Why is popularity so important to Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller?

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carol-davis | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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Willy Loman from Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller has become an antihero in American drama.  An antihero is a protagonist who does meet the criteria for a hero, yet who struggles to be better in his life. Loman’s struggles are the reason that this  award winning play still finds success with audiences.

Throughout his life, Willy values three things: his appearance, luck, and popularity.  Willy has always been obsessed with material achievement which he has had very little of in his life. To be successful in work, Willy felt that a person needed to be popular and look attractive. 

A perfect example of his attitude toward work comes from  his feelings toward work.  The death of one of the successful salesmen in Willy’s company shows the man's popularity.  The ultimate achievement in a man’s life was to have his funeral so well attended. 

Willy still believes in the American dream. However, he was a very insecure man. Over and over, he asks successful people for guidance.  In the end, it is obvious that Willy is not popular and never will be, nor is he liked or good at his job.  

WILLY: ‘Cause what could be more satisfying than to be able to go, at the age of eighty-four, into twenty or thirty different cities, and pick up a phone, and be remembered and loved and helped by so many different people... When he died, hundreds of salesmen and buyers were at his funeral. There was respect, and comradeship and gratitude in it. Today it’s all cut and dried, and there’s no chance for bringing personality. They don’t know me anymore.

If Willy is well liked by all, then he will have truly made it. Unfortunately, he is having to face the fact that not many people really know him or care about him.

Willy lies to himself and his family.  In his delusion, he is a popular man at work and on the road.  He is a hugely successful salesman.  To avoid  facing the truth, having confrontations, or  answering questions, he projects arrogance.

Periodically unable to maintain this image of popularity,  Willy despairs and pleads with successful people around him for guidance and support. Despite his efforts, it becomes clear that Willy Loman is not popular, well liked, or even good at his job. In fact, he never was. In all likelihood, he never will be.

What is wrong with Willy?  He is sixty-three years old and feels it in his bones.  In the beginning of the play, the company that he worked for for thirty-four years no longer gives him a paycheck; later, the company fires Willy.  Something else is going on with Willy because now he is hallucinating about his brother and other situations about his son.

It is too late for Willy.  His life has lost all meaning for him.  Obviously, he is having a mental breakdown.  When he kills himself, Willy hopes that his legacy will give his sons the success that he never had.  Unfortunately, that fails as well.


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