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Death of a Salesman

by Arthur Miller

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What is the relationship between Charley and Willy in Death of a Salesman?

The relationship between Charley and Willy is relatively complex. Charley is Willy's longtime neighbor and only friend in the play. Charley tries his best to help Willy by giving him money to pay the bills, sharing valuable advice, and offering him a job. Despite Charley's generosity, Willy resents Charley's success and treats him disparagingly because he is jealous. Charley does not view Willy as a competitor and sympathizes with him. Unfortunately, Willy is too proud to appreciate Charley's friendship.

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Charley and Willy are next door neighbors and antagonists, but at the same time, they are friends or, more precisely, frenemies. They play cards together, and Willy is dependent on Charley for a flow of "loans" that keep him financially afloat. Charley, who owns a successful business, offers Willy a job when he is laid off, even though, as Charley puts it:

I know you don’t like me, and nobody can say I’m in love with you

The play makes clear that Willy is the problem in this relationship. Charley is a kind, humble, helpful, down-to-earth person, but rather than appreciate those traits, Willy is eaten with jealousy at his friend's success. Rather than being grateful for the lifeline Charley offers him, Willy bitterly resents him.

Because we are so much in Willy's head throughout the play and see life largely through Willy's eyes, Charley is a crucial corrective to Willy's delusions, which makes their relationship important. Willy constantly looks down on Charley for lacking the flash and personality that Willy respects, but what we see is that Charley has the traits that actually make for a successful businessman: kindness, insight, commonsense, and humility. In fact, through the fraught relationship, we can see exactly how Willy alienates the people around him. Willy always has to win, always has to be on top, is always bragging and glad-handling people and being aggressive. All of these are behaviors that alienate others; despite Willy's delusions, the way he behaves is not conducive to a successful sales career. If Willy can't even get along with Charley, it is unlikely he is going to make many friends.

Charley is one of the very few people who shows up at Willy's funeral. He shows generosity and empathy towards his neighbor, traits that Willy would have done well to emulate. Charley models the lack of competitiveness that Willy would have benefitted from learning:

Willy was a salesman. And for a salesman, there is no rock bottom to the life. He don’t put a bolt to a nut, he don’t tell you the law or give you medicine. He’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start now smiling back—that’s an earthquake. And then you get spots on your hat, and you’re finished. Nobody dast blame this man. A salesman is got to dream, boy.

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Though Charley is a very good man and displays kindness towards his neighbor, Willy resents him deeply. Mainly, this is out of jealousy. Charley is pretty much everything that Willy isn't: a successful man with a happy home life.

Deep down, Willy knows that he will never be able to emulate the kind of success enjoyed by Charley. So instead of using him as a role model, he seethes with resentment towards him, feeling small and insignificant by comparison. It's not hard to see why. The success of Charley's home and business life acts...

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as a standing reminder that Willy's not doing so well in life, and this rankles with him. Inevitably, this means that it is impossible for Willy to have any kind of meaningful friendship with Charley, as his neighbor enjoys a much higher status than himself.

Charley is compassionate towards Willy, and tries to help him out as best he can. But Willy is so full of pride, so stubborn and stuck in his ways that he can only interpret Charley's kindness and consideration as pity, and the last thing he wants is to be pitied by anyone. Instead of accepting Charley's generous job offer, then, he comes up with a different way of providing for his family, one that he believes will allow him to maintain his dignity.

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Although Willy pretends to be extremely popular and well-liked by everyone, Charley seems to be his only friend in life. Charley is Willy's longtime neighbor and his character functions as the voice of reason in Willy's life. Even though Charley enjoys occasionally getting underneath Willy's skin, he means well and wants to see Willy succeed. Charley demonstrates his compassion and genuine concern for Willy by comforting him when he feels lost, consistently giving him money to pay the bills, and offering him a job, which Willy declines.

Unlike Willy, Charley is confident and has self-esteem. He does not view Willy as competition and does not feel the need to constantly brag about his accomplishments. At one point in the play, Willy is astonished that Charley hasn't shouted from the rooftops that Bernard is presenting a case in front of the Supreme Court. Even though Willy relies on Charley for financial assistance and feels comfortable confiding in him, Willy is always putting his neighbor down because he is jealous.

Charley recognizes that Willy is all show, but sympathizes with him. Charley understands that Willy is struggling in life and tries his best to give him good advice. Despite Charley's wise words and genuine friendship, Willy criticizes him and refuses to accept his job offer. Willy is too proud and competitive to exercise humility and eventually takes his own life in hopes that his family will benefit from his life insurance policy.

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Charley is Willy's only true friend throughout the play. Charley is Willy's successful neighbor who goes out of his way several times to help Willy. Willy is extremely jealous of Charley and his son's success, and Charley is well aware of Willy's shortcomings. Unlike Willy, Charley is grounded, intelligent, and respectful. Willy secretly admires everything that Charley has accomplished, but is too proud to admit it. Willy also believes that he is better than Charley because he is well-liked and has athletic, handsome sons. Charley recognizes the error in Willy's judgement and pities his neighbor. Although Charley jokes with Willy knowing that he will upset him, Charley goes out of his way to help Willy. Charley not only consistently gives Willy fifty dollars, Charley also offers Willy a job which he declines. 

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Charley is very well aware of the signs of Willy Loman's decline. Willy confides in Charley about his money situation and accepts financial help from Charley, who is concerned for Willy and who offers compassion as well as offering Willy a job.

The two men have been competitors over the years, with Charley always finding more success than Willy. Charley enjoys giving Willy a hard time, but ultimately wants to see Willy and his family do well.

We can see Charley's concern for Willy first in the fact that he makes a midnight visit to Willy's house when he hears Willy shouting, alone in the kitchen. We see this concern again in the advice that Charley gives as well as in the offer of a job. Charley knows that Willy is not entirely honest, yet he offers him a job anyway.

Willy's pride won't let him accept the job. It would be too much like admitting defeat, something he only does in his most private and desolate moments.

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Charley is a friendly, generous man, and his son Bernard seems sensitive and sincere. Bernard in his youth was what young people call a "nerd" or a "geek." He was obviously not athletic. He was a "drudge" or a "grind," or a "drone," a weakling, "not well liked." He not only becomes a successful lawyer, but he is the kind of lawyer who is permitted to argue cases in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. And he hob-nobs with important people who have their own tennis courts, which means big homes and manicured acreage. It is a case of "He who laughs last, laughs best." There has always been a mixture of friendship and competition between Charley and Willy. That is why Willy won't work for Charley and why he insists he is keeping a strict record of every penny he borrows and insists he will definitely pay Charley back. That may even help to explain why Willy decides to commit suicide. He tells his brother Ben, in one of his hallucinations, he is doing it for Biff.

When the mail comes he'll be ahead of Bernard again!....Oh, Ben. I always knew one way or another we were gonna make it, Biff and I!
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