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Death of a Salesman

by Arthur Miller

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What does Howard's attitude towards Willy, in his office, show in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman?

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When Willy goes to Howard's office to ask for an easier position, the audience sees an important aspect of Willy's dilemma. While the posting cited below offers a strong interpretation of the dynamics of this scene, it's possible to add additional commentary. We can presume that Willy was a sufficient salesman in his younger days. He was able to provide his family with the American Dream, if what that meant was a house of their own and opportunity for the younger generation to do better than its parents. At the same time, in the Requiem, Biff claims that Willy "had the wrong dreams." The crux of the play is to evaluate those, and our own, dreams.

Essentially, Willy's dream was to be "remarkable," by which he mean "well liked." He looks down on Charley and Bernard for their material success but lack of being "well liked." For all of Willy's unrealistic exaggeration and lies and delusions, what Willy seems to most seek is love and dignity. This is what Linda seems to acknowledge in him, and why she is able to forgive his weaknesses in other areas.

When Willy goes to Howard, he seeks to make connections based on a history of relationships, such as being the one who named Howard back in his father's day. Willy speaks of Dave Singleton, a man who at 84 was still making sales because he was "remembered and loved." These are Willy's dreams, and they have been fading quickly as he ages.

This is why Willy is so desperate for Howard to remember the past with its personal relationships at the heart of business, and why Howard's preoccupation with the future and new technologies is so exasperating to him. Howard makes a business decision, but business decisions for Howard are entirely financial, whereas Willy sees them (especially sales decisions) as being based on love, a quality he feels he has lost and cannot quite understand why.

Howard's attitude toward Willy suggests a world in which cool, impersonal decisions prevail. Against the force of Howard's indifference, Willy fails to achieve his objective, both in terms of his job and in terms of the more elusive sense that he has dignity, yet in that scene we are invited to discover what Miller, in his "Tragedy and the Common Man" essay, suggests makes the modern play as potentially tragic as the ancient Greek tragedies:

For, if it is true to say that in essence the tragic hero is intent upon claiming his whole due as a personality, and if this struggle must be total and without reservation, then it automatically demonstrates the indestructible will of man to achieve his humanity.

The possibility of victory must be there in tragedy. Where pathos rules, where pathos is finally derived, a character has fought a battle he could not possibly have won. The pathetic is achieved when the protagonist is, by virtue of his witlessness, his insensitivity, or the very air he gives off, incapable of grappling with a much superior force.

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In act 2 of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman Willy has to undergo the shameful task of asking his much younger boss (and son of his late, original boss), Howard Wagner, for a working schedule where Willy could get a steady paycheck and not have to travel out of town. Willy needed this office job, and it is Linda who basically pushes Willy to ask for it.

From the moment Willy enters Howard's office, it is evident that the meeting will have no outcome. Howard is quite busy testing a new tape recorder with which he taped the voices of his wife and children saying all sorts of random things, from state capitals, to tender messages. As a young family man, and seemingly successful businessman, Howard is too self-absorbed to realize the importance of Willy's request. Instead, he completely downplays the old man's request and shrugs it off, stating that Willy should consider retiring altogether and having his two sons help him out.

Howard's reaction is much more than careless rudeness. He is aware of Willy's wants, but is evidently trapped by Willy's exaggerated claims of loyalty toward the Senior Wagner, and thus to the Wagners, as a family. Howard's only choice is to become distanced from Willy by removing himself from the situation, falsely telling Willy that he has other things to do. He does rudely interrupt Willy's attempts to explain his wishes, but this does not detour Willy from expressing himself.

It would not entirely fair to say that Howard is a mean person to Willy; the reality of the situation is that Willy should, indeed, be in a completely different stage of life. Had Willy made the right choices, and followed the right dreams, he would not be in this situation. In contrast, Howard Wagner has no choice but to detach himself; he is young, promising and seemingly grounded with a growing family- the problems of an elderly salesman not only do not concern him, but in reality, they are not his problems, but Willy's own.

In all, what Wagner's attitude denotes is that, once again, Willy just missed his chance to change his life because he is erroneously situated between a make-belief world and his reality. In his make-belief world, he is owed a sense of loyalty and respect from the Wagners that comes out of his supposed connection to them. However, the reality is that we cannot truly ascertain the closeness of such relationship between Willy and the Wagners; we can only go by the often embellished memories of Willy, and that is not a reliable source from which we could judge Howard Wagner as entirely fair, or entirely unfair, to Willy Loman.

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