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Death of a Salesman

by Arthur Miller

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Describe Willy Loman, the protagonist in Death of a Salesman. Look at him physically, emotionally, philosophically, and socially to capture in his essence. 

Willy Loman is presented as a common, ordinary man—a poor salesman who has chased the American dream his whole life, only to realize that it's nothing but an illusion. Willy may not be the classic Aristotelian hero, as he is far from a noble man, but he's the modern tragic or failed hero, who represents all of those who spend their lives trying to build a name for themselves, seeking approval and striving for materialistic success, while neglecting the true values of life—love, family, and friendship. Willy's tragic flaw is his refusal to accept reality and his pride. He's proud of what he has in life, when in reality he actually has nothing.

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Willy Loman is a failed dreamer. He is a failure because he cannot or will not let go of the false dream he clings to. If Willy were to wake up to reality, he would see that he is not a complete failure in life. Yet his only real failure is his inability to do this, to face reality. 

Willy is a salesman, a husband and a father. He has made mistakes in all three of these identifying categories. We can call these "social categories", reflective of Willy's social persona.

Willy's sales methods have fallen out of favor. At the height of his (relative) success, he is caught cheating on his wife by his oldest son. He then kicks Biff out of the house, failing to explain or even apologize for what Biff has seen.

There are counter-points to these failures. Willy and Linda are set to make the final payment on their mortgage and will soon own their home outright. This is an achievement. Critically, this is a success directly related to the general conception of the American Dream.

As a home owner, Willy has reached a position of success regarding the American Dream. Due to his fixation on the kind of success defined by his brother Ben, Willy can only see himself as a failure. He seems to be oblivious to his modest but significant success. His American Dream is for greatness, nothing less. 

Many critics have asserted that Willy is a modern tragic hero, and that his tragedy lies in his belief in an illusory American Dream.

Emotionally, Willy is childish, sensitive and weak. 

Willy is highly emotional, unstable, uncertain at times, highly contradictory, and seems worn down by life.

Psychologically, Willy is highly unstable as we see him in the play. Not only is he fixated on a delusion regarding his own potential, he also hallucinates and talks to people who are not present. Flashbacks overtake him and he has no power to control where his mind goes; no ability to stick to reality.

The stress derived from Willy's ambition to be great and his failure to do so leads Willy to ignore his talents, falter as a father and husband, and finally to despair of his human value. 

Willy struggles with the image of his ideal self his entire life, until he can no longer deny the fact that he will never become this ideal self and he commits suicide.


Miller presents and explores the character of Willy through a variety of means. All the other characters in the play speak about Willy, offering their own analysis of his motivations, his weaknesses and his humanity. Willy is also given opportunities to articulate himself as he talks with his brother Ben, defining his vision for himself, and as he talks with Charley, Linda and Biff about the nature of success. 

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Discuss the conflict that Willy Loman faces in Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller.

Willy Loman is a flawed character.  He is becoming obsolete in his job. His thought processes are being invaded by memories of the past and hallucinations...

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involving his son.  Losing touch with reality keeps Willy from relating to his boss or even his sons. Death of aSalesman by Arthur Miller tells the reader that someone will not make it to the end of the drama.

Something is happening to Willy because he is coming in and out of reality. The predominant emotion in the play is nostalgia.  Looking back at the past is Willy’s saving grace.  Even his views of business do not sound so out of touch when he describes them as a young man.

As the story develops, the reader has to be wary of what is reliable information based on the mental stability of Willy.  His lapses back and forth from the past to the present demonstrate that the poor man probably should have been under the close care of a doctor.

The characters of the play should grow and change as they face the conflicts in their lives.  Unfortunately, the Loman family does not face reality well.  Willy does not change because of his unfortunate mental problems, his stubborness, and pride.  Happy still does not understand his father or even himself.  Biff is the only character that shows some indication that he might make a move toward a job and respectability.

The primary conflict in the story is the failure of Willy in all aspects of his life.  His off kilter ideas about business have prevented him from being realistic. He is in conflict with society, his family, and himself. Materialism has been Willy’s bane.  He comes up short because he has not been able to provide his family with the things that he wanted them to have. 

Everything that Willy owns is old, in bad shape, or does not work at all.  Society has been weighed Willy down.  He has failed in all of his relationships, particularly with his son Biff. Foolishly, Willy instills all of his ideas about success in his sons. Now, Biff is a loser who had many opportunities that he has blown.

Unfortunately, Willy has given up, and his inner conflicts will win.   In his struggle to compete in a materialistic America, he comes up short; consequently, society beats him down. It is most obvious when he fired by Howard:

Willy: Howard, you gotta let me go to Boston.

Howard: …pull yourself together and then go home, will ya? I need the office, Willy.  Oh Yeah.  Whenever you can this week, stop by and drop off the samples.  You’ll feel better, Willy, and then come back and we’ll talk. 

Willy repeats his philosophy about success over and again in the play.  In his value system, Willy believes strongly that businessmen must be well-liked, rather than merely liked, and his business strategy is based entirely on the idea of personality.

Accomplishments are okay, but it is who a person knows and how he treats him that gets a person ahead in the world. This poor man cannot see that this has been his problem his entire life.   This is what has put Willy Loman on the road to failure. 

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Explain the character of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller.

Arthur Miller’s salesman is Willy Loman. In the Death of a Salesman, Willy is the central figure in the play, which represents the last two days of his life.  Whether he is in the room or not, the dialogue concerns Willy. When Willy interacts with the other players, his character becomes more emotional, contradictory, angry, and obsessive.

Beginning and ending in the present, the scenes are fragmented.  The present is interrupted by the hallucinations and recreations of the past by Willy. These are sliced into the play’s heart. 

Willy had strong beliefs about success.  His brother Ben made a fortune in diamond mining in Africa, and he represents everything that Willy desires for himself and his sons. Willy has not been successful even as a father and certainly not as an example.  His advice to his sons has warped them in their adult attitudes. Both sons flounder in their relationships. 

Willy believes in attractiveness and popularity as the ultimate characteristics of a salesman.  This has been his downfall.  Never happy with what he had, Willy was always searching for a better life. Willy explains his failures to his wife Linda:

WILLY: Oh, I’ll knock ‘em dead next week. I’ll go to Hartford. I’m very well liked in Hartford. You know, the trouble is, Linda, people don’t seem to take to me. LINDA: Oh, don’t be foolish. WILLY: I know it when I walk in. They seem to laugh at me.LINDA: Why? Why would they laugh at you? Don’t talk that way, Willy. WILLY: I don’t know the reason for it, but they just pass me by. I’m not noticed.

Willy contradicts himself by saying that he is both well liked and ignored, suggesting that he frequently deceives himself about his success. This tortures him and eventually drives him crazy.

Sadly, Willy works for Howard, the son of the original owner of the company.  Willy’s pay has been cut to commissions only; and Howard does not really like Willy, who represents the old school of salesmanship.  Howard, eventually,  fires him and tells Willy that the company does not want him representing them.

As Willy relives his selected memories, he tries to finds solutions for success.  These memories help the audience to understand Willy and his obsessiveness.  In his hallucinations, Willy can deny the reality of his being fired. It becomes obvious that he is losing his grip on reality.   

His next door neighbor Charley likes Willy.  Charley offers Willy a different job that would enable him to stay at home.  In his arrogance and superiority, Willy will not work for his neighbor despite the idea that it would be a much better job than he has now. 

Despite his job opportunity, Willy cannot face his future. His salesman’s life is over, and he has failed.  His only hope is the legacy of his life insurance policy, which will be left to Biff, to start his own business.  

Finally, Willy realizes that life may not get any better now.  He is worth more to his family dead than alive. So, he kills himself hoping that through his legacy, his family will find happiness and success. This would mean that Willy’s life meant something to someone else.  In reality, his funeral is poorly attended, and the insurance money may not come through since he committed suicide.

That is Willy Loman’s sad bequest to his family!

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Analyze the the character Willy Loman in the play Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, paying special attention to conflict and motivation.

Willy Loman is the main character and protagonist of the Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller. For thirty-four years, he has been a traveling salesman. Never successful in sales, Willy has earned a meager income. Everything he owns is old, used up and falling apart.

The love of his family is his one redeeming quality of Willy Loman. The audience does not hate Willy for his misdeeds because his motivation is to escape his life.

A character analysis must include certain facets of the character’s life:

Examine the character’s ethics.

Willy tries to make himself feel better by lying to himself and his family. He has deceived himself his entire adult life. Lying to himself and others has become a way of life for Willy. The one belief that stuck with Willy has always been wrong.  He believes that if a person is attractive and well-liked, he would be successful. 

Consider the effects of the character’s behavior on other characters.

Biff uncovers Willy's lies when he finds out that Willy has been cheating on his mother. Even though he loves his wife, Willy wants to prove to himself that he is well liked.  Willy attracts the young woman by offering to purchase her a pair of silk stockings. When Biff discovers his father in the hotel room with the woman, he recognizes Willy for what he is: a liar and a fake.

Willy has nagged his sons about his life principle: if a man is handsome, liked by his workers and customers, doors would open, and money would roll in. Luck and people liking someone becomes Willy’s life philosophy.   His sons follow their father’s lead.  

What is the character’s motivation?

Willy would like to be Dave Singleman,a popular salesman. When Dave dies, people came in droves to his funeral.  This reinforces that idea that to be successful one has to be well-liked and attractive.  

Willy also lives in a world of illusions about his two sons. They are both losers.  Happy has a job, an apartment and a car.  Like his father, Happy lives in a delusional world.  In reality, he is lonely and unhappy.

Biff is attractive, athletic, yet compulsive thief.  His ability to keep a job is impossible because he steals.  Willy will not admit that his son is a failure. 

WILLY: That’s just what I mean. That’s why I thank Almighty God you’re both built like Adonises. Because the man who makes an appearance in the business world, the man who creates personal interest, is the man who gets ahead. Be liked and you will never want.

How does the protagonist solve his conflict?

With the final realization that life is not going to improve, Willy risks alienating his son. Descending downward, Willy refuses to see the truth about Biff, even when the son tries to tell him. To perform the final heroic act of his life, Willy commits suicide so that Biff will have his life insurance money. He is certain that Biff can make something of himself with twenty thousand dollars.

As a representative of the common man, Willy Loman is a tragic figure. Few people come to his funeral, and no one really cares that he dies.  He is a flawed man, who had fears and hopes for a better life. His death does not provide the life that he wanted for his son, nor the business as he hoped.  However, the audience can look at Willy and see themselves in his life.  He loved his family, wanted a better life for them, and did not know how to accomplish either of those goals. 

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Discuss Willy Loman as the "failed hero" in Death of a Salesman.

In Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman is presented as a common, ordinary man—a poor salesman who has chased the American dream his whole life, only to realize that it's nothing but an illusion. Willy may not be the classic Aristotelian hero, as he is far from a noble man, but he's the modern tragic or failed hero, who represents all of those who spend their lives trying to build a name for themselves, seeking approval and striving for materialistic success, while neglecting the true values of life—love, family, and friendship.

Willy's tragic flaw is his refusal to accept reality and his pride. He's proud of what he has in life, when in reality he actually has nothing. He believes that he is liked and respected by many, but he's actually not.

You and Hap and I, and I'll show you all the towns. America is full of beautiful towns and fine, upstanding people. And they know me, boys, they know me up and down New England. The finest people. And when I bring you fellas up, there'll be open sesame for all of us, 'cause one thing, boys: I have friends. I can park my car in any street in New England, and the cops protect it like their own.

He's convinced that he's a "big shot," but he's actually a failure. Willy's pursuit of success and his desperate desire for recognition stand in the way of his pursuit of happiness.

Willy's reversal of fortune is the loss of his job. He shows poor competence and unsavory behavior at work, which gets him fired. Charley, Willy's neighbor and friend, offers him a job; however, Willy refuses to accept because he's too proud. He's insulted that Charley even offers him a job in the first place and absurdly tells him that he can't work for him.

WILLY: I—I just can’t work for you, Charley.CHARLEY: What’re you, jealous of me?WILLY: I can’t work for you, that’s all, don’t ask me why.CHARLEY (angered, takes out more bills): You been jealous of me all your life, you damned fool. Here, pay your insurance. (He puts the money in Willy’s hand.)WILLY: I’m keeping strict accounts.

Willy's recognition of truth is when he finally realizes that he has practically wasted his life and missed his chance for happiness, because he was too busy proudly and passionately chasing false ideals and values. In true Oedipus fashion, Willy understands that he was blinded by his pride and ambition, but he still refuses to accept that this is how things are. Thus, in an attempt to keep his dignity and hoping that his family will benefit from his life insurance, Willy commits suicide.

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Discuss and analyze Willy Loman in the play Death of a Salesman.

Willy is a complex character. A man of great pride, Willy strives to realize a goal that is beyond his ability to reach. Willy's brother Ben stands as an example of the type of success that Willy has no chance to achieve. 

Despite his limits, Willy is a person of some talent. He is a gifted carpenter and a hard worker. Despite these positive traits, Willy is also unfaithful to his wife. He is too weak to overcome his deficiencies and to weak to directly admit to his faults. 

If his story is a tragedy, it becomes one because Willy:

...cannot face the reality that he has misdirected his energies and talents chasing a dream that never had any chance of materializing.

On a deep and fundamental level, Willy is delusional. He hallucinates and in this manifests conversations with this brother Ben. He is "twisting in the wind" of his own mind, unable to accept his flaws and unable to maintain a firm grip on reality. Willy seems to be driven to this mental state by the stress of age, job trouble and basic but deep-seated disappointment. 

Though he has paid off his house and raised two childre, Willy fails to see any success in his life. His dream, so bright and impressive, overshadows the moderate successes he has actually achieved.

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