Death of a Salesman Characters
The main characters in Death of a Salesman are Willy Loman, Linda, Biff, Happy, and Uncle Ben.
- Willy Loman is an aging traveling salesman who laments that he cannot help his sons achieve financial success.
- Linda Loman is Willy’s patient and caring wife.
- Biff Loman is Willy’s eldest son, who fails to secure a loan to start his business.
- Happy Loman is Willy’s youngest son.
- Uncle Ben is Willy’s brother, who strikes it rich in the diamond mines and sparks Willy’s feelings of inadequacy.
Last Updated on January 11, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1148
William “Willy” Loman
A sixty-year-old salesman who has dedicated thirty-four years of his life to the Wagner Company, Willy is, in his own words, a “well-liked” man who believes that the key to professional success lies not in a person’s talent but in his character and connections. For his entire career, Willy has prioritized work over his family, certain that his big break is just around the corner. In the play’s flashbacks, we see that Willy is prone to wild exaggeration about his sales and his personal connections, demonstrating a deep insecurity in his professional achievements. At the beginning of the play, Willy is tired and haunted by the unresolved question of why neither he nor his sons have ever become a success. Willy is a deeply flawed man, and his downfall is rooted in his pride, which prevents him from reconciling his delusions of grandeur with reality and thus becoming content with his life as it is.
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Once poised to embark on a flourishing future, Biff was a charismatic leader of his peers and a star football player during his final year of high school, which garnered him a scholarship to the University of Virginia. However, having flunked his senior math class, Biff did not have enough credits to graduate, dashing his dreams of university admission. Rather than making up the class in summer school, Biff took a variety of vocational courses but never settled into a steady career. Instead, he went out West to work as a laborer, but he still could not seem to maintain a position for more than a year. Biff’s job-hopping is later revealed to be rooted in his compulsive stealing, as well as his father’s unfulfilled expectations.
In contrast to the bright future Willy repeatedly promised him throughout his childhood, by his early thirties, Biff has never made more than a dollar an hour and has taken no steps toward establishing a steady career. He ultimately concludes that it was Willy’s blind belief in his greatness that impeded his ability to make something of himself. Biff claims that his father “blew [him] so full of hot air [he] could never stand taking orders from anybody.” This reconciliation between the mythologization of his life and the reality of his situation at the conclusion of the play sets Biff free, and he is finally able to move on from living in the shadow of Willy’s delusions.
Harold “Happy” Loman
Unlike his brother, Biff, Happy has settled into a career and is climbing the corporate ladder. A serial womanizer with his own apartment and a steady paycheck, Happy is just as lonely and dissatisfied as his brother. This is partially due to the “hot air” Happy inherited as a Loman; like Biff, Happy can’t stand “taking orders from those common, petty sons-of-bitches.” However, while Biff becomes disillusioned with this empty posturing by the end of the play, Happy refuses to let go of Willy’s arrogance. At Willy’s funeral, Happy becomes enraged when Biff tells Charley their father “had all the wrong dreams.” In his final line of dialogue, Happy defiantly claims:
I’m gonna 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. He fought out here, and this is where I’m gonna win it for him.
The only female character in the play besides Willy’s Boston mistress, Linda works hard to be a supportive wife and mother. Miller gives an extensive description of Linda in the opening stage directions:
Most often jovial, she has developed an iron repression of her exceptions to Willy’s behavior—she more than loves him, she admires him, as though his mercurial nature, his temper, his massive dreams and little cruelties, served her only as sharp reminders of the turbulent longings within him, longings that she shares but lacks the temperament to utter and follow to their end.
Although she has very few lines of dialogue throughout the play, Linda utters the first and last words of the play: the first a cry of “Willy!” and the final a lament for the irony that she made their mortage’s final payment on the day of Willy’s funeral, when there will be no one left to live in the house except herself.
Miller uses the character of Charley, the Lomans’ friendly neighbor, as a foil for Willy in order to demonstrate Willy’s values. When Willy encourages Biff and Happy’s stealing, calling the boys “fearless characters,” Charley reminds him that “the jails are full of fearless characters.” Likewise, Willy dismisses Charley as “liked—but . . . not well-liked” and is constantly insulting his manliness, such as when Willy tells him that “a man who can’t handle tools is not a man.”
However, despite a lack of physicality and charisma, two attributes that Willy touts as critical to success in business, Charley has achieved a far more successful career than Willy. He has founded his own company, a recurrent dream in the Loman household, and is in a position to help the Lomans through generous loans and his repeated offers to Willy of a less strenuous office job. Willy is bitter and ungrateful for Charley’s generosity, pridefully refusing to take a job working under his supposedly inferior neighbor.
Just as Bernard’s father, Charley, serves as a foil for Willy, Bernard serves as a foil to Biff. Whereas Biff was popular and athletic in high school, Bernard was studious and reserved. He happily allowed Biff to copy his homework and was eager to help Biff study for his final exams when he would no longer be able to use Bernard’s work as a crutch. When the boys are young, Willy predicts that Biff will be “five times ahead of [Bernard]” in the business world because “the man who creates personal interest is the man who gets ahead.” However, Willy’s vision does not come to pass, and by the time of the play, Bernard is happily married with two children and a steady career as a lawyer, preparing to argue a case in front of the Supreme Court. Bernard’s personal and professional success, contrasted with Biff’s aimless vagrancy, is perhaps Miller’s strongest condemnation of Willy’s views and values.
Willy’s elusive and wealthy older brother, Ben, is Willy’s only father figure but is largely absent from his life. Having made his fortune as a diamond tycoon in Africa, Ben reinforces all of Willy’s misconceptions about the importance of physical virility and strength of character to financial success. Miller characterizes Ben as metonymic of the pre-war American dream, whose methods and values have become redundant by the time of the play.