the McCarthyism-era.
Traditional gender roles can be seen throughout the play. While this may not be the main theme of the play, it is one of the major secondary themes. One instance can be seen at the beginning of the play when Willy comes home from work to his wife and children. The father goes to work every day to provide for his family to provide for his family while the mother is a stay at home wife who takes care of her family and home. The lady of the house was only to contribute to the household matters. She was to have no thoughts of her own but to go along with whatever her husband wanted to do. When children came into the picture, she raised them according to her husband's wishes. The two sons were raised to be what society would call "manly" men. During this time period in history, this was the way of life. Some people would even call it "the American Dream."
An example of the female gender role is when Linda comes in and offers to make Willy a sandwich. Linda is a character that we learn very little about directly. We only see her nature by what is revealed through her interactions with her family. The audience has a hard time understanding why she stays with Willy and her dysfunctional family. Is she accepting her self-servant position as part of the nuclear family so she can hold it together? Or is she stopped by her own inadequacies that prevent her from standing independently? It seems as though Linda is fixated on creating some sort of reconciliation between her husband and her sons, selflessly subordinating herself in order to help them in their problems. This can also be seen in the little trivial things that happen between Willy and Linda. It can be seen when they speak to one another about cheese:
WILLY. Why do you get American when I like Swiss?
LINDA. I just thought you'd like a change -
WILLY. I don't want a change! I want Swiss cheese. Why am I always being contradicted? (1474; I)
No matter what Willy says to Linda, she never strays from his side. She always has an excuse or a reason why Will is the way he is. She is always sure to stroke his ego even when she doesn't have to.
LINDA. Willy, darling, you're the handsomest man in the world -
WILLY. Oh, no, Linda.
LINDA. To me you are. The handsomest. (1485; I)
In this scene Willy is talking about all the different reasons he is being passed over in his job. She is trying to convince him that none of those are the reasons because he is the best looking salesman the company has.
Willy seems to have no respect for his wife. It can be seen in the ways he speaks to her. It can also been seen in the way that he speaks to her. Willy responses to Linda in a demeaning way:
LINDA. Isn't that wonderful?
WILLY. Don't interruptâ€¦ (1499; I)
In this scene, the family is gathered around the dinner table and talking about Biff and Happy's possible business endeavors. This is one of the first times that Linda tries to chime in on the conversation, but is automatically shot down by Willy numerous times afterwards. He belittles her by telling her that she should not be involved in their business talk. During this time in history, women, for the most part, did not work, but instead were the homemakers who cooked and cleaned. Women had little to no value in the business world because they were not expected to be of any value. This is such an old fashioned way of thinking, but it happened all the time then and it took a while for people to change their ways of thinking about gender roles in the household. Willy's old-fashioned ways of thinking can also be seen in the way he talks to and about his sons. When Willy speaks to Biff:
WILLY. Just wanna be careful with those girls. Biff, that's all. Don't make any promises. No promises of any kind. Because a girl, y'know, they always believe what you tell'em, and you're very young, Biff, you're too young to be talking seriously to girls. Too young entirely, Biff. You want to watch your schooling first. Then you're all set, there'll be plenty of girls for a boy like you. (1480; I)
Willy is telling his son that women can't be trusted so not to make any promises to them. Women hold men to their promises. He doesn't want his son to make promises to anyone while he still too young.
The character of Willy confirms stereotypes in many ways. He believes that a man is only successful if he is well liked and attractive. It does not matter if they work hard as long as they have the other two things going for him. His downfall is that he does not equate success with hard work and perseverance. This is the type thinking keeps him from achieving his personal goals of wealth and status. It is the effects of Willy's obsession that cause Willy to eventually lose touch with reality and causes him to lose his mind. He is torn between the denial that he is ultimately a failure and his desperation to succeed at any cost. Willy feels that a man without success is nothing. This ultimately affects his relationship with his wife as well as his sons. It causes his relationship to deteriorate to the point that it seems like it cannot be fixed. His sons are not in a place to want to have anything to do with him.
Stereotypical male roles can also be seen through the various conversations between Biff and Happy. When Happy reminisces with Biff:
BIFF. Remember that big Betsy something - what the hell was her name - over on Bushwick Avenue?
HAPPY. With the collie dog!
BIFF. That's the one. I got you in there, remember?
HAPPY. Yea, that was my first time - I think. Boy, there was a pig! You taught me everything I know about women. Don't forget that.
BIFF. I bet you forgot how bashful you used to be. Especially with girls.
Throughout the play, Biff is shown as particularly distraught and overwhelmed by the fact that he is unable to find a steady, well-paying job. He feels that, as a man, it is his sole responsibility to settle down, find a wife, support her and eventually a family while being able to retire with money to spend. During this time in history, this was the sole purpose in life for a man his age. The male gender role that Biff assumes for himself is what has him stressed and worried about his future. Biff was very different from his brother Happy. While Happy could keep a job, he was unhappy at it. Biff was unable to keep a job. He was unsuccessful in all of his business endeavors thus far.
Happy, Willy's youngest son is true definition of a mess. He follows in his father's path into the business world, where he readily admits that he is unhappy, yet still does it because he believes that it is what is expected of him. He, like Willy, believes that success is by which a man is measured. He says "I gotta show some of those pompous, self important executives over there that Hap Loman can make the grade" (1478, I). We can see that his blind desire to succeed is leading him down the same path of destruction that his father is on.
While all of the main characters have their positive attributes, it is the position that they allow themselves to stay in that causes most of the issues throughout that play. The gender roles throughout the play are blatant and obvious. The men were to be seen as the alpha male. The women were to be seen and not heard. The male was responsible for being the breadwinner of the family. He was to make enough money that he could (at that time) keep his wife in stockings. Stockings were the sign that a man was providing well enough for his wife and family. When it came to the time to have children, the children were raised in the same manner. Willy, Biff, and Happy all enforce the male stereotype throughout the play in the way that they speak to each other and other people. Linda enforces the female stereotype by not standing up for her own opinions and being self-servant to her husband even though he treats her poorly.