What role does the fear of abandoment play in Willy's life in "Death of a Salesman"?
As Death of a Salesman unfolds, we see the unravelling of Willy Loman's life and mind. As his current life falls apart around him, Willy retreats more and more into the past, always revising history as he goes. He has created a family history that fulfills his American Dream but which is far from the truth. There is a deep need in Willy to be a hero to his sons and a stalwart husband to his wife, and it could be argued that this need has its roots in the traumas of Willy's early life. Increasingly, during the course of the play, we see the shadow remembrance of Ben, Willy's older brother who went into the jungles of Africa and came out a rich man. Ben has become an icon in Willy's pantheon of heroes, but is Ben real? The abandonment of his younger brother to a much lesser life has certainly scarred Willy in ways from which he can never recover. He is unable to blame Ben for abandoning him, seeing him instead as a hero of mythic proportions. To shore up his own self-esteem, he borrows from Ben's story to raise his own sons: still overlooking reality, he destroys their lives as well as his own, never recognizing how he enables the lies, cheating, and stealing that eventually bring them down. With the play's final scenes of the tragic truth, the lives are now ripped apart, and Willy can no longer continue the charade that has been his whole life.
Although the fear of abandonment is not the most obvious theme in Death of a Salesman like success, money and class, it is definitely a part of Willy and his struggles. It seems that Willy connects the loss of people to their rate of success. Such as with Ben, Willy's brother. Ben is rich and successful, and therefore gets to see many different places (leaving Willy behind) and still has a connection to the father that Willy doesn't have that connection with. Willy identifies that loss, abandonment, with success. Willy is also gone much of the time from his family, because of his work as a salesman, and part of taking a mistress may stem back from that feeling of being alone and not really having someone. Willy also seems to think the more successful he is, the more people will want to stay. He makes sure to give his mistress presents, things he does not give his wife. This could be just selfishness, however, it could also relate back to his needing someone there when he has no one else. His wife waits for him at home, while the mistress is there to possibly fill a hole he has when away from his family.
Willy is afraid to be abandoned at different levels. First of all, he fears being abandoned by his son, Biff, as he attempts to persuade him to buy into the American Dream. When Biff repeatedly refuses the Dream, Willy feels like a failure. Willy also feels abandoned by the company he has worked for his entire life when he is let go; this plays a large role in Willy's suicide as he is forced to realize his failure and confront the abandonment of success in not achieving the Dream. Most importantly, Willy is abandoned by the Dream itself. It is only an empty promise and, at the end of the day, all Willy has left of his life is the loss of his ability to ride along on "a smile and a shoeshine."