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To an unusual degree, The Death of a Salesman interweaves past and present action. Willy Loman, the play’s protagonist, repeatedly revisits old memories, sometimes even conflating them with the present moment. But these memories are not the sentimental, slightly melancholy daydreams of a contented man. Instead, they are the dark clues to Willy’s present state of mental and emotional disrepair. Miller uses the extended flashbacks to show both that Willy longs to understand himself, and also that his efforts to do so are doomed.
Willy revisits the past not in an effort to sink into happy memories, but in an effort to analyze himself and understand where his life went wrong. His flashbacks are hardly comforting flights into idealized past times. Rather, they are harrowing journeys that get to the heart of his dysfunction. When Willy thinks about the old days, he remembers making light of Biff’s thieving, barking at Linda about the state of her stockings, ignoring Biff’s mistreatment of young women, sidelining Happy, and so on. Each of these memories lays bare one of Willy’s shortcomings: his failure to instill strong morals in his sons, his guilt over his adultery, his inability to see Biff objectively, and his unequal love for Biff and Happy, respectively. If Willy’s dips into the past were purely escapist, he would fixate on the happy moments in his life. Instead, he tends to be drawn to the times at which he behaved in revealingly unpleasant ways. This tendency suggests that Willy longs for self-knowledge. He wants to figure out how he got into his present mess, and he knows that the answers lie in the past.
Paradoxically, the very strength of Willy’s impulse to understand himself scuttles his efforts at gaining self-knowledge. In his ineffectual desperation to understand what went wrong, he becomes subsumed by the past. Instead of remaining firmly rooted in the present and thinking about how the past applies to the life he is now living, he pulls his memories over his head like a blanket. Miller brings this absorption to life by fully dramatizing Willy’s flashbacks. They are not narrated in the first person or addressed to the audience, as might befit events that occurred in the past and are at a remove. Rather, they are played out as fully realized scenes, just as vital and urgent as the present-day scenes are. By dramatizing Willy’s memories, Miller makes them as vivid for us as they are for Willy. Miller suggests that while Willy might benefit from sticking a toe into the waters of the past, he begins to lose his grip on sanity when he plunges in those waters completely.
Willy’s efforts at self-analysis are doomed not just because he gives himself wholly to his memories, but also because his passionate emotions are not balanced by cool critical thinking. Willy is constitutionally incapable of analyzing his own behavior, understanding his character, and comprehending the mistakes he has made. Over and over, Miller shows how Willy plunges back into the past, stares uncomprehendingly at the errors he made, and then makes those identical errors in the present. He remembers idealizing Ben as a boy; then he describes Ben in outsized, glowing terms to his sons. He remembers implying that Biff did not need to work hard in order to attend a good college; then he bridles at the implication that his parenting has something to do with Biff’s failure. Willy dimly senses that his past missteps have a bearing on the present, but he cannot bring himself to make the connections explicit.
Willy Loman has a multitude of faults, but escapism is not one of them. He truly wants to understand himself; part of his tragedy is that he is incapable of doing so.
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