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Death of a Salesman

by Arthur Miller
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In Death of a Salesman, why are Willy Loman's motivations nonsense?

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Willy Loman is convinced that success is a product of hard work. While this can be true, the vicissitudes of life mean that hard work may simply mean hard work, with no ultimate payoff at the end. He bases most of his philosophy off the successes of his brother Ben, who...

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Willy Loman is convinced that success is a product of hard work. While this can be true, the vicissitudes of life mean that hard work may simply mean hard work, with no ultimate payoff at the end. He bases most of his philosophy off the successes of his brother Ben, who worked hard but in a different venue; Ben prospected in Africa and struck it rich. Willy, however, doesn't understand the role that luck played in Ben's success, and believed for his whole life that he could get ahead in sales through sheer persistence. Instead, he runs as fast as he can just to stay in one place, and never achieves his dreams.

WILLY: Don’t say? Tell you a secret, boys. Don’t breathe it to a soul. Someday I’ll have my own business, and I’ll never have to leave home any more.

HAPPY: Like Uncle Charley, heh?

WILLY: Bigger than Uncle Charley! Because Charley is not liked. He’s liked, but he’s not -- well liked.
(Miller, Death of a Salesman, Google Books)

Willy's single-minded pursuit of success overpowers everything in his life, shielding him from the advice and love of his family. He is unable to see past his dream, but refuses to take risks or change his situations to achieve it. Instead, his mind is warped with envy and anger, and he never truly realizes that his dreams of success should have been focused on his own happiness, and more importantly, that of his family.

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One possible view of this play is to judge Willy very harshly. He clearly lives his life in the wrong career and suffers himself as a result, in addition making his wife and children suffer from having "the wrong dreams," as Biff says in the Requiem. He lives his entire life chasing the American Dream, no matter what that drives him towards, and finally he is left with the implacable logic that for his life to be "worth" something he must kill himself in order to gain the insurance money and have something tangible to show for his life.

However, if we look at Charley's view of Willy in the Requiem, there is another way of thinking about Willy's character. Note what Charley says:

Nobody dast blame this man. You don't understand: 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 not smiling back--that's an earthquake... A salesman is got to dream, boy.

Charley manages to imbue the profession of being a salesman with a curious romanticism, suggesting that there is something mythic about the profession, as salesmen are "out there in the blue," and yet at the same time it identifies the limited, tragic nature of the salesman as well, as he only has a "smile" and "shoeshine" to protect him and to sustain him. Whilst such a view does recognise the tragedy of Willy's life, it also shows the way that Willy had to dream and had to hold on to those dreams, as psychologically, it is suggested, Willy had nothing else to cling on to. Willy's motivations in this sense are not nonsense, but a survival strategy that prevent him from facing the emptiness of his own life.

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