The Leadership Review Team

Classic in Focus – Death of a Salesman

The Leadership Review Team

Death of a Salesman


Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is the story of Willy Loman, a sexagenarian who seriously believes that success is all about the destination one has reached and does not bother with the journey that leads to it. He always regrets that he didn’t go to Alaska with his elder brother Ben after the latter ended up with diamond mines and came out of the jungle rich at the age of 21. All he likes to remember about Ben is his ultimate success, but refuses to think about the grind which Ben went through for four long years, beginning at 17 years of age.  He always dreams of making it big someday, but refuses to traverse the path of the toil. A disease very commonly found during the autopsy of failure all over the world. He chooses to continuously dream about becoming an ace salesman one day, sometime in the distant future.

He has been a travelling salesman all his life. A mercurial salesman with calluses on his hands, he would return home tired and dejected after driving over 700 miles every week. He was diligent and was concerned about doing a good job, being a good citizen and pleasing the authority. He was hardworking, reliable and meticulous. But all of this did not change his fate.

Despite his hard work, the Lomans have always lived at the edge of poverty and Willy has always been an underling in his company. He constantly tells both himself and his family that the ‘big break’ he deserves, is just around the corner. He has raised his two sons, Biff and Happy, to believe that somehow life has cheated them and insists that one day, they will get their due. Charley, Will’s next door neighbor offers him a job which could have helped the Lomans escape the travails of their life. But Willy refuses it without a second thought. With his inflated sense of self-worth he instead wanted to own a business as big as Charley’s. He tells the boys that someday his business will be bigger than Charley’s, because Charley is ‘liked, but not well-liked’. Linda, his wife, too has been living under the shroud of denial that her husband has for so long tried to keep them from collapsing.

As the play progresses, Willy’s work life worsens. He fails to see that with changing times the business’s expectations of him have changed too. His old boss Frank, his boss Howard’s father, valued Willy’s loyalty. He valued the 36 long years that Willy had given to the organisation. But Frank was dead now and Howard was leading the company who did not particularly value loyalty as much as his father. He demanded results and in the lack of which he believed that Willy had outlived his usefulness to the company. He had already stopped Willy’s salary and paid him only commission on the sales he made, as if he were a beginner. The clientele that Willy built, who also valued relationship over maximizing advantage in a deal, had either retired or passed away. The new lot that had come up resembled Howard in more ways than one, leaving it very difficult for an old-fashioned ordinary salesman like Willy to close any substantial sales deals.

However, Willy fails to see this side of the events and in his heart believes that if Frank were alive he would have made Willy in-charge of the New York territory. As expected, Howard terminates Willy’s services and the latter is left devastated and unable to understand how his employer could just cast him aside after so many years of faithful service.

The frustration of his inability to grow in the professional sphere and his ultimate termination takes a toll on his family life too. He gets impulsive and remains constantly on guard, looking out for signs that others have or will treat him badly. When he thinks he has been mistreated, he erupts in a volatile manner. It is evident in his reaction when Linda tells him that he should work in New York and let go of this 700 mile weekly drive to Boston to rest his mind. But he was convinced that New York does not need him and he could succeed in his current job in Boston. He grows very cynical about Linda’s advising him against this irrational belief and sees it as ill treatment; he vigorously slaps himself on the thigh and yells “why am I being contradicted every time.” He loses his temper because he thinks she is defying him. Their relation deteriorated to an extent that he gets into an extra-marital affair with another woman.

Willy’s relation with Biff, his elder son, also remains far from congenial. He feels deeply disappointed in Biff, who in high school showed a great potential as an athlete but flunks senior year math and never went to the college. While Willy wants Biff to follow in his footsteps, become a ‘successful’ salesman, but Biff neither had the inclination nor the capability for that; he had lost all his respect for his father and everything he represents when he caught Willy with his paramour in a Boston hotel room.

With nothing working for him and his failure becoming more abject every passing day, Willy begins to very gradually kill himself by inhaling gas fumes from a hose in the garage, an act that relieves his mental anguish and gives him a momentary high. The gas also muddles Willy’s mind, conflating his concept of time and space. As the years pile up, he emotionally gets very volatile and tries to commit suicide twice – once by trying to drive his car off a bridge and again by hooking a tube up to the gas heater in the basement.  He finally succeeds in his third attempt when he crashes his car in defeat hoping against the hope for Biff to use his insurance money to start a business, win at the game that his father lost miserably. He dies as he had lived, pushing endlessly for a hope he knows has no legs. A dead Willy Loman was still a failure in the eyes of society.

The salesman dies and the name of the play literally plays out. But was the play about ultimate demise of a defeated old man? Or was it about the defeat itself? Did Willy die only when he stopped breathing? Or did he die with every single opportunity he missed and with each of his frustrated aspirations? Was it really living when every second he breathed was burdened with the weight of his dead American dream he chose to carry like a cross? Death was just a metaphor for the decay that had set in Willy’s life long before he actually died and even in his demise the rottenness of it did not go away.

And who is Willy Loman? He is every man who toils day and night in the hope that it will add up to a tomorrow that will be significantly brighter than today. He is every executive in the corporate behemoth who willingly participates in the rat race without stopping ever to reflect about the run itself. He is every derailed leader who did not see the changing tides of time that swept all his past successes away and leave him stranded. He is every aspiration that has only an external locus of control. He is the resultant discontentment. He is the clinging on to the past and his death is a rude awakening. He is not just Willy Loman; he is also Happy Loman who follows in his footsteps. He is all of us who are playing our parts in making this world run. And he is the reminder.

“He’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine . . . A salesman is got to dream, boy.”

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