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Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman Essay

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Willy Loman is often recognised as the tragic hero of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman but arguments can be made against Biff being the contemporary hero and thus the true hero of the play. The purpose of a tragedy is to create pity and fear in the audience. A traditional tragedy consists of the central character, the tragic hero, creating chaos in the community he lives in. The hero becomes tempted by something, leading to the exposure of the character’s fatal flaw.

The fatal flaw becomes the dominant characteristic of the hero and ultimately leads to the hero’s downfall and demise. After the hero’s death, at the end of the tragedy, order is restored, leaving the audience with a sense of catharsis. Miller creates an American tragedy, as opposed to a Greek or Shakespearean. America has never had a king or nobility who could represent a tragic hero in a traditional tragedy and Miller wanted to give a voice to the ordinary working class man, showing their lives can also be tragic.

He once stated “I believe that the common man is as apt a subject for a tragedy as kings are” (New York Times. 27th Feb 1949). Despite critics arguing against it being a tragedy Linda declaring “attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person” (Page 44) recognises the tragic status of the play. She also highlights the importance of the ordinary working class, who too can be tragic heroes. The tragic hero is seen to be punished out of proportion for one fatal mistake they make. Willy’s mistake is his belief in the American Dream which he continues to chase relentlessly. His fatal flaw -his hamartia – is his insecurity, which leads him to suffer throughout the play. Willy is an unsuccessful salesman, living in the city, struggling to face reality and re-living memories which he had reinterpreted to fit his dreams (Page. 2003. Page 62).

Willy has bought into the American Dream, chasing it relentlessly throughout his life, but his dreams are unrealistic. Dave Singleman, an eighty-four year old salesman, became his inspiration and role model, after he “realized selling was the greatest career a man could want” (Page 63). Willy saw Singleman as loved and adored by everybody and so his insecurity led him to follow the same career path, in the hope he would lead the life that Willy saw Singleman as living. “Cause what could be more satisfying than to be able to go, at the age of eighty-four… and be remembered and loved and helped by so many people?” (Page 63). Willy’s perception of Singleman is a warped perception. Just like his perception of the American Dream, it is just an illusion. Willy fails to realise this and gain a grasp of reality, leading to his death and making him a tragic hero. Willy has lived the wrong dream; he should be out in the countryside with his family, working in a job making use of his hands.

He put his own ceiling in his living room and is oblivious to the amount of skill it takes to do such a job. Charley: “Yeah. That’s a piece of work. To put up a ceiling is a mystery to me. How do you do it?” Willy: “What’s the difference?” (Page 34). Biff recognizes Willy “had the wrong dreams. All, all wrong.” (Page 110). However, Willy always worked hard for his family, showing courage and determination. Willy wants success to be able to spend more time with his wife and family but is often dismissive of them, even berating Linda for buying the wrong cheese. “Why do you get American when I like Swiss?” (Page 12). Willy is incapable of relinquishing his dream and another character flaw, his pride, stands in the way of him accepting a job from Charley. “What the hell are you offering me a job for?” – Willy (Page 33).

Willy’s relentless pursuit of his dream makes him a tragic hero. Willy was abandoned by his father and brother at a young age. Singleman then became his role model and father figure. Throughout the play Willy struggles with insecurity, a result of being abandoned. During times he relives the past and escapes into old memories he often talks to his older brother Ben. It is not an accurate representation of his real memories of Ben – it is unlikely he ever saw Ben again at all – but Willy uses Ben as a voice to criticise his own life. During Willy’s memories Ben spends a lot of time putting Willy down and trying to leave. “Haven’t the time, William.” – Ben (Page 66). Although Willy’s main character flaw is his insecurity he has others. Willy is often contradictory, calling Biff a “lazy bum”, then saying Biff is “not lazy” (Page 11). Willy fails to berate Biff for stealing a ball, even saying “Coach’ll probably congratulate you on your initiative!” (Page 23).

He does not reprimand Biff for his stealing, often encouraging him. Willy is contradictory, telling Biff “just wanna be careful with those girls”, yet has a mistress himself (Page 21). The introduction of his affair “[From the darkness is heard a laughter of a woman]” (Page 29) turns Willy’s memories darker, as it was Biff finding out about the affair that caused their relationship to break down. Willy exaggerates his success, telling Linda he did “five hundred gross in Providence and seven hundred gross in Boston” and then changing to “roughly two hundred gross on the whole trip” (Page 27). He exaggerates to boost his self confidence and fight against his insecurity. Willy has bought into the materialistic concept of the American Dream. His motto is “be liked and you will never want” (Page 25). . Willy believes to be successful you must be well liked, believing “a man can end with diamonds here on the basis of being liked” (page 68).

He believes he has to be successful for Biff to love him but ironically Biff has loved him all along. Willy is a good man, proving this by showing his happiness for Bernard success – “Willy: [genuinely shocked, pained and happy]” (Page 75). Despite Willy pursuing the wrong dreams he shows courage, determination and a love for his family, creating pity and sympathy in the audience. However his several flaws, the biggest of which is insecurity, lead to his demise, making him a tragic hero. A contemporary hero has qualities such as strength, honesty, morality, integrity, self-reliance and the courage to face up to reality. At the start of play Biff has not managed to relinquish his father’s dreams completely. He works out on a ranch, a job he loves, but comes back every spring because of his guilt, to try and succeed in sales, a career he hates. “It’s a measly manner of existence” (Page 16).

He realises he would do better in the country and all he truly desires “is to be outdoors” (Page 16) but he hasn’t been able to abandon his father’s dreams completely. Biff is physically attractive and could have been a top football star but his confidence has diminished. “Biff Loman is lost” (Page 11.) It is evident from the beginning of the play that Biff is worried about Willy’s struggle with reality and his past. “Does he know Mom can hear that?” (Page 20). From a young age Willy encouraged the wrong ideals in Biff. Willy often condoned and ignored Biffs tendency to steal, rather than reprimanded. “Shut up! He’s not stealing anything!” (Page 40). Biff stole after feeling humiliated to regain a sense of power. By the end of the play Biff is honest about his stealing, even admitting he “stole a suit in Kansas City and was in jail” (Page 104). Stealing a pen from Ben Oliver’s office forces him to realise the things he loves in the world and the stupidity of his stealing.

“What the hell am I grabbing this thing for?” (Page 105). Biff has a moment of self-realization at the end of the play, accepting reality and being honest about his life. He realises they have spent their lives chasing the wrong dreams and his father must abandon the American Dream. “Will you take that phony dream and burn it before something happens?” (Page 106). He tries to force the rest of his family into facing reality, managing to force Willy into face it for a brief moment. Willy refuses to let go, relinquishing the chance to become the true hero, and remaining the tragic hero of Death of a Salesman. Biff had always been conceited, a result of Willy’s constant praise – “Good work, Biff” (Page 22) – throughout his youth, when they had a great relationship, until Biff found out about Willy’s affair.

However, by the end of the play Biff realises he’s “a dime a dozen” (Page 105), ridding himself of the self-superiority he has spent years carrying around. He understands Willy spent so much time praising him that he became egotistical. “I never got anywhere because you blew me so full of hot air that I could never stand taking orders from anybody” (Page 104). Biff realises his arrogance, facing up to reality, admitting he is “not a leader of men” (Page 105). Biff has always felt some reluctance to follow the American Dream. By the end of the play he realises Willy and the Lowman family had always been chasing the wrong dreams and he faces and accepts reality. He accepts he was never anything more than a shipping clerk and realises his family have been living in a fantasy world. “We’ve been talking in a dream for fifteen years” (Page 82). Biff finds self-assurance, and is comfortable with who he is. “I know who I am, kid” (Page 111).

He matures and faces up to the world of reality. Biff finds his identity, faces reality, is honest about his life and finds a personal, as well as physical strength. He shows a lot of the qualities found in a contemporary hero. Miller uses expressionism and realism in Death of a Salesman. Realism accurately portrays characters and situations through human characteristics and language, costumes, and sets. Expressionism is concerned with portraying the inner emotions and psychology of a character. Dialogue tends to become more poetic and lighting is used to create atmosphere in expressionism. Realism looks at the objective; expressionism looks at the subjective. Miller uses realism in the play through the life-like sets, the realistic American-English language and the typical costumes. Expressionism is used when Willy is re-living the past, reinterpreting memories to suit him; he often lives in this world. He is happier in his past memories, before the affair and before his and Biffs relationship broke down. Willy often tries to escape to the past and into expressionism.

Realism and the present are too painful for Willy as he has to live with his strained relationship with Biff, his failure as a salesman, and his guilt of an affair. Happy has been influenced by Willy to chase the American Dream but does not pursue it to Willy’s extent, ruling him out as the tragic hero. He is not as successful as he would like to be. “All I can get do is wait for the merchandise manager to die (Page 17). He sleeps with women to avenge men who have surpassed him on the career path; similar to Biff seeking revenge on those who have humiliated him by stealing. Happy lives in the Loman dream world, refusing to face reality. He is happy to allow Willy to live in a dream world, to carry on humoring him. “Sure, have lunch tomorrow!” (Page 88). Even after Willy’s death Happy is unable to relinquish Willy’s desire to fulfill the American Dream. “I’m gonna show you and everybody else that Willy Lowman did not die in vain” (Page 111).

Happy appears to be jealous of Biff being Willy’s favorite “How do you like that damned fool! (Page 47). This could be a possible reason why he follows the dream – to seek his father’s approval. Linda regularly defends Willy and excuses his behavior, which only keeps Willy trapped in his destructive dream. Miller’s opening stage directions suggest Willy creates and structures Linda’s ideals for her “his massive dreams and little cruelties…longings which she shares, but lacks the temperament to utter and follow to the end” (Page . Linda is the mediator of the family, often discovering the reasons behind Willy’s cruelties whilst mediating. She adores Willy but kindness such as buying him special cheese is just thrown back in her face, something she accepts without argument. Linda knows Willy has impossible dreams, but unlike Biff she cannot bring herself to acknowledge the fact. Linda will not allow Willy’s dreams to be crushed because he is the “dearest man in the world” (Page 43) to her and she will not have anyone “making him feel unwanted and low and blue” (Page 43).

What she does not realise is by leaving Willy to continue chasing his dreams, he will become a tragic hero (Page. 2003. Page 71-73). Willy is a tragic hero; he continues to chase his dreams relentlessly failing to recognise he should be in a job making use of his hands, living in the country. Willy only saw a warped perception of Singleman’s life, Willy’s inspiration, role model and father figure, after his father and brother abandoned him. Willy uses Ben’s voice to criticise himself in his reinterpreted memories. His abandonment led to his insecurity, leading to his death. His insecurity led to his affair, which led to the breakdown of the relationship between him and his son, Biff.

Despite Willy’s flaws, he loves his family and shows he is a good man, inspiring pity and sympathy in the audience, provoking sadness with his death, making him a tragic hero in the traditional sense, but not the true hero. Biff could have been a top football star and is physically strong. He is courageous; he is the only member of the Loman family at the start of the play to have partly relinquished the American Dream and by the end he has completely relinquished it. He faces reality and attempts to make his family face it to, even managing to make Willy face it for a brief moment. He is finally honest about his life – his career and his stealing. He shows morality and integrity. One of the hardest things to do in life is to face up to reality and Biff alone manages to do this making him the true hero of Death of a Salesman.

Is Biff the true hero of death of a salesman

The question posed here, “Is Biff the true hero of death of a salesman” asks the writer to asses’ weather or not Biff is the ‘true’ hero of Death of a salesman as oppose to Willy Lowman’s role given to him by the author A.Miller as being the tragic hero.

Miller broke from the norm of traditional characterization when creating the character Willy Lowman, in that the archetypal Tragic hero had to be a descendant of nobility or aristocratic decent, who’s demise affects not just those close to him but a group of people e.g a population, state of notoriety or kingdom. America had never had the Kings and Queens that a traditional tragedy had historically needed, Miller’s intention was to show how the common working class man could be shown to be a tragic hero and an American tragic hero as oppose to a Greek or Shakespearian one. Linda becomes Millers voice in the play “attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person” (Page 44) showing that in Millers eyes a regular person can and should be seen as a tragic hero.

Biff in Death of as salesman must be seen to be the main protagonist due to his ability to see the proverbial holes in the proverbial fabric of not only his, Willys and all the Lowman’s lives but also the holes that people fall through in pursuit of a dream. The dream in this case being Millers idea of the American dream. The idea of the American dream stems from the notion that America is or was the ‘land of opportunity’ a bountiful land of infinite horizons and opportunities waiting to be explored and taken. Miller paints Biff as a character who initially buys into his farther idealistic view that a “well liked” person will have doors opened for them, in this sense Willy felt that the reputation of a person directly reflected its self in sales figures which translates directly in to wealth which he would use to translate into time spend more time with his family showing that Willy was a good man who’s goal was for the well being of his loved ones, its just that his dream was wrong, “all wrong”.

This idea of the acquisition of wealth and being well liked (not to suggest that to be well liked should be avoided, but to actively seek it out above all else can bare negative connotations) detracts Willy from the main goal in anyone’s life to be happy and develop a sense of fullness through honest self discovery. Given that at the time of Millers play the idea of the American dream was tarnished only by a few American writers of that the time and was still a prevalent driving force in American society a relatively young society, Miller Gives the reader the sense that this dream or the pursuit of it is not the only dream or even the right dream for all people.

In the United States Declaration of Independence listed among the ‘unalienable rights’ is written “We hold these truths to be self–evident, That all men are created equal, That they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, That among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”, This extract from the defining piece of American literary history supports Millers character Biff Lowman’s idea of discovering ones self in America as oppose to simply discovering wealth. Willy’s dream was not him, it was not who he was or what he wanted to do. Willies own American dream was lived through the idea of acquisition of wealth and gaining notoriety as oppose to finding his own dream and perusing it.

Biff buying into his fathers dream goes to see Oliver with the intention of getting twenty thousand dollars in-order to set up in business with his brother happy however Biff sitting in Oliver’s office realizes that he never has been a sales man nor was it his intention to be one, “How the hell did I ever get the idea I was a salesman there?” (Page 82) it was his fathers dream. Bill Oliver doesn’t recognize Biff and in the frustration of the realization he had lied to himself Biff takes Oliver’s pen.

The taking of this pen is symbolic in the sense that Biff has always been overly praised by his farther giving him an over inflated ego, he was never told not to steal and Willy often praised him for it “Shut up! He’s not stealing anything!” (Page 40) in addition the taking of the pen by Biff at the office of Mr Oliver can also be seen as Biff taking something for himself, something physical, from a life in which he feels he plays no real part, the act of taking the fountain pen, something physical, sees this object become the reparations he seeks from following his farther faulty ideals and beliefs. Towards the end of the play this acceptance of stealing becomes more prevalent when he admits he stole a suit and spent time in prision for the theft. Biff is the only one who voices his opinion that they had been following the wrong dream realizing he was not a leader of men and that he was good, like willy, with his hands and he should be out west being practical building something or working as a farm hand.

Willies adoration of Dave Singleman a man he met whilst a traveling salesman is one of a warped view. Singleman becomes a farther figure, role model and source of inspiration for Willy, “Cause what could be more satisfying than to be able to go, at the age of eighty-four… and be remembered and loved and helped by so many people?” (Page 63). The name Dave Singleman however can be seen to imply Singleman is a ‘single’ man a man who lives out of a suitcase moving from hotel to hotel in solitude and isolation. The characteristics of this interpretation of Singleman Willies role model seem reflect on Willie in his life, adopting the idea of a salesman who is well liked will be a success however once again this is the wrong dream for Willie to be following.

At the time Biff catches Willie his farther with another woman he is going to Willie for help, to see if he can speak to his math’s teacher to get him to bump up his mark so that he could graduate and take up his college football scholarship, he goes expecting his farther the “well liked” salesman with all the charm and charisma in the world to be able to get him out of having to re-sit his exam however he comes to realize Willie is not who he makes himself out to be when he uncovers this deception, “Biff Don’t touch me you – liar! Willy “Apologize for that!” Biff “You fake! You phony little fake! You fake!” from this moment on Biff starts to se Willie for who and what he truly is and most importantly seeing his fathers flaws, this is important because it allows biff later in life to see through the ‘vie en rose’ and deluded image that Willie tries to purvey thus allowing him to start to discover ad pursue his own dream.

Willie believes he has to be successful for Biff to love him but Biff rather ironically has loved him all along which Willie realizes at the end of the play when Biff breaks down and cries in front of him to which he says “isn’t that – isn’t that remarkable? Biff – he like me!” (Page 106). This realization however does not detract Willie from his mission to take his own life, shortly after he has another delusion of Ben (the delusion of him being his older and more successful brother although he had not seen his brother since he had left him in thier youth) this shows that Willie has gone too far in his mental degradation when his conversation with Ben even after his realization with Biff spurs him on even more to take his own life.

Ben says to Willie that “the jungle is dark but full of diamonds” (page 106) suggesting that willies death is the dark jungle and that from his death he will receive diamonds, the diamonds in this case being insurance money the family more notably Biff was to receive from his death, money that he would have left to biff to start up a business, once again this shows that Willy still can’t see what Biff was trying to say to him and that he was never going to give up on the pursuit of his dream.

Biff up on returning home after he and happy had left Willy in the chop house realises he must be honest with his farther about who he is in order to realise his dreams “Biff- Pop! I’m a dime a dozen, and so are you!, Willy – I am not a dime a dozen! I am Willy Lowman and you are Biff Lowman!, Biff – I am not a leader of men, Willy, and neither are you.” For Biff it is in renouncing Willy and willies dreams that he becomes free to dictate his own future and it is here that for the first time in his life completely rids himself of the oppressive shackles of willies dreams. This can be interpreted also as the death of Biff as the sales man, the death of his affiliation and obligation to willies ideologies allowing him to be free to start his new life out west, bringing new life withe the death of an old one, the death of a salesman.

In conclusion since Biff is the only member of the family to renounce Willys idea of the American dream with the addition of realizing his own dream and what he must do to peruse it, Biff therefor must be seen to be the true hero. It must be added also that the American dream can still apply to Biff’s pursuit only Biff’s pursuit as stated in the American constitution is a pursuit of happiness the happiness Willie never managed to gain for himself or his family by following his own American dream.

You may also be interested in the following: expressionism in death of a salesman

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