The internal conflict between achieving financial security and taking care of one’s family can lead a person to turmoil and self-destruction. Arthur Miller’s play, Death of a Salesman, deals precisely with this theme: the protagonist’s inability to reconcile this internal conflict in regards to achieving the American Dream leads to his death. Miller’s play presents the story of Willy Loman, a 60-year-old salesman who is unable to achieve the wealth and success he strived for throughout his life, and in reaching for these ambitions neglected his family. Willy only desires the American Dream but doesn’t actually do the work necessary to be successful. Willy is determined to achieve his version of the American Dream, but his confusion about what it means to be successful causes him to be dissatisfied with himself and his family, a dissatisfaction that ultimately leads to his suicide.
Willy’s dissatisfaction develops because of his confusion about the meaning of success. Willy defines success as being “well-liked” in society, however, according to this definition Willy should think himself successful since he believes himself to be well-liked. And yet, Willy is not successful. He is dissatisfied with himself partially because he wasn’t able to achieve his dream of owning a business. Willy’s neighbor, Charley owns a business; however, he is not “well-liked” which doesn’t make him an example of success in Willy’s eyes, although he is still jealous of Charley’s accomplishments. Willy tells his son, Happy, “Someday I’ll have my own business, and I’ll never have to leave home anymore”(I.232). Happy asks him “Like Uncle Charley?” (I.231) and Willy replies “Bigger than Uncle Charley! Because Charley is not liked. He’s liked, but he’s not well liked” (I.233). The confusion about the definition of success is one of the reasons why Willy cannot step forward in his life. He wants to be someone who has Charley’s business but who is also “well-liked” (as he thinks he is). Willy’s jealousy of others’ success, his pride, and his desire to be competitive become obvious as he rejects Charley’s financial help and advice. When Charley offered Willy a job, he madly replied, “I got a job, I told you that. What the hell are you offering me a job for? […] Don’t insult me.” (I.412) Willy also starts to think why Bernard, Charley’s son, became successful while his popular son, Biff, did not. In the beginning Willy expects Biff to be much more successful than Bernard “Bernard can get the best marks in school, but when he gets out in the business world, you are going to be five times ahead of him” (I.272). Things didn’t go as Willy expected, and he seems to get the fact that his definition of success might be wrong; however, he insists that being “well-liked” is an important factor to success.
Willy keeps repeating the importance of being well-liked in society and how it leads to real success, while in reality, he is not well-liked at all, but merely entertaining a delusion. When Linda asks Willy to work in New York, he replies that “They don’t need me in New York. I’m the New England man. I’m vital in New England” (I.24). He is not really successful in New England and nobody really knows him, but he exaggerates a lot to boost his sense of self-worth. His family was deceived by his delusion of being liked; however, when he dies and nobody comes to his funeral, the fact that he wasn’t well-known or well-liked is confirmed for both family and reader. Though he is deceiving his family about the fact that he is well-liked, Willy is actually deceiving himself as well, even though the contradictions in his speeches suggest that deep down he knows that people do not like him very much. For example, in conversation with Linda, Willy states, “I’ll go to Hartford. I’m very well liked in Hartford. You know, the trouble is, Linda, people don’t seem to take to me” (I.317). First he asserts that he is liked in Hartford (a projection of his desire) and the counters it with the more likely truth. Willy projects his desire to be well liked in dialogue with others, but the fact that he considers and voices the opposite viewpoint suggests that he, himself, does not believe that he is well liked. This consideration explains some of Willy’s dissatisfaction with himself; not only did he not achieve his dream of owning a business, but he also wasn’t able to appear to be a well-liked individual, which removes him an extra step from being successful.
In addition to not being well-liked and not achieving his dream, Willy is further dissatisfied with himself because he chose to have a family instead of pursuing financial success like his brother, Ben. Ben was very rich and successful financially because he traveled to various places to make a profit from diamond mines. Ben chose to travel and make money rather than settle down and have a family, which is what Willy decided to do. Willy wants to achieve the success that his brother achieved and recognizes that if he’d “gone with him [Ben] to Alaska that time, everything would’ve been totally different” (I.447), but he doesn’t want to take the adventure and the risk that his brother took in order to achieve success. Ben appears as a ghost throughout the play, and every time he appears he offers Willy advice and guidance on how to be successful. Willy pleads with Ben to stay, saying “Can’t you stay a few days? You’re just what I need, Ben, because I have a fine position here, but I…well, Dad left when I was such a baby and I never had a chance to talk to him and I still feel… kind of temporary about myself” (I.558). Willy needs affirmation and guidance from Ben because he has no other role model to look up to. His pleading shows that Willy is confused about what he should do with his life now and lacks the ability guide himself and his family. His confusion and dissatisfaction with himself for not having been more decisive in the past reveal the tension between financial success and family, two elements of the American Dream that Willy cannot reconcile. This inability to reconcile success and family furthers his dissatisfaction with himself, life, and his family.
Willy is unsatisfied with everything in his life, including his family. Despite his caring wife’s attempts to make him happy, Willy is constantly frustrated by her interpretations and “feel good” responses. Willy is also frustrated with his children. Despite the fact that he has two mature sons, Willy is discouraged by their indecisiveness about establishing themselves in the business world. For example, “How can he find himself on a farm? Is that a life? A farmhand? In the beginning, when he was young, I thought, well, a young man, it’s good for him to tramp around, take a lot of different jobs. But it’s more than ten years now and he has yet to make thirty-five dollars a week!” (I.44). His frustration and disappointment become worse with each passing day. The frustration that he has with himself is displaced onto his family, making him treat them badly even though he loves them. Only Willy’s wife, Linda, understands her husband’s frustration and illness, and supports him regardless. “You’re my foundation and my support, Linda” (I.78) says Willy. She pays a lot of attention to Willy and tells their sons, Biff and Happy, that “attention must finally be paid to such a person” (I.623) in an attempt to persuade them to see the good in their elderly, delusional father. Willy, however, doesn’t see Linda’s treatment and is unable to effectively express his own emotions toward her. He loves her and doesn’t want to spend so much time away from his family, and yet, ironically, he cheats on her with another woman while traveling for work. This inability to be satisfied with what he has leads Willy to destruct the one solid foundation he has: his family. This destruction ultimately leads to Willy’s demise.
Willy fails to achieve Ben’s financial success, fails to own a business like Charley, fails to be well-liked, and is unable to appreciate his family. The feeling of guilt and disappointment due to his failures chases Willy like his shadow wherever he goes. His inability to accept failure makes him decide to commit suicide. But his reason for committing suicide— so that his son, Biff, can get the money from the life insurance to start a business and become successful— is misguided because the insurance company doesn’t pay for suicides, and, according to Linda, the insurance inspector said that they have evidence that “these accidents in the last year weren’t accidents” (I. 653). His final words before death are directed to his brother: “Oh, Ben, I always knew one way or another we were gonna make it, Biff and I!” (II.924). Thus, even Willy’s suicide, an attempt through death to rectify his failures in life, is a failure. It is Willy’s failures that lead him to seek solution through suicide, through escaping reality, but his “solution’ only causes more problems for his family, more tragedy, more confusion and dissatisfaction. His death is Willy’s final attempt to achieve the American Dream by helping establish his progeny in life, but his suicide actually acts a final failure in achieving it because he leaves his family with no provider, no insurance money, no father, and no husband— just an empty chair at the dinner table and a life legacy of dissatisfaction.
Miller, Arthur. “Death of a Salesman.” Portable Literature: Reading, Reacting, Writing. 8th ed.
Ed. Laurie G. Kirszner and Stephen R. Mandell. Boston: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, 2012. Print. 856-925.