Is Willy Loman a helpless victim of society or a tragic hero?
In the play Death of a Salesman, despite assurances to the contrary, Willy Loman is not a helpless victim of society. Rather he is a victim of his own severe delusions regarding The American Dream. As the story progresses, and Willy’s delusions begin to shatter, Willy becomes shattered along with them like a mirror, and all the broken pieces amount to only a shadow of his former self. Normal outside challenges combined with a severe lack of inner fortitude lead to Willy’s demise. He was not simply a victim of external forces, for if Willy would have probed deeper into his own psyche, he could have revealed some of his own delusions; superficial materiality, emphasis on likeability, or delusions concerning Ben and Howard’s personality traits. He could have looked deeper into his own mind and revealed the motivations of his own behavior, such as his own fear of abandonment stemming from childhood. If he had the introspection to reveal these patterns, as his son Biff did, Willy Loman could have led a happier, more honest life.
The Salesman had a number of positive characteristics, meaning the best for his sons, providing for his family and nearly paying off their house, and generally working hard. Along with Willy’s positive characteristics were a number of fatal flaws, which eventually contributed to his death. Willy’s friend’s son Bernard, as a lawyer, is dedicated to hard work and ingenuity. Bernard believes in a timeless morality– that hard work and determination can lead to success. Yet Willy, in contrast, doesn’t follow in Bernard’s footsteps very well. Instead, he thinks Biff can get away with stealing a crate of footballs, never tells him or Happy to work harder, and avoids looking at ways in which he can improve the execution of his job. Willy strong believes that superficial qualities lead to success, such as being handsome or charismatic, yet pursuing these characteristics never actually leads to any success, financial or otherwise, in his own life. Willy ends up as the play begins as an erratic person and has trouble getting by, even in the best of circumstances. The commencement of Death of a Salesman demonstrates this well – with Willy Loman driving crazily and erratically. He is not making enough money to survive or thrive, and has been trapped in the same life situation for a seemingly endless amount of time. His boss, Howard, is about to fire him, although he does not yet know. It is difficult to identify exactly what has brought about Willy’s faults, but it is clear he has been in this same situation for quite awhile and that he could have avoided his baleful situation. By the time the first scene of the production starts, Willy is already in a very difficult position.
Suddenly Willy’s friend Charlie offers him money and a job, for no reason at all aside from that he is a good friend. This again proves that Willy is not a victim of a cruel society. “Society” itself is actually offering him a valuable opportunity to break out of the situation that he has encaged himself in. Some of Willy’s faults include confusion, self-contradiction and pride. The latter fault, pride, is what prompts him to reject Charlie’s kind offer, denying a valuable opportunity to improve his lot and save his life. His self-contradiction puts Willy in a prison of unsureness and uncertainty. He becomes paralyzed and unable to move houses or change jobs. Willy’s strong sense of pride creates a similar predicament. The character Happy is a mini-version of Willy—and we also see these qualities demonstrated in him as well. Many people could take a situation like Willy’s and improve it by means of some virtue. But Willy stops himself and continues driving relentlessly into the brick wall of his own destruction, both metaphorically and concretely. He is not a victim of society, he is a victim of his own self-sabotaging nature.
Macbeth is a good example of a true tragic hero which we may contrast Willy against. Compared to Macbeth, Willy has several faults, not just over-ambition, Macbeth’s prime fault. He is deluded in his shallow interpretation of the American Dream. It all crumbles before him when he perceives that his own son—Biff—betrays him. Part of the package of Willy’s dream is that he always projected the same yearning for success upon his son Biff. There is a critical part in the story at Frank’s Chop House when Biff outright rejects his father’s idea of the American dream. Even though Willy, as a salesman, does his best to sell him on the idea, Biff severs himself from his father at that point and calls him a “phony little fake.” This also fuels Willy’s long-time fear of abandonment, stemming from his own childhood. Biff’s taking over his own life and fate benefits him as he is free to do what he truly enjoys, but it is a recipe for disaster in Willy’s psyche. From this point on the out-of-his-mind salesman is pushed over the edge.
Sadly, this fate was avoidable, as by taking Howard’s job or by truly looking at himself and thinking with ingenuity Willy could have changed his circumstances. Unlike Macbeth, Willy has several character flaws that all contribute to his downfall. His obstinacy, pride, and delusional thought patterns doom him to failure. He is clearly not a victim of society– he is a victim of himself.