Willy is the anti-hero in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. In this extract, Willy is communing with the memory of his phantom brother whilst planting seeds – analogous for leaving behind something that will grow for his family after he is gone. Willy is both the tragic victim and hero of the play as consumerist society plays the role of villain in draining him when he was at his prime and then tossing him aside as he becomes old and senile from the ‘exhaustion’ he was put under from working for both his family and a plummeting economy due to the Wall Street Crash of 1929 that led to the Great Depression of the 1930s.
As the entire play is drawn out into two acts, with no intermediate scenes, the audience can fully experience how exhausted and stressed Willy is. Ben had left America for the Klondike gold rush in Alaska and asked Willy to go with him so that they may become successful – in the eyes of wealth – but he rejected the offer, yet is still greatly influenced in his opinion of ‘success’. The very idea of financial success may have also been aroused by the Panic of 1893 and 1896. Earlier in the play when Linda sees Ben again she says ‘Oh, you’re back? as if dauntingly and she knows that the impression he leaves is tainting. Linda tells him ‘You’re doing well enough, Willy! ‘ but Ben interrupts and says ‘Enough for what, my dear? ‘ and Willy hangs on his every word but now, in this extract, he is telling him what is right and more informing him in what he is going to do as opposed to seeking advice from him – making him more independent and commanding: ‘don’t answer so quick’.
He also recaptures some sense of dignity as he recognises one of his wrongs: ‘Ben, the woman has suffered. This noble statement casts him in a heroic light and the word ‘woman’ implies that it is a universal statement of which Aristotle would claim that ‘the more universal and significant… the better the play will be’1. When Biff discovers Willy’s affair he breaks down and Willy says: ‘She’s nothing to me, Biff. I was lonely, I was terribly lonely. ‘ The repetition of the word ‘lonely’ is used to create pathos, combined with the word ‘terribly’ it emphasises how weak he felt but Biff cannot sympathise with him. He not only betrays his family by having the affair but by giving the woman ‘mama’s stockings! The stockings have sentimentality as Linda is seen ‘[mending a pair of her silk stockings]’.
This betrayal shows Willy as an antihero as he has corrupted his family and ruined his and Biff’s relationship. He is ‘left on the floor on his knees’ which shows how he has sunk and degraded himself. To Ben, Willy says: ‘A man can’t go out the way he came in, Ben, a man has got to add up to something. ‘ This line refers to how people enter the world with nothing and must make something of themselves and should not be reliant on others.
Willy is tragic as he relies on the borrowed money from Charlie but makes the decision to take up the ‘proposition’ for twenty thousand dollars – which he sees best for his family. Ben continues to dismay Willy. He says ‘it’s called a cowardly thing, William’, I can infer that, as this is just an imagined conversation, Willy believes there is a possibility that he will look foolish but he replies: ‘Why? Does it take more guts to stand here the rest of my life ringing up a zero? ‘ This makes Willy tragic as he knows that by living he is no good to his family but by dying he can give them something ‘tangible’: ‘I see it like a diamond’.
This line refers to the riches of Alaska and the guaranteed life insurance. The word ‘diamond’ also alludes to how perfect and flawless his plan is. This choice gives him back his dignity and satiates his pride. The other option was to work for Charley but a reason he cannot accept his offer is that he cannot understand him: ‘What the hell is goin’ on in your head? ‘ This shows how alienated from society he has become and even Linda can recognise this: ‘He’s just a little boat looking for a harbour’ omewhere to settle and feel safe but the analogy of the sea represents how his environment is changing and he cannot adjust to it. (For example, there never used to be apartments surrounding his house – this change occurred partly due to the increase of immigrants annually arriving in the United States; in 1900, 448,572 immigrants were admitted into the United States and in 1910 it had increased to 1,041,5702 which also had a knock-on-effect on the amount of jobs available. ) The thing that is ‘goin’ on in [his] head’ is the life insurance. When offered a job he refuses.
Accepting the job would mean being at the bottom again and he would never reach his ‘rightful place in society’3, quoted by Miller himself on what makes a tragic hero. ‘I – I just can’t work for you’: the hesitation implies how emotional he is over this and how much it means to him. When they begin to argue, Willy says: ‘I don’t care how big you are! [He’s ready to fight]’ This may be metaphorical as against consumerist society, claiming that he will take the challenge set by it and will die fighting it. He is both the tragic victim of it and the antihero as he is prepared: to lay down his life, if need be, to secure one thing-his sense of personal dignity’4 Willy has worked all his life for the personified villain, a corrupt society, and is forced to the only option of suicide but retains his dignity as it is in the name of his family. The word ‘big’ may also be indicating to Charley’s weight, as Capitalists would often be depicted in morality plays as having a larger figure, the sin of gluttony that they can afford to feed due to having more money – another instance of rebelling against society.
An ironic line is when Willy says ‘Ben, that funeral will be massive’ as we later see that it is not but it also draws back to the speech of Dave Singleman. ‘Hundreds of salesman and buyers were at his funeral’ because he is ‘flawless’5, but only because he does not challenge an unjust society, although not as heroic as Willy as the name ‘Singleman’ suggests that he did not have a family and thus was not responsible for anyone else but himself.
Singleman mirrors the heroes of traditional tragedy as he is highly respected and considered noble. However, the average man – Willy – is the true tragic hero of modernity, as they never give up. Ben may be perceived as a reflection of Willy’s consciousness, which illustrates his prolonged inner conflict. In this extract again, Ben taunts and mocks Willy: ‘[He is broken and desperate. ]… He’ll hate you, William’.
Throughout the play Ben seems the dominant combatant but in this extract Willy takes control and, for the first time, does not chase him when he says he must leave because he is more self-assured now. The fractured and exhausted mind of Willy seems to mutilate itself as we see through the stage directions in a previous scene: ‘[A single trumpet note jars the ear]’ ‘the ear’ being both Willy’s and the audiences. This technique creates empathy as the audience can experience exactly what it is like for Willy and the word ‘jars’ emphasises how disturbed his mind is.
The present is flooded with conversations of the past and this expressionistic, theatrical technique allows the audience to visualise how distorted his memory is as well as allow them to feel empathy for his difficulty to focus on one time. Movements are described ‘[Frantically]’. Miller’s use of dramatic techniques certainly shows Willy as a tragic figure as he is at a loss of how to control himself. At the end of this extract Willy is ‘[suddenly conscious of Biff]’ and focuses again on the present out of fear of his inner thoughts being exposed.
Willy is tragic as he has no one to confide in. Even though he tells Linda ‘You’re my foundation and my support’ he still cannot tell her what he intends to do because ‘the woman has suffered’ and this is how Miller has created a tragic, antihero. He is not a man to aspire to: he cannot provide for his family and he does not know how to respect others but his perseverance and sheer determination to make something, perhaps not now for himself but, for his boys is what makes him the modern day tragic hero that so many fathers are.