Willy Loman Essay, Research Paper
In a sense there are two Willy Lomans in this play. There is the present broken, exhausted man in his sixties, soon to end his life. And there is the more confident, vigorous Willy of some fifteen years before, who appears in the flashbacks. One actor portrays both, readily shifting from one representation to the other. To some extent, of course, the personality remains constant. The younger Willy, although given to boastful blustering, does admit misgivings to Linda and loneliness to Biff. And the shattered older man, in turn, occasionally reverts to his former manner of jaunty optimism. Yet the changes are great and significant. The earlier Willy could never have been the idol of his teen-aged sons had he behaved in the perverse, distracted fashion of his older self.
Willy’s agitation during his last days stems from a twofold sense of failure. He has not been able to launch successfully in the world his beloved son Biff, and he no longer can meet the demands of his own selling job. Although not altogether ignoring Linda and Happy, he is primarily concerned about the once magnificent young football star who at thirty-four drifts from one temporary ranch job to the next. Willy cannot “walk away” from Biff’sproblem, as Bernard suggests, nor can he accept Linda’s view that “life is a casting off.” Being over sixty, Willy is doubtless tiring physically. The sample cases are heavy. The seven-hundred-mile drives are arduous. And many business contacts, developed over the years, are vanishing as the men of his era die or retire. Yet the worry over Biff has obviously accelerated his collapse.
Actually, Willy’s attitude toward Biff is complex. On the one hand, there is a strong personal attachment. He wants Biff to love him. He remembers yearningly the fondness shown for him by Biff as a boy, and he still craves this. At this point, however, relations are strained. Although Willy shies away from remembering so painful an episode, he knows in his heart that the Boston affair left the boy bitterly disillusioned. Feeling some sense of guilt, Willy fears that all of Biff’s later difficulties may have been really attempts to get revenge. Biff has failed, in other words, mainly to “spite”Willy. Although outwardly resenting such alleged vindictiveness. Willy still wants to get back the old comradeship, even if he has to buy it dearly. “Why can’t I give him something,” he asks the spectral Ben, “and not have him hate me?” And his great final moment of joy and triumph occurs when he can exclaim,”Isn’t that remarkable? Biff – he likes me!”
On the other hand, Willy also is emotionally involved with Biff because his son’s success or failure is also his. By becoming rich and influential, the handsome, personable Biff was slated to provide Willy’s victorious reply to all not sufficiently impressed with his own modest advancement. By making his fortune in the business world, Biff would prove that Willy had been right in turning down Ben’s adventurous challenge to head for Alaska. He would also outshine the sensible, plodding Charley and Bernard, thus establishing once and for all Willy’s theory that having personality and being “well liked” were the great requisites for preeminence. Losing his own job, Willy is naturally unhappy. But if he can still purchase success for Biff with the insurance money, he personally will yet have won. “I always knew one way or another we were gonna make it, Biff and I!”
If, however, Willy at any stage is apt to overindulge in grandiose daydreams, he is hardly the “phoney little fake” he once seems to the shocked Biff. He works steadily at one job for thirty-six years and does pay off along-term mortgage, even if at the end he accepts some help from Charley. He takes good care of the house, too, capably making even major repairs. Although not altogether faithful, he is a reasonably satisfactory husband to Linda, who obviously respects him. He does not like to see her darn stockings or work too hard. And when he loses his job, he is sorry to think how much she has suffered. In his own way, too, he has the makings of an admirable father. He gives much attention to his boys, showing them how to do things, working with them, and praising their accomplishments. He roots for them at their games, and defends them loyally. When Biff fails, he pays for several correspondence courses, even though he has to pawn his prized diamond watch fob given him by Ben. And finally, there is genuine dignity in the man when he spiritedly speaks up for his rights with Howard.
Willy is partially a victim of circumstance. He could not have avoided getting old and tired, any more than he could have prevented the building of the apartments that hem in his house. There was even an element of mischance in Biff’s inopportune visit to Boston. What’s more, Willy did not originate some of the erroneous concepts and values that helped defeat him. The idea of the fast-made fortune, the “quick killing,” is, to some extent, characteristically American. And our history certainly indicates that some did reach the top by combining personal attractiveness with a casual disregard for ethical practice. Moreover, Willy was hardly the first in our society to overemphasize athletic prowess at the expense of steady brain work.
Yet in placing excessive reliance upon these dubious success formulas, Willy fails to take a realistic view of his limitations and those of his son. By all but encouraging Biff’s petty thievery and giving it the flattering name of “initiative,” he steers Biff toward an eventual jail term and Happy toward the discreditable habit of taking bribes. By running down the importance of good grades, he prepares the way for Biff’s disastrous failure. By harping upon Uncle Ben’s rapid rise to fortune, he builds in both boys a distaste for the type of regular, fairly routine work that will not make anyone, as Biff says, a “big shot boss in two weeks.” Finally, by encouraging them to idolize him through his blown-up accounts of their situation, he does little to help them really mature. Toward the end, Biff seems to be groping sadly toward some measure of self-knowledge. But Happy is still determined to “beat this racket”and come out “number one man.” On the day of the big game, Charley ruefully asks Willy when he is going to grow up. In some ways Willy never does. His boyish enthusiasm is, of course, part of his appeal. But his persistent refusal to face facts squarely drives him at last to a violent death. Ironically, his suicide, to him the ultimate in magnificent gestures, merely leaves Linda woefully bereft and Biff more than ever sure that “he had the wrong dreams. All, all wrong.”