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In the Arthur Miller play “Death of a Salesman” the sacrifice of character is one of the mind. Willy Loman is characterized by being the “common man.” In a time where the glow of post-war success had rapidly began to fade from the country’s mundane realities, Miller exemplified the truth that the American people were being sold a promise of an “American Dream”, that just like Willy Loman, they would find to be empty. Willy becomes the embodiment of the contradiction between what we as people desire, and what life actually is. It is when Willy is faced with this reality that he realizes that his life has been marked by failure. He is not well liked, he has been unfaithful to his wife, and worst of all he is not the respected man he tried to be in Biff’s eyes. It is only when faced with the idea that his death would be more beneficial to his plight than his life that he chooses to make that sacrifice. He sacrifices his life so that he can be a success through the redemption of his death. His life insurance policy would care for his wife Linda, and his son Biff would see him as the “well liked” man he is at a funeral surrounded by mourners. Willy Loman’s death was an inevitable tragedy as much as it was a redundant sacrifice.
Willy is fundamentally governed by a desire for success. In both conversation and memory he refers to his brother Ben, who made a fortune in diamond mining in Africa. It is through Ben that the reader is able to learn candidly about Willy’s past and key motivation. Willy exemplifies Ben as an example of living life and taking chances; however, when given the opportunity to join him he refuses. It is key to note that Willy was unwilling to join Ben on his quest for their father and financial success because he did not want to abandon his family. His family is his motivating factor and every act Willy committed was so he could be a better father to Biff and Happy than his own father was to him. Willy wanted to ensure success to pass on success. He believed and had passed onto his sons that they would be successful so long as they were well liked. Ben exists in a contradiction to that by not caring about the risk and whether those around him liked him as he was able to achieve success far beyond Willy. Willy stayed behind for his family, and being faced with the missed opportunity that was Ben was the first step in his descent to sacrifice.
Memories of Ben are not the only thing to plague Willy’s mind in the last days of his life. The play exists as all the characters surrounding him either act in response to Willy in both the present and the recollection of the past. Willy’s paranoia heightened as a result of the incessant distress and that is where the audience becomes aware of Willy’s behavior. Willy is characterized as a man that is contradictory to himself, often angry, and undoubtedly obsessive. Just like with Ben, Willy carefully selects memories or relives past events in order to conceive circumstances in which he was a success. Willy is unable to acknowledge the idea of his financial failure, so he relieves Ben’s visit to attempt to correct the mistake he had made in not joining Ben on his quest for diamonds. Willy is unable to acknowledge the fact that after being caught having an affair his son Biff, who he has impressed all of his personal hopes upon no longer admires him, he relieves memories of Biff when he still idolized him and had a prospective career as a football star. He will praise Biff in the same sentence in which he berates him. He is unable to communicate with the Biff that stands before him, so he tries to establish order by talking of the one from the past. These memories allow Willy to deny the truth of his environment and its consequences.
However, the erratic nature of this conglomeration of thought begins to catch up to Willy. He is desperate to preserve the artifice that had become his life, but can no longer deny many of his personal failures and the betrayal of his family. Willy reaches a sense of actualization when he proclaims to Charley that “after all the highways, and the trains, and the appointments, and the years. You end up work more dead than alive.” This final sacrifice in the shape of his life, as Willy begins to see that the product he had been selling his whole life was himself. He recognizes in his own mind that it is only through his death, that he can deliver to his family some tangible example of his success. The removal of himself from his family’s life would allow Biff the inheritance and space to fulfill the American Dream that Willy never could. It would leave insurance money behind for his wife Linda, so she could take care of herself and no longer surround herself with broken run down things. It would set an example for his son Happy, who similarly thrives on the gratification he receives from from “ruined” women. Willy understands his failure and shortcomings; however, his sacrifice was to martyrize and protect himself to his family. It is a skewed image, “Ben, that funeral will be massive…that boy will be thunderstruck, Ben, because he never realized – I am known!”
Willy Loman lived a life of disappointments despite the fact that he worked hard to embody attributes that he felt should warrant reward such as that of being well liked. The humiliation of failure and betrayal of his family piled atop one another. Willy had a vision of what it would mean for him to find success and happiness, but lacked the tools or route to navigate towards it. The sacrifice of his life in a final, skewed ambition to meet his full commercial and material capacity, as his death would bring more financial and emotional gain to his family than his life. This mantra marks his undoing, “The only thing you’ve got in this world is what you can sell.”
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