Death of a Salesman: An Attempt at a Non-judgmental Look at One Man’s Failed Self-Actualization

I saw Philip Seymour Hoffman play Willy Loman for the 2012 penultimate performance at the Barrymore Theater.  That’s why I went. Just to see him play him—without much interest in the play.  But I left in love again with Miller’s play despite years of teaching it to unresponsive students.  I’d forgotten that watching  the play overwhelms its audience viewers.

Make no mistake though.  There’s more to the play than staging and performances. The script affords its readers great lines—and lessons—especially about the failure to self-actualize. Here are some gems that illumine Maslow’s 3 criteria for self-actualization.

1. Know yourself and accept who you are…

The famous shouting match of Act 2 appears to suggest that Willy Loman fails to accurately self-evaluate—not his failure but hisworth:

Biff: “Pop! I’m a dime a dozen, and so are you!”
Willie: “I am not a dime a dozen! I am Willy Loman, and you are Biff Loman.” (Act 2)

Although he is fired, abandoned, and broke, the play ultimately suggests that Willy Loman is not a dime a dozen.  Neither Charley, Biff, Happ, or Linda esteem him to be expendable.  They realize that he’d been a dedicated father despite his ineffective parenting style with its emphasis on being liked rather than on being ethical; that he had been a relentless salesman despite his recent sales failures; and that he’d been a faithful family provider despite his waning commissions.  On the other hand, the play disallows any heroic retrospective, tempering Willy’s good with his bad. Clearly, even sacrificing his life for his family’s insurance money, Willy Loman is no great man.  He is, like most of us, a tremendously flawed human being. The play (through boss’s, family’s, and neighbors’ eyes) shows us such an unflattering portrait of Willy Loman that I imagine there are times when we wish he’d just get his suicide over with.  But there’s no one more disappointed in Willy Loman than Willie Loman.  Despite his bravado, he knows he’s failed.  How can he not? He begs money.  He raises two sons who lack filial piety. He loses his job yelling at his boss.  He can’t even keep his car on the road or pay his insurance or repair his appliances.  He knows he’s past his prime.

But the play stresses that none of these failures demeans him as a worthless and expendable human being.  The shame of it all is that Willy doesn’t know his self-worth.  Although by the end of the play, Willy gains self-awareness of his failures, he never gains self-acceptance of his merits.  In order to self-actualize, we must honestly acknowledge who we’ve become—without exaggerating the good or the bad—before we can move forward to improve ourselves.

2. Resist unhealthy acculturation…

“You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away – a man is not a piece of fruit.” (Willy Loman, Act 2)  “After all the highways, and the trains, and the appointments, and the years, you end up worth more dead than alive.” (Willy Loman, Act 2)  Many critics and educators believe that the play blames capitalism and/or the American Dream for Willy’s demise.  Obviously, the play questions the merits of prizing possessions (Howard’s tape recorder, silk stockings, footballs, pens, etc.) over human connections.  But does the play really suggest that capitalistically expendable, Willy is “worth more dead than alive”?  Hardly. Nor does the play suggest that Willy should have changed careers (for being a salesman is what he is) or should force Howard into giving him a job at a New York City desk. Neither does the play pretend that the life (yet alone the death) of Dave Singleton was a dream come true. The play clearly portrays that Willy, once a successful salesman, has become a failed salesman and that if he were still successful, he would still be employed.  However, he is not, so he is not.  What struck me with this recent viewing was not so much that the play critiques capitalism and the American Dream but that the play distinguishes between family vs. business rhetoric in the work place.

Let me explain.  When your company want something extra from you (like a charitable contribution), notice how they likely use family rhetoric—loyalty, dedication, sacrifice, etc. But when your company wants a financial improvement (like end-of-the-quarter sales), notice how they likely change from family rhetoric to business rhetoric—productivity, budget, cut-backs, etc.  Willy brags about his past success using business rhetoric—commissions, sales, and orders.  But when he focuses on his diminished productivity, he relies solely on family rhetoric—naming Howard, being liked, personal relationship with the company’s founder, etc.  Had Willy been able to determine that the family model works only when the employer employs it and not when the worker asks for a favor, he would have avoided disillusionment and have taken the job from Charley.  The play shows that “it’s not personal; it’s just business” undergirds all bottom-line business decisions.  Is that just with capitalism?  I doubt it.  The play teaches us that we’d best realize that business rhetoric and its accompanying expectations are all we can count on from our company.  Rare is the time when employers sacrifice profits or jeopardize prestige for an employee’s needs.

3. Establish healthy relationships…

“I don’t say he’s a great man. Willie Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall in his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person.” (Linda, act 1)

This is my husband’s favorite line.  Everyone needs attention, affection, or support.  For years, we’ve argued over the merits of exposing children to the story of The Velveteen Rabbit.   I say no: it’s damaging to tell children that they’re loveable only if someone loves them.  Then, what about orphans or kids with shitty parents?  He says yes: be realistic.  Without someone who loves you, you have no chance to develop your self-worth.  It’s not that you’re unloveable; it’s that you see yourself as unlovable.  Linda Loman’s insistence that her husband needed support—despite his flawed character—makes me wonder whether the play blames Willy and Biff for their ridiculous emphases on personality (“The man who makes an appearance in the business world, the man who creates personal interest, is the man who gets ahead. Be liked and you will never want.”   …“He’s liked, but he’s not well liked.”) or everyone in his who should have attended to Willy, whom Linda sees as exhausted.   Linda is the only person who attends to Willy.  Ben breezes in and out, bragging about some vague diamond discovery riches.  Charley periodically suffers Willy’s wisecracks and bashings while ultimately, offering a hand-out job and a hand-out; but he doesn’t act as his friend (no matter what Willy says).  The sons are worthless—too lost and selfish themselves to care about anyone else.  And Howard is his boss.  (I’ve already covered how the play releases him from personal responsibilities.)  So that leaves Linda.  Why isn’t Linda’s attention enough?  As the Velveteen Rabbit, don’t we all need that one person to love us?  But do some people—like salesmen, comedians, and politicians, need more than one person?  After all, a salesman needs his clients’, boss’s, and co-worker’s respect. Otherwise, he is a failed salesman.  Too ashamed of becoming a failed salesman, Willy won’t become something/someone else.  To him, if he’s not a salesman, he’s not Willy Loman.  The play demonstrates that he fails—not so much as a salesman—but as a self-actualizer.  He fails to revisit his self-image.  No one but Willy can rescue him.

What’s so great about my 40+ years exposure to this play is its invitation for multiple (and contradictory) interpretations.  This time, I’m settling on Charley as the play’s touchstone.   After the funeral Charley admonishes Linda and the sons: “Nobody dast blame this man…. For a salesman, there is no rock bottom to the life. He don’t put a bolt to a nut, he don’t tell you the law or give you medicine. He’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back—that’s an earthquake. And then you get yourself a couple of spots on your hat, and you’re finished. Nobody dast blame this man. A salesman is got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory.”  (“Requiem” ) The play, heard through Charley’s mouthpiece ultimately negates playing the blame game.  It’s not Willy’s fault, Charley warns.  So too, it’s not Howard’s, nor Biff’s, nor Hap’s, nor Linda’s, the play indicates.  Nor is it the fault of capitalism or the American Dream.  According to Charley, if you self-identify as a salesman, you must dream.  And dreams, beyond your control, may become your worst nightmares.  In order to self-actualize, we must accept failure, but we must never lose sight of our worth. Reexamining our worth, we must struggle to construct a more successful self-image in order to become a happier person.  Yes, we need support.  But we also need a good dose of realism and self-nurturing.


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