DEATH OF A SALESMAN: What’s Wrong with Willy Loman?

Death of a Salesman:

What’s Wrong with Willy Loman?

Laurence Coupe

The English Review, 5, 4 (April 1995), pp. 16-19


The hero of Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman is nobody special, yet we feel his life and tragic death to be deeply significant. Laurence Coupe argues that the clue might be ‘ideology’. Willy Loman sacrifices himself for exactly those beliefs and values which are the ‘common sense’ of our own competitive society.



John Lennon’s song ‘Working-Class Hero’ has a verse which runs as follows:

There’s room at the top, they are telling you still,
But first you must learn to smile as you kill,
If you want to be like the folks on the hill …

The ‘working-class hero’ of its title is told that if he is sufficiently ruthless, he too will be able to make it to the ‘top’ in the rat race.

At first sight this song might seem to sum up the way in which ideology works: indoctrination by an external force which programmes the individual to behave according to certain patterns and expectations. But ideology functions in ways more complicated than those at which Lennon’s lyric hints. What is actually involved is a largely internal, unconscious process. Ideology consists of our routine responses to the world; it is that view of ourselves and society that we take for granted as given. Literary texts are often engaged with exploring the inner life, so can be a useful way of showing the way in which ideology works. There again literary works cannot always be simply categorised according to whether they confirm ideology on the one hand or challenge ideology on the other. Sometimes one work can do both things at the same time. Arthur Miller’s most famous play, Death of a Salesman (1949), seems to me a sin­gular example of this.

Worth more dead than alive

Willy Loman is not strictly speaking a ‘working-class hero’: more a ‘lower middle-class hero’, which of course makes him less likely to become the subject of a protest song. But he is certainly an oppressed figure, a victim. As such, he has fantasies of a better life. These are indicated in Miller’s stage directions at the beginning of the play: ‘A melody is heard, played upon a flute. It is small and fine, telling of grass and trees and the horizon.’ Willy’s late father, we will learn, made and sold flutes, travelling across the wide-open spaces of North America as his own man, an embodiment of the pioneer spirit. That life, represented by the motif of melody, is the one Willy has failed to find or realise for himself. Hence, Miller tells us, an ‘air of the dream’ clings to the Lomans’ house and yard: ‘a dream rising out of reality’. We might call that dream ‘ideology’.

Miller could have constructed his play so that the dream dissolves and reality is faced directly. But that would have resulted in a naively optimistic drama. Rather, he shows us the hero’s commitment to the dream — the belief that ‘personality always wins the day’ and success comes to those prepared to sell not only goods but also themselves — intensifying to the point where, given the manifest failure of his life, he can only seek victory in death.

The plot of Death of a Salesman is constructed to direct our attention to this climax. It covers the last 24 hours lived by Willy Loman. Finding that travelling around as ‘the New England man’ exhausts him at his advanced years, he is persuaded by his wife Linda to ask his boss Howard Wagner for a more convenient position at the New York office of his firm. The young and insensitive Howard refuses this request and Willy, driven to despair, concludes that he is ‘worth more dead than alive’. He then deliberately kills himself in a car crash in order that his wife and family will benefit from his insurance policy. In particular, his elder son Biff will inherit the house in which Willy has invested so much financially and emotionally.

Death of a Salesman can to some extent be read as an indictment of an external system called American capitalism. Take the scene in which Willy, who repeatedly experiences past moments as vividly as if they were present, relives the jubilant visit of his own elder brother Ben. Returning from the diamond mines of Africa, Ben proudly tells young Biff and his brother Happy: ‘Why, boys, when I was 17 I walked into the jungle, and when I was 21 I walked out. [He laughs.] And by God I was rich.’ So we may infer that the world of the capitalist is that of Ben’s ‘jungle’, to succeed in which it is best — as Ben puts it, having tripped Biff up in a mock boxing match – ‘never’ to ‘fight fair with a stranger’. In John Lennon’s words, you must ‘smile as you kill’ in order to be ‘like the folks on the hill’.

But a full response to the text would have to go further than that. For a start, Willy’s next­door neighbour Charley, though a successful capitalist, is a benign one: so much so that he actually supports Willy by ‘loans’ that he knows will probably never get paid off. Of course, the exception could be said to prove the rule — which might be better represented by Howard Wagner who, if not malicious, seems to have been trained very thoroughly in the art of indifference. Willy pleads with him in vain:

You mustn’t tell me you’ve got people to see – I put 34 years into this firm, Howard, and now I can’t pay my insurance! You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away – a man is not a piece of fruit!

But we would not find the plays of Arthur Miller so challenging if all they did was tell us that there are people like Howard. What is much more important than the external depic­tion of a ruthless economic order is the explo­ration of an internal world: the sphere where illusion takes place. (The original title of Death of a Salesman was ‘The Inside of his Head’.)

Fathers and sons

It is important to note that when Willy appeals to Howard, all he has to rely on is the past. Indeed, the fascinating structural feature of the play itself is that it allows a constant interpenetration of two moments: real time and remembered time. We have already noted, for example, that the boasting, advice and foul play of Ben, though all in the past, is reenacted in the present. This is because Willy himself — who is the centre of consciousness in the play — finds it increasingly hard to tell the difference. In technical terms, Miller is fusing the traditional social drama known as ‘naturalism’ with the more adventurous psychological drama known as ‘expressionism’. But what matters is the insight into ideology: not only does it serve the status quo, the way society seems always to have been, but it also traps individuals in their own permanent pasts, obscuring the possibilities of the future. Significantly Willy, who has functioned by deceiving himself (‘Business is bad, it’s murderous. But not for me, of course’), comes to such realisation as he does about his plight when, declaring to Biff after the interview with Howard Wagner that ‘I was fired’, he reflects: ‘The gist of it is that I haven’t got a story left in my head…” Ideology is the story we tell ourselves rather than face the reality of our situation.

It is because Miller is more interested in tracing the psychological roots of oppression than in producing a propagandist drama that he focuses so much on the family. The crucial relationship here is between fathers and sons. For if we are bound to the past, it is largely through our relationships with our parents. Willy in the present of the play is the father, but in the still-active past he is the son: prompted by the sound of his father’s flute and by the ghostly presence of his elder brother — in effect a father-figure — he is helpless within time, condemned to repeat himself interminably. Hence his tediously reiterated insistence that the only way to succeed is to be ‘well-liked’. This immature faith shelters him from the actuality of, on the one hand, the success of Charley and his son Bernard (not ‘liked’), and on the other, from the failure of himself and of Biff and Happy (definitely ‘liked’). Such repetition of what seems to him obvious but which is in fact false, along with the empty salesman’s slang which Miller captures so convincingly (‘You guys together could absolutely lick the civilised world’), keeps this ‘low-man’ (‘Loman’) down where he is, and always was. After all, the very name ‘Willy’ is infantile, signifying a refusal to grow up.

If Philip Larkin is right that ‘Man hands on misery to man’ (‘This be the verse’), then Willy’s sons, encouraged to keep their own equally immature nicknames (‘Biff’ and ‘Happy’) into adulthood, both seem condemned to repeat their father’s failure and relive his self-deception. But families are always more complicated than that.

‘I know who I am’

If we are to discuss the effect of Willy on his children, we must carefully distinguish between Happy and Biff. The former enjoys the less complex influence. He can dismiss Willy callously when his disturbed behaviour in the restaurant proves embarrassing in front of two ‘girls’ whom the ‘boys’ have been trying to impress: ‘No, that’s not my father. He’s just a guy.’ Paradoxically, it is he also who in the final ‘Requiem’ can pronounce: ‘He had a good dream. It’s the only dream you can have – to come out number-one man.’ Either way, we may conclude that Happy is condemned to repeat Willy’s error: after all, the callousness is only consistent with the ideology of self–interest within which he has been raised.

Biff, however, is both closer to and more distant from his father. Early on, Happy observes that when Willy is talking to himself, ‘Most of the time he’s talking to you.’ And indeed, theirs is the crucial relationship as far as the plot development is concerned. Willy’s anxiety about Biff’s career failure  – which results from the son’s traumatic discovery of the father’s extra-marital affair – is crucial to his decline. And it is, ironically, only after believing that he has at last regained some filial affection that Willy feels strong enough to make his ultimate sacrifice:

Willy [after a long pause, astonished, elevated]: Isn’t that — isn’t that remarkable? Biff — he likes me!
Linda: He loves you, Willy!
Happy [deeply moved]: Always did, Pop.
Willy: Oh Biff! [Staring wildly] He cried! Cried to me. [He is choking with his love, and now cries out his promise] That boy — that boy is going to be magnificent!

But even as Willy feels closest, he is furthest apart. His last assertion demonstrates that he has learnt very little; he is still fooling himself. He can only envisage Biff in the simplistic language of football heroics which he has always used (‘When the team came out — he was the tallest, remember?’) Of the two, it is the son who has advanced, who has understood:

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 the rest of them! … I’m not bringing home any prizes any more, and you’re going to stop waiting for me to bring them home! … Pop, I’m nothing! I’m nothing, Pop. Can’t you understand that? … Will you take that phoney dream and burn it before something happens?

Indeed, of all the characters in the play, it is only Biff who earns the right to declare, during the ‘Requiem’, that ‘I know who I am.’ Charley, the benign capitalist, can only offer a senti­mental justification of a salesman’s ‘dream’ (‘It comes with the territory’); Happy vows to prove that ‘Willy Loman did not die in vain’; and Linda is left sobbing pathetically, ‘We’re free …. We’re free…’

From past to future?

What Linda means, of course, is that the house has been paid for: the family are ‘free and clear’ from that particular financial constraint. But otherwise, the final impression is of a life going on much as before, with most characters sharing Willy’s illusions. Ideology, we have already said, binds people to the past. Its opposite — what we call ‘utopia’, the vision of the future — is scarcely glimpsed in the play. Only Biff, with his refusal of the salesman’s role and his resolve to move away from the world of urban capitalism, offers anything like an alternative conviction:

I stopped in the middle of that building and I saw — the sky. I saw the things that I love in this world. The work and the food and time to sit and smoke.

The final question, then, is how far is this vision valid? Given that the play’s title (‘a salesman’ not ‘the salesman’) indicates that Willy is not meant to be regarded as isolated and exceptional, we may fairly grant Biff as much right as his father to the ultimate recognition of the play, to its tragic enlightenment.

Given that the elder son is the one who has seen through the Loman lie, what credence can we give his own vow of authenticity? On the one hand, Biff’s alternatives could be seen as Miller’s ideals: creative labour, not selling oneself; a natural environment, not the demonic metropolis. On the other hand, the very same ideals are evoked by the flute music which recurs throughout the play, which is identified with the pioneer spirit of the father whom Willy wishes so much to emulate. There is an ambiguity here. Moreover, Ben’s ruthless acquisitiveness is conveyed in such a way as to deepen that ambiguity: the ‘jungle’ signifies not only the escape into nature and freedom but also the very workings of urban capitalism itself.

If we have ended by demonstrating the playwright’s perspective to be implicated in the confusion of his times, that is only to be expected. Literary works may expose and question ideology, but they are themselves ideological. What is wrong with Willy Loman is what is wrong with all of us, reader and author alike. It is never possible simply to transcend the illusions of the age. Utopia, which really means ‘nowhere’, cannot be envisaged directly. It is only available to us through the inarticulate hopes of a Biff: beyond that, through the complex — and necessarily contradictory — vision of a play like Death of a Salesman.

Laurence Coupe