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Ben as a Minor Character Who Develops the Play
In Arthur Miller’s, Death of a Salesman, the character of Ben is used as a catalyst to fuel the development of the main character, Willy. Ben appears in three major flashbacks throughout the story. In the first flashback, Ben makes his appearance to give Willy happiness because to Willy, money means happiness. The second time Ben appears, he is used as a scapegoat to show that Willy has a hard time dealing with the truth. The third and final time that Ben appears is in Willy’s hallucination to help him decide on whether or not he should commit suicide. Through a comparison and understanding of each of these occurrences, the reader is able to gain vast knowledge of who Willy Loman actually is. These flashbacks and hallucinations show how Ben’s character is used as a device to allow the reader to understand what is actually going on inside Willy Loman’s mind.
The first time Ben appears is in a flashback within Willy’s mind. This flashback is used as an interruption of Willy’s feelings of inadequacy about his present situation. Willy has returned home from a selling trip, unable to concentrate and unable to keep his mind in the present. Ben appears as an archetype for Willy’s inability to face the truth, a way for him to forget about his present condition and feelings. This flashback with Ben provides the reader with a large amount of information about him, and, thus, about Willy. The reader first learns that Ben is much wealthier then Willy, and, while they are brothers, they did not grow up together. The reader also learns through the flashback that Willy idolizes Ben, though they have never been close. Willy comments, “Ben! I’ve been waiting for you so long! What’s the answer? How did you do it?” obviously showing Ben has achieved what Willy wishes. The reader realizes that Ben has made a fortune by “walking into Africa”. He has prospered by essentially using other people for what they can give him. “When I was seventeen I walked into the jungle, and when I was twenty-one I walked out. And by god I was rich” . The reader learns about the character of Willy because he completely believes that this is an excellent way to make money.
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Miller uses Ben again in Willy’s mind as an archetype. He has just been fired, and Willy cannot deal with the truth. He “remembers” a flashback that never actually happened and, is in fact, talking to Ben as he might if Ben were actually there in the present. When Willy says “Oh Ben, how did you do it? What is the answer?” the reader can see that Willy is looking towards his brother for help and for advice on how to make it in life. He is feeling desperate with his current situation. The conversation is supposed to be a flashback of the past; yet, it makes sense that this conversation with Ben actually takes place in the present as things he would have wanted to say to Ben. Somehow, Linda enters the scene. She provides positive comforting, telling Willy that his life is okay, that he’s well liked by his sons and that, “someday . . . he’ll be a member of the firm” (1262). She provides this as a description of what can happen after honest work, unlike Ben’s own. Willy realizes and, in fact, begins to demonstrate that he did once believe in himself and actually did think he could make it. A further demonstration of Willy being sure of himself is illustrated in a scene that has Willy completely sure of himself and of his boys. This is the day of Biff’s big football game. Miller seems to use Ben as a device to further the action and to move the play forward. Miller uses him as a way to re-direct the play, to get Willy out of a situation and into another. After the entire flashback sequence, the plot then shifts to Willy in Charlie’s office. Charley represents everything that Ben is not. He is a decent, hard working family man who has worked hard all of his life and has achieved relative success in his older age. He became the opposite of Ben; yet, Willy still idolizes Ben, the man who achieved immediate wealth. This can be tied to Willy’s profession as a salesman. A salesman is someone who one specific day could achieve successes, while other days he cannot. Willy believes that this is the better way to do it, as evidenced by his belief in Ben’s method.
The third time Miller shows Ben influencing Willy is in a complete hallucination of Willy’s. He appears completely within Willy’s mind, as someone Willy is talking to about his decision of suicide. Ben is used to provide support for his decision. Willy becomes Ben in the last scene. The reader is able to view through him the final internal struggle that Willy goes through in his own mind, leading up to his suicide. Ben provides justification for Willy that he should commit suicide. Ben is a very materialistic person. He believes that money will do children better than love and support. He tries to persuade Willy into believing that insurance money would be better for his family than his love. The reader sees that Willy is struggling with this idea, trying to find some way to provide for his boys. The scene is halted, and Willy thinks back and discovers that Biff really loves him, “he likes me!”. Immediately upon discovering this, Ben re-appears, stating that “yes, Biff will be outstanding, with twenty thousand behind him” (1313). At this point, it has all been decided in Willy’s mind. He is going to commit suicide, and he is going to provide his sons with money by killing himself. Through his discussion with Ben, the reader can see the struggle Willy goes through to reach his decision; yet, the reader sees how much he wants it. Willy does not see this as an end to his own life, but rather the only thing he has left to do in his life that can provide for his sons.
It is evident throughout the whole story that all Willy wants is for his family to be happy. Ben is essentially Willy’s role model throughout the play and acts as someone who has achieved the true essence, in Willy’s mind, of the “American Dream.” He is someone who came out of a jungle rich at twenty-one. Ben is also used in a large part to contribute to the overall theme of the novel. Biff states at the end during his father’s funeral “he had all the wrong dreams” (1315). Perhaps this is true of Willy Loman. He is so caught up in achieving the “American Dream” and achieving Ben’s life that he is unable to see that the dream is different for everyone. He is unable to see who he is and to choose realistic goals for himself. Ben is used by Miller to provide the inspiration for Willy throughout the entire play. Through exploration of Ben’s character, the reader is able to answer questions as to who Willy is. The reader can conclude that had Ben never been present, Willy’s life might have ended different. If he had not idolized Ben, Willy might have chosen more realistic goals and dreams. Ben’s character is used as a goal for Willy to strive. In the process, as an outsider, the reader learns the importance of being proud of who they are and what they have accomplished. Willy never experiences a sense of accomplishment because he is too busy trying to be like his brother. Miller uses Ben’s character as a role model for Willy. Through his three important appearances in the novel, the reader is given a chance to view Willy and his interactions with Ben and his total belief in Ben as a hero. He believes that his boys should be like Ben, which proves that he believes in Ben’s own self-centered morals about how to get ahead. Ben has such a significant presence in the novel because Willy is constantly chasing him; he is constantly running to catch up to his brother. Even when Ben is just a hallucination in Willy’s mind, Willy believes in him fully. Ben permits Willy’s character to develop.