WILLY (turning on him now in an uncontrolled outburst): I am not a dime a dozen! I am Willy Loman, and you are Biff Loman!
(Biff starts for Willy, but is blocked by Hap. In his fury, Biff seems on the verge of attacking his father.)
BIFF: I am not a leader of men, Willy, and neither are you. You were never anything but a hard-working drummer who landed in the ash can like all the rest of them!
-Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman
This searing excerpt between a son and his father is from the climactic scene of Arthur Miller’s great play Death of a Salesman. Now, stop rolling your eyes. Yes, you studied this play when you were in high school. I did too, back when Pontius was a Pilate. And yes, I teach it in my high school classes. Because, like so much other great literature, it’s timeless. It is a phenomenal piece of writing, because it has so much to say to us about us...
Willy Loman is Everyman, (Low Man, get it?) not some high-falutin’ prince. And he has a character flaw…
several, actually… an inability to be honest with himself, with his wife or with his sons; an inability to communicate at a fundamental level; encroaching senility… is it brought on by stress and burnout, or by dementia? Willie is not bringing home any salary, and commission is not making it… he’s borrowing money every week from his friend… to add to the sense of urgency, we all know Willie has been having suicidal ideation. Willie still maintains he’ll be fine… and the boys will make it big; his wife is in denial about his suicidal thoughts. There is murder, exile and alienation of enemies and allies... not in the literal sense of the words, no… but there is the murder and alienation of the relationships between Willie and Linda, Charley, Howard, Biff, Hap…
Willie becomes isolated as he enters a dissociative state where he moves to fugues of fantasy, reliving episodes from the past and communing with his brother. Biff is eventually determined to have it out with Willie and confront the entire family with the truth of their situation/family dynamic… all in vain, alas… Biff tries to get Willie to recognize the tragic flaws in their family… but Willie doesn’t get it (“he likes me!”) and it is, indeed, too late. Willie believes that committing suicide will be the salvation of his sons, and proof that he was a great man, with all the buyers from across his region attending his funeral.
Willie has the opportunity to cut out all the @#$% going on in the family dynamic and heal the rifts… there is one brief, shining moment of opportunity in the middle of the crisis at the climax of the play… but he doesn’t carpe diem; instead, he kills himself. Interestingly, even his hallucination (Ben) warns that many, including his own family, will see his suicide as either a cowardly or inexplicable act.
There is restoration of order at the end of the play. Well, sort of… in the same way that any family beset by tragedy attempts to come to terms with it (although the Loman family does distinguish itself in its dysfunctionality, so whether they can really come to terms with their tragedy is open to debate). Biff is determined to plot a new course for himself, Hap has plans that may or may not prove unrealistic, given his past, and Linda is just… uncomprehending of it all.
So… what are some of the issues raised in this thought provoking piece?
First, the value and necessity of open, honest communication in relationships, and the terrible consequences that can ensue if such communication is not pursued… not just physical consequences (such as *death*) either
Second, why do many of us spend a good portion of our lives in denial over many issues (some large, some small)?
Third, the demonization of adequacy. Is Willie rich… famous… important? Not necessarily by the standards of a very jaded and materialistic society… but it could be argued that he is rich by other, more important standards… he has a loving wife, two sons who were full of potential… a roof over his head… food in his belly… and so on.
Fourth, materialism and a hard look at our society… does materialism lead to happiness? And hard on the heels of that last point, the shocking (and seemingly contradictory) statistics relating to mental illness and depression in our very affluent society… WHY are so many people so unhappy in a society that is the wealthiest, most affluent society in the history of the planet?
Ultimately, it all raises the question: by what standards does one live a life of great significance? And like all great writers, Miller doesn’t lead us by the nose: he simply presents the issues and lets us draw our own conclusions.
We can (as I do on occasion) give the last words to C.S. Lewis. Although he wasn’t discussing Miller’s play when he said it, Lewis made a comment that is hugely applicable, both to Willy Loman... and to us:
“If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end; if you look for comfort, you will get neither comfort nor truth, only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin with, and in the end, despair.”