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Willy Loman is a traveling salesman in his sixties. We know from the title that he is going to die. He is experiencing an emotional crisis. His past, recurring to him in vivid scenes, is interfering with the present. Each time he returns from an episode in the past, he brings with him a discovered piece of information that throws new light on his troubled present. He's realizing that he's lived his whole life by the false standard that you can lie and cheat to make your fortune as long as you are "well liked." Arthur Miller wrote, "If I could make him remember enough he would kill himself." What does Willy have to remember? Why does Willy have to remember it now?
Willy's name-Loman-is significant: it suggests "low man" on the totem pole. The company Willy has worked for all his life has recently stopped his salary and is paying him only commissions on sales, like a beginner. They claim he's not getting the business, and they can't afford to keep him on. Now he's having trouble driving-he can't pay attention so the car keeps going off the road. If he can't drive, traveling (the only kind of selling he knows) will have to stop.
He'd like to be able to count on his two sons, but he knows he can't. The older one, Biff, disappears for months at a time between jobs in the West. Willy idolizes him, but for years whenever they have been together they quarrel. Happy, the younger son, has a steady job but is taking bribes and wasting his money. Willy's wife Linda is his mainstay, but he's reduced to supporting her with handouts from a neighbor.
Now Willy is recalling the most important events in his life-his life is passing before his eyes-as he searches to understand what went wrong. Miller has called the play a "confession."
What Willy wanted in life was to make a lot of money by being well liked. As he relives past experiences, we see that he went after what he wanted with energy and ingenuity. But he wanted success so badly that he lost a realistic sense of himself. He forgot that he loved making things with his hands, and he ignored standards of fair play.
Willy is like a boy in his impulsive enthusiasm and sudden discouragement. The many contradictions in his character reveal a man who doesn't know himself at all. For instance, he will borrow money from his neighbor Charley but refuses to take a job working for him. He'd rather die than work for a man he sees as inferior.
Until the day he dies Willy never stops dreaming up ways to better his life. He is full of imagination, even to the point of committing suicide in a scheme to make $20,000 on his insurance policy. Because of his eternal hopefulness and resourcefulness, he is a lovable character who gives an actor great scope.
Willy's struggle was long and finally tragic. Linda says, "A small man can be just as exhausted as a great man." Miller writes, "...this man is actually a very brave spirit who cannot settle for half but must pursue his dream of himself to the end." We can find joy in what Willy manages to learn about himself-and in the forgiveness and love he wins from his favorite son.
"You're my foundation and my support," Willy tells Linda. Even then he may be understating her devotion to him. She is the model of a loving, devoted, patient wife. When she married Willy, his dreams must have seemed like all she ever wanted in life.
Those dreams have turned into a lifetime of frustrations. Disappointed and worried, Willy sometimes treats Linda cruelly or insensitively, but she understands the pain and fear behind his behavior, and forgives him those moments. Miller tells us, "she more than loves him, she admires him." A man with as fragile a sense of self-worth as Willy cannot tolerate his wife's disagreeing with him, so Linda has long practiced ignoring her own opinions. She has always supported Willy in his illusions about himself-he had so convinced her of his possibilities at home that she talked him out of his one chance to go to Alaska with Ben. She manages to be cheerful most of the time.
Linda as she was in the past is the way Willy chooses to remember her (as is the case with all the characters when he recalls them). Willy's guilt turns her into an even sweeter and more noble woman, a shining example of a "good woman." We also see that it is Linda who has kept a clear picture of their finances. When Willy boasts of big sales, she gently questions until she learns the truth-never rebuking him for exaggeration (lying). She does the best she can with their meager income to pay their endless bills. She must manage well, for we learn in the Requiem that she has made the final payment on their house and they're "free and clear."
Linda has made a child of her husband, always indulgent and affectionate with him. She senses that Willy is in trouble, and to protect him she is terrifyingly tough on the two grown-up boys. She is a good and understanding mother, but will not tolerate her sons crossing their father. After the boys abandon their father in a restaurant for dates with women they've picked up, she blisteringly attacks both of them: "There's no stranger you'd do that to!"
Linda knows her beloved Willy is a "little man," but she feels he deserves at least the respect of his sons: "Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person." Probably Linda speaks the playwright's attitude toward Willy more than any other character in the play.