For his entire career Willy Loman lived the life of the traveling salesman. He was a man of bluster and pride, of truth and lies. His life focused on his family and his job, and ultimately became blurred between reality and fantasy. Willy Loman did not die “the death of a salesman, in his green velvet slippers in the smoker of the New York, New Haven and Hartford, going into Boston” (2. 247-8). His funeral was not attended “hundreds of salesmen and buyers” (2. 250). With his death his family gained freedom from a life full of lies and broken promises.
For over thirty years Willy Loman is a “one-company man” selling for the Wagner Company. Willy believes “I’m the New England man. I’m vital in New England”, where he has carved out a successful sales route (1. 47-48). He was a “big shot” known to all the buyers on his route. Unfortunately by the time he is sixty his world has radically changed. The “old timers” and “regulars” on his route have died or moved on. He no longer has the recognition he had in his early days. His dreams have been shattered. He feels “if old man Wagner was alive I’d be in charge of New York now” (1. 57). Instead of success, his career painfully winds down, first by being reduced to commission-only, and then ultimately fired (2. 290-300).
Even Willy’s success, as he sees it, may have been overblown. His claim of big sales in the past is disputed by boss, and it is clear his sales have never reached his early peak (2. 267-270). He believes life could have been much better if he had followed his brother to Alaska or Africa. His home life is equally off-balance. He constantly berates his devoted wife. His tremendous pride in his son Biff’s athletic prowess contrasts to the relationship he has with his son Happy. Yet neither son achieves any of the success Willy had hoped for. Ultimately they are reduced to lies and broken promises.
Both sons come home for a time for a very strained reunion. Willy has started to come unraveled. His wife lives in fear of his suicide. Hoping to rekindle their father’s hopes and dreams his sons make a grandiose plan to start a business. The boys decide to take Willy out for big dinner after the meeting with their hoped-for investor. It turns into a disaster, and the sons’ true character comes out. The boys decide to lie to Willy about the failed meeting. They are more interested in picking up a girl they meet, who they also lie to. Finally they abandon their father, who makes his way home, shattered by the turn of events.
Willy had lived a life of lies. In one last angry encounter Biff tells his brother and father “the man don’t know who we are! We never told the truth for ten minutes in this house! (2. 989-990). The family—with the exception of Willy’s wife Linda—seemed to embrace deceptions. Willy’s affair with a buyer had a terrible effect on Biff. Happy was seemingly “happiest” chasing women, lying about his background and position. Biff had led a life of wandering and theft. Upon his death his friend remarks “a salesman is got to dream, boy” (3. 35). Yet Linda’s final remarks are most telling: “we’re free and clear…we’re free…we’re free” (3. 54-55). She is now financially clear with a paid-off house and insurance proceeds, but more importantly, free of the lies, broken promises and unrealistic dreams.
Miller, Arthur. “Death of a Salesman”. The Portable Arthur Miller. New York: Penguin Classics, 2003.