The play, Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, takes issue with those in America who place too much stress upon material gain, at the expense of other, more admirable human values. Miller uses flashbacks to provide exposition, to foreshadow the upcoming tragedy, and most importantly to reveal character traits. An analysis of the main character, Willy Loman, illustrates the underlying theme that the concern over material success breaks down the bonds between men that form the basis of a smooth-functioning society.
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, whom appears in the flashbacks. To some extent of course, the personality remains constant. The younger Willy, although given to lying to make himself look good, does admit misgivings to Linda, his wife, and loneliness to Biff, his oldest son. The old man, in turn, occasionally reverts to his former manner of jaunty optimism.
Yet the changes are 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. Willys description of his total lack of control over his car in the opening scene symbolizes that he is losing control over his job and his life. His 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 his younger son, Happy, he is primarily concerned about the once magnificent football star, Biff, who cannot presently secure a job. Willy cannot walk away from Biffs problems as Bernard, the neighbors son, suggests, nor can he accept Lindas view that life is a casting off. His worry over Biff has created a bitter conflict between the two of them. The father-son conflict between Willy and Biff is complex. First of all, there is a strong personal attachment. He wants Biff to love him.
He remembers 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 his affair with the Boston woman left the boy bitterly disillusioned. Feeling some sense of guilt, Willy fears that all of Biffs later difficulties may have been really attempts to get revenge. In other words, Biff failed 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.
For instance consider when he asked Ben, Why cant I give him something and not have him hate me? and his final moment of joy and triumph occurs when he exclaims, Isnt that remarkable? Biff he likes me! On the other hand, Willy is also emotionally involved with Biff because his sons success of failure is his own. By becoming rich and influential, the handsome, personable Biff was slated to provide his own modest advancement. By making his fortune in the business world, Biff would prove that Willy had been right in turning down Bens adventurous challenge to head for Alaska.
He would also outshine the sensible, plodding Charley and Bernard, thus establishing once and for all Wills 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 have won. He stated, I always knew one way or another we were gonna make it, Biff and I! So similar to the way Polonious was concerned about how Laertes actions in France affect Polonious reputation, Willy was concerned his own image being affected by Biffs success.
In placing excessive reliance upon his dubious success formulas, Willy fails to take a realistic view of his limitations and those of his son. By all but encouraging Biffs 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 Biffs disastrous failure. By harping upon Uncle Bens 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 blow-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 part of his appeal. However, his persistent refusal to face the facts squarely, literally drives him at last to a violent death.
Ironically, his suicide, to him the ultimate gesture, merely leaves Linda woefully ruined and Biff more than ever sure that he had the wrong dreams. All, all wrong. One can see from the flashbacks that Willy Loman, the tragic hero, was a devoted father. He spent all the time that he had away from his job with his boys. He went to their sports events, and he encouraged them to be athletic. He also taught them how to do handy work around the house. On the contrary, Willy places emphasis on popularity and physical prowess, rather than the respect of property, rights, or authority of others.
As a result, his two boys do not learn the proper morals. Willy loves his sons and wants what is best for them. Yet his one insistent message to them is that they must rise rapidly in the business world, outshine all others, and only become satisfied with a fortune like Uncle Bens. The idea of the fast-made fortune, the quick killing, is, to some extent, characteristically American. This idea is exactly what Miller is criticizing. Miller believes that Americans should have less emphasis upon moneymaking as the one criterion of a mans worth.