What would someone expect to be the outcome of a man who has given his passionate worship to the goddess of success sold out in the American promise of equality of opportunity for anyone to achieve the highest possible financial and material comfort? Such is the man, an aging father clinging on to the assurance of the reward of customer charming, who Arthur Miller depicts in his play, Death of a Salesman. A look into the character of Willy Loman reveals a disenchanted dreamer with an illusion, routinely vexed by his non-fulfilment, and once when confronted with the utter bankruptcy of his aspirations, cannot stand himself anymore.
While the American Dream lays its groundwork of success on hard work, Willy tailored his version of the dream based on observation of his brother’s success. Ben had left for Alaska, a wilderness in Africa where he lucked into a lot of wealth by discovering a diamond mine. Willy concluded that to be successful, a man needed to be charismatic and that a well-liked and personally attractive person is the sole guarantee of business success, a notion that set him up for failure. His dream, to become a great man, profoundly admired and revered by others, is one he holds throughout his life, and choosing the work of a salesman as a means to achieve it, he devotedly focuses on charming his way to success despite the fact that there are other role models in society who have realistically achieved their financial success through hard work.
Charley is Willy’s next door neighbor who runs a successful business with his son Bernard, himself a successful attorney. Even though Willy admirers his success, he is jealous and dismisses him that “he’s liked, but he’s not well liked.” Willy’s sons’ admiration of Bernard who is headed to the Supreme Court to argue a case is another of Willy’s objects of frustration.
Failing to recognize that charm alone without the knowledge and hard work would not guarantee success, Willy holds on tightly to his job despite working solely on commission, and so strong is his delusion that when he is fired from the job, he turns down a job offer just to retain his pride. Striving to cope with his frustrations, he finds opportunity in his son Biff to further his ambition for success by having him fulfill the dream on his behalf, a move that draws his other son Happy into the ordeal in his quest to attain his father’s attention and approval. A football star in high school with a scholarship to play football in college, Biff greatly appealed to his father’s distorted perception that being liked is the qualification for success, so much that he failed to emphasize the importance of education to his sons, consequently causing Biff to flunk a semester of math without the credits which he wouldn’t make it to college.
Overlooking Biff’s enlightenment, he imposes his inflated ambitions on his sons, aspirations Biff does not wish to pursue and one that Happy only tries to embody just to receive the acknowledgment of his father, who sees no potential in him. In spite of Biff having talent in his athleticism, he finds himself discouraged due to feelings that he is disappointing his father and letting down his expectations. Further increasing the dysfunction in the family, Happy in his bid to attain his father’s favor ends up becoming like his father. He assimilates the faulty perspective of his father concerning the world and success, placing value on wealth and popularity over integrity, dignity, and education, and eventually, he ends up truly unhappy.
Linda is Willy’s loving and devoted wife who is more realistic and sees through her husband’s deluded dreams and failures enduringly. Her standing by him throughout the play wins the admiration of his sons who at one time confess to not being able to find a marriageable woman like their mother. This emphasizes the betrayal Biff feels when he catches his father cheating on his mother with another woman. He decides not to attend summer school to secure his math credits which would have enabled him to go to college. He flees from his father, moving to the west where he is not able to keep his jobs at farms as he had developed a tendency to steal.
Frustrations mount in Willy’s family who enters into suicidal attempts. He inhales gas and purposely gets himself into car accidents. Biff’s return from the West, though striking a reconciliatory note with his father, exposes the deteriorating flawed character of his father. His short-temper leads any conversation into altercation leaving no model example for his sons, and when he eventually learns that Biff still loves him, he makes the final step of taking his life so that Biff can receive the life insurance money and invest in his future.
Arthur Miller’s portrayal of the struggle Willy goes through in his acceptance of the falsehood of his distorted version of the American dream, and his failure to realize Biff’s disinterest in it shows not only the flaws in material wealth illusion but also the important notion that individuals measure success differently. Where one individual finds contentment in career development, the other measure success in wealth and respect. Material wealth is not guaranteed to happiness, and hot pursuit of financial success can lead to destruction.
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