Stop Dreaming, Willy!

Critical essay regarding an individual’s attempt to live unconstrained by convention or circumstance.

Response to “Death of A Salesman” by Arthur Miller

It is human nature to attempt to live an ideal life, for individuals long for the satisfaction felt when all of their dreams and ambitions are achieved. In such a world, an individual pursues an end goal and, after a while, they can claim ownership of it. In reality, however, there are hindrances or constraints to progress, which causes their means of pursuit to become impossible. These circumstances that an individual is placed in requires compliance with the truth, and a conformity of their goals to fit inside the situations one is presented. Willy Loman, the protagonist in Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman, however, refuses to comply with the circumstances in his life. When his surroundings attempt to remind him to work with reality to shift his end goal, he refuses and builds his illusion of success, which is represented by his brother, Ben, who, according to Willy, walked into the jungle at the age of seventeen and walked out at twenty-one, rich. Initially, Willy’s perspective presented in the way he compares his son, Biff, to Charley’s son, Bernard, when the circumstance of Biff failing math is presented. When Linda’s reminder of their financial situation attempts to constrain his dreams again, he uses deception as a means of freedom. In the end, when Biff confronts Willy with truth, the disillusioned salesman falls into the denial of his dire circumstances. Willy Loman illustrates that when an individual attempts to pursue their ideal goals for fulfillment, they often neglect their present circumstances to remain free from its hindrances. By doing so, however, their reality often gets convoluted with their illusion, and as such, their end goal can not be reclaimed. 

An individual’s thoughts and actions when dealing with neglectable circumstances reflect their perceptions and the ideal life that they wish to live. Willy Loman is a salesman that “rides on a smile and a shoeshine”, believing that his charm and charisma will help him be successful. This is seen in his hallucinations, where his memories of the past seem to be coated with a layer of his illusion of being “well-liked”. When Biff steals the ball from the locker room, for example, Willy encourages him, saying, “Coach’ll probably congratulate you on your initiative.” He follows this by stating that Biff will not get in trouble because the coach likes his son. To Willy, a facade of charm is more important than tangible skills, and his treatment and praise of Biff’s theft represents his disregard for hard work as a means of achievement. Throughout the play, Willy bounces in between reality and his illusions, with the latter influencing the former. His memories of the past are ideal in his mind until there is a constraint of Bernard’s reminder wrecking it. Bernard reminds Biff to study for math to graduate and Willy scoffs at the “anemic” look of the boy in contrast to his son’s strength. Biff shows Willy his University of Virginia sneakers and Willy is again pulled into his illusion of success. Bernard again reminds them that his sneakers do not mean he will attend the school, and Willy calls him a “pest” in response.  He does not want his son’s status as a football player to be compromised by his failing math mark and, as such, he undervalues its importance. To Willy, Brenard’s warning to Biff is a reminder of the presence of unideal circumstances. Later in the story, Willy tells Bernard to “give him the answers” illustrating that he is willing to lie to escape the constraints of Biff’s failing math mark rather than following the rules as Bernard does. In reality, however, Biff does fail math and spends the first few years of his adult life working for minimum wage, in farms – which is devastating to Willy’s ideals for his son. Biff’s fate illustrates Willy’s failure at achieving his dream because he did not accept the circumstances that he was in due to his conflicting values. When an individual is presented with circumstances that contrast with their perceptions of fulfillment, they attempt to neglect the situation by valuing their ideal pursuit over the present reality. By choosing to be unbridled, one does not initially compromise in pursuit of fulfillment, but the result is often undesired. As Willy’s circumstances start to constrict his behavior, his attitude changes from casual ignorance to physical detachment.

An individual, who has seen their ideals be destroyed, might choose to further avoid the reality of their dire circumstances by deceiving those who attempt to comply with it. Regardless of the successful salesman, Willy thinks he is, his finances are crippling in reality. Many payments are still pending on his name and he is not bringing enough money home to pay it. Linda, his wife, is aware of their financial realities and attempts to save money by mending the stockings that she owns. She is calculative and saves all the money that he brings home, hoping that he brings a good salary to pay off all of their debts. However, Willy, a salesman on the move, leaves behind his financial realities at home and pursues a beautiful woman in Boston when working there.  In his remembrances, the woman says, “I chose you” reinforcing that his ideal perception of reality is one where he is desired regardless of his accomplishments. The Woman, unlike Linda, is not worried about finances and falls for the charm that Willy prizes. Moreover, he presents her with new stockings even though Linda is at home resewing hers. When Willy sees her, he gets angry, and says, “I won’t have you mending stocking in this house, now throw them out!” Linda proceeds to question how much he had made that day, and Willy says, “I did five hundred gross in Providence and seven hundred gross in Boston.” This is true in Willy’s dream world, where he can make hundreds of dollars in just a day. However, Linda lives in reality and attempts to fit that number into the payments that they have to make, so questions him about the specifics of what he’s made – only to realize how grossly he exaggerated his earnings. Willy then follows by blaming the circumstances of his lack of success on the stores in the area being closed, illustrating that he is willing to deceive others abiding by the constraints of circumstance to maintain his illusion. Regardless of how many digits he adds to his sales, his bills are still unpaid, and his wife is still mending and thrifting at whatever chance she gets. When an individual deceives themselves and others by fabricating the truth, their need for satisfaction is not met, as they are confronted by their circumstances. This causes them to use circumstance as an excuse for their shortcomings, rather than understanding that they refused to comply with them in the first place. Using deception as a means of remaining unconstrained only works when an individual is fully immersed in their ideal world. However, this is not possible for Willy, who drifts in between the two, and fails to identify which one is the actual life that he is living. 

When confronted by circumstances of failure and desperation in the form of truth, an individual will fall into denial, as the illusions they have immersed themselves in will trump both present and past realities. Willy has blanketed his entire family with the illusion of his success and had imagined that they would continue living by them forever. However, Biff realizes that he was not as successful as his dad expects of him. Biff sees that his father has been living his ideal life, but it is merely his illusions, rather than the circumstances of their present, and tells his brother that, “The man don’t know who we are! The man is gonna know! We have never told the truth for a minute in this house.” Biff’s awakening represents the presence of truth which conflicts with Willy’s attempts at remaining unconstrained by it. Willy is now in a dilemma: does he believe his son’s claim that he was only a “shipping-clerk”, or does he deny it? It becomes an issue of pride, and his son is tarnishing the image of a successful salesman. Therefore, Willy responds by defending himself, “I am not a dime a dozen!” showing his belief that his presence and status cannot be constrained by a monetary definition, even though they are living pay-check to paycheck, struggling to make ends meet. While every word that comes out of Biff’s mouth acts as a reminder of the situation that the entire family is in, Willy uses the word “spite” to defend himself. He sees Biff’s compliance with circumstance – and attempt to convince his father – as hurtful, rather than eye-opening. With each repetition of the word, Willy becomes more resolute in his rejection of their tarnished reputation and poor finances. Willy’s suicide represents his refusal to listen to the truth of Biff’s words and to feed into the illusion of saving Biff with immediate wealth; he “imagines two-hundred dollars in his pocket” from the life insurance that he will get, and that his son will finally be able to move past the constraints of the family’s circumstances, without having to compromise his own ideals. When an individual becomes infatuated with their illusions, they fail to recognize the truth of their present surroundings. At this point, an attempt at being free from a situation becomes an absolute rejection of the undesired, and an internal need to rid oneself of any circumstances that can make it difficult to move on hope-filled towards a future. Linda, at Willy’s grave, admits that she cannot cry for she managed their finances and has been freed from the burden of their mortgage. Happy becomes a mirror image of his father, claiming that he had “a good dream” that he rightfully fought for. It is only Biff who sees that “he had the wrong dreams”, ones that did not match the circumstances that he was confined by.   

Arthur Miller’s character of Willy Loman illustrates that an individual attempts to pursue their ideal goals for the fulfillment, and often neglect their present circumstances to remain free from its hindrances. By doing so, however, their reality often gets convoluted with their illusion, and as such, their desires often become too far to reach. Through Willy’s comparison between Biff and Bernard, Willy’s values of charm and reputation over hard work illustrate his neglect of Biff’s failure. Willy’s lies about his income to Linda show his attempt to neglect their financial situation. Willy’s demise in response to Biff confrontation illustrates his denial of son’s claim of only being a shipping clerk, and his eradication of their circumstances altogether. Miller shows that an individual can never truly escape the confines of circumstance, as its presence dictates the actions that one can take. If an attempt to step out of the boundary is made, they are often made in an ideal world, while reality cripples in existence. 


Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *