Willy is indeed the protagonist among the Death of a Salesman characters, but it would be difficult to say that he is a hero. He has spent his entire life selling, but not in the way he thinks. He believes he has been selling products his entire life, but he has really been marketing himself. Now that the generations of buyers with whom he had relationships have passed into retirement, no one knows him, and he’s having a hard time even getting appointments, let alone making sales.
The fact that Willy’s final act is to end his own life shows that he never comes to terms with his own flaws. He knows that there is a payout attached to his life insurance policy that will do what he cannot – provide for his family and give Biff a nest egg. He has not saved enough during his prosperous years to be prepared for the days when he no longer can sell, and the desperation associated with this knowledge convinces him that “after all the highways, and the trains, and the appointments, and the years, you end up worth more dead than alive” (Act II). And so that payout becomes the diamonds that his brother Ben had left home for, decades ago.
The primary tragedy in this play is not Willy’s death in itself – it’s that he can’t see the love that Linda, Biff and Happy feel for him. Because he can’t, he doesn’t see his self-worth in any terms other than money.
Charley lives next door to the Lomans and, among all of the Death of a Salesman characters, appears to be Willy’s closest friend. Charley has owned his own successful business for years, and his own son Bernard is a successful attorney. Willy is jealous of his neighbor’s success – and that of his son, who has done much better for himself than Willy’s son Biff has. Charley has been paying Willy’s bills for some time, and he even offers him a job to come and work for him, but for some reason, Willy is too proud to come work for him – but not to take loans from him that he has no way to repay. Throughout the play, Charley is the voice of logic and reason. Charley has succeeded with regard to the American Dream, but has not deluded himself about any magic associated with it. He has done well for himself with hard work, and he offers Willy that opportunity too. Unfortunately, Willy is beyond the help of reason.
Of the three Loman men among the Death of a Salesman characters, Biff is the only one who bothers to spend time with introspection. He hates the way that the other two create illusions for themselves and live inside those instead of reality. Willy has always had grand dreams for Biff, which Biff was headed toward fulfilling, until Biff discovered Willy having an affair in Boston. That disillusionment destroys all of the belief that Biff felt in his father.
After this confrontation, Biff feels trapped inside his father’s dreams for him, and Willy feels like he has raised a slacker. Biff believes that Willy’s American Dream focuses on the tangible and the negotiable, neglecting the ideas of self-reliance and integrity. Biff cannot achieve his own autonomy until he realizes the full extent of the flaws of his father’s philosophy and develops his own belief system.
In other words, Biff stops believing in much of the American Dream after he catches his father in his affair. Nothing that had seemed so valuable before this discovery does much for him afterward – even though he still wants to please his disapproving father. It is this contradiction within Biff – not just towards his father but also, by extension, towards everything that his dad stood for that has, in large part, kept Biff trapped right where he is – unwilling to push forward to make his own goals.
Willy’s long-suffering wife is in many ways the strongest among the Death of a Salesman characters. She has retained her emotional sanity despite the years of living with her husband’s infidelity and materialism. She believes that debt is the opponent of freedom, which goes against Willy’s ideals of acquisition. She is also there for both of her troubled sons – she has the most even keel of anyone in the story.
In some ways, Linda goes against the acquisitive aspects of the American Dream – which have for so long been built on extended credit that feelings about debt were strong even back then. Her idea of the American Dream revolves around self-reliance and living within one’s own means.
All of the anger and bitterness rankling in the other Death of a Salesman characters seem to have percolated within the heart of Happy Loman. He takes pleasure in sex – but in quantity, not in terms of quality or depth. He can trick himself, just as his father did; he presents himself as the assistant buyer for his store, but he is really one of the assistants to the assistant. He is trapped in the treadmill of the materialistic side of the American Dream, without a clear exit – one might even call it the American Nightmare.
Here’s the deal – if you spend enough time chases promotions and bonuses and romantic conquests, you lose sight of what it means to be human. The ironically named “Happy” does not even know that he is a captive of this vicious cycle.
This post is part of the series: Death of a Salesman Study Guides
These articles are designed to help high school and college students who are encountering “Death of a Salesman” for the first time.