Last Updated on December 15, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1459
Summary The play’s action flows smoothly from Willy’s crash to his funeral. In the “Requiem” scene, we see Linda, Biff, Hap, Charley, and Bernard gathered at Willy’s grave. Hap, very angry, contends that Willy had no right to kill himself, especially when Hap and Biff would have helped him through...
(The entire section contains 1459 words.)
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The play’s action flows smoothly from Willy’s crash to his funeral. In the “Requiem” scene, we see Linda, Biff, Hap, Charley, and Bernard gathered at Willy’s grave. Hap, very angry, contends that Willy had no right to kill himself, especially when Hap and Biff would have helped him through his difficulties. Linda, kneeling in front of the grave, wonders why no one has attended Willy’s funeral: “But where are all the people he knew? Maybe they blame him.” Charley comforts her, telling her no one should blame Willy for being who he was—a salesman. A salesman, Charley maintains, is someone who dreams: “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.”
Biff points out the way Willy actually put more feeling into his carpentry and home repair work than he put into his sales. Biff, therefore, disagrees with Charley: “Charley, the man didn’t know who he was.” Furious that Biff would say such a thing, Hap pledges to “show you and everybody else that Willy Loman did not die in vain. He had a good dream. It’s the only dream you can have—to come out number-one man.” While Hap decides to stay in New York and continue Willy’s struggle, Biff plans to leave, telling Hap, “I know who I am.”
The cemetery will close its gates soon, but Linda lingers a little longer at Willy’s grave, while the others stand in the background. Speaking to Willy’s grave, she says,
Forgive me, dear. I can’t cry. I don’t know what it is, but I can’t cry. I don’t understand it. Why did you ever do that? Help me, Willy, I can’t cry. . . . I made the last payment on the house today. Today, dear. And there’ll be nobody home. We’re free and clear. We’re free. We’re free. We’re free.
By the time Linda finishes, she has begun to sob. Biff leads her away. The flute music (“Willy’s music”) associated with the flashbacks has begun. We see the towering apartment buildings surrounding the Loman house come into sharp focus. The play ends.
The word requiem usually refers to a religious service or musical composition to honor someone who has died. Here, we listen to the different ways in which Willy’s family and friends honor or remember him. While requiem implies an elaborate, formal honoring of the dead, Willy’s funeral has been very plain and attended by no one except Linda, Biff, Hap, Charley, and Bernard. So even though these few people express respect and sympathy for Willy, the funeral and their tributes fall short of what we would usually expect in an event titled “Requiem.” Unlike Dave Singleman’s funeral—which drew hundreds of people—this funeral reflects Willy’s lack of popularity, his failure to be truly “well liked.” We must suspect that few people have come because few people really liked Willy, not because they “blame” him or could never forgive him for committing suicide.
Hap continues to hope and to dream. In a sense, he has become Willy, convinced that success is always within reach and that success means being better than other people, being “number one.” We must wonder if one day Hap will fall apart like Willy did when his dream appeared unreachable or reachable only through death. Biff will obviously not make the same mistakes as Willy and Hap, since Biff knows who he is. Yet, despite Biff’s determination not to be a “fake,” it is difficult not to think that Biff has given up too easily. Has he decided never to dream, never even to try to succeed? Or, has he in fact intelligently rid himself of the phoniness that was preventing him from being happy, satisfied with a life not judged according to Willy’s misguided standards for success?
Charley’s description of a salesman as the “man way out there in the blue” makes Willy’s life sound exciting, adventurous, even romantic. We recognize that Willy may also have thought of his life that way. However, we also remember the loneliness and disappointment that Willy experienced. In light of his frustration, perhaps Biff is right to suggest that Willy would have been better off if he had known “who he was” and had not believed unrealistically in the rewards of a salesman’s life.
Linda’s disbelief over the lack of friends at Willy’s funeral reveals to us the way she believed Willy when he told her of his popularity as a salesman. Her confusion demonstrates that she has not fully recognized—or refuses to recognize—Willy’s “phoniness.” Nevertheless, her disappointment also expresses her conviction that Willy deserves respect because he tried bravely to succeed even though he was not “a great man” but only a “human being,” “a little boat in search of a harbor.” The fact that the last payment has been made on the house attests to Willy’s perseverance; although he was not extremely successful, he did work to make the house payments, a sign of his consistency.
The end of the house payments should have been reason to celebrate. After many years struggling to pay bills, Willy and Linda were beginning to need less money. They were increasingly “free and clear” of the obligations that had troubled them most of their lives. Because their lives were improving, Linda cannot understand why Willy killed himself. Willy, however, killed himself for many reasons other than his difficulty paying bills. He had begun to see his life as a failure because he could not live up to his own image of success; losing his job—which he apparently never told Linda about—was only one event among many that led to his decision to kill himself. Biff’s failure and hostility, as well as Bernard and Charley’s success, also contributed to Willy’s conclusion that he was “worth more dead than alive.” There is no indication, though, that the insurance company paid the $20,000 to Willy’s family. Most likely, the company refused to pay because Willy’s death was ruled a suicide, not an accident.
When Linda repeatedly sobs, “We’re free,” she acknowledges the sad irony that Willy has killed himself just when their lives might have begun to improve. Such “freedom” becomes less desirable if it requires the death of someone you love. Furthermore, Linda’s words suggest the way in which Willy was never free but rather always somehow under the control of his own distorted dreams—dreams of success fed by deceptive, misleading cultural myths of success. In another sense, Linda and the rest of the family are free from Willy, someone who often made their lives difficult. While they never wanted Willy to kill himself, his absence may let them view life in a new, clearer way.
Finally, there is a crucial, tragic irony in Linda’s words, since Willy, despite being a salesman, failed all his life to grasp that people are not measured and valued by their material success, but, in fact, are “free”—beings without price, to whom no monetary amount can be affixed. Even in his choice of death, and the fact that he wanted his suicide to leave his family a great deal of money, Willy Loman never grasped the concept that people are intrinsically “free and clear.”
As the play ends, the flute music plays. That music recalls the Lomans’ happier days, when they believed in the dream that has by now fallen apart. Thus the music contrasts noticeably with the apartment buildings that become increasingly threatening as the play closes. The imposing buildings—and the uncaring, anonymous way of business they seem to represent—have suffocated Willy, but we also sense that Willy should have recognized his own mistakes and arrogance. We receive the impression that Miller has not rejected Willy’s optimism (the flute), but he wants to warn us about the dangers of naively following a dream or the perils of desperately wanting to be loved. While it is possible to consider Willy a victim, a coward, or a hero, it is the mixing of these three identities that makes any of them meaningful.
Readers of Death of a Salesman sometimes disagree over how much sympathy Willy deserves. Some readers think Miller has created in Willy a character whose own selfishness is so great that we can find no salvageable, redeeming qualities in him. Even if some readers do not believe Willy deserves any sympathy, they should still be able to see where the play itself expresses sympathy for Willy.