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

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carol-davis | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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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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