Death of a Salesman
‘He had the wrong dreams. All, all wrong.’
Willy Loman was a man of ‘greatness’, a man who was ‘way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine’ and but was a man who ‘didn’t know who he was’. Above all, Willy Loman was a dreamer, a salesman who saw it necessary to ‘enter the jungle’ to ‘get the diamonds out’. From a reader’s view, Willy was a very foolish man who turned his back onto reality and lived out his hollow dream but yet to access Biff’s claim of Willy’s dreams being ‘all, all wrong’. There are three crucial aspects in which we must examine. Firstly, we must examine the battered and seemingly wretched character of Willy Loman, to understand how he came to these dreams. Secondly, we must evaluate Willy’s eldest son, Biff, we must perceive his knowledge of his ‘father’ and why he warns his father thus. Finally, to make an accurate assessment of Willy’s dreams, we have to grasp and conceive the idea of Willy’s dream, the American dream.
In Death of a Salesman, Willy is presented as being a man who had a chance at success, but misses it and then tries to grasp at something which he can’t reach. At first, he is presented as two different people. The first impression is that he is an angry man who blames the world for his faults, he has tried to mould his children into images of himself and often contradicts himself (as shown in Act 1 where he talks about Biff being a ‘lazy bum’ and then saying ‘there’s one thing about Biff-he’s not lazy’). Willy is an insecure man who has cheated his loving wife, lied to his sons, and has taught them that cheating and stealing is a way of life. But most of all, he has unachievable dreams which he will do anything to accomplish, including that of foolishly committing suicide in order to show his sons that he is a man.
However, the other ‘nobler’ view of Willy is that he is a battered and tired man as a ’small man can be just as exhausted as a great man’. He has passed his opportunity for success due to his respect for his dear wife. He is most likely suffering some mental sickness and has just been fired from a job which he has worked his whole life for, a job which he treasures and loves. As he can’t even pay his own insurance, he honorably forfeits his life in order to gives his son a twenty thousand dollar ‘boost’ in life. Something which wasn’t achievable in life, even though he loves his sons especially Biff, he continues to ’spite’ him despite all the help and encouragement given to him by Willy.
So which ‘view’ of Willy is correct? Unfortunately the answer is both of them. Willy is a tired man, he knows deep down that his better days have passed but instead of looking towards the future, he still looks back and regrets. One notable example is how Willy has ‘flashbacks’ of a better life years ago. Here, he is the proud father of two young striving boys and the loving husband of a caring wife. However, even in this perfect scenario, all is not perfect. We find that Biff and Happy have been stealing materials from the construction site next door, Biff has also stolen a football but instead of punishing them as suggested by Willy’s wife Linda, Willy convinces himself that Biff is innocent and congratulates him for his ‘initiative’. We also discover later that Willy has had an affair with the ‘woman’, a person who loves the stockings that Willy gives her, not Willy himself. It is this type of behaviour and happening that we see that Willy can never achieve a perfect future because he does not have a perfect beginning. He will forever be plagued by his deeds and seeks escape through death. He cannot see that by being a salesman, he has literally sold his life, his welfare, his soul to something which he ‘cannot lay his hands upon’. He has lost all his friends, his respect, his dignity but he has retained his pride, his pride which leads to his downfall since Willy cannot admit that he has failed and needs to start again.
Willy aspires to a man named David Singleman, a salesman who ‘died the death of a salesman, in his green velvet slippers’. He knows that David has become successful by being popular and this is what Willy does, except that the times change and ‘business is business’. Willy does not know this as he is too stubborn to accept that his whole life has amounted to basically nothing. In an emotional spat between Willy and Biff, Biff tells Willy that he is ‘a dime a dozen and so are you,’ whereas Willy replies angrily, ‘I am William Loman and you are Biff Loman.’ The sad fact is that they are both right, Willy will never, ‘get his name in the paper’ nor will he ever be as successful as he makes himself out to be. This is because his pride will not let him.
So who is Willy Loman? Willy Loman was a man who was ‘very good with his hands’, he could have been a builder, a proud lonely man who cannot see what is happening around him. He is a salesman with a dream, the American Dream, the ‘only dream you can have – to come out number one man’. This dream is not unattainable as shown in the case of Charley and his son Bernard, both very successful people who are ‘liked but not well liked’. Willy is a salesman whom it seems that nobody, save Charley alone, understood him, he was a man ‘way out in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back – that’s an earthquake’. Willy is not a man to be angry at because he lied to his sons or had an affair, but he is more of a man to be pitied because he has been blinded by his own dream, a dream which kills him even to the very end. His final act most likely would have accounted to nothing as insurance does not pay suicides and so, by his desperate attempt to reach his dream quickly, he takes away Happy’s reason, leading to Happy’s path to finish Willy’s dream, he leaves Linda an empty house which is theirs to own after ‘working for a life time’. Only Biff comes to realize how ‘fake’ his father was and sees that he must abandon Willy’s dream and set off to accomplish his own.
Biff Loman however, is a completely different man to his father, having been bought up in his father’s ‘image’, he has been filled with so much ‘hot air’ that he could never keep a job since he had a problem with authority. Biff would have been much more successful if not for when he sees Willy giving his mistress, his mother’s stockings. He understands that Willy is a phony and thus completely rejects summer school which is a catalyst for his quest to ‘find himself’. Both Willy and Biff have the quest of finding themselves but Biff is the only one who was done it. Biff knows that he is ‘dime a dozen’. Biff, after having ‘tried seven states’ could only get ‘a buck an hour’. He knows that he cannot possibly achieve even a small part of his father’s dream for him and so ends up breaking down and crying in front of his entire family. This shows that Biff is not the cold, uncaring man which Willy makes him out for telling the audience that Biff has reasons for his actions.
At the end when Biff realizes there’s no point to stealing, he sees that he must forget everything he’s ever believed in, in his father’s words, Biff must go out and learn to find his dreams and finish them. Biff is the only character who has grown in the play and this is obvious when he calls his father a ‘fake’, telling him that his dreams are ‘dangerous’. He also exposes the fact that they ‘haven’t spoken a word of truth’ in the house and here he reveals that everything they’ve done, it’s all been hyped up and that their living a life which isn’t real.
By understanding the fact that Biff was the only character who had truly learned something and had matured shows that his words are credible and thus to be believed. Willy Loman however is not. However, from what we have done, it is not credible to state that Willy’s dreams were ‘wrong, all wrong’ until we discuss them further.
Willy’s dreams are that of the great American Dream. This dream has been a common one, shared by many people, even to this day, it is the dream that Howard was given, that Bernard and Charley accomplished and that Willy and Happy would never see. It is the idea to ‘come out number-one man’. This dream was suppose to be only accomplishable by one’s personality and looks, however this is proven to be otherwise. Howard, Willy’s boss, has his ‘Dream’ handed down to him by his father and thus he has not done any work in order to ‘build’ it up, something which Willy has desperately tried his entire life but ended in failing miserably. Charley and Bernard are much more successful than their neighbours, it is ironic that Charley succeeded because he chose ‘not to care’ whereas Bernard, the kid who was ‘liked but not well liked’ has found himself, is about to argue a case in the Supreme Court and his happily married with two children. Through these examples, we see that the American Dream which Willy has been trying to achieve, Success, is unachievable if he just relies on a ‘build like Adonses’. In this play, Arthur Miller is telling us that the American Dream, cynical as it may appear, is not unachievable. By using the example of Willy, Howard and Charley and Bernard, he has shown us how to achieve it. Willy failed in the American Dream in that he went about trying to achieve it the wrong way.
Like Dave Singleman, who died (most likely a lonely man) in his ‘green velvet slippers’, he was successful due to the fact that he was good at his job and was respected. Willy however, has talents lying in other directions in that he is a very good craftsman and builder (’there was more of him in that front stoop than in all the sales he ever made’). By becoming a salesman and trying to reach out to people with his popularity, Willy made his ultimate and most likely, fatal mistake in that one must ‘keep up with the times’.
Biff’s statement of Willy have the ‘wrong dreams, all, all wrong’ is not necessarily correct. Willy didn t have the wrong dream, it wasn t ‘a phony’, this is due to the fact that dreams are suppose to be accomplishable and Willy did have his chance to accomplish that dream but he didn t. He had many chances in which he could have gone to Alaska to help his brother Ben but he refused. Willy could have told Linda about ‘the woman’ and thus resolved his conflict with Biff but he didn t. Willy could have taken Charley’s job and lived happily ever after but he didn t. Not because he was a negative person or wanted to be a ’self-made man’. Willy did it because he had the heart of a salesman but he was too blind to make use of it otherwise. There is no doubt that at one time of his life, Willy was successful, this is shown in his ‘flashbacks’ where it is perfect, almost perfect where it not for the fact that Willy continues to fill Biff with ‘hot air’ and has an excuse for everything. It would also have been perfect had Willy not lied about his success. It is these contributing factors, Willy as the Salesman, Biff as his finally maturing son and the Great American Dream that allow us to make an accurate assessment in that Willy didn t have the wrong dreams, he just didn t use the right methods to accomplish them, a sad fact which led to his demise and the ultimate irony in that the insurance company would not pay and thus his death would have meant nothing but fulfilled his own prophecy. ‘Work a lifetime to pay off a house. You finally own it, and there’s nobody to live in it’