Death of a Salesman Questions and Answers
by Arthur Miller

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How do you explain that "Willy Loman never knew who he was?"

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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I think that Willy had a difficult time knowing "who he was" because his sense of self definition was never grounded in anything transcendent and universal.  Rather, Willy defined himself in a manner that used temporal and contingent forms.  Willy used money and external success to define himself.  In order to not "be a zero," Willy used the contingencies of his context and the appreciation of others to define his own sense of self.  His pursuit of success and the weight of his own dreams were both constructed through others' standards, and never his own.  If Willy did speak any notion of definition that he himself advocated, it resided in the internalization of these external elements.  In this, Willy is not necessarily able to define and to know who he was because there was no specific form that helped to define his own sense of self.  Accordingly, Willy does not know who he is, and moves from different potential avenues to define himself as a success.  This even manifests itself in death, believing that he can know and recognize himself as a success if he is able to generate some level of wealth.  In the end, Willy can never really know who he was because he is not using his own criteria to define himself, but rather absorbing that which is around him in determining his own sense of self.  This helps to create a condition where Willy does not know who he is or who he was.

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