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Willy Loman is a firm believer in the "American Dream:" the notion that any man can rise from humble beginnings to greatness. His particular slant on this ideal is that a man succeeds by selling his charisma, that to be well liked is the most important asset a man can have. He made a living at this for 30 years, but as he enters the reclining years of his life, people have stopped smiling back and he can no longer sell the firm's goods to support himself. His ambition was one of greatness, to work hard and to be a member of the firm; and if he could not succeed in this respect, that he should at least be well-liked and be able to sell until the day of his death: When his friends would flock from all over the country to pay their respects.
Willy's main flaw is his foolish pride, this it what makes him a tragic hero. Yet there are many facets to his personality that contribute to the state he and the family are in during the play. His upbringing of the boys is one major issue, he raised them with the notion that if one is well-liked, he need not worry about qualifications, he believed that if his boys were popular they would come out on top. Sadly, he doesn't realise that the only way an ordinary person can get rich is through work (represented by Bernard) or through luck and good timing (Ben), and Willy missed the boat when it came to luck. The boys grew up to believe in all that their father had told them, and Happy went on to follow in his footsteps as a salesman. Biff, after catching his father with the woman begins to question these values. He realises that for him, at least, these values are not applicable, and he is not too concerned if he doesn't come out on top.
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In 1949, shortly after the play's premiere, Miller wrote a controversial essay about how Death of a Salesman was a true tragedy, only with common people rather than kings. Loman's lack of self-awareness is not unlike King Lear's, it could be argued - both men evoke the tragic by dying in the effort to secure, in Miller's words, "a sense of personal dignity."
As the play progresses, one begins to feel sorry for Willy and his predicament, but also angry and frustrated with the character for his foolish pride. It is this trait that prevents him from accepting a steady job with Charlie, something that could have saved his life. However, it is this false pride has been sparking the family flame for years, the notion that the Loman name was well known and well-liked. The family lie even amongst themselves about their position as is revealed during the climax of the play:
BIFF "...We never told the truth for ten minutes in this house!"
HAPPY "We always told the truth!"
BIFF (turning on him) "You big blow, are you the assistant buyer? You're one of two assistants to the assistant aren't you?"
Another example is the way in which Willy led Biff to believe that he has a salesman for Oliver, which in the end left Biff bitterly disappointed. The cause for this extrapolation of the truth may be part of Willy's paranoid psyche that he has not raised his boys 'right'.
Happy says of Willy: "He's never so Happy as when he's looking forward to something. " This is very important during the play. Willy's spirit wanes when he has nothing to look forward to, and when his spirit is down, he goes into a flashback. It is as though he is dying and his life is replaying before his eyes. For example, the morning when he is going to see Howard and Biff is going to see Oliver, Willy is invigorated and in the realms of sanity for the first time in the play. Once he gets fired, however, he goes into a tailspin, reliving incidents from the past until he reaches Charlie. The next scene is the restaurant, where he is expecting big news from Biff, he is sane and relatively Happy, waiting for the news that will fulfill his dream. Once Biff starts trying to explain his point of view to Willy, and break it to him gently, Willy realises that something is going wrong and starts another flashback. This time to the woman; he feels a lot of guilt about his affair and relives this event at this moment because he believes that it is the reason that Biff is unsuccessful.
Willy gradually realizes that his selling career is washed up, and foolishly believes it is below his dignity to work any other job. In what he believes is the best interest of the family, he decides to commit suicide, so that his family may get the life insurance. He does not consider that his family loves him, but prefers to look at what is the best business move. He believes that this final solution will give the family a chance financially as well as recover lost dignity (when Biff sees the masses that are supposed to go to his funeral.) Willy says to Charlie: "Funny you know? After all the highways, and the trains, and the appointments, and the years, you end up worth more dead than alive. " This statement is a sad reflection on the state of mind that Willy is in due the unfortunate combination of his ideals and the change which has occurred in his society.
Willy is a multi-faceted character which Miller has portrayed a deep problem with sociological and psychological causes and done so with disturbing reality. In another time or another place Willy might have been successful and kept his Sanity, but as he grew up, society's values changed and he was left out in the cold. His foolish pride, bad judgement and his disloyalty are also at fault for his tragic end and the fact that he did not die the death of a salesman.