Illusion vs. Reality in ‘Death of a Salesman’: Struggle with Self-Deception
How would you characterize Willy Loman? Consider his emotional/mental state, his motivations, his relationships with others (e.g., his wife, Linda; his sons, Biff and Happy), etc.
The Illusion of Success and the American Dream
Willy Loman is clearly the protagonist of Death of a Salesman. This first part of the opening act provides us with exposition through which we learn that Willy is a married salesman in his sixties with two sons. He has been working as a salesman for over thirty years, and it is clear that this life is not what he had hoped for, neither for himself nor for his family. He has worked for the American Dream, and it seems that he has not attained it in the way and to the extent he had hoped for. He is struggling to come to terms with what he perceives as failure and does not want to see his sons, Happy and Biff, live a similar life that does not end with the full realization of their dreams.
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All of the action of this piece of the play is performed in Willy’s home; even when we are witnessing flashbacks, there is still a visual of the house as it is today. We find out it used to be surrounded by nature, peace, and quiet, and other homes of the American Dreamers are now surrounded by large, stifling apartment buildings that do not even allow fresh air to reach the Lomans’ home. The house, as the stage directions tell us, has “an air of the dream clinging…” to it (p. 11); it is a metaphor for Willy’s life. He is strangled by the movement of time and progress just as his own house is, too. The juxtaposition of the flashbacks and the house as it is now strengthens the recognition of this oppression.
Willy is unable to deal with reality, and it is clear, from ‘flashbacks’ told through meandering thoughts, that this is something he has been struggling with for quite some time. He is unable to find a way to justify why his life is the way it is and is unwilling to face the fact that this is just the life fate has dealt him. To cover for this and not have to admit he is not the success he longs to be, Willy seems to create alternative scenarios to reality in hopes of providing himself with a way to feel some self-worth. By creating these delusional narratives, he struggles to even keep them straight, as seen when he calls Biff “a lazy bum” (p. 16) and then three lines later says, “There’s one thing about Biff – he’s not lazy”(p. 16). He complains that he is always contradicted, yet it is he who is often contradictory. Even when he claims to love Linda, his wife, he flashes back to a time when he cheated on her. He almost appears to be dropping into madness.
At the start of this act, Willy has been trying to create a reality that he can come to terms with, but it has brought him to a point where he is no longer able to actually recognize real life. He has developed a constant mumbling, often laced with reminiscences of prior times when he might have felt more in control of his life. These mumblings are often focused on his older son, Biff, as he is trying desperately to save Biff from a disappointing future. He does not want his son to suffer in the ways he has.
- “Death of a Salesman” by Arthur Miller
- “Death of a Salesman: Certain Private Conversations in Two Acts and a Requiem” by Arthur Miller