Friday, March 27, 2009

Willy Loman’s Suicide: Act of Defiance or Acceptance of Failure?

Willy's suicide has been variously interpreted by various critics. While some call it cowardice, some look at it as an act of martyrdom. I neither see it as an act of cowardice nor martyrdom. I don't see any defiance either in Willy's ignoble exit from this world.

I feel that Willy's suicide is indeed an acceptance of his failure. The protagonist's persistence in his follies far exceeds the point of recovery or rehabilitation. Willy, the salesman "cannot acknowledge his mistake without destroying his identity" ( Porter 152).

Willy Loman models his life on the rags to riches stories of exceptional people like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Alva Edison. Willy believes, "If Edison, Goodrich and Red Grange can make it, why not me, why not Willy Loman?" (Henry Popkin) What he forgets is that such instances of success were rare and more of an exception.

Willy also ignores the fact that these successful people were men of character, hard-working, industrious and immensely self-disciplined. They valued time and were extremely focused. On the contrary, Willy has a wandering mind and ruefully wastes his time and energy in daydreaming and tall talk. Under the circumstances, his failure is a foregone conclusion.

Willy's excessive faith in American dream robs him of his good sense and right reason. Blinded by the myth of success, Willy Loman aimlessly chases the phantom of success through the streets of Brooklyn and New York. He forgets the message given out to Americans by Russell Conwell, "The industrious, the honest, the determined man can mine diamonds at home, in the city, wherever he is". Had Willy paid attention to the crux of this message, he would have realized that the real diamonds of happiness lie within one's heart and within one's family.

His irrepressible urge for quick success in material terms is in tune with the infamous success myth. This myth presupposes," The Creator made man a success-machine ….and failure is as abnormal to him as discord to harmony" (Marsden 27). With that kind of erroneous description of a successful man in his mind, Willy Loman commits the tragic error of anchoring his life on this tragic myth with tragic consequences. Willy's story of success turns out to be a story of failure. He commits series of unpardonable mistakes and thus plays havoc with his life and that of his family.

Instead of building his life and that of his kids on .... realistic ideas and realistic goals, he leads a phony life based upon phony values. His fantastic formula of success heavily banks upon the flawed concept of being 'well-liked' rather than on the time-tested principle of diligence. He speaks out, "It is not what you do Ben. It is who you know and the smile on your face! It is contacts, Ben, contacts!.....and that 's the wonder of this country…..that a man can end with diamonds here on the basis of being well-liked" (Salesman 86). The name of Willy's role model is Dave Singleman. This name has a symbolic value. Unlike Willy who is schizophrenic, this man is a 'single-man.' He is 'inner-directed' in total contrast with Willy's who is 'other-directed.'

He runs down Charley's son Bernard for not being "well-liked." He predicts, "Bernard can get the best marks in school . . . but when he gets out into the business world . . . you are going to be five times ahead of him. . . . Be liked and you will never want." He proves to be miserably wrong again. Bernard grows up to become a successful Supreme Court lawyer.

Willy is responsible in making Biff completely complacent about his faults, "You got greatness in you, Biff. . . You got all kinds of greatness." This turns Biff into a bit of a tin-god, incapable of dealing with life on realistic terms. Willy's list of mistakes keeps mounting.

Willy is also responsible for Biff's kleptomania. Had he not dismissed Biff's act of stealing football from the school as 'initiative,' Biff would not have become a compulsive thief. Biff largely suffers due to the blatantly wrong training his father imparted to him.

This realization alone was sufficient to distance Biff from his father; top it with the Boston episode and you have a recipe for disaster. Biff is devastated when he catches his father red-handed with a prostitute. He loses interest in studies and his career gets derailed. Willy falls from a high pedestal, never to rise again in the eyes of his wife and sons. Even now, Willy lacks guts to confess.

Willy fails as a salesman, as a father and also as a husband. His rag to riches theory never takes off from the ground. Instead his story of failure is a classic example of riches to rag. He loses whatsoever he had; his sales, his balance of mind, his peace of mind, his job and also his self-respect.

Willy's inability to reconcile with such failures resulting out of his monumental mistakes turn him into a shell of a man. He becomes hallucinated and makes a joke of himself. The inner realization that he is actually a 'low-man' or perhaps a 'no-man' in this utilitarian and materialistic world disintegrates him from within. Had he taken a leaf out of his mistakes and accepted his failure in his life time, he would not have suffered any further.

Past sixty years of age, tired and exhausted, this salesman returns empty-handed from a sales trip. In spite of this failure, he makes a hopelessly desperate attempt at getting a steady job in New York and a salary hike from his boss. The result is predictable, Willy gets fired instead. Immensely hurt, he cries out in pain, "You can't eat the orange and throw the peel away- a man is not a piece of fruit! (Salesman 64) The end of the job brings Willy's end nearer. This proves to be a proverbial last straw on the camel's back. Unable to carry the weight of his failure and lies anymore than he already has; Willy has no other alternative but to hit the wall, literally.

The failure of his sons also weighs heavily on his mind. He alternately faces and runs away from the harsh realities of life. His moments of truth have been far and few. Except for a few moments of confession, in front of Linda regarding his inability to drive to Boston, or about people laughing at him, falling income and rising bills, Will tells lies or takes shelter behind the memories of a glorious past that no longer exists.

Willy survives only up to the time he is able to keep his false optimism alive. When the moment of truth arrives, he stands not only without a job but also without any hope of a job. He stands alone. His sons abandon him the company of prostitutes. From a father, he becomes, "just a guy" when Happy bluntly states, "No, that's not my father". Biff's open declaration, "Pop! I'm a dime a dozen, and so are you!" is certainly a rude shock for Willy.

His act of planting seeds is symbolic of his disillusionment with the business world. The fact is that no seeds can grow in the barren backyard of his home, surrounded by tall buildings. It is a grim reminder to Willy that it is too late now to return to that agrarian lifestyle he left behind. The realization dawns upon Willy that the only way he can make amends for the irreparable loss he has caused to his family is through self-destruction. Willy's insurance money is the only thing, Willy has got. Finally, Willy has to accept his failure in life and leaves this world to pave way for a better future for his family.

Works Cited

Marsden, Orison. Entering Business . New York: 1903.

Miller, Arthur. "Death of A Salesman" . Penguin, 1975.

Popkin, Henry. "The Strange Encounter" Sewanee Review . LXVIII,1960.

Porter, Thomas E., "Acres of diamonds" Myth and Modern American Drama. Kalyani,


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