What is the purpose of the requiem in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman?
Arthur Miller's play Death of a Salesman is a tragedy. It is the story of a man, Willy Loman, who has lived his whole life in a perpetual state of regret. He regrets not going into business with his brother; he regrets the failure of his sons to grow as human beings and to succeed in the world; he regrets the fact that he has spent his life traveling around trying to sell; and, he regrets the stultifying environment in which his marriage has long-ago settled. He is tired and emotionally- and physically-exhausted. In his opening instructions to the cast and director, Miller describes Willy's initial entrance on stage with the following comment:
"He is past sixty years of age, dressed quietly. Even as he crosses the stage to the doorway of the house, his exhaustion is apparent."
The requiem that occurs at the end of Death of a Salesman might not have been necessary. Late in Act One, there is a touching scene in which Willy's long-suffering wife, Linda, passionately comes to her husband's defense following a tirade by oldest son Biff against his father. In her comments, Linda Loman provides a premature requiem for her husband:
"I don’t say he’s a great man. Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person."
The requiem that ends Miller's play is a summation of a life lived according to certain unwritten laws that only Charlie, Willy's neighbor, friend and source of resentment, could fully understand. As Linda laments Willy's decision to deliberately crash his car so that his life insurance could be used to pay off the mortgage, she states, "First time in thirty-five years we were just about free and clear. He only needed a little salary." Charlie's response -- "No man only needs a little salary" -- illuminates the vast divide between those who purported to know Willy best and those who understood the demands of his mere existence. Willy, Charlie emphasizes, was a "salesman." Willy was defined by his profession, and it was a profession with a built-in shelf life. The requiem in Death of a Salesman serves to allow the characters a final opportunity to reflect on the titular figure. The heated exchange between Biff and Happy and Charlie's attempts at explaining the life of the man they just buried -- at a funeral to which nobody save immediate family and Charlie bothered to attend -- underlines the tragedy that was Willy's life.
A Requiem plays homage to the person who is no more.
Similarly, Willy, and his dream, are no more.
In the Requiem, which happened some days after Willy's funeral, we get the whole picture of what it is like to be a salesman, particularly one like Willy, in a desperate search of the American Dream.
We see this through the character of Charley, who basically states the gist of the whole story: You have to keep dreaming. This is so because, in essence, that is the only way for a salesman to succeed big.
We also see how Willy would be remembered: Barely. His wife wondered why if he had known so many people, so little people showed up at his funeral, and how he was, in essence, a deflated, gone, and forgettable man.