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Death of a Salesman

by Arthur Miller

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In Death of a Salesman, how is Willy's suicide for insurance money a symptom of how he lived his life?

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When Willy kills himself so that his family will have the proceeds from his insurance policy, his final act underscores how he has lived his life and the values by which he has lived it. Willy has always equated his value as a man with his success as a salesman. After first being demoted, then being fired, Willy believes that he has nothing to offer his family. The prospect of the $20,000 in insurance money makes him believe he is worth more to them dead than alive, especially to Linda. He explains his thinking in one of his imaginary conversations with Ben:

What a proposition, ts, ts. Terrific, terrific. 'Cause she's suffered, Ben, the woman has suffered. You understand me? A man can't go out the way he came in, Ben, a man has got to add up to something . . . . Remember, it's a guaranteed twenty-thousand-dollar proposition.

Willy's suicide is also symptomatic of his tangled, conflicted relationship with Biff. Believing that his son hates him, Willy tells Ben that Biff will be impressed by the size of Wily's funeral:

Because he thinks I'm nothing, see, and so he spites me. But the funeral . . . Ben, that funeral will be massive . . . . that boy will be thunder-struck, Ben, because he never realized--I am known!

In another emotional segue, after having a real-life conversation with Biff that suggests his son does not hate him, but in fact loves him, Willy finds yet another reason to kill himself:

Loves me . . . . Always loved me. Isn't that a remarkable thing? Ben, he'll worship me for it . . . . Can you imagine that magnificence with twenty thousand dollars in his pocket?

Even at the end of his life, Willy tries to make a path for his son's success, just as he always has. Willy's suicide, then, serves his emotional needs in several ways, all of which point to the destructive values with which he has lived his life.

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