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Death of a Salesman

by Arthur Miller

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What does the quotation "he's only a little boat looking for a harbor" mean in Death of a Salesman?

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Willy Loman sags into his brokenness as a man.  His world is crumbling around him.  In Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, Willy lugs around his sample cases filled with his illusions and disillusionment.  He is losing touch with reality; yet, surprisingly, he is quick to anger and hard as ever.

The character who suffers along with Willy is Linda, who is driven by desperation and fear.  In his distress, Willy is often rude to her.  She suspects Willy has had affairs with other women, but she protects him at all costs.  According to Linda, Willy is needs all the family to support him.

Linda: Why must everybody conquer the world?”  “Be loving to him because he’s only a little boat looking for a harbor.”

She loves Willy and defends him at all costs.  Easily choosing her husband rather than her sons, she goes along with Willy in his fantasies of grandeur. But there is nothing that she can do to save Willy from himself and his hallucinations.

The beautiful metaphor that Linda uses to reflect her husband makes the comparison of the boat to Willy who is searching for something elusive but secure.  He wants to be successful but he does not know  how to accomplish it. Anywhere that Willy can be accepted for who he is would be that safe harbor or landing for him.

Stunted by his foolish ideas of succeeding, Willy has translated his ideas to his sons. The woods are burning, boys, you understand?” he tells his sons: the lost Biff and the attention seeking Happy.  “There’s a big blaze going on all around.”

The times are hard for the Lomans in the 1940s Brooklyn.  Everything that Willy owns is old, and yet, he is just now paying it off. Salaries are low. Bills keep coming.  Having an overbearing personality is no longer a valid commodity.

Where is Willy’s harbor? He goes to his boss, who is the son of the man who hired Willy.  The boss is more concerned about his new gadget than listening to the moaning of a used up salesman.  He fires Willy—he might as well have put the gun to his head. Willy’s job was the last oar in his boat. 

Willy Loman reaches the end of the line. He thinks that to be successful a man must be popular and well-liked. He has become the butt of jokes.  His sons are disappointing to him; in particular, his son Biff, who is his favorite, has never measured up to his hopes. 

Willy commits suicide in a car wreck. He hopes that his insurance money will help Biff to start his own business. He also thinks that his funeral will be well attended which will prove that he was a success in life. Even in death, Willy is a failure because no one comes to his funeral. 

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