Reality and Illusion in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman
In Arthur Miller’s play, Death of a Salesman, a major theme and source of conflict is the Loman family’s inability to distinguish between reality and illusion. This is particularly evident in the father, Willy Loman. Willy has created a fantasy world of himself and his family. In this world, he and his sons are men of greatness that “have what it takes” to make it in the business environment. In reality, none of them can achieve this greatness until they confront and deal with this illusion.
Willy is convinced that being well liked is the key to success, exclaiming “Be liked and you will never want...” (Klotz, A 1998). It is unclear whether Willy’s “flashbacks” of past business relationships are remembering when he was once well liked or simply imagining he was. However, simply the fact that it is no longer true reflects upon his inability to distinguish between reality and fantasy. This eventually brings about Willy’s death. He has imagined that he is worth more dead than alive and the insurance money from his death will be the catalyst for Biff’s success.
Willy has also blinded himself regarding the success, or lack of success, of his sons. He believes Hap to be an “assistant to the director” at his job, but Hap’s position is barely influential, if at all. He has elevated Biff’s past employment experience with Oliver to that of a leading salesman, when in reality he was simply a shipping clerk.
Another significant theme that occurs throughout the play is that it is ok to be dishonest when it suits their purposes. Willy continues to send his sons mixed signals on this issue. This began with Willy finding Biff practicing football with a new ball. When he finds out that Biff “borrowed” it from the locker room, Willy insists that it will be ok since Biff is a star player, as long as he returns it. All the while telling him that stealing will get him no where. This behavior continues as Willy encourages Biff to cheat off the neighbor, Bernard, for his Regents exam, and again when he asks both Biff and Hap to steal lumber from the construction site for the front porch. This eventually leads to both Willy’s infidelity and Biff’s habitual stealing, which is responsible for his continued failure in business. Willy was so intent upon teaching his sons how to be successful, but his inability to deal with reality and his twisted sense of morals were actually responsible for their failure.
Some literary experts were critical of Arthur Miller’s character, Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman”, insisting that “Willy was a ‘little man’ and therefore not worthy of the pathos reserved for such tragic heroes as Oedipus and Medea”. In contrast, it could be argued that most of us cant even imagine life as characters such as Oedipus and this allowed the majority of society to identify more closely with the woe’s of a...