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Willy is responsible for his own downfall. To what extent do you agree with this statement?
In Death of a Salesman, Miller executes Willy responsible for his own downfall to a certain extent in the play as a whole. Miller uses numerous authorial methods in order to show the responsibility of Willy’s death, these include dramatic devices, characterization, and the domestic tragedy of a common man.
Through the use of dramatic devices and techniques, Miller highlights that Willy himself is responsible for his own death.
The use of expressionism indicates that Willy himself is responsible for his own death; through the use of Willy Loman, Miller is showing the consequence of the American Dream and how it lacks reality as Willy is symbolic of the failure of the American Dream. Miller uses symbols, music, and flashbacks to show the reality to the audience of the 20th century. Through the use of expressionism Miller subtly indicates to the audience to find a path from the inner world of the mind to the outside world.
This could also be expressed as the perfect compromise between expressionism and realism- Willy is unable to differentiate between the two- this is evident throughout the play through the use of flashbacks; when Charley and Willy are playing ‘cards’ and Ben enters thus causing a three-way conversation. The constant three-way conversation created by Miller demonstrates Willy’s unstable mind and contemplates the potential title of the play ‘The inside of his head’. The potential title of the play intends to project the inner realism of a psychologically splinted man; Willy’s psychological equipoise and equilibrium had shattered to the extent of madness.
Willy’s constant movement from the present to the past results in his contradictory nature; most of Willy’s flashbacks are a manifestation of his unacknowledged desires, this underlying ferment accounts for the earlier descriptions of Willy as a person who is striving to discover his own identity, which results in his death as he is unable to acknowledge the failure of the American Dream. Not only is it the three-way conversation that results in Willy’s unstable mind but also Willy is seen contradicting himself throughout the play; when in conversation with Linda, Willy mentions that Biff is a ‘lazy bum’ however, moments later Willy admits that ‘there’s one thing about Biff, he’s not lazy’. Although Willy fondly remembers Biff as a teenager, he is unable to communicate with Biff in the present. As a result, he praises Biff in one breath, while criticizing him in the next. The use of irony indicates that it’s Willy himself who is responsible for his own downfall. The setting reflects that Willy is responsible for his downfall; at the beginning of the play ‘a flute’ is heard which reflects hope and prosperity however when Ben appears ‘Ben’s music is heard’.
The transition from the ‘flute’ and ‘Ben’s music’ reflects Willy estranging himself away from society but clinging on to the American Dream. The location of Willy’s house is itself microcosmic of the urban world in which defeated human soul strives to accomplish their thwarted ambition and elusive dream. Willy himself confronts the idea of the claustrophobia of him being ‘boxed in’ with ‘windows and bricks’ therefore resulting in a lack of ‘fresh air’. His being ‘boxed in’ suggest the lack of escape of the consumerism of the American Dream was his liability. Throughout the play, nihilism is persistent as at the end of the play when Willy is able to take control of his life he ends his life; a feature of what Friedrich Nietzsche’s called ‘the will to power’. Willy’s final action of his death was that he crashed himself in the car, therefore it is his own actions that made him responsible for his downfall and ultimately his death. This shows that in order for Willy to escape from his situation and for his family to receive the money he thought killing himself was the only option; this is an example of the tragedy of a common man.
Through the use of Willy, Miller instigates the responsibility of Willy’s death by the characterization of Willy who fits into the domestic tragedy of a common man. Willy demonstrates a self-destructing hubris which eventually condemned him and becomes a reason for his own downfall. His beliefs compared to his reality are extremely contradictory and therefore his delusion ultimately results in a tragic ending. Willy is consistent in his belief of being “well-liked” which will bring success, while he’s not as successful as Charley who Willy believes is “liked but not well-liked”. Willy’s pride is not only for himself but also for his sons: Biff and Happy who are ‘both built like Adonises’- this is a form of Willy’s hubris- of his ‘boys’ and of his job. During the flashbacks, the audience experiences a sense of Willy considering himself to be great, however, this only makes the audience have pity for him (catharsis) due to Willy’s sense of his own greatness it is built upon superficial success as he is proud of his ‘boys’. It can be argued that Willy’s hubris is one of the main reasons for his death due to his excessive pride in himself. Death of a salesman reconfigures the traditional form of tragedy so that it speaks to the 20th-century audience. The play implicitly makes the argument that it is a tragedy that the American Dream had become convoluted in the wake of two World Wars, however, men like Willy Loman don’t understand what it takes to achieve this elusive dream.
Like every tragedy, Willy’s hamartia allows the audience to have sympathy for him: his inability to be a successful salesman hence this results in his death which he is responsible for. Willy is responsible for his own death as the false vision that he thinks will make him achieve the American Dream as critics have said that ‘Willy’s search for fame, fortune and admiration is the hallmark of his identity’. This highlights that Willy is solely responsible for the destruction of his own downfall and is a victim of the severe delusions regarding the American Dream. Willy firmly believes that being ‘well-liked’ and ‘well-connected’ are the importance of success; this indicates his hubris that Willy refuses to accept reality and also his authoritarian personality. This is Willy’s superficial understanding of the American Dream and due to his misunderstanding, Willy’s biggest flaw is that he is unable to understand anything other than the visions he created for himself however untrue they are. Similarly, to Greek tragedy where the protagonist is fully responsible for their actions, if not the consequences of their actions, Willy is determined of his dream and is willing to put his life at risk- which results in his death. An Aristotelian tragic hero is overcome by external forces, Willy has the option of rejecting them however due to the lack of his rejection of society and external factors it results in his death which he is responsible for.
However, within the domestic tragedy of the death of a salesman, the tragic figure, Willy Loman, can be argued to not be responsible for his own downfall rather he is a victim of his own severe delusions regarding The American Dream. Miller’s depiction of WIlly’s character shows that Willy is the victim of the superficial myth as Miller exposes the corrupting influence of American society. Willy was consumed with his own conception of the American Dream; the play chronicles his spiraling downfall. Critics have argued that the American Dream is a myth ‘it’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it’; this caused Willy’s downfall as he had a false perception of achieving the American Dream. Through the use of Willy Loman, Miller manifests the mistakes of the American Dream- he has the wrong set of values as he believes personal attractiveness and being ‘well-liked’ are more important to him than hard work and honesty. The character of Willy is compelled by the capitalist society which eventually leads to his downfall. ‘It is, of course, the brutal capitalist system that has done Willy’ shows that the idea of the American Dream is a consumerist society that Willy can’t keep up with.
After the wake of two world wars, the businessmen and the people in power were abusing their authority which eventually leads to the American Dream. Miller’s depiction of Willy’s character shows that despite one’s determination of achieving the American Dream, it isn’t always possible as ‘you work a lifetime to pay for a house, you finally own it and there’s no one in there to live in it’. This supports the idea of the American Dream that is a myth that allows individuals to work despite the constant struggle in their own personal life and also due to society’s pressure Willy is restricted from being happy and achieving his goal. The capitalist society was to blame for Willy’s downfall as Willy is paying for repairs before he owns the good as the ‘biggest ads’ matter. The use of superlative shows that consumerism is the main reason for his downfall. The idea of the superficial dream is introduced at the beginning of the play as it ‘clings to the place’ which ‘rises out of reality’; this shows that the American Dream is a superficial dream which Miller warns to the audience and eventually condemns Willy’s downfall as it is inevitable. The inevitability shows that Willy is an epitome individual as he is consumed within the capitalist society.
From a contemporary viewpoint, I think that Willy’s downfall is partly due to the lack of communication with his family and the lack of discipline Biff and Happy had. It is revealed that Biff was ‘rough with the girls’ and ‘taking everything’. The use of the euphemism ‘taking’ conceals Willy’s guilt about the lack of upbringing and discipline. The fact that Willy addresses them as ‘boys’ demonstrates that Biff and Happy are still innocent and they need his approval; this is evident when Will disapproves of Biff’s ‘farm life’. This is ironic as Willy’s work requires him to go away from home, therefore, he isn’t able to teach ‘the boys’ his ideology. Alternatively, I anticipate that society is to blame for Willy’s downfall as the capitalist society demanded plenty of Willy’s energy despite him being ‘sixty years old’. The use of catharsis allows the audience to blame society and blame people like Howard who had abused their power to a certain extent. It can be seen that Charley, Biff, and Howard are the vehicles through which society acted to tear down Willy's hopes and dreams, and, eventually, his character. More abstractedly, the makers of American society, the people who established the ideals of the time, and the ones who ran the country were responsible for this small man's death. Willy Loman never quite fit into the mold set out by society, even though he tried his best, and in the end, his efforts destroyed him.
In conclusion, I think Willy was only responsible for taking his life but only ‘fell from an imagined height’. There are other factors that lead to his downfall but to a modern audience, I think it was the capitalist society and the American Dream that condemned him to his death and eventually his downfall. Willy’s dreams weren’t wrong to the 20th-century audience however the modern audience is able to distinguish between superficial and reality. He is clearly not a victim of society– he is a victim of himself.
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