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Death of a Salesman Character Analysis
Learn about all the main characters in the play and read essays all about them- from Willy to Happy.
Willy is the low-man that Miller bases this tragedy on. Miller denied that he intended the name to carry this meaning, but writers can’t always control interpretation. He described the play as coming from the sidewalk rather than the skyscraper, and the title of his essay Tragedy and the Common Man shows that he wanted tragedy to emerge from the most ordinary of lives. Indeed that is the tragedy. There’s nothing particularly special about Willy, nor his son Biff, who at least realises that he is not exceptional.
Miller gives Willy the opening line – “It’s all right. I came back,” – a line from which the whole play grew. Willy has returned with his sample cases. He barely got past Yonkers – just outside New York. Of this Miller has said: “...imagine a salesman who can’t get past Yonkers. It’s the end of the world.” Willy’s failure is evident from the start. What he sells is never specified; Miller said “you sell yourself...you become the commodity.”
Willy places all his hopes on his sons, especially Biff. He speaks of them in heroic terms – Adonises, Hercules. It becomes clear in the play that neither son can live up to these expectations. His brother Ben represents the success Willy feels has eluded him, although we only see Ben through Willy’s thoughts- a kind of projection of his fantasies. He says of Ben: “There was a man started with the clothes on his back and ended up with diamond mines!” Willy’s philosophy, of being well-liked and popular, is outdated and naive in comparison to the hard-edged realism of his brother. Willy eulogises: “the man who creates personal interest is the man who gets ahead. Be liked and you will never want.” Willy claims he is so popular that he never has to wait in line but Linda tells a different story, of a man who drives 700 miles and when he gets there no one knows him anymore.
Willy venerates Dave Singleman, but he finds himself redundant, no longer wanted, in what Miller called “the greatest boom in world history.” Facing the collapse of his life and all his hopes, he pleads with his employer: “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!” He finds that the capitalism he has served is as ferocious and ruthless as his brother has suggested. The desire to buy seeds and to plant something that will last is the antithesis of the impermanent world he inhabits.
At the end of the play, and at the end of his tether, Willy kills himself, having flirted with suicide before, hoping to cash in his life insurance policy for the benefit of his sons. The ultimate act of the salesman is to sell himself.
Biff’s name suggests manliness, strength, even violence. The name is slightly absurd, even funny in a play that Miller himself finds humorous at times. It is a strong name for a character who realises that his whole life has been a lie.
Willy’s vision of his favoured son is of an Adonis, a Hercules- a heroic figure. This heroism ends when Biff discovers his father’s affair- he no longer idolises him. Bernard recalls him taking the University of Virginia sneakers that he was so proud of, and burning them. The petty thefts that he indulges in (test answers from Bernard, a football, a suit-which lands him in jail for 3 months, Oliver’s pen) are signs of a man incapable of bearing the burden of his father’s expectation, pointless gestures towards the victory he can’t achieve.
The awful discovery of his father’s unfaithfulness to his mother, and the fact that Willy has given his lover his Mama’s stockings is the turning point in Biff’s life. It causes him to see Willy as a fake- he failed high school, was a drifter, and is back in the family home, sharing a room with his brother, even though he’s well into his 30s. Even Willy admits: “From the age of 17 nothing good ever happened to him.”
Biff does attain a kind of self-knowledge in the play, unlike both his father and his brother. His failed interview with Bill Oliver leads to the realisation that he is “making a contemptuous, begging fool” of himself; and he tells his father “I am not a leader of men, Willy, and neither are you...I’m not bringing home any prizes anymore.”
In his stage directions Miller tells us that Linda more than loves Willy, she admires him. She constantly calls him dear, and her devotion to her husband is evident throughout the play. This of course makes even more poignant the fact that the main revelation of the drama concerns Willy’s unfaithfulness. In Act One we see Linda knitting the stockings that Willy gives to the other woman, and we see the woman dressing while Willy is telling Linda “You’re the best there is...you’re a pal, you know that?”
There is nothing in the play to indicate whether Linda is aware of the truth about her husband. She certainly defends him at key moments, even turning on her own sons after she feels they’ve let their father down. When they have left Willy in the restaurant in Act Two she tells them: “You’re a pair of animals! Not one, not another living soul would have had the cruelty to walk out on that man...” Ironically, given her ignorance of Willy’s behaviour, it’s the fact they’ve gone off with “lousy rotten whores” that angers her.
It is Linda who reminds Willy about the bills that need paying. She also shows a clear-sighted realism in her defence of Willy. “I don’t say he’s a great man...He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid.” The whole play invites us to pay just such attention.
Willy is the dearest man in the world to Linda, but she knows that he isn’t the success that he pretends to be. Similarly she resists the appeal of Willy’s brother, Ben, hating the fact that he makes Biff fight with him. She also knows that Willy has tried to kill himself. Rather than confront him, or as she sees it insult him, she puts the rubber pipe back when Willy comes home, so that he won’t be humiliated by her knowledge.
At the end, in the requiem, it is Linda who speaks the final lines of the play: “Willy...It seems to me that you’re just on another trip. I keep expecting you.” The terrible poignancy of these words is amplified by the irony when she tells her dead husband that they’ve paid off the mortgage and are free and clear.
Happy’s name has an obvious irony in the context of a tragic play, but can be taken at face value in that he takes an upbeat attitude to most things, including the fact that he is clearly less favoured than Biff. As a youth he struggles to be noticed by his father – “I’m losing weight, you notice, Pop?” –but Willy doesn’t notice. Compared to the Adonis of his brother, Happy makes little impact on his family.
Happy does share his father’s capacity for self-delusion. He proudly proclaims: “We always told the truth!” to which Biff retorts: “You big blow, are you the assistant buyer? You’re one of the two assistants to the assistant, aren’t you?” Similarly he tells the girl he picks up in the restaurant that his brother is quarterback with the New York Giants and that he was at West Point, the elite U.S. Army College. He also has the idea for the Loman Brothers, a fantasy of selling “sporting goods”.
Happy’s major interest is sex. He admits to seducing the fiancées of various executives of the store, then attending their weddings. He and Biff go off with the chippies (prostitutes) from the restaurant. He seems baffled by his own behaviour – “I hate myself for it. Because I don’t want the girl, and, still, I take it and – I love it!” He admits it doesn’t mean anything and that he’s lonely
There is a kind of self-knowledge in Happy’s realisation of the emptiness of his life – “All I can do now is wait for the merchandise manager to die,” – but there’s no sign in the play that Happy is likely to break out of this cycle of failures. After Willy’s suicide, Happy is insistent that Willy Loman didn’t die in vain, and he hates it when Biff says their father had the wrong dreams. Infected with the same delusions as Willy, he claims that “He had a good dream. It’s the only dream you can have – to come out number-one man.” And he determines to follow his father’s example, with no awareness of the irony of that assertion.