How is Willy Loman an ambiguous character, and why is his moral ambiguity significant to the work as a whole?

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Susan Hurn | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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If we consider Willy Loman separate and apart from the social influences of the American era in which he came of age and the American era in which he grew old, failed in business, and died, he still remains an ambiguous personality. Willy truly believes he loves his wife, but he treats Linda very shabbily. He depends upon her to prop up his faltering ego and absolve him from responsibility for his actions. Biff correctly points out that Willy has always treated Linda as a doormat. Willy sees no contradiction in abusing someone he loves because he does not recognize the abuse. When Biff discovers Willy's adultery, Willy is shattered--not because he has betrayed his wife, but because he has lost his son's respect. Willy loves Linda, but gives no thought to her feelings when he considers suicide and then kills himself.

Willy believes he loves Biff, but he is quick to criticize, condemn, and dismiss him in sarcastic and bitter outbursts. The man who loves his son is the one who denigrates him without mercy.

Willy believes he is a good man who has been a loving husband and father, unaware of the ambiguities in his own character. Looking at him with some sympathy, it could be said that he does the wrong things for what seem to him to be the right reasons, which brings the drama back to its examination of the values of American society. Willy Loman is developed as more than the product of his society, however. Psychologically, his is a complex, contradictory, and flawed human personality.

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Willy Loman is an ambiguous character because he represents many elements that converge in a tragically sad character.  He is animated by dreams, galvanized into action by them.  However, his dreams mushroom into the realm of being unrealistic.  Willy ends up being crushed by the weight of his own dreams.  We cannot blame him for it, because Willy is doing what anyone in his position would do:  Seek out the dream of success.  This condition where Willy lives out what is told to everyone as children to its natural and unchecked end is one reason why his character is ambiguous.  It is beyond "good and evil," beyond judgmental criticism.  We can critique him, but in doing so, we end up criticizing the system in which we all are immersed.  Another level in which this ambiguity is heightened concerns the definition of success.  Willy's life is defined by a measure of financial success and seeking a life that is a means to an end, as opposed to the end in of itself.  In this setup, Willy's dreams are always of some type of definable end:  Making money, facilitating the killer sale, gaining wealth.  These are ends that are socially dicated notions of the good.  Willy ends up being driven to these ends, and ultimately, these spell out his tragic condition.  Here again, we see that his ambiguity, the inability to draw clear and definable judgments are because in criticizing him, we have to concede that the system within which he is operating is our system.  In criticizing him, we have to criticize the system that drove him to such ends.  This creates a level of ambiguity in our assessment of him. I think this feeds into the larger work as a whole in that it does critique and force us to make assessments about the consumer based and socially dictated notion of American society.  In asking us to assess Willy Loman, Miller is asking us to not merely look at one character but, what he termed, "the matrix" in which all of us live, in which all of us operate, in which all of us are immersed.  This is not to say that we are helpless. Rather, it is quite the opposite.  Miller is creating a character of moral ambiguity that compels us to examine how we can assert our own voice to prevent the same fate that fell upon Willy.  In being able to do this, we must examine this "matrix" that binds and constrict us, and did so to Willy.

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