How can the economy be an external force in the tragedy of Wllly Loman?

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

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Miller presents Willy Loman as a representation of convergence in forces that demonstrate conflict.  One such force is the presence of an economic system that creates massive conflict within Willy with its external pressure.  The capitalist economy that defines success in materialist terms is what constitutes an external force of conflict upon Willy.  The appropriation of how capitalism defines success is where the greatest external force of conflict is evident in Willy's characterization.  The captialist system that defines success through money and through materialist notions of the good is what constructs the greatest external force of conflict within Willy.  He is unable to define success in terms outside of money.  This is a highly capitalistic notion.  For Willy, the definition of success through money, to "make something" and "be someone," is seen out of wealth.  His lack of it is what constitutes him being a failure and the external nature of this definition is where some of his greatest tragedy is evident.

Willy's construction of self as a failure because of economic reality can also be seen in the fact that the economic configuration has changed without Willy knowing it.  Willy believes that if he works hard enough, presses enough palms to make a sale, and uses his sheer sense of individual action, he can become a success.  Such logic is irreparably flawed because it fails to take into account how the economic setting in which Willy works has changed.  The need for technical and more refined notions of field understanding has made the dependence on "people skills" not as relevant.  It is because of this change that Willy is bound to fail, and not because of anything in his own doing.  This is external, by nature, and yet, Willy internalizes it as internal.  For Miller, this becomes the critical statement about how the external force of economy is essential in understanding Willy's tragedy.  He is bound for failure and refuses to acknowledge a matrix much larger than himself is at play for it.  When Miller remarks about how audiences perceive Willy, the presence of this external force is distinctive:

[Audience members were] were weeping because the central matrix of this play is ... what most people are up against in their lives.... they were seeing themselves, not because Willy is a salesman, but the situation in which he stood and to which he was reacting, and which was reacting against him, was probably the central situation of contemporary civilization. It is that we are struggling with forces that are far greater than we can handle, with no equipment to make anything mean anything.

It is this basic idea that Willy struggles "with forces that are far greater than we can handle" in terms of economic configuration that shows it to be an external factor in his tragic condition.