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

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M.P. Ossa | College Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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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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