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Death of a Salesman

by Arthur Miller

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Why does Willy talk about the past to Howard in Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller? Why does Howard fire Willy?

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Willy's main mission is to try to persuade Howard to let him work locally rather than having to travel all over New England. Willy would like to convince Howard that he is still a good salesman in spite of his age. He brings up Dave Singleman for two reasons. One is to show that he is a dedicated professional salesman who loves his work. He was inspired by meeting eighty-four-year-old Singleman who was still on the road and was practically legendary. Willy also uses Singleman to show that age is not necessarily a handicap. Willy is only sixty-three, and by implication he has another twenty good years left in him. Howard doesn't really believe him. Willy wouldn't be asking to be taken off the road if he weren't feeling his age. Willy is just dating himself by bringing up old stories of the days when drummers all traveled by train. He is showing that he not only looks old but is developing old men's idiosyncrasies, such as absent-mindedness and looking back at the past. Willy goes from bad to worse by pleading that he would be willing to get by on less and less if he could only work close to home. That doesn't sound like the ambitious sort of salesman Howard would want in his company. Employers want men who still have the American Dream, not men who are losing it. Howard's treatment of Willy is not as bad as it could be. He never actually says, "You're fired!" He says he's busy. He says Willy needs a rest. He claims he has no available spot for him locally. All of this is because Howard does realize that Willy had a close relationship with Howard's father and because he knows Willy has worked hard for the firm. Howard feels guilty. He isn't exactly snubbing Willy but trying to ignore him, get rid of him, and forget him. When Willy finally becomes angry and disrespectful it gives Howard an excellent opportunity to fire him. 

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The proverb --He can’t see the forest for the trees—applies to Willy Loman.  Willy has all the facts, but he cannot put them together so that they mean something to him.  In Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller’s protagonist is ready to talk to his boss and ask him to place him in the New York area so that he can be closer to home.

  • Willy does not understand the big picture.
  • Willy has worked for the company for thirty-four years.
  • He is no longer receiving a pay check from the company. 
  • Now, he works only on commission. 

Howard’s father started the company, and Willy thought he was a prince.  Now Howard is in charge, and he believes that Willy is a liability.  Finally, Howard listens to Willy’s plea for help.

Willy talks about the past and tells Howard about Dave Singleton, who was important to Willy.  The ideal salesman—that was Dave. To Willy, Dave represented everything that Willy wanted to be.  Working until...

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the age of eighty-four, Dave earned his living as a hugely successful salesman and was very popular.  The most important thing is that Dave’s funeral was well-attended.

In the old days, Willy tells Howard the important things were personality and friendship.  Howard has nothing but disdain for Willy and treats him as though he is completely unnecessary.  Willy is unproductive to the company and essentially useless.

Howard: I don’t want you to represent us.  I’ve been meaning to tell you for a long time now.

Willy: Howard, are you firing me?

Howard: I think you need a good long rest, Willy.

Willy: Howard---

Howard: When you feel better, come back, and we’ll see if we can work something out.

Feeling nothing for Willy, Howard is forced to give the old man bad news. Howard admits, "Willy,  there just is no spot here for you.".

Willy just wants another chance.  Lamenting to Howard, Willy states: 

There was respect, and comradeship, and gratitude in it. Today, it's all cut and dried, and there's no chance for bringing friendship to bear-or personality.

After his devotion to the company, Willy believes that he deserves to get a fair shake.  His slump is due to his exhaustion. Willy is 63, tired, and unable to drive hundreds of miles down to Florida. 

Hallucinating and unable to cope with reality, Willy feels the only way to keep his dignity is to kill himself. He wants his life insurance money to go to Biff, his oldest son, to start his own business.

Serving as a warning to other men, Willy’s downfall and breakdown demonstrate the brutality of the business world. As a tragic hero, Willy represents the common man who needs a break from the “bigwigs,” but they are unwilling to help a man when he is down and out.

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