Death of a Salesman

Read Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller

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The Nature of Dependence in Death of a Salesman

Through juxtaposition of dependent characters against the independent characters of Death of a Salesman, the drama habitually reinforces the idea that in order to transition from dependence to independence it is necessary to depend initially upon another person and then acknowledging one’s own dependence. Essentially, independence is only fully achieved through its juxtaposition with dependence, and the transition occurs only after a character is able to acknowledge reality. The drama suggests that the true beauty of independence can only reside in this release. Death of Salesman offers a three-fold description for both a dependent and an independent character as well as portraits of characters who embody both descriptions and characters who gain independence from dependence through the acknowledgment of truth.

First, the dependent character in Death of a Salesman is depicted as having the need for the approval of others. In the case of male characters, this is most clearly shown by insecurity concerning masculinity and societal roles. The second portrayal of dependence is the presence of denial in a character, most often shown by a refusal to accept shame or face reality. Finally, Death of a Salesman shows a character’s dependence by the character’s inability to travel somewhere permanently. Inevitably, the dependent character will return in some fashion. The depiction of independence is along the same three-part formula. An independent character has the approval of society, accepts reality in order to develop a personal identity, and is shown to be independent by his or her ability to leave without coming back.

Ben is portrayed as independent for the entirety of the drama. First, he has the approval of others and security in his own masculinity. Ben is depicted as, “a stolid man, in his sixties, with a mustache and an authoritative air. He is utterly certain of his destiny, and there is an aura of far places about him” (44), confirming his striking masculinity and self-assurance. He is accepted and revered by outside characters such as Willy when Willy laments, “Why didn’t I go to Alaska with my brother Ben that time! Ben! That man was a genius, that man was a success incarnate! What a mistake!” (41). According to Willy, Ben is “the only man I ever met who knew the answers” (45), which further emphasizes authoritative power. Ben has the approval of others, yet does not appear to be reliant upon it. He tells Willy that, “I’ve bought timberland in Alaska and I need a man to look after things for me” (85). While it may appear that Ben is relying upon Willy accepting his offer, his responses of “I haven’t much time” (84) and “I’ve got to go” (86) reveal that he is not fully dependent upon Willy taking the opportunity. 

Furthermore, Ben is not in denial of what he wants; he is aware of his life desires. Willy says of him “What’s the mystery? The man knew what he wanted and went out and got it! Walked into a jungle, and comes out, the age of twenty-one, and he’s rich!” (41). Not only did Ben fully understand what he wanted with his life, but he was rewarded for his acknowledgement, showcasing that independence is rewarding and preferable to dependence. He further displays his confidence when Willy asks of him, “Oh, Ben, how did you do it? What is the answer? Did you wind up the Alaska deal already?” to which he replies, “Doesn’t take much time if you know what you’re doing” (Miller 84). Despite Ben’s reappearance in Willy’s memory, “Ben, who is, after all, momentarily in a time space he cannot legitimately inhabit, keeps trying to leave—and finally does” (Schuelter 146). The ultimate proof of Ben’s independence is shown in juxtaposition; Willy is “tied down” to his present circumstances while Ben is able to leave and not tangibly return.

The father of Willy and Ben is also an independent character. First, his masculinity is acknowledged and approved by other characters; Ben says of him, “Father was a very great and very wild-hearted man…Great inventor, Father” to which Willy agrees and replies, “That’s just the way I’m bringing them up, Ben—rugged, well liked, all-around” (Miller 49). Willy’s father also embodies the final description of an independent character, one who is able to leave without coming back.  The Loman father is implicitly confident enough in himself and his own masculinity to disrupt the societal expectations of a father and leave his family. As with Ben, this independence is shown most clearly through juxtaposition against Willy being depended upon to stay where he is.

On the alternate end of the spectrum is Happy, who encapsulates dependence for the entirety of the drama. He longs for the approval of others from beginning to end, from, “I’m losing weight, you notice, Pop?” (29) to “We’ll carry your bags, Pop!” (31), to “I’m gonna show you and everybody else that Willy Loman did not die in vain” (139). He also exhibits an inability to accept reality and the current state of affairs, “I’m getting married, Pop, don’t forget it. I’m changing everything. I’m gonna run that department before the year is up” (133). He is ambitions and presumptuous, but unrealistically so, as shown by, “I’m not licked that easily. I’m staying right in this city, and I’m gonna beat this racket!” to which Biff replies, “I know who I am, kid” (138). Happy also shows an inability to leave, as he expresses his desire to symbolically “[stay] right in this city”. Happy, in the conclusion of the drama, remains frustratingly ignorant, revealing his continued lack of independency. He claims, “I’m gonna win it for him” to which Biff replies, “with a hopeless glance at Happy…let’s go, Mom” (139).

Willy is emphasized the most as dependent, and is not liberated even upon his death. First, he is insecure in his own masculinity. Not only is he insecure, but he is “painfully aware of [his] own inadequacies” (Koprince 319). This awareness of his failings is rooted in his regret over missed opportunity, such as to join Ben or for the football career of Biff. The feelings of inadequacy propel him to seek outside validation in the eyes of others; perhaps his most explicit compensation is his affair with “The Woman” in Boston. She claims, “I picked you” and “I’ll put you right through to the buyers”, to which he responds, full of masculine power, to “[slap] her bottom” (39). The role of The Woman is to create a pseudo sense of importance and power in Willy, attending to his need for validation (Robkoff, 50). The event of the affair and Willy’s attempts to deal with the situation reveal further inability for Willy to be independent. Instead of acknowledging his fault in having the affair, he remains in denial after he is caught by Biff, and this denial is the second characteristic of a dependent character. Working in correspondence with his denial is his sense of shame, which lies at the root of his loneliness and need of a woman (Ribkoff 50). Not only is Willy insecure in his masculinity, but he depends heavily upon the validation from others, specifically Ben. Willy’s encounters with Ben are peppered with Willy’s dependence, “longingly: Can’t you stay a few days? You’re just what I need, Ben, because…I still feel—kind of temporary about myself” (51) and “Ben, am I right? Don’t you think I’m right? I value your advice” (87). 

Willy’s unreasonable expectations gestures to a denial of reality. He refuses to acknowledge Biff’s shame; when Biff steals the football from school, Willy comments, “Coach’ll probably congratulate you on your initiative!” (30). When Biff admits, “Who ever said I was a salesman with Oliver?” Willy stubbornly replies, “Well, you were” (106). When Biff steals the pen from Bill Oliver, Willy rejects the shame by offering justification, “you give it to him and tell him it was an oversight!…You were doing a crossword puzzle and accidently used his pen!” (112). Willy’s childhood was devoid of a masculine father figure who would guide him to manhood and instruct him in the way of the world, yet he refuses to acknowledge the fault in his father, shown by how he, “wants his polished and successful brother to educate the boys about their late paternal grandfather—the barely remembered adventurer who left for exotic Alaska when Willy was but a toddler” (Sircy, 246). Willy looks outside of himself for fulfillment and spends his life suppressing his own shame (Tracy 61).  He prioritizes appearance, as shown by how he advises his sons, “be liked and you will never want” (33).  The characters from whom Willy seeks validation characterize him as in denial, such as Charley, “Willy, when’re you gonna realize…” (97), and Biff, “I’m not bringing home any prizes any more, and you’re going to stop waiting for me to bring them home!” (132). When Biff exclaims, “Pop! I’m a dime a dozen and so are you!”, Willy open voices his denial; “I am not a dime a dozen! I am Willy Loman and you are Biff Loman!” (132).

The third indication of Willy’s dependence is his inability to travel without coming back. Both Ben and Willy’s father were able to travel somewhere without the intention of returning. Willy, on the other hand, is unable to travel somewhere to stay. He is always, very explicitly, described as inevitably returning. His narratives about life on the road as a traveling salesman always include the trip home. He is even unable to travel permanently outside of his past, to which he nostalgically returns. When Ben offers him adventure, “there’s a new continent…you could walk out rich. Rich!” Willy enthusiastically replies, “We’ll do it here, Ben! You hear me? We’re gonna do it here!” (87). This introduces a second kind of dependence; namely, that dependence also occurs in a character when others are dependent upon them. Willy is unable to pack up and leave, like Ben and his father, because he has a family who depends upon him to stay.

Although Willy’s death enables him to “travel without coming back”, the results of his death do not align with his own definition of an independent, successful business man. Willy’s description of a successful, independent salesman rotates around Dave Singleman, who “when he died, hundreds of salesmen and buyers were at his funeral. Things were sad on a lotta trains for months after that…there was respect, and comradeship, and gratitude in it” (81). This picture of success is juxtaposed with Willy’s own funeral, of which Linda asks, “Why didn’t anybody come?” (137). Dave Singleman was 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” (81), while Willy, after only thirty-four years as a salesman, is no longer able to travel the road in order to earn a living (Koprince 320). Willy has still not gained the mass approval of society, even in his death, as Biff says of him, “He had the wrong dreams. All, all, wrong” (138). Furthermore, Willy is fixated in denial as he enters into his death; he envisions Biff as a football player, and even still as a boy (135). Finally, Willy is reliant upon others to even assist him in death, “Ben! Ben, where do I…? Ben, how do I…?” (135). Willy failed to obtain the approval of others, continued in his state of denial, and relied upon others for the duration of his life and even his death. He failed to live up to his own expectations of success and independence.

There is a third category of characters in Death of a Salesman; namely, characters who transition from dependency to independence. Bernard begins the drama as a dependent character; dependent upon the approval of specifically Biff. His character revolves around the ways that he can serve Biff and meet his needs, and he reveals his priorities in this manner by how he neglects to defend himself when Willy bullies him with, “Hey, looka Bernard. What’re you lookin’ so anemic about, Bernard?” to which he replies, “He’s gotta study, Uncle Willy. He’s got Regents next week” (32). Despite this, Bernard transitions to become independent, signified by his ability to acknowledge reality and reject denial of the circumstances of the past, “Because I’d thought so well of Biff, even though he’d always taken advantage of me I loved him” (94). When Willy interacts with Bernard in the latter half of the drama, the text reveals that Bernard no longer relies upon the approval of others to find validation, as revealed when Willy says, “The Supreme Court! And he didn’t even mention it!” to which Charley replies, “He don’t have to—he’s gonna do it” (Miller 95). The presence of Bernard’s two sons and wife indicate a form of socially acceptable masculinity. Furthermore, he is given implicit approval on his life by Willy when Willy asks of him, “What-what’s the secret?…How-how did you?” (92). Finally, the drama places clear emphasis on the movement of Bernard. He, “just stopped by to see Pop. Get off my feet till my train leaves. I’m going to Washington in a few minutes” (91). Bernard ultimately ends up successful.

Linda is also among this category of characters, as she too transitions to become independent of Willy. Initially, her dependency on Willy is shown by her fear of change; she lacks self-assurance within the present due to her lack of self-identity and therefore cannot be confident in the future. Willy, excited, says, “Linda, he’s got a proposition for me in Alaska” to which she replies, “But you’ve got—To Ben: He’s got a beautiful job here” (85). Linda is also in denial over the true state of Willy at the beginning of the drama, further showcasing her status as a dependent. Biff says to her, “I know he’s a fake and he doesn’t like anybody around who knows!” to which she replies, “why a fake? In what way? What do you mean?” (58). She is dependent upon Willy’s unrealistic expectations for the future, such as when she exclaims, “why, old man Wagner told him just the other day that if he keeps it up he’ll be a member of the firm, didn’t he, Willy?” (85). She believes in Willy even though it seems as if she is the only one; “he’s just a big stupid man to you, but I tell you there’s more good in him than in many other people” (59). While she has faith in her husband, this exhibits echoes of denial over the state of his competency.

One can identify the moment when Linda becomes independent of Willy at his funeral. Initially, she is in denial, signified by her inability to cry: “Forgive me dear, I can’t cry…it seems that you’re just on another trip. I keep expecting you. Willy, dear, I can’t cry”. The turn occurs when she is able to first recognize her own ability independent of Willy and then acknowledge Willy’s death, “I made the last payment on the house today. Today, dear”, and then, the new independence signaled by her sudden outburst of tears and emotion, “A sob rises in her throat. We’re free and clear. Sobbing more fully, released: We’re free…We’re free..” (139). Linda becomes independent when she acknowledges Willy’s death and releases herself from denial. Her independence, however, is only fully applied to her because of the juxtaposition to dependence on Willy that defined her throughout the rest of the drama. In order to become independent, she first had to be dependent upon another and then acknowledge her dependency.

Biff is the second character who explicitly makes the transition. He has inherited Willy’s fragile sense of self-worth reliant upon validation from others. Willy asks of him, “Bernard is not well liked, it he?” to which Biff replies, “He’s liked, but not well liked” (33). Biff’s dependence upon the expectation of his father has rendered him without a stable identity. As a result, his life lacks direction. Biff is unable to attend the University of Virginia because he flunked math. Willy repeatedly showed Biff that he valued Biff’s football skills far above the math skills of Bernard, and because Biff’s identity was rooted in his father’s approval, he neglected his studies. Because Willy refused to acknowledge the things that were shameful for Biff, theft was positively reinforced in Biff’s life. As a result, he fails as an adult because he, “stole [himself] out of every good job since high school” (131). He lacks ambition and forward direction when he comes home, signified by how malleable he is concerning his future plans; “But now I’ll stay, and I swear to you, I’ll apply myself. It’s just—you see, Mom, I don’t fit in business. Not that I won’t try. I’ll try and make good” (60). Biff shows that he is searching for identity in the validation of others.

Throughout his life, Biff is dependent upon Willy’s perception of masculinity and on Willy’s approval. A combination of failure to meet his father’s expectations, realization of his father’s immorality with “The Woman”, and the inability for Biff to develop independence from Willy has caused shame to be Biff’s primary form of identity (Ribkoff 49). This lack of identity is what drives Biff toward wrongdoing. Only when Biff stops to acknowledge his action of stealing Bill Oliver’s pen does he begin the process of releasing himself from dependency upon outside forces. Freedom from dependency continues as Biff refuses to deny the state of reality. Willy prompts, “the door of your life is wide open!” to which Biff replies, “Pop! I’m a dime a dozen, and so are you!” (132). The moment upon which Biff fully becomes dependent of his father occurs when he comes to terms completely with his sense of identity, “I’m nothing, Pop. Can’t you understand that? There’s not spite in it any more. I’m just what I am, that’s all. Biff…breaks down sobbing…crying, broken: Will you let me go, for Christ’s sake? Will you take that phony dream and burn it before something happens?” (133). His moment of release is signified, parallel to Linda, by his act of crying. This symbolizes the emotionally painful process of separating his sense of self from his father. In order for Biff to build an identity for himself, he must be completely broken from his dependence. This independence, much like the independence of Linda, only occurs in juxtaposition to dependence. It was necessary for Biff to be dependent upon someone else and then acknowledge his own lack of self before he finds independence.

Despite Willy’s desire to become independent, the drama as a whole does not portray absolute independence in the most positive of light. The two characters who are fully independent are Ben and Willy’s father, and neither encourages Willy to be devoted to his responsibilities. The two characters encourage the sense of denial in Willy; Ben encourages Willy to deny reality and Willy’s father renders Willy incapable of masculine security. Although the two characters are independent, they are selfishly so and do not further the common good. The text does not support stagnation of dependence in a character either, as Willy is ultimately deemed “unsuccessful” and Happy is rendered as in frustratingly ignorant. The characters in Death of a Salesman concluded to be successful are those of Bernard, Linda, and Biff, the three of whom encapsulate freedom and develop through a transition of dependence to independence. Therefore, the text suggests that it is the juxtaposition of independence with former dependence that creates and sustains freedom; that the true beauty and the true liberality is in the feeling of release.


Works Cited

Koprince, Susan. “The Secret Life of Willy Loman: A Miller-Thurber Connection”. The Midwest Quarterly 53.4 (2012): 317-328. Web. 9 May 2016.

Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. New York: Penguin Group, 1949. Print.

Ribkoff, F..”Shame, Guilt, Empathy, and the Search for Identity in Arthur Miller’s Death of A Salesman.”Modern Drama 43.1 (2000): 48-55. Project MUSE. Web. 09 May. 2016.

Schlueter, June. “Re-membering Willy’s Past: Introducing Postmodern Concerns through Death of a Salesman.” Approaches to Teaching Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.” Matthew C. Roudané, ed., New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1995, 142-154.

Thompson, Terry W. “Miller’s Death of a Salesman”. The Explicator 63.4 (2005): 244-247. Web. 9 May 2016.

Tracy, Jessica L., and Richard W. Robins. “”Death of a (Narcissistic) Salesman:” an Integrative Model of Fragile Self-esteem”. Psychological Inquiry 14.1 (2003): 57–62. Web. 9 May 2016.