To what extent does this passage reflect the tone, style and concerns of the play as a whole? Include :
* Respond with understanding to the texts genre and period (A02)
* Analyse and evaluate Millers choices of form, structure and language to express meaning (A03)
Miller makes clever use of a mixture of realism and expressionism to depict the workings of Willy’s mind, his imagination and memories, as he struggles to make ends meet in the business world which has become strangely more hostile than Willy remembers. Here we can see Miller’s belief in the ever present past where Miller asserts the conviction that the past remains with a person, influencing their decisions throughout their life.
This is very true for Willy as he is always worrying about decisions he made in the past; that life may have been better if only he could change what he’s already done. We see this most clearly in his memories of Ben, and his expedition into the jungle which left him rich. Willy keeps going over this in his mind, as he regrets his past decisions and convinces himself that going with Ben would have made him a success too However, the audience can see through Ben, who left Willy and his mother when Willy was only three years old. Willy takes none of this into account: because Ben became so rich so fast that Willy looks up to him as an idol.
Ben offered him the opportunity to go to Alaska with him, a very tempting offer for Willy. Willy agonises acutely over what, with hindsight, given his present failures, he considers a mistake made by not going with Ben. In Act I he talks to Charley about Ben’s death,
Willy – …we got a letter from his wife in Africa. He died. …
Charley – Maybe you’re in for some of his money.
Willy – Naa … There’s just one opportunity I had with that man… (Act I)
With Ben we see Willy’s two worlds collide, the old American Dream and the new American Dream. The old American dream of working outdoors with your hands, to have your own piece of land, like that in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men to live off “the fatta the land”. We can see this desire in Willy as he comes to committing his last act before his suicide, trying to plant seeds in the concrete that is his garden. The symbolism of nature is that of hope, something good and full that can satisfy Willy’s yearning to flourish, while he dwindles in the harshness of city life . The new American Dream is to make something in the city, to earn money and gain power. Willy has failed to fulfil either. In the Requiem we see each of Willy’s sons choosing a different path to follow, which they believe reflects the real Willy. Happy chooses to fight it out in the business world and Biff commits himself to the outdoor life for good.
Charley, Willy’s neighbour, however, has worked hard all his life to achieve success, and in this passage we get our first impression of him. From the very first words of Charley we can see he is a very sympathetic character,
Charley: Everything all right? (Act I)
Here he is alerted in the middle of the night by Willy’s “mind vomit” and excessively loud flashbacks. Because of this Charley comes over to try and help Willy, knowing full well that he will have to put up with a certain degree of abuse from Willy,
Willy: You’re ignorant…You’re disgusting. (Act I)
We see Willy’s feelings towards Charley and his family earlier on in the play in Willy’s first flashback when talking to Bernard, Charley’s son, when Willy calls him an “anaemic”. Willy’s harsh words towards Charley and his family convey Willy’s resentment and jealousy he has for them. This is all because of his need to do well in business and earn a lot of money, what Willy strives for his whole life. We learn later in the play about Bernard and Charley’s success and that Willy is borrowing money from Charley so that he could just get by.
Linda – …he has to go to Charley and borrow fifty dollars a week and pretend to me that it’s his pay… (Act I)
Another example of Willy’s jealousy towards Charley is when he and Linda are talking about the bills they have to pay and in particular the refrigerator which they bought that always breaks down. It expresses Willy’s paranoid feelings that everything is against him alone, whilst others fare better.
Willy : But it just broke again!…I told you we should’ve bought a well-advertised machine. Charley bought a General Electric and it’s twenty years old and it’s still good.
Because Willy feels that he isn’t doing as well as Charley he uses any opportunity he can to make out that he is better than Charley in any respect.
Willy : Well, you don’t know how to eat…You gotta know about vitamins and things like that.
It is clear to the audience that Willy doesn’t have a clue what he is talking about and is just trying to look smarter than Charley. Because of this we can see the irony of Willy’s words, “Don’t talk about something you don’t know anything about.”
This situation also shows us of Willy’s volatility, as he becomes angry at every small thing. When Charley seemingly challenges Willy about his knowledge of “vitamins”, Willy erupts. The audience can see that Charley is only joking but because Willy feels inferior, he takes everything Charley says to heart and responds precariously, but Charley, being a good friend, tries to keep the situation calm on several occasions,
Charley – Don’t get insulted…You’re insulted again. (Act I)
Willy’s pride is his fatal flaw, making him a tragic hero in the play. Willy concurs with conventional Shakespearian tragedy because of this, though he is not of noble birth as Miller was determined for Willy to be an Everyman. Willy embodies other tragic elements along with this sense of hubris. His moments of anagnorisis are perhaps less obvious as he does not have one moment of intense self awareness, but rather at intervals throughout the play. Also, after his death, we are left with a sense of tragic waste, which follows the death of a hero, because despite being loved by his family, Willy came to value himself more in death than in life.
Willy : Funny, y’know? After all the highways, and the trains, and the appointments, and the years, you end up worth more dead than alive.
Death Of a Salesman does not follow the exact Aristotelian guidelines for a tragedy: Arthur Miller wrote: “I set out not to write a tragedy but to show the truth as I saw it.”
In this passage a combination of what is in Willy’s mind and what is actually real is accomplished as we see Willy talking to Charley and trying to talk to Ben at the same time. The strange double conversation Willy is having with Charley and Ben, whom Charley can not see, is confusing for Charley.
Ben – Is mother living with you?
Willy – No, she died a long time ago.
Charley – …Who died?
Ben – I’d hoped to see the old girl.
Willy – (unnerved) What do you mean who died?
Charley – What’re you talking bout? (Act I)
From the stage directions we can see Willy getting more and more agitated as he is trying to have these two conversations, Willy’s belief being that both of them are real. As the play progresses we can see the flashbacks and descent into his own imagination become more extreme.
Upon Ben’s entrance, his “music” is heard being played, an expressionistic technique which Miller uses in Death of a Salesman as an indication of when Willy has regressed into one of his cognitive states of mind, enabling the audience to recognise who is only a memory and who is part of the present reality. Expressionism is used effectively throughout the play to display moods and themes, such as in the opening when the music of the flute is played, relating to Willy’s father and also with an idea of freedom and hope.
Ben’s constant looking at his watch and obsession with time is significant throughout the play as a reminder to Willy and to the audience that time is marching on. Through the play, as we build up to Willy killing himself, it shows us that Willy doesn’t have much time left to live.
Ben – (looking at his watch) William, it’s half past eight!…I’ve only a few minutes…(glancing at his watch). (Act I)
Ben seems in many respects to be a stylised character because of his lack of emotional ties to Willy and what he is saying. As all of these events are happening in Willy’s mind, we can not be certain whether they are absolute fact, yet Ben, as we see him, is a very useless role model. When Willy is longing for answers and guidance Ben is unable to give him either. This leads us to feel pity for Willy, abandoned by the people he needed. As they went off to seek their dreams, he stuck by his family, and perhaps missed out on opportunities.
Willy – Can’t you stay for a few days? …Dad left when I was such a baby and I never had a chance to talk to him and I still feel – kinda temporary about myself.
Ben – I’ll be late for my train.
(They are at opposite ends of the stage.) (Act I)
He has an obsessional need to be given some reassurance and as he has never been told that he was right, he therefore has to fabricate these comforting “memories”. At the end of the passage we see the almost childlike glee, and innocent pleasure he takes in being “told” he was right,
Willy – …I was right! I was!…What a man! There was a man worth talking to. I was right!
This persona which Willy adapts during his atypical moments of victory is very compelling for the audience to witness, causing them to empathise with this anti-hero. Another example of this is where Willy believes that all their lives are going to be improved, with Biff going to see Bill Oliver, and Linda has just told him that his sons want to have dinner with him,
Willy – Gee Whiz! That’s really something.
We can see Willy’s vacillation from being on an exuberant high, to being down and irritable.
This passage gives a very clear and accurate depiction of Willy’s mindset as a whole. Throughout the play we see these moments when he lapses into his subconscious; musings that steadily get worse as time goes by. It also gives us indications of the two American Dreams which Willy strives for, though it is impossible for him to achieve both, he can’t even achieve one. No matter how much hard work he puts in or how much self-belief he has, he just can’t succeed. His failure sends him into a psychosomatic spiral where Willy is left feeling like the only way he can be of worth to, and help his, family is to commit suicide.
Willy is a very pitiful character right the way through, yet, despite his mistakes, there is a genuine empathetic affection for Willy Loman, which makes his death even more poignant.