A writer does not need to allow a good deal of space to emphasize a point. In fact, very often brevity works more effectively to do this, as in the brief scene of Bernard’s interaction with Willy and his sons. In a sense, Bernard is thrown into the moment to provide strong counterpoints; Willy is triumphantly receiving affection and admiration from his sons, all because the three seem to wholly embrace Willy’s feelings and ideas. Bernard, then, is a disruptive element. He violates everything Willy endorses, and his short appearance here foreshadows serious issues to come. For example, as Biff, Happy, and Willy gently mock and disregard him, Bernard seeks to break through their hyper-masculine delusions. He is a voice of reason in this manufactured world, as he points out the foolishness of writing a university name on a pair of sneakers as somehow being a sign of acceptance: “Just because he printed University of Virginia on his sneakers doesn’t mean they’ve got to graduate him” (Miller 23). In very little space, then, Miller breaks through the Loman fantasies to indicate trouble ahead.
If we are changed by the things we do or fail to do, it seems that this must be the result of what we have believed about ourselves before any “doing” is done. In reading the play, in fact, this is Willy’s source of desperation. He clings to an idea of himself because it meets the expectations of himself, and of life, that he has always depended upon. To view this from another direction, we are not likely to be changed in any appreciable way if we have a strong sense of ourselves. That in place, external success or failure become proportionate things which can never change us at a meaningful level. To be altered by our actions, then, means that we engage in them in a way not very stable. If actions can have that much power over who we are, we must have given them that power, and because we rely on it to define us.
When I consider my own life goal, I realize that I am on dangerous ground, in a sense. That is, I have had “life goals” in the past, only to have seen them fade to unimportance as new interests capture my attention. What this translates to for me is a different idea of what a life goal should be, and one that accommodates any specific course I may take in life. Very simply, my life goal is to stay healthy, try to be happy, and live in a way that satisfies my ideas of how a decent life is lived. As general as these goals are, it seems to me they are the only ones I can count on as not shifting in time, as life itself presents new challenges and opportunities to me.
In a sense, all the major characters in Death of a Salesman escape reality in one way or another. Most obviously, there is Willy. His escape takes the form of outright denial of his reality. He needs to be popular, he is not, but he reinforces the fantasy almost as chant to his sons. “And they know me, boys, they know me up and down New England. The finest people” (21). Biff’s escape is less structured, and more vulnerable. He badly clings to the idea of his father as a great man, but the image is crumbling and he further escapes through “bad boy” behavior. Happy actually acknowledges his own form of escape, which is casual sex. It confuses him, even as he needs it because he cannot get the attention he craves from Willy. Then, it seems that Linda Loman takes a quiet form of escape. She knows her family is in trouble, but she desperately tries to preserve normalcy and an illusion of happiness: “Willy, dear, I got a new kind of American-type cheese today” (11). It is a minor attempt at preserving an illusion, and an escape in itself.
The Lomans are an example of how the world’s expectations change because, in a sense, they are all victims of these changes. Willy is, again, the most prominent illustration of this, as his panic grows from a sense of betrayal. The world he knew prized good humor as a great asset for a man, and he has devoted himself to generating this belief, only to see it mean nothing in his career. He holds onto an old-fashioned idea of what people desire and what makes for greatness, but the world around him seems to have become more mercenary, and much harder to please. Then, Willy has passed on this legacy of illusions to his son. There is a sense in the play that the Lomans are frozen in time; nobody is capable of adjusting to a world now interested in real achievement, and Willy Loman most of all more urgently stresses the talents he believes must still matter, as in being liked.
The most obvious, and painful, thing about Happy is that he very much wants recognition and approval from his father. This explains his sexual manipulation of women; frustrated by being ignored by the most important figure in his world, he then acts out the same disregard. It seems that Biff, problems notwithstanding, is the “golden boy” in his father’s eyes, and Happy’s energy is almost entirely directed to getting noticed by Willy: “I’m losing weight, you notice, Pop?” (24). As Willy has ingrained in his boys the importance of being liked, it must be all the more painful to Happy that he is not especially liked by his own father.
In modern terms, Willy’s relationships with his sons are those of an enabler, and of a particularly damaging kind. As his own life crumbles around him, he reinforces for his sons the same ideals that have led to his failure. He mocks Bernard because the boy does not conform to his own notions of what makes a man important, and he consistently emphasizes these notions to his boys. Essentially, the lesson Willy teaches is that nothing is more valuable than being popular in the world. Then, Willy takes his weak ideology further; as much as he seemingly condemns Biff’s “bad boy” behavior, he is also proud of it: “The girls pay for you? (He laughs) Boy, you must really be makin’ a hit” (19). This is a father completely unequipped to raise children, because he uses them as props in his own, delusional world. He does not mean any harm, and he sincerely believes his messages are right, but he is still incapable of seeing his sons as people, or of doing what is in their best interests.
The strategy of trying to be liked to ensure success is inherently flawed, and in every conceivable way. First of all, it is a strategy that actually depends on a shifting persona and a willingness to accommodate whatever is expected. This then gives it the quality of being, at best, a “quick fix” approach to being liked. It ingratiates because that is all it is in place to do, because it relies on pleasing others as the ultimate aim. On one level, then, this strategy is plainly exhausting; it means continually assessing every situation and working to fulfill what is perceived to be wanted at the time. On another, it can never truly succeed because what it depends upon is intrinsically subject to change, as it must vary from situation to situation. Most of all, holding to a strategy of wanting to be liked translates to a complete ignoring of the importance of being who and what you are. It means that only external assessments matter, and this must lead to an eventual failure on all counts, as external assessments can never be within anyone’s control.
The Loman men treat Bernard in a way that could be called, at best, condescending. As Willy has made it clear to his sons what a man should be, they in turn enjoy viewing Bernard as something of a joke. Bernard is a symbol of actual achievement through hard work, which completely contradicts Willy’s ideology, and the boys take their cue from their father in dismissing him as a sad, doomed prospect. There is still, however, an undercurrent of disturbance in the Loman men. Simply, Bernard’s statements about Biff’s chances are too real to be totally brushed aside. This is why Willy must reinforce the illusion after Bernard leaves: “When he gets out in the business world, y’understand, you are going to be five times ahead of him” (23). It is his saying to his sons that they must not pay attention to that infusion of reality, because everything he ever told them will prove to be true.
If Linda Loman is the realist in the family, it is a painful and ineffective role. More exactly, her sense of realism is always tempered by the real love she has for Willy and her sons, so she is continually at war with what she knows to be true and what she wants for them. It seems to be a war that is slowly destroying her. She veers from placating her husband and reassuring him, to gently trying to make him understand the greater reality. Early in the play, when Willy engages in a stereotypical anger over Biff’s irresponsibility, she tries to help him see the real issue: “I think he’s still lost, Willy. I think he’s very lost” (9). Linda Loman’s curse is that she is able to know the truth, yet her entire family is determined to avoid it.
There is no character in Death of a Salesman that makes identification a desirable thing, or even easily achieved. There is a sadness and desperation marking each role, and identifying with any is not an agreeable prospect. That said, however, I am most drawn to Happy, and for a number of reasons. While his frantic attempts to please his father are painful, Happy stands apart from Biff and Willy by virtue of a degree of self-awareness. Biff is somewhat onto himself as well, but confusion more defines his state of being and probable future. More exactly, it seems that, when Biff understands his life, it will explode in rage. Happy takes the time to truly think about his behavior, which goes to a potential to comprehend much he has gotten wrong. There is a sense that there is a chance for Happy, if he can only break free from Willy’s domination and his own participation in it. Then, there is also an energy in Happy that promotes this possibility. I can identify with him because he is trying in a way Biff cannot, and because his spirit may just survive the despair of the Loman life.
Scene One. ( A knock on the door of the Loman apartment is heard. Linda moves to answer; I enter with two full bags of groceries in my arms):
Me (Sweeping past her): Hey, Mrs. Loman. Running late, sorry.
Linda (Going for her purse): I was getting worried. Mr. Loman’s home, the boys are home…
Me (Dropping the bags on a table, winded): Sorry. Honest. Crazy day, really.
Linda (Looking in bags, inserting hands): That cheese I ordered…
Me: Oh, yeah. Sorry. Not in stock.
Linda (Distressed): No, no. Mr. Pierce said he had it. Willy needs his –
Me (Chuckling): Pierce never knows what we got. Sorry, Mrs, Loman.
Linda (Distracted, alarmed): I promised Willy. For breakfast. I promised I’d make…
Me (Wary): It’s not on the bill, I swear. But –
Linda: He just came home. Biff is home too. I was so wanting…
Me: Mrs. Loman, I’m really sorry but I can’t bring you what we don’t have.
Linda (Staring into space, still): I don’t know what I’ll tell Willy.
Me (Uncomfortable, after a pause): The bill, Mrs. Loman? I kind of need to get moving…
Scene Two. (The boys exit, Willy stands staring, a small smile on his face. The phone rings, he answers.)
Me (Heard through phone): Hello? May I speak with William Loman?
Willy (Suddenly important, voice confident): This is Mr. Loman. Willy.
Me: Mr. Loman, excuse my calling on a Saturday, but I’m with Atlantic Federal, and there’s a matter…
Willy (Quickly nervous): No problem, son. Shows drive, a young man working on the weekend.
Me (After a pause): Oh. Well, thank you. Anyway. Mr. Loman, the payment we were expecting last month –
Willy (Quickly interrupting): Yes. Of course, I remember sending it out. (Nervous chuckle). Don’t tell me you never got it? I tell you, the mail today…
Me: No, sir. We received it. We got your check. The problem, sir, is that there were insufficient funds. (Silence). Mr. Loman?
Willy: Yes. I’m here. I’m…just confused, is all. What you’re telling me can’t be.
Me: I’m sorry, sir, but the check didn’t clear. My superiors asked –
Willy (Fixed stare, a bit dazed): What?
Willy: I don’t understand. (Firmer, a little angry) Young man, I think your boss needs to go over this. I don’t send bad checks. If you ask anyone –
Me: Sir, I don’t mean to imply that you do. I’m sure it’s just a mistake.
Willy (Softening): Well, yes. Of course. That’s all it is. I tell you what, young man: you tell your boss not to worry. Willy Loman’s check is as good as his word.
Me: Yes, sir. But we still need –
Willy: There’s a good boy. You just tell your boss it’s all fine. And you step away, son, take some of this fine day for yourself, all right? (He hangs up, stands there)
Scene Three. (Lights fade out, rise on center stage for memory scene. Biff is seated across from my desk in a classroom.)
Me (Calm, reassuring, steady): Biff. I understand the pressures on a young man today, honestly.
Biff (Legs out, arms folded, defiant): So why I am here, Mr. Jones?
Me: It’s like I told you. Your studies. At this rate, the school can’t move you forward. Your grades –
Biff: “Move me forward”?
Me (After a pause): Graduate. Graduate you. (More gently) Biff, I can’t be telling you what you don’t already know. Your teachers have given you all sorts of opportunities to make up the work.
Biff: I have to say, Mr. Jones, it’s kind of funny. The school wants me to be this big sports hero and I knock myself out to do it.
Me: And we appreciate that, Biff. But this is still a school, and you know we still require a certain level of academic success. Your father –
Biff (Alarmed): My father? What?
Me: Well, I spoke to him. It’s policy. We want to involve the parents, learn if there’s any factors we don’t know about…
Biff: You talked to my father about this? What’d he say?
Me: I’m afraid he wasn’t…helpful. He didn’t seem to appreciate how serious this is.
Biff (Thoughtful, after a long pause): Well…maybe he’s right. Really. I mean, come on. This is just school, after all. It’s not like life, or anything. (Fade out)
Scene Four. ( Lights dim for memory scene. A younger Happy is leaning against the wall in the school hallway. I approach stage left, eagerly, slap him hard on the shoulder)
Me (Gleeful): Dog! What a dog you are, Hap!
Happy (Feigning ignorance): What’re you talking about, Bobby?
Me (Stepping, restless, pleased): Uh…I think you know what I’m talking about. It”s all over school, you dog. Karen Akers. Wow. (Shaking head in disbelief)
Happy: What do you know? Seriously?
Me (Laughing): What everybody knows. Man! The guys are in shock! No one’s ever made it to first base with her, and Hap hits a home run!
Happy (Concerned): What? How do you know, man?
Me: Hell, Karen’s got the two of you married already.
Happy (Suddenly stunned): Oh, man. Are you kidding me?
Me: Nope. Hell, she’s bragging about it, like it means you’re together forever now. You dog.
Happy: Oh, man. This is bad. Mean, I never told her…(He pauses, thinks) The guys are knocked out? Really?
Me: Hap, you’re a hero! (Fade out)