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What do we learn about Willy's job in Death of a Salesman?

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sonali823 | Student, Grade 9 | eNotes Newbie

Posted August 27, 2011 at 6:42 PM via web

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What do we learn about Willy's job in Death of a Salesman?

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jumiry | College Teacher | (Level 1) Adjunct Educator

Posted August 27, 2011 at 7:49 PM (Answer #1)

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I am not certain we are to learn anything in particular from Willy's job.  He clearly works in the garment industry as denoted by a number of clues including that he visits department stores to sell product, that he carries items in sample cases, that he gives the gift of stockings to the woman in Boston, and that Happy at one point talks about Willy's eye for color, but in reality what he sells is meaningless.  Willy is a salesman, and Charlie calls him a dreamer.  Willy sells himself, and to the degree that customers respond to him he will be successful.  To the degree customers do not respond to him, he will fail.  Willy sees himself as a frontiersman, discovering new territory for his company.  What we can really learn from Willy's job is that it is difficult and he struggles, like a boxer in the ring or like any other person who struggles to provide for his family.  Some critics have argued that the play is an indictment of the whole capitalist system, but that is not the point.  Willy is a man alone, and his job gives him meaning and purpose.  The company does not respect him and loses its use for him, so it casts him aside.  That does no, however, devalue the man.  Willy's destruction is not caused by his work but by the rest of his life and its problems.  Again, it is Charley who ennobles Willy when he says "Willy was a salesman. No one dast blame this man.  A salesman's gotta dream, boy."  Ultimately we learn that life is a struggle and each of us is ultimately alone in the  harsh world of business.  It is the family that truly gives one support and value.  If we allow ourselves to think only the job gives us meaning, we will suffer a sad disillusionment at some point.

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accessteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted August 28, 2011 at 9:55 PM (Answer #2)

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Well, I am not too sure that we are given that much information about Willy's job in the play except that it is something that is bound up as part of Willy's identity and that it means everything to him. He overtly says that he loves his job and that he lives for it, yet clearly, as the opening scene demonstrates, other characters such as Linda recognise that his job is too much for Willy to cope with and that he is in dangerous need of a break. If we examine the daydream that Willy had and the way that it meant he had to stop driving as he kept veering off the highway, and the "strange thoughts" that Willy says he is subject to, it is clear that he is a man who is dangerously exhausted and whose job has swallowed him up. This is why, in response to being told about not being able to drive the car, Linda says:

Willy, dear. Talk to them again. There's no reason why you can't work in New York.

Linda clearly feels that for a sixty year old man it is too much for Willy to be doing the kind of travelling, every week, that his job requires of him.

Something else we are told about Willy's job is that he clearly feels he is more successful than his boss gives him credit for. Note what he says to Linda:

If old man Wagner was alive I'd a been in charge of New York now! That man was a prince, he was a masterful man. But that boy of his, that Howard, he don't appreciate. When I went north the first time, the Wagner Company didn't know where New England was!

This clearly introduces the element of fantasy into the play, as Willy believes himself to be incredibly successful, but in reality, as the audience soon discovers, he is a failure at his job.

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