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The Character of Uncle Ben in Death of a Salesman

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The Character of Uncle Ben in Death of a Salesman

The character of Ben in Arthur Miller's Death of A Salesman serves a complex dramatic function.  He is Willy Loman's real brother, the idealized memory of that brother, and an aspect of Willy's own personality, and these distinct functions are sometimes simultaneous.  Through his aggressive actions and vibrant speech, the audience is given a strong contrast to Willy's self-doubt and self-contradiction.  In addition, the encounters between Ben and Willy serve as an extended examination of professional and familial morality.  Finally, Ben personifies the burden of Willy's expectations in regards to both material success and the proper role of a father.

The most fundamental of Ben's characteristics evident in his language is his haste.  Appearing in the middle of Willy and Charley's card game, Ben's first words are, "I only have a few minutes"  (45).  He makes his departure shortly after announcing, "I'll be late for my train"  (52).  During his second appearance, he declares, "I haven't much time" and "I've got to go"  (85-6).  These lines are emblematic.  In the two scenes with his brother that are based on Willy's memories, Ben comes and goes when he chooses, despite sometimes desperate pleas that he stay.  This is in direct contrast to Willy, whose life has been structured around appointments and whose livelihood depends on the forbearance of near strangers.

Because of his position as a traveling salesman, Willy never controls the parameters of his interaction with other people.  He calls upon customers and must depend upon their willingness to see him in order to make a living.  Willy's affair with The Woman is only partially motivated by a need for sexual fulfillment.  While there can be no doubt that she re-masculinizes him through sex, she also empowers him professionally, promising "I'll put you right through to the buyers"  (39).  But this affair has long been over when the events of the play occur.  When Willy tells Linda, "I'm vital in New England"  (14), he should be speaking in the past tense.  In the present, he is sexually and professionally emasculated.  In compensation, Willy exerts control by compulsively concluding personal encounters.  Thus, in Act One, he sends Linda upstairs ahead of him.  Faced with Ben's spectre, he drives Charley away by disrupting the card game.  And much of his anger with Biff may result from Biff's refusal to allow Willy to dictate the pattern of their conversation.  Typically, Biff defends his mother against Willy's anger, forcing him to walk away, "beaten down, guilt-ridden"  (65).

The pointlessness of Willy's attempts at control is revealed in Act Two, in which the recurring motif is abandonment.  Howard leaves Willy behind twice in the course of their scene together, even though the scene occurs in Howard's office.  One would expect Willy would be told to leave, but instead in both instances Howard tells him, "pull yourself together"  (82, 84) and walks out.  Willy even tries to leave at one point, and Howard stops him (83).  The second episode with Ben occurs at this point, concluding with another abandonment.  His next encounter is with Bernard, who although kind and patient with Willy, obviously has more important places to be and people to see, and leaves.  Charley, who in their personal relationship demonstrates considerable forbearance in the face of constant insult, cannot give Willy more time because of the demands of business:  "I got an accountant inside"  (98).  Finally and most devastatingly, Biff and Happy abandon Willy in the men's room of the restaurant. 

Ben is immune to abandonment, not only because it is always he who leaves, but because he is paradoxically more rooted than Willy.  Before Ben has spoken his second line, Willy tells Charley that Ben had seven sons  (45).  Miller's choice of seven sons (with no mention of presumably irrelevant daughters) places Ben in the ancient tradition of biblical patriarchs.  He is a mythic figure with origins in Judaic antiquity.  Interestingly, the sons are only mentioned in reference to why Willy cannot expect to inherit anything from his brother's estate.  Ben has left it all to his sons, and thus provided them with wealth and advantages that Willy cannot provide Biff and Happy.

Ben's wealth is part of his mythic quality.  In both of the episodes that Willy remembers, Ben's final word is "rich"  (52, 87).  The origins of his wealth are obscure, presented as they are in two completely different ways.  First, there is the almost precisely repeated tale of walking into the jungle at seventeen and walking out at twenty-one having made a fortune.  But this is not an explanation, it is "an incantatory formula"  (Jacobsen 251).  Key to this formula is the reference to God.  "And by God I was rich"  (50, 52).  This places the responsibility for success in other than human hands, and thereby renders pointless any advice Willy might ask for.  In contrast, there is an intimation of a more prosaic truth behind Ben's success in the practical advice he gives Biff.  "Never fight fair with a stranger, boy.  You'll never get out of the jungle that way"  (49).  The audience may now suspect that God had very little to do with Ben's success after all.

Some critics expand Ben's public amorality to cover the personal and intimate aspects of his life. 

Apparently indifferent to social relationships, he needed neither the human warmth of the family nor society's positive response.  His sphere of action related to things and quantities rather than people; even his seven sons seemed more like commodities than members of a family. (Jacobsen 250)

This is inaccurate.  It is Willy Loman, not Ben, who endlessly quantifies.  "That is a one-million-dollar idea!"  (63).  "Ask for fifteen.  How much you gonna ask for? . . . Don't be so modest.  You always started too low"  (64-5).  "Can you imagine that magnificence with twenty-thousand dollars in his pocket?"  (135).  Willy literally attaches a numerical sum to his own life:  "a man has got to add up to something"  (125).  Since it is Willy who numbers Ben's sons (Ben never mentions them), any suggestion that they seem commodities comes from him.  The audience has never seen Ben in a context that would reveal whether he appreciates the warmth of family or not.  What we do know suggests that, at the very least, he is a good provider.  In this area, Ben resembles Charley.  When Willy cannot comprehend how Charley can have produced Bernard, Charley responds, "My salvation is that I never took any interest in anything"  (96).  Both Ben and Charley provide materially for their children, but have no desire to direct the course of their lives.  In any case, it is difficult to imagine that Ben's relationship with his sons could be much worse than Willy's with Biff and Happy.  The only inheritance Willy's sons receive are his hypocrisies, insecurities, and desperate graspings at grandeur, which Happy accepts and Biff, after years of vacillating, finally does not.

The contrasting inheritances the two brothers leave their sons are the echo of those which they received from their own father.  Ben is old enough, when confronted with abandonment by his father, to recover and pursue his own destiny.  Describing this process to Willy, he is disingenuous.  "At that age I had a very faulty view of geography, William.  I discovered after a few days that I was heading due south, so instead of Alaska, I ended up in Africa"  (48).  Despite Ben's description of their father as a "very great and very wild-hearted man"  (49), one must conclude that, rejected by his father, Ben utterly rejects him in turn, literally running to the opposite end of the earth and founding his own dynasty in the wilds of a new continent as compensation.  When he returns, he literally does not know if his parents are alive or dead.

Willy, on the other hand, is too young when his father abandons the family to follow suit: 

When Willy also suffers the disappearance of his older brother, he nearly completely loses his self-confidence and his sense of identity as a male.  His insecurity about his identity and role as a father is evident in the memory scene where he confesses to Ben that he feels "kind of temporary"  (51)  about himself and seeks his brother's assurance that he is doing a good job bringing up his sons (Centola 34-5).

Left behind, Willy moves from the freedom of the west to the "talk and time payments and courts of law"  (85)  of the city, and becomes a salesman.  Both decisions may be seen as an attempt to compensate for the loss of his father and brother by surrounding himself with people.  Willy is obsessed with their opinions, and dreams of being able to make a living simply through being "known," "respected," and "liked."  He constantly makes a highly questionable distinction between those who are liked and those who are "well-liked."  Despite his apparent confidence, he is riddled with insecurity.  "But they do laugh at me.  I know that"  (37).  Ben, conversely, is "utterly certain of his destiny"  (44).  One suspects he is also utterly confident of his sons' respect and untroubled at their prospects, while Willy, crippled by his own father's desertion, agonizes over ways to make his sons successful.

In the mock fight with Biff, Ben defines himself as a "stranger" and acts accordingly.  Yet just prior to this incident, Willy introduced him to his sons as "your Uncle Ben, a great man!"  (48).  Again, one may mistakenly interpret Ben's actions here as utterly amoral:  "Ben's drive for self-fulfillment is undoubtedly predicated upon his denial of any responsibility for others and his repudiation of the values which Willy cherishes and associates with his romanticized view of family life and the past"  (Centola 38).  The difference between the two men lies more in the definition of "others" than of "responsibility."  Ben is not irresponsible; indeed, he fulfills his familial responsibilities better than Willy, with his "romanticized view," does.  The more significant difference lies in how the two men view the opposed concepts of "family" and "strangers."  Willy, the abandoned child, seizes any opportunity for a sense of belonging and self-justification.  Ben, who has established his own line in Africa, has no need of a family back in the United States.  He feels no compulsion to justify his existence.  Nonetheless, perhaps out of fraternal obligation, perhaps out of guilt at recapitulating his father's offence, perhaps simply out of nostalgia for the young boy to whom he "gave a bunch of wild flowers"  (49), Ben offers Willy the chance to work for him, and more importantly, to reunite the two branches of the family.  Thus it is clearly unfair to suggest that Ben's amorality is absolute.

Miller leaves the question of why Willy rejects his brother's offer somewhat ambiguous.  On one level, Willy is simply a different kind of man.  Laurence Olivier's famous characterization of Hamlet as "a man who could not make up his mind" is far more appropriate to Willy Loman.  Willy is unable to reach conclusions about even the most banal aspects of life, for example whether it is better to laugh or not during a job interview.  Given this, the chutzpah required to uproot his family and move to Alaska is no doubt beyond his capacities.  Yet on another level, it is the presence of Linda that seems to restrain him.  As Steven Centola observes, "(B)y reminding him Willy of the successful career of Dave Singleman, she rekindles within him his love of the profession. . . Ironically, Linda could actually be said to have hurt Willy by upholding his illusions"  (37).  This is true, but they are his illusions after all.  Linda has merely been infected by hearing them repeatedly for years.

The ambiguity in Willy's choice is compounded by the occurrence of these episodes in memory only.  The audience, as indicated by the play's original title, is inside of Willy's head.  These memories are distortions.  Willy is not simply remembering external events from the past; he is also projecting his own internal conflicts as confrontations between members of his family.  Simultaneously, his internal conflicts have their roots in his notions of familial responsibility and abandonment.  Simply put, the internal and external conflicts of Willy's life are irreducibly symbiotic.

Ben's appearance near the end of the play is wholly the product of Willy's imagination and not based on memories, however distorted.  The imaginary Ben is a different man ¾ one who has time for his brother.  Presented with Willy's dilemma, he says, "Let me think about it. . . . I still have a little time"  (127).  The climactic scene between Willy and Biff intercedes, and when Ben returns, he is a synthesis of the two avatars.  In character, it is the Ben of memory once again, decisive and commanding.  But existing as he does only in Willy's mind, he is now unfettered by Linda's arguments.  Willy is using the image of Ben to accomplish that which he cannot do otherwise:  commit himself to a fatal course of action.  Muddled, impotent, frustrated and failed, he summons up the ghost of his brother, the personification of decisiveness, fertility, fulfillment and success, to direct him. 

For the first time, Linda is not present as a counterbalance.  Her absence renders Willy capable of suicide.  "Time, William, time . . . The boat.  We'll be late" (135, all quotes).  Even at this juncture, however, Willy wavers.  Taken by surprise by Ben's departure, he is left asking questions to the air.  "Ben!  Ben, where do I . . . ? . . . Ben, how do I . . . ?"  Ironically, it is Linda who pushes him over the edge.  She calls to him, "Willy, are you coming up?".  The stage directions that follow are revealing:  "Willy, uttering a gasp of fear, whirling about as if to quiet her"  (136).  Willy can no longer bear the reality of his life that Linda represents.  Rather than face another day of self-doubt and recrimination, he dies embracing the idea that in so doing he guarantees Biff's future and Biff's love.

In the context of the play, Ben exists only in Willy's limited and selective memory, and represents only one facet of Willy's conflicted personality.  Thus he is a necessarily more limited character.  In a very real sense, these limitations are Willy's great burden.  Willy's problem is not that the assertive and decisive aspects of his personality dominate him.  Rather, the devastating absence of his father and brother is demonstrated by the way he obsesses over his brief encounters with the real Ben.  The briefness of these meetings also serves to convince Willy of his own inferiority by concealing any difficulties that might have existed in Ben's life.  Ben has exactly the wrong degree of interaction with Willy.  If he were entirely absent, he would not haunt his younger brother so.  If he were more fully present, he would either have been of more comfort to Willy, or have been revealed as a more fully human, less mythic character.  As it is, Ben serves only to remind him of his past loss, emphasize his current failure, and provide the means of his final destruction.

Works Cited

Centola, Steven R.  "Family Values in Death of A Salesman."  CLA Journal.  37.1 (1993):  29-41.

Jacobsen, Irving F.  "Family Dreams in Death of A Salesman."  American Literature.  47 (1975):  247-58.

Miller, Arthur.  Death of A Salesman.  New York:  Penguin, 1976.

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