In Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman we see the negative effect of having an absent parent. The main character Willy Loman is a salesman who constantly struggles with trying to be what he considers “successful,” and “well liked.” He has two sons Biff and Happy and is married to Linda. Willy also struggles between illusion and reality; he has trouble defining and distinguishing the past from the present. Between his financial struggles and not feeling like he accomplished anything, he commits suicide. Throughout Willy’s life he was constantly abandoned, by both his father and his brother at very young age. Since Willy has no reference to look up to, he is somewhat left to figure things out on his own.
In Willy’s mind, everything he teaches his children is perfectly ok. Willy’s moral flaws and constant idealization of the “American dream,” ultimately stem from his absent father. We can see that Willy’s obsession with the “American dream” obviously comes from his father. When Willy’s father left, he never really left him with anything tangible or anything as far as money goes. He also didn’t leave him with any family legacy. Even though in the play, Willy says that his father was an “adventurous man,” we don’t really know that (1619). Willy’s views of his father are somewhat romanticized. All we know of Willy’s fathers is from Ben, because Willy says that his dad left when he was “such a baby” and that he never “had a chance to talk to him” (1604). All he can really remember “is a man with a big beard” (1602). According to Ben their father was “a very great and very wild-hearted man.”
Ben tells him that his father “made more in a week than a man like you could make in a lifetime” (1602). Willy’s illusion of his father being this “successful,” “great” man, has forced Willy to strive to be the same. Since Willy’s dad left him at such a young age Willy also looks up to Ben as a father figure. He describes him as “the only man I ever met who knew the answers,” “a genius,” and a “success incarnate!” (1600)(1598).Again we see Ben as this rich, adventurous man, who Willy idolizes. Ben offered Willy a chance to go with him to Alaska but Willy chose not to. Throughout the play you can tell that Willy regrets not going with his brother. He asks himself “why didn’t I go to Alaska with my brother Ben that time…what a mistake! He begged me to go” (1598). When Ben comes to visit, or when he’s visiting in one of Willy’s illusions, Willy tells him “[y]our just what I need,” and he asks him “what is the answer?”(1604).
Willy also has strong feelings toward appearances. He even goes so far as to tell his kids “That’s why 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 gets ahead. Be liked and you will never want” (1594). Even Willy’s views of himself are romanticized; he thinks he is essential to his job, even though we soon find out that he isn’t. He goes on and on to his sons about how much people like him, and how he has so many friends and so much respect everywhere he goes.
We also learn that Willy’s morals are flawed due to his absent father. Willy never got the chance to learn what a dad really is. There are several instances that show this. The first one is when he tells Biff and Happy not to make any promises to any girls, that they will believe anything you say (1591). We can make the conclusion that this leads to Biff being too “rough with the girls,” and Happy being a womanizer (1597). He then condones his son Biff’s thievery, when Biff steals a football to practice with; Willy tells him that he is sure the coach will appreciate his initiative (1592). He even tells Biff and Happy to go “get some sand” from the apartments that were being built next door (1603). In another instance he influences cheating when Biff has to study for a math test; he tells Biff’s tutor Bernard “You’ll give him the answers!” (1597). Again, Willy believes in appearance over being smart and doing the work. At one point he even goes along with making fun of Biff’s math teacher. Stealing and cheating shouldn’t be something accepted by your parents.
Although Miller doesn’t make Willy’s absent father a big theme in the play, it is definitely something to look at when thinking about why Willy is the way that he is. If Willy Loman only got to know his father and see how a father is with a child, he might have a different approach to parenting. Maybe if Willy had a father to learn from he wouldn’t be so rough on Biff or put so much on him; he could just love him the way that he is, and be happy that he is happy. Maybe he wouldn’t have this predetermined view of the “American dream” and how it should distinguish your life.
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