Compare and contrast Willy and Charley in Death of a Salesman

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Willy and Charley are contemporaries, growing up at the same time and in the same place, and even working in the same profession. Though they share this history, they grow into very different people. Charley is a hard-working realist who raises a son who becomes a success. Willy is an entitled dreamer...

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Willy and Charley are contemporaries, growing up at the same time and in the same place, and even working in the same profession. Though they share this history, they grow into very different people. Charley is a hard-working realist who raises a son who becomes a success. Willy is an entitled dreamer who raises two sons to share his own specific mode of failure - a compulsion to fantasize and a willingness to supplant reality with fantasy. 

Looking strictly at the facts, Willy has worked as a salesman for as many years as Charley, and has managed to pay off his house. However, Willy has no capital - moral or financial - to draw upon in his old age. Charley, conversely, has built up his own business and his son has achieved success. Bernard will be in a position to help Charley, should a time come when he needs help. 

Willy professes to know about success and about the qualities that lead to success, while Charley chooses not to talk about these big ideas. Instead, he acts. Charley works hard and sees the rewards of that labor, while Willy attempts to find ways to be "well-liked" and fails. Though Willy often berates and belittles Charley, Charley extends a helping hand to Willy. 

Charley tries in vain to dispel Willy's delusions and attempts to save him from financial ruin by offering him a job...

Willy's faith in his deluded vision is unshakable. Though Charley attempts to wake Willy up to reality, Willy continues to insist that he is owed something. He claims that his former relationship with his boss, who has been replaced by a son, qualifies him for financial consideration. 

Charley attempts to counter this opinion:

"Willy, when're you gonna realize that them things don't mean anything? You named him Howard, but you can't sell that. The only thing you got in this world is what you can sell."

This statement presents a neat summation of the philosophical and personal differences between these two men. Despite the fact that they live in the same neighborhood and have pursued the same profession and watched their children play together, these men exist on opposite sides of an invisible line.

On one side, a dream has failed to come to fruition while a man refused to alter his vision or to compromise. On the other side, a man has grown into a success because he didn't dream, but dealt with reality on its own terms. 

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The characters of Charley and Willy are skilfully developed so that they complement each other in several ways. 

Both men are members of the same generation, and in similar stages of their adult life. They are both middle class heads of households, and fathers of boys. As fathers they are doting and loving. They also seem to fit the prototype of the "man of the house", as neither Willy nor Charley seem to mingle with their wives as much as they mingle with each other. In all, they share a good relationship as neighbors, and seem to get along despite of their obviously different personalities.

 

Charley and Willy's differences are mainly based on the way that they develop as parents, and in the way that they choose to help their children develop towards adulthood. For example, Willy instills in his children a credo which suggests that success can only be accomplished by being well-liked and good looking. This superfluous advice results in Biff and Happy's social ineptness and lack of self-worth as adults. 

Contrastingly, Charley consistently demonstrates that his best interests are universally bestowed upon everybody. Charley's son, Bernard, emulates his father's discipline and follows his steady ways. As a result, Bernard becomes a successful adult whose basic philosophy of life has been the same since childhood: abiding by the rules produces the best results. 

In the end, Willy sees the big difference between his and Charley's life. Charley is a successful man who even supports Willy economically out of kindness for his friend. Willy is, literally, a "has-been nobody", who still lives his life based in mere fantasy; this has led him nowhere. Willy is aware of this, despite of his denial. He is also aware about the difference between his son's life and Bernard's. When Willy asks Bernard "what is the formula" for success, even Bernard hints at Willy's lack of consistency with his own children. 

Whatever their differences, the fact remains that Charley and Willy are important to each other. Charley does not want Willy to sink lower than he already has. Willy needs Charley because only Charley understands his true condition. In the end, their differences are obviously superficial: Charley is the only friend present at Willy's funeral, and the person who tells Biff that Willy's dreams can never be underestimated as foolish. Charley respects Willy despite of it all. 

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