Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller

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What purpose does the character of Uncle Ben have in the story?

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The Uncle Ben character has several functions in the play. He serves the practical function of demonstrating Willy's dementia and of offering a means of background exposition for Willy's character. Also, the scenes with Uncle Ben help to articulate the nature of Willy's ambition and disappointment. 

Willy initially refers to Uncle Ben after an episode in Act I where Willy has been engaged in a delusion/memory of finding out that Biff was flunking math and stealing. When brought back to the present moment by Happy, Willy expresses his regrets at having not followed Ben to Alaska. 

"Why didn't I go to Alaska with my brother Ben that time! Ben! That man was a genius, that man was success incarnate! What a mistake! He begged me to go."

An idea is conveyed here that Willy feels will never measure up to his own standards of success (symbolized by the excessive success of his brother Ben). He has made mistakes and poor decisions. Ben, on the contrary, made bold decisions and was rewarded for them with "diamond mines." 

Importantly, Uncle Ben appears only as a false image. In the action of the play Ben is a figment of Willy's imagination/memory. He is not real as the other characters are. Uncle Ben is, instead, a fantasy for Willy and so can be seen as Willy's fantasy of success. The fact that Willy is "haunted" in a way by Uncle Ben is suggestive of Willy's relationship to his...

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