Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman unmasked everyday reality, as a deceptive surface appearance of lies and false values. It is indeed tragic to see that Willy’s death was perpetuated as much by his family as by own delusions. A close examination of these maladjusted relationships will reveal how dysfunctional family behaviors pushed him over the edge.
Willy’s wife, Linda appears as the only character that is grounded in reality. Despite being least delusional, she defines herself through her husband because she only appears to echo and justify her husband’s sentiment and she thinks that Willy is “only a little boat looking for a harbor.” She is merely a passive onlooker who is unable to stop Willy’s march towards oblivion. It is in fact ironic that she guards his false sense of grandeur instead of deflating the myth. Her zealous belief in protecting her husband comes forth when she says, “I won’t have anyone making [Willy] feel unwanted and low and blue….I know he’s not easy to get along with – nobody knows that better than me.” Instead of puncturing Willy’s false ideals, she goes a step further and endorses them, thereby never letting him snap out of the fantasy world he inhabits. It is therefore quite unfortunate to see that in spite of the common sense she possesses, she comes to believe that a good life means a life free of debts and this is most evident when she frantically repeats “We’re free…” after she reports to the dead Willy that she had made the last payment on the house.
Happy, Willy’s second son does nothing to stop his father from committing suicide either. He in fact only contributes to it. Instead of working and helping his failing father, it is seen that he is inclined towards womanizing and is also in a petty habit of taking bribes. These actions indicate a sense of hollow competitiveness, which does nothing to further his aim in life. On the contrary it fuels his greed for more undeserving temporary pleasures. To a considerable extent, he seems to be a chip off the old block. Like his father, he doesn’t mind lying to manipulate things in his favor. His lying to the woman at the restaurant may seem to have little cause for concern, but when he helps Biff lie to Willy about the meeting with Oliver, it is noticed how his fabrications keep Willy from coming to terms with reality. He continues to delude himself and his father by keeping up a false pretense. He wants to remain happy at all costs – even if it entailed his father’s death.
Biff, who shares the most troubled relationship with his father is perceived to be the immediate cause for Willy’s death. Although, there runs a suicidal undercurrent throughout the play, it is only after Biff’s firm declaration: “Pop, Im nothing! Im nothing, Pop. Cant you understand that? Theres no spite in it anymore. Im just what I am, thats all.”, that Willy commits suicide. Biff, who comes to represent Willy’s false hopes, is clearly a failure in the play. He continues to live in a state of denial and loves to shift responsibility. He holds Willy’s promiscuity responsible for all his failures. It comes across as a pathetically lousy excuse for his lack of conviction. He also blames his father for his habit of stealing whereas his actions strongly suggest that he lies and steals to maintain his self-deception: “I never got anywhere because you blew me so full of hot air I could never stand taking orders from anybody!” Therefore, it can be said that Biff’s hostility, his inability to reconcile his differences with his father who loved him very much and his dismal failure in life, contributed immensely to his father’s death. Neither brother wants to confront Willy; doing so would mean confronting themselves and their own failures, as well as increasing their father’s own emotional turmoil.
After having seen how Willy’s family dynamics pushed him to commit suicide, one cannot rule out the fact that Willy Loman himself largely determined his own fate. His life was a pursuit of the glorious American Dream. His strong assertion “I am Willy Loman, and you are Biff Loman!” reveals his adamant refusal to believe that despite his paltry income, he was an insignificant man. His poor work ethic and his questionable integrity are also responsible for his failure. His inability to distinguish between reality and illusion is also unfortunate. He always believed in myths and romanticized them: “And when I saw that, I realized that selling was the greatest career a man could want. Cause what could be more satisfying than to be able to go, at the age of eighty-four, into twenty or thirty different cities, and pick up a phone, and be remembered and loved and helped by so many different people?” Nothing could stop him from living a false idyll. Unfortunately, the people he valued most were the people who could not save him; instead they consciously or sub-consciously made him give up his life.
Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. Penguin, 1998.