Working hard to get where you want to be in life can be challenging, but the rewards of reaching your goal are endless. Willy, in Death of a Salesman, learns this lesson the hard way. From the beginning of the play, Willy is established as a major character and is very dynamic. In his eyes, popularity and being liked is the best way to achieve success. As a traveling business man, Willy ignores the fact that working hard will eventually lead you to living a successful life and the American dream. In addition, he struggles with insecurities and shame internally that make relationships with his family and other characters complicated. His relationship with The Women, Biff, and Charley in particular are the most concerning. Willy’s actions towards others and lack of compassion ultimately lead him to be the antagonist of the story.
Willy has a loving wife Linda, who is his support system. However, “he is compelled to look at additional sources outside of his family for reassurance, since his family begins to see his failings, despite his endeavors to mask them” (Klimchak 20). As a result, he consciously decides to have an affair with his mistress while in Boston. His affair confirms his inability to be a faithful man to his wife, and a good father to his sons. Willy is searching for satisfaction from The Women but she claims he is “self-centered! Why so sad? You are the saddest, self-centerdest soul I ever did see-saw” (Miller 2, 1, 1304-1305). This displays that he cannot be a good man in any of his relationships.
Willy is extremely hard on his son Biff, who he wants so desperately to see succeed. With the constant pressure exerted on Biff by his father, their relationship rapidly deteriorates. At first Willy is extremely satisfied with his son. He is a football superstar, good looking, and ready to take on the world. Willy’s toxic relationship begins with Biff in high school. When “Biff flunked math!” (Miller 2, 1, 1123), Willy offered to speak with the teacher to earn four more points. However, Biff declines and tells his father he is “fake! You phony little fake!” (Miller 2, 1, 1439). At this moment Biff finds out about his affair, and Willy cannot be seen as pure and innocent from this point forward. Willy is constantly picking a battle with biff, and the two always butt heads. For example, Biff enjoyed working business, but his father claims he never tried to please people. In addition, Willy yells at him and accuses him of being crazy and says: “Go back to the West! Be a carpenter, a cowboy, enjoy yourself!” (Miller 1, 1, 1435-1436). When Biff tries to make a plan for a lifelong business career, his father insults his ambitions and belittles him. Willy complicates the relationship he has with his son, and causes it to be unrepairable.
Willy is extremely competitive in his job as a salesman, and will do anything to get a leg up on others. His work life sets the plot of the play, and leads to the climax. He is a good looking, middle class man trying to work his way into a high position, yet fails to do so. One of his biggest competitors is Charley, Willy’s only friend. While Willy spends countless hours in Hartford and Boston building business contacts and reputation, Charley maintains strong work ethic. Willy is thoroughly convinced the way to be successful is to be well liked by others. He is jealous of Charley since he is a successful business man. Willy constantly insults Charley, saying things like: “a man who can’t handle tools is not a man. You’re disgusting” (Miller 1, 1, 925-926). When Willy gets fired from his job, he uses Charley as a way to get money to pay for insurance. Willy’s personality sets him up to be a person who consistently takes from others, but barely returns the favor. He has a hard time admitting that he lost his job, but Charley offers to help him make money in the meantime. Willy was in search of a job in New York that offered fifty dollars a week, and Charley honored it. However, Willy is reluctant to take the position because he allowed his pride to get in the way and is apprehensive about being a business partner with Charley due to his jealousy. While Charley adds an element of competition into Willy’s life, his goal is to see him and his family thrive. However, Willy is unable to see this trait in him because he is so distracted by trying to be better. He can’t comprehend how someone can be so giving and generous, meanwhile so successful in life’s endeavors. When someone tries to do Willy a favor, he declines because of his stubbornness. At times, his arrogance also gets in the way. To conclude, Willy is also envious of Bernard, Charley’s son. He is a successful lawyer and has made an impressive name for himself as much as representing the supreme court, meanwhile his son is living at home and stagnant with his goals in life.
Willy’s negatively and lack of care for others ultimately sets him up to be the antagonist of the play. The realism of the play demonstrates how everyday life struggles ultimately led Willy to his decline. His self-centered attitudes create a toxic environment for others to surround themselves in. Furthermore, “Willy constantly tries, in the present action of the play as well as in remembered past, to hide his professional failure from his sons, his wife, and the outside world” (Burgard 338). His misfortunes lead to his final bout of unhappiness, causing him to speed off in his car and commit suicide. Being successful in a world filled with competition is a less appealing goal than finding true happiness in following your passion.
- Burgard, Peter. “Two Parts Ibsen, One Part American Dream: On Derivation and Originality in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.” Orbis Litterarum, vol. 43, ser. 3, Nov. 1988, pp. 336–353. 3.
- Klimchak, Amre L. “Being Towards Death of a Salesman.” Scholarworks @ Georgia State University, Aug. 2005, pp. 1–61.
- Miller, Arthur. “A&P.” Literature Craft & Voice , edited by Nicholas Delebanco and Alan Cheuse, 2nd ed., McGraw-Hill, 2012, pp. 1280-1340.