Death of a Salesman


Willy’s family background contributes to the shape of his personality and embeds in him the values and goals he works towards throughout his life. His background results in his philosophies on life, the world, and his own position in society. Willy works hard to follow not only his father, but his brother Ben as well. His father was sometimes a salesman (Bedford Introduction to Literature, 4th ed. 1687) and Ben is a businessman. Willy attempts to make his life a mesh of the two fields, not realizing that he cannot be a success as both a well-liked salesman and disliked businessman, both traits important in their respective fields. Willy wants to be like his father, selling goods in many towns and cities and being well-known and liked. The most influential character in his life, judging by the number of times Willy mentions him, is his older brother, Ben. Ben differs from Willy because of his ambitious nature and callousness, which leads to the success Willy lacks. But through the differences between the brothers, even when Ben is not present, important aspects of Willy’s character become more prominent. Ben’s character is so important that even in death he changes the life of Willy. Ben has lived the American dream, allowed his work to involve his hands (like their father) and worked hard for fortune. The American Dream is seen as living a better life than did your parents. Willy wants to also live the American Dream, and thinks that if he works hard enough and does enough of his job, American society will assure his success; however, through this paper I intend to show how this idea is a false one, as Ben attempts to prove to Willy throughout the play.

When Ben Loman was seventeen, he left home for Alaska. When he was twenty-one, he walked out of the jungle, and by God, he was rich. Ben’s original intentions were good, as he tells Willy he was “going to find Father in Alaska” (1686). After leaving home in search of his father, he later admits, “I discovered after a few days that I was heading due South, so instead of Alaska, I ended up in Africa.” (1686). More than likely, Ben would have ended up in Texas rather than Africa, a fact that makes his statements a bit unbelievable. Traveling from central United States to Africa is no short trip anyway, and if Ben actually did make it that far, it was no accident, as he implies when he says he just “ended up” (1686) there. A big question is simply: why? Why did Ben choose to continue in the wrong direction? He claims that “at that age I had a very faulty view of geography” (1686) and that was the factor that led him astray–unintentionally. The faulty view of geography could be seen in a couple lights, both negative. It may be that after leaving home he decided it was silly to go in search of his father, at which point (in Ben’s view) he would no longer have a faulty view of geography, because he saw which direction he should be heading and why (Africa–for success). Or that faulty view of geography may be one that he maintained all his life, even to the moment that he is speaking; that view may be one of pure selfishness, which is often seen as a “fault” and all decisions he has made through his life were based on what others would consider a faulty view of life.

Either way, Ben made his way to what Willy exclaims to be The Gold Coast (1686), which later became Ghana. Both countries, even in the present, have a history of being easy targets for fortune-seekers. The specifics of how Ben became wealthy don’t matter as much as the possibility (from the time period and setting) that he took advantage of the wilderness he walked into, raped the jungle, and profited off of the uneducated natives. The jungle, Africa, and Alaska are viewed as frontiers, as places filled with buried treasures of the earth just waiting to be discovered. In Ben’s case, the treasure is literal (as opposed to cures for diseases or new species); mining diamonds, and gold, or any such rare finds requires the destruction of many natural resources, not only because of the digging itself, but through its methods of pollution and wastefulness (such as the use of mercury in gold mining, which in turn poisons the water).

Willy might have followed Ben on these adventurous trips and their successes if it wasn’t for Linda, who acts in opposition to Ben. Willy never blames her for that opposition. When Ben invites him to come with him to Alaska for success and fortune, Linda chimes in that he has “Enough to be happy right here, right now” (1704). This starts Willy off on a spiel (spoken like a true salesman) about how successful he and his boys will be. The argument is between Linda and Ben, each person tossing a few words at Willy to set him into arguing against himself. He switches sides, sometimes claiming that he doesn’t need tangible wealth, “You can’t feel it in your hand like timber, but it’s there!” (1704) and other times agreeing that he does, “That’s true, Linda, there’s nothing” (1704). In the end, Linda wins the argument as displayed when Willy gives a speech to Ben about the fortune found in the big cities of America. Although he asks for Ben’s advice once more, he doesn’t follow Ben out the door (1705). The tangibility issue rises once more in the play when Ben and Willy are “discussing” Willy’s possible suicide: “twenty-thousand – that is something one can feel with the hand, it is there” (1724). Ben speaks sense to Willy, bringing up points such as the fact that the insurance company may not pay the $20,000, or that Biff may see Willy as only a coward. When Ben “goes off” to think about the proposition Willy makes, he returns certain that Willy is making the right choice. Ben’s last words are no longer stating that “I’ll be late for my train” (1688) but “The boat. We’ll be late” (1729). Willy considers himself finally making the right choice he has so long regretted not making–he’s leaving for prosperity with Ben on the vessel of death.

The Ben who helps make Willy’s big decision is not the same Ben as during the rest of the play. The last Ben is only a creation of Willy’s, not a memory of actual events in the past. This false Ben is helpful and more of the likeable and wise man Willy wants him to be. In reality, the Ben of the past is more of the sort of rough businessman expected. At one point while speaking to Willy, who is the only other man in the scene, Ben spits out, “Great inventor, Father. With one gadget he made more in a week than a man like you could make in a lifetime” (1687). Ben has stepped into Willy’s life for the first time since Willy’s early childhood, and makes cruel insults in front of Willy’s family. “A man like you” and the words surrounding it make Willy out to be worthless, and a complete failure compared to his father. In response, Willy blocks out anything negative that statement might have had, and quickly responds with “That’s just the way I’m bringing them up, Ben” (1687). Willy goes on to explain that he is bringing them up to be “rugged, well-liked, and all-around,” (1687) but it is no coincidence that Willy is bringing up his sons to be the “man like you” Ben talks about–failures. Ben doesn’t even consider Willy’s family to be relations. He tells Biff to “Never fight fair with a stranger” (1687), but what sort of stranger is brought into one’s home, showered in respect and honor, a blood-relation, and still a stranger? He would be no stranger to Willy or his family. Willy says, “You see what I’ve been talking about” (1686) to his family, and if he speaks about Ben as often before Ben’s visit as he does after, Ben is no stranger to the Loman household; they might know him just as well as Willy ever did.

If Uncle Ben is a popular subject Willy speaks of, then those around him likely notice the differences between the brothers. Willy does not entirely agree with Ben’s life philosophies, because he doesn’t follow them. After speaking to “Ben” one evening, Willy ends the conversation with “That’s just the spirit I want to imbue them with! To walk into a jungle! I was right! I was right! I was right!” (1688). Just a moment later, Linda explains that Willy had pawned the diamond watch fob Ben had given him so that Biff could take a radio correspondence course. Radio correspondence isn’t quite the jungle Ben had conquered. In other words, Willy, while still looking up to Ben, can’t bring himself or his boys to follow Ben’s footsteps. Ben is Willy’s mentor. Willy imagines that Ben’s line “When I was seventeen, I walked into the jungle. And by twenty-one, I walked out. And by God, I was rich!” is complete, without anything left out. He’s wealthy, adventurous, ruthless, and not confined or held-back by anything. If Willy had to choose someone to look up to, Charley would be a good choice, because he is the realism while Ben’s life is totally romantic. Willy can’t understand Charley’s success because it goes against the formula he believes is right for his own achievement. Ben is what drives Willy for success; Ben has been a success in the wild unknowns, Willy can’t even succeed in New England.

Before the brothers’ individual gross successes can even be determined, their pasts must be added in, as described by Ben and Willy during the play. Ben acts as a figure of strength and success that Willy spends his life trying to match. Because Ben left his family when Willy was just “Three years and eleven months” (1686) old, Willy would be about seven years old by the time Ben is twenty-one and rich. Therefore Willy would have mostly grown up in his older brother’s shadow, always trying to match Ben’s success. Ben’s successes in the jungle and later investments are due partially to Ben’s attitude, philosophies, and stern manner, but also undoubtedly to some sort of good luck. Ben’s role is as the driving force behind Willy. It’s his encouragement, whether real or fake, that pushes Willy to act as he does. Willy is convinced that one’s character is directly related to the level of success one has. Because Willy hasn’t seen much of Ben in his life, he doesn’t realize that he may be the only person who likes Ben at all. He doesn’t realize that Ben is not a kind person, that he probably isn’t well liked because of his own attitudes toward life and working toward success. Ben advocates fighting dirty and it reflects his attitude on any sort of fight as well, whether it be merely physical or business or if it be getting ahead anywhere in life. Willy looks over the fact that Ben never brought home their father, and instead went to pursue his own interests. Willy then pushes his boys in both directions: to follow Ben into the jungle, that is, away from the family, and at the same time, to help keep the family together and successful.

As the person Willy most looks up to, the problem exists that Ben’s actions directly conflict with Willy’s own. Willy’s father abandoned the family while he was still very young. His father left to strike it rich in Alaska and never came back to his family. In Willy and Ben’s eyes’, this should have been totally unacceptable and irresponsible. The effect it had on Willy is clear, as Willy does not ever abandon his family but instead fights to keep it perfect and a model throughout his entire marriage, even to his death. Ben, on the other hand, who should have been disgusted at his father’s actions, instead follows him into seeking fortune in the wilderness. The only difference between Ben and their father is that Ben is clearly successful and has returned to offer some success to Willy in the form of an employment opportunity. Ben acts as a father to Willy by acting as a role model. Willy’s father never returned, but Ben did. Ben could continue his father’s story, justify his father’s actions for leaving the family, and at the same time give a standard for Willy to work toward. The relationship between Ben and Willy is comparable to the relationship between Willy and his sons. He may also be seen as the other half of Willy’s personality, complementary of Willy. The difference between Ben and Willy is that Ben is a businessman, and Willy is a salesman. In his business, Ben is allowed to “fight dirty,” and to have power is much more important than being well liked. On the other end of the scale, it’s important for Willy to be everyone’s friend, because that’s all he can do to sell his product. Willy brings home this need to be well-liked to his family by lying to them about his own successes and in turn creating a house full of liars, each lying about their own lives and successes. Willy has persistence to live the American Dream he wants, but it is something that he cannot do.

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