"To succeed in creating a convincing character, the dramatist needs to give the audience a sense that characters have inner thoughts and feelings." To what extent, and in what ways, does this...

"To succeed in creating a convincing character, the dramatist needs to give the audience a sense that characters have inner thoughts and feelings." To what extent, and in what ways, does this statement apply to Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller?


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Lori Steinbach | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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It seems to me that the most obvious evidence we have of this truth in Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller is that nearly every character's word and actions contradict each another. Think about this basic principle in your own life for a moment. If you go around saying, "I am a wonderful artist" but continue to get D's in art, something interesting is going on internally. Perhaps you really know, deep inside, that you are terrible at art but hope that others will not realize it if you say the opposite long and loudly enough. Or maybe you feel terrible about being a kind of failure and need to try to convince yourself of something you wish were true. In either case, what your words say and what you are feeling and thinking do not match, and for those who know that you are failing art, it is clear that something is going on with you on the inside.

The same is true with the main characters in this play. We know that when what they say does not match what they do or what  is real, they have to be covering up or avoiding their thoughts and feelings. Eventually, these thoughts and feelings surface in their actions.

Biff, for example, consistently steals. He has done this since high school, and we know he was even praised for his stealing. He "stole" grades he did not earn and he stole lumber, and his father gave his tacit approval for all of it. Biff's actions imply that he feels he deserves to have whatever he steals; however, he eventually explodes with the truth when he is talking to his father:

“Pop, I'm nothing! I'm nothing, Pop. Can't you understand that? ...I'm just what I am, that's all.” 

As we all knew, his arrogant acts of stealing were covering his truest belief: that he is not worth anything, and he has obviously been feeling worthless, unworthy, and resentful toward his father for a long time.

Most of Linda's words and actions indicate a belief that her husband is still a great salesman. For example:

You’re well liked and the boys love you and someday—[to Ben]—why, old man Wagner told him just the other day that if he keeps it up he’ll be a member of the firm, didn’t he, Willy?

This false optimism which she consistently displays and speaks about both her husband and her sons is not how she really feels, since we know that she is also on a kind of "suicide watch" for Willy. We know and understand that she is speaking words which she does not really believe, and her true feelings become more obvious as the play unfolds.

On the outside, Happy is successful in business and life; however, internally he has to be seeing himself as something far less than successful, since he feels the need to fill his bed with women that belong to someone else. It is, of course, just another version of Biff's stealing, and both are indications of a low sense of self-worth which is belied by their over-confidence.

Of course Willy is the worst self-deceiver. While his he consistently repeats the mantra that he is "well liked," we know that he has actually lost whatever influence and connections he ever did have. We also realize that, inside, he knows this and is desperately trying to find some way to regain what he seems to have lost--or perhaps never had. In the end, those thoughts and feeling lead him to commit suicide. What he says and what he does do not match. 

These false realities and constant contradictions reveal that there is more going on internally (thoughts and feelings) with these characters than we see externally. 

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