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Death of a Salesman

by Arthur Miller

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Willy, in Arthur Miller's play, Death of a Salesman, idolized his brother Ben.

It is ironic that Ben was "a man worth talking to" because in Willy's state of mind, which continues to deteriorate through the play, he has quite a few discussions with Ben, even though Ben is not there. Some discussions are imagined; some are remembered. Perhaps Willy feels that his brother tells him what he wants to hear, or what he wishes he had listened to before.

Willy sees his brother as the quintessential success story: he lived a life of adventure, went to Africa and discovered diamonds and became rich. In Willie's "conversations" with Ben, his older brother...

...owns timberlands in Alaska and diamond mines in Africa...

Ben's life, in Willy's eyes, was so much better than Willy's life, which has been a disappointment to him, especially in that his boss doesn't appreciate his work anymore, and even worse, fires Willy, though he is still willing and just barely able to work. Willy remembers Ben asking his younger brother to go with him:


Now look here, William. I've bought timberland in Alaska and I need a man to look after things for me.


God,  timberland! Me and the boys in those grand outdoors.


You've a new continent at your doorstep, William. Get out of these cities, they're full of talk and time payments and courts of law. Screw on your fists and you can fight for a fortune up there.

Ben is not there, but in Willy's mind, his discussions are very real as he tries to make sense not only of his world, but of what his sons are working for (or not), and what Willy should do next. He thinks back on his past with his brother, sorry he never took his advice. But the two men are also very different. Willy seems to be a man comfortable in the day-to-day, though it brings him little happiness. It seems unrealistic that the frontier life would have appealed to him. Willy has chosen to lead a safer life.

His brother's life was different than Willy's. We get the sense that Ben never married and had nothing to tie him down: no responsibilities. Willy laments that he did not go with Ben, but he had hoped to be a success in sales instead, and has taken care of his family many years in this way. He sees Ben's life as idyllic, but Ben was alone. It is not impossible to imagine that at some point, Ben might have missed not having a family or a home base to return home to.

So it seems foolish for Willy to idolize Ben. There is no such thing as a perfect man, and Ben is certainly not perfect. It may be that life seemed to be better when Willy thinks back. And Ben is dead now; Willy is still plugging along. Idolizing Ben seems a thing a teenage boy might do with his older brother, but not a grown man, not at this point of his life.

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