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Death of a Salesman

by Arthur Miller

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In Death of a Salesman, what does Charley mean by "No man only needs a little salary"?

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When Charley says in Death of a Salesman that "No man only needs a little salary" at Willy's funeral, he is referring to the idea that everyone needs a dream.

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Charley is Willy's next-door neighbor, a kind, down-to-earth man who has the self-confidence that Willy lacks. He is successful at business and has a successful son: he is a voice of reason whom Willy envies.

After Willy kills himself, Linda wonders to Charley at the funeral why Willy did so. She says they were almost out of debt and that Willy didn't need more than a small salary to survive. Willy's death makes no sense to her.

When Charley says that "no man only needs a little salary," he means that everyone needs a dream. It's not really money we work for, but our hopes of attaining our dreams.

For Willy, that dream has always been to make it big as a rich, successful salesman without having to work too hard. He wants the easy money he thinks it out there for people with good personalities. However, after he is fired and realizes he is getting old, he has to give up that dream.

Willy, as Charley understands, won't be satisfied just with the money to get by. He needs a new dream. For Willy, because he is so insecure, a dream will always be grandiose. Suicide becomes his new dream, because he believes the insurance money will help Biff make it big and because he believes all the people who will overflow his funeral will finally show the world how successful he has been. Almost nobody comes to his funeral. The insurance money might help Biff get a fresh start, but only because Biff has learned a sobering lesson about not following in his father's footsteps.

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This quotation is taken from the requiem at the end of the play. Linda is speaking with Charley at Willy's grave, and expressing her disbelief that Willy should commit suicide when they were so close to paying off their debts. As Linda says, they "were just about free and clear." She tells Charley that Willy "only needed a little salary" now that they were almost "free and clear."

Charley responds by telling Linda that "No man only needs a little salary." This response implies that men, or at least men like Willie, need a big salary not necessarily because they need the money but rather because they need the pride and the status that comes with the big salary. Willie was a very proud man, and he struggled to come to terms with the fact that he wasn't, despite his repeated claims to the contrary, "well liked." Willie needed a bigger salary to compensate for the fact that he wasn't well liked.

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At Willy Loman's funeral, Linda tells Charley that she cannot understand why Willy would commit suicide when he was so close to paying off the mortgage and freeing himself from debt. She mentions that Willy only needed a little salary and Charley responds by saying, "No man only needs a little salary" (Miller 140).

Charley's profound comment relates on mankind's ambition and greed. Charley is essentially commenting on the nature of desire and Willy's belief in the American Dream. As a dreamer, Willy hoped to become rich and amass a fortune. Instead of following his heart and choosing an occupation that would be inherently pleasing and joyful, Willy Loman chose to subscribe to the American Dream and hoped that he would become wealthy as a salesman. Tragically, Willy never amassed his fortune and was still striving to become wealthy.

Although Willy was close to paying off his debts, he desired to accumulate more money and dismissed Charley's offer for a steady paying job. Charley's comment also resonates with the audience. Very few people who subscribe to the American Dream only hope to make ends meet and live humbly. The majority of people who share Willy's perspective are primarily concerned with amassing a fortune and attaining an upper-class status. Therefore, a "little salary" is not the goal of the American Dream.

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Charley is refering to the theme of dreams and their importance in this play. The truth is that if we examine the play carefully, Willy certainly had lots of different other options in terms of how he could have spent his life. If he had been honest enough about his talents and abilities he could have had a very happy life working as a carpenter or a tradesman out West somewhere, as Biff realises. He also could have accepted a job from Charley, which Charley tries to offer him numerous times during the course of the play. What prevents Willy from accepting any of these alternatives is the American Dream and his own dream of gaining wealth, success and status from his profession.

Charley makes his comment in the Requiem after Linda makes the following observation:

I can't understand it. At this time especially. First time in thirty-five years we were just about free and clear. He only needed a little salary. He was even finished with the dentist.

Charley's comment therefore clearly establishes the fascination that men have with dreams and how hard it would be for any man to settle for a "little salary" when their dreams insist that they have a big job with a big salary. Perhaps his comment relates to man's pride and how we want to make our mark on the world. Charley's remark therefore encapsulates the dominance of the American Dream and the tragic consequences that can occur when it takes over somebody's life.

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This quote by Charley in the play Death of a Salesman was said as a response to Linda Loman who, during her husband's funeral, claimed that all that Willy needed was his salary to make ends meet. Charley answers back saying that "No man only needs a little salary" because he has actually experienced the American Dream that Willy does not get to experience.

When analyzed from a closer point of view, Charley has been successful, and has produced a successful child. These were the empty dreams of Willy Loman.

Linda, as a woman in a society that does not understand her, had followed the tenets of her husband and had basically declared that if Willy's company would have just agreed about paying him a salary, he would have been fine.

Yet, Charley comes back to dissipate Willy's fantasies. He represents reality, and not Willy's whimsical dreams. For this reason, he says that money is not the "be all, end all" of life. Charley knows Willy perhaps more than everybody else in the Loman family. The reason behind his words are that he knew, within, that Willy wanted to achieve the same things that Charley achieved. The problem is that Willy never took a second look at himself to really know what he is about. As a result, he led an empty life, with empty children, and no possibilities.

Charley had outgrown Willy, and thus he was able to see beyond Willy's issues. He knew that Willy would have never been satisfied with just "a little salary"; Willy needed security, acceptance, and self esteem. Money cannot buy self-esteem so, perhaps, what Willy needed to finalize his maturity was to understand himself and his limitations. Since he refused to do that, he opted to live a false dream. This false dream is what Charley attempted to destroy but, as the audience finds out, Willy has bought into it too far off and he will never let go of it.

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This is said at Willy's funeral. Here is part of the talk over Willy's grave:

LINDA: I can’t understand it. At this time especially. First time in thirty-five years we were just about free and clear. He only needed a little salary. He was even finished with the dentist.

CHARLEY: No man only needs a little salary.

LINDA: I can’t understand it.

What Linda doesn't understand is that, for a man like Willy, a salary is not just about paying the bills. Some people work in order to live; Willy lives in order to work. Work, and the money it brings, is what defines him as a successful human being, gives him self-confidence, feeds his ego. The more money he earns, the more powerful he feels in relationship to others. And if he's just earning enough to get by, a "little salary," that's not enough at all; it's not the point.

Happy, the son who inherited Willy's preoccupation with the money-equals-success equation, put it this way earlier in the play:

BIFF: But look at your friend. Builds an estate and then hasn’t the peace of mind to live in it.

HAPPY: Yeah, but when he walks into the store the waves part in front of him. That’s fifty-two thousand dollars a year coming through the revolving door, and I got more in my pinky finger than he’s got in his head.

BIFF: Yeah, but you just said...

HAPPY: I gotta show some of those pompous, self-important executives over there that Hap Loman can make the grade.

No, for some, a salary is not for buying things; it's for feeling like you're a man and you've "made it."

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