Willy Loman Compared with other Characters
Literary Journalists have spent lots of time researching different characters in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, and have focused primarily on Willy Loman, since he is the most complex character in the play. There have been many different theories about the relationship between him and the other characters of the play. Certain Journalists have gone beyond that point and have compared him with other characters. These comparisons allow the reader to see Willy from a different perspective, which also allows the reader to understand the position of Willy Loman. D. L. Hoeveler has explained Willy’s standpoint to the other characters in Death of a Salesman as Psychomachia. From Milkman to Salesman: Glimpses of the Galut by Dan Vogel compares Willy to Tevye, another fictional character, while John S. Shockley has proved that Willy “shares a number of important traits with the most successful American politician of the late twentieth century, Ronald Reagan” (quote). All of these authors have tried to show and explain Willy Loman in a different perspective by comparing him to other characters.
If one wants to understand a character in any sort of literature it is necessary to look at the other people who he/she has contact with. Hoeveler has analyzed Willy by looking at the other characters and has shown how they are affected by him during the play. According to Hoeveler, Willy “has forced his family to play the parts that he has designed for them. They are all characters in a dream, Willy’s dream of reality” (634). All the characters in the play represent a certain trait, just as in the play Everyman, written in the late 15th century. The reader is shown that the individual characters “represent aspects of” Willy’s “splintered mind” (632). Linda is
a voice that guides and acts as a security for Willy. His son Biff represents the failure of Willy to achieve the American dream. Willy’s other son, Happy, is a personification of “Willy’s belief in success at any price” (635). Ben, Willy’s brother, represents the dreams of financial success. Willy is easier to understand if one knows what he is. He is a man that has enforced his ideas unto his family and therefor has caused his personality to be divided among the other characters to an extent.
The Requiem at the end of the play shows how all the characters are seemingly freed of Willy, “but each of the characters continues to embody the values that Willy demanded of them” (635). They are actually not free at all because they have become Willy. He is best explained when the deeds he has done to others is analyzed. This was what has been done first in order to get a better insight on how Willy thinks and acts towards the characters around him.
One of the famous characters that Miller’s Willy Loman has been compared to is Sholom Aleichem’s creation, Tevye the milkman. This is a very rational comparison, which is discussed in Dan Vogel’s article From Milkman to Salesman: Glimpses of the Galut, because it is easier to understand a character if another person is in almost the same situation. Willy Loman and Tevye are both heroes that have to deal with “life’s debilitating existentialist ironies and insults” (174). The way they deal with their problems is not by brute force on a battle field. The difference is that Tevye is defeated with dignity whereas Willy chooses destruction. There is an obvious difference between the strength of characters.
Both are salesman that have to deal with the bursting of their dreams. Tevye’s daughters all end up doing something he does not approve. One commits suicide because of love, the eldest marries a tailor that dies young and the third one falls in love with an exiled Marxist. Tevye invests money in the stocks and ends up losing all
The real important differences and similarities between these two characters are noticeable when the reader looks at the way they both deal with these problems. Both have a major problem with self esteem. They are constantly in search of themselves. Tevye and Willy boast about themselves and then realize that they are no better then anyone else. This bothers them a lot. “Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person” (56) as Willy because “he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him” (56). This attitude is the same one that Sholom Aleichem has towards Tevye.
Also, both have raised a child that becomes a renegade. Biff runs off to become a worker on farms and Chava converts to Christianity. Tevye and Willy are very sad and still long for their children even though they have been betrayed. When the renegades return home they are embraced with the family again. The fathers act very similar towards their children. The prime difference is that Tevye would never go as far as committing suicide because of his problems. Willy has a weaker character and therefor is more prone to commit suicide, which he does. This weakness can also come from the difference in both beliefs. Tevye believes in God and is not forced to face the destruction of this belief. Willy, on the other hand witnesses the complete destruction of his belief, the American dream, through Biff. Hence, he is much less stable than Tevye. “For Willy, acculturated to the American Galut, there is no Messiah to hope for, only to be liked if not well liked by the sons of men; and no God, only the bitch goddess Success” (177).
In the article Death of a Salesman and American Leadership: Life Imitates Art John S. Shockley has compared Willy to “the most successful American politician of the late twentieth century, Ronald Reagan” (quote). The first similarity is that “both were selling themselves and the American dream” (quote). They dreamed this dream and believed that the fulfillment of a man should not be hindered.
To believe the American dream and live by it both men had to deny certain facts. Willy tried very hard to still believe that his sons were not failures and that he was also not failing as a salesman. He just had to deny these facts. Linda constantly gets to hear lies from Willy about how popular he is and how much money he is making. Ronald Reagan who grew up with an alcoholic father who had failed to achieve success. “As Willy loved telling jokes to highlight his personality, Reagan loved entertaining others” (quote). The denial of unpleasant facts continued throughout Reagan’s whole life. These denials had a bigger effect on Willy because he was not as successful as Reagan.
The search for close friends was very hard for both characters, and they never were able to achieve this goal. In the end, the only people that stood by them were their wives. Willy and Reagan had the same problem with children. Reagan had great problems with his adopted son and daughter. This is partly due to the fact that both had no father figure to help them out.
The differences of the two compared characters are also very important in determining what Willy is not. Ronald Reagan had a better chance in becoming a
success because he inspired people and made them feel good about themselves. Another disadvantage of Willy is that he does not know what is happening to him, whereas Reagan has a very good idea about himself and the position he is in.
Reagan also faced career problems but was rescued by friends and supporters. Since he “was quite willing to accept help and funds from anyone” (quote) he was able to keep his self-confidence. Nobody tried helping Willy which caused his self-worth to collapse. “Ronald Reagan, in sum, was what Willy Loman wanted to be: well-liked, at least in a superficial way; entertaining without being a bore; successful; handsome; and not fat” (quote). Hence, “Willy Loman committed suicide. Ronald Reagan became President of the United States” (quote).
Looking and analyzing a character is always important to understand the character in any type of literature. The reader must compare the character to other people and find out what is essential. Many Literary Journalists have done this to see Willy Loman from many different perspectives. The reader then draws a conclusion that he/she is satisfied with. These three authors have exhibited how a character is to be seen, which should make all the readers very happy.
Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. New York: Penguin, 1976.
Rosinger, Lawrence. “Miller’s Death of a Salesman.” Explicator 45.2 (1987): 55-56.
Shockley, John S. “Death of a Salesman and American Leadership: Life Imitates Art.” Journal of American Culture 17.2 (1994): 49-56.
Vogel, Dan. “From Milkman to Salesman: Glimpses of the Galut.” Studies in American Jewish Literature 10 (1991): 172-178.