Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman has been described as an American tragedy. I wholeheartedly agree with that classification, but perhaps it isn’t the blustery, senile salesman Willy Loman who experiences tragedy. Instead, maybe the real tragedy befalls his wife, Linda Loman.
Classic tragedies often involve characters who are forced to deal with circumstances that are beyond their control. Think of poor Oedipus squirming at the mercy of the Olympian Gods. And how about King Lear? He makes a very poor character judgment at the beginning of the play; then the old king spends the next four acts wandering in a storm, enduring the cruelty of his evil family members.
Linda Loman’s tragedy, on the other hand, is not as bloody as Shakespeare’s work. Her life, however, is dreary because she always hopes that things will work out for the better – yet those hopes never blossom. They always wither. Her one major decision takes place before the action of the play. She chooses to marry and emotionally support Willy Loman, a man who wanted to be great – but defined greatness as being “well liked” by others. Because of Linda’s choice, the rest of her life will be filled with disappointment.
Her characteristics can be discovered by paying attention to Artur Miller’s parenthetic stage directions. When she speaks to her sons, Happy and Biff, she can be very stern, confident, and resolute. However, when Linda converses with her husband, it’s almost as if she is walking on eggshells. Miller uses the following descriptions to reveal how the actress should deliver Linda’s lines:
- “very carefully, delicately”
- “with some trepidation”
- “sensing the racing of his mind, fearfully”
- “trembling with sorrow and joy”
What’s Wrong with Her Husband?
Linda knows that their son Biff is at least one source of agony for Willy. Throughout Act One, Linda chastises her son for not being more attentive and understanding. She explains that whenever Biff wanders the country (usually working as a ranch-hand), Willy Loman complains that his son isn’t living up to his potential. Then, when Biff decides to return home to rethink his life, Willy becomes more erratic. His dementia seems to worsen, and he begins talking to himself.
Linda believes that if her sons become successful then Willy’s fragile psyche will heal itself. She expects her sons to manifest the corporate dreams of their father – not because she believes in Willy’s version of the American Dream, but because she believes her sons (Biff in particular) are the only hope for Willy’s sanity. She might have a point, by the way, because whenever Biff applies himself, Linda’s husband cheers up. His dark thoughts evaporate. These are the brief moments when Linda is finally happy instead of worrisome. But these moments don’t last long because Biff doesn’t fit into the “business world.”
Choosing Her Husband Over Her Sons:
When Biff complains about his father’s erratic behavior, Linda proves her devotion to her husband by telling her son:
LINDA: Biff, dear, if you don’t have any feeling for him, then you don’t have any feeling for me.
LINDA: He’s the dearest man in the world to me, and I won’t have anyone making him feel blue.
But why is he the dearest man in the world to her? Willy’s job has steered him away from his family for weeks at a time. In addition, Willy’s loneliness leads to at least one infidelity. It’s unclear whether or not Linda suspects Willy’s affair. But it is clear, from the audience’s perspective, that Willy Loman is deeply flawed. Yet Linda romanticizes Willy’s agony of an unfulfilled life:
LINDA: He’s only a lonely little boat looking for a harbor.
Reaction to Willy’s Suicide:
Linda realizes that Willy has been contemplating suicide. She knows that his mind is on the verge of being lost. She also knows that Willy has been hiding a rubber hose, just the right length for suicide via carbon monoxide poisoning. Linda never confronts Willy about his suicidal tendencies or his delusional conversations with ghosts of the past. Instead, she plays the role of the quintessential housewife of the 40s and 50s. She exhibits patience, loyalty, and an eternally submissive nature. And for all of these attributes, Linda is left a widow at the end of the play.
At Willy’s graveside, she explains that she cannot cry. The long, slow tragic events in her life have drained her of tears. Her husband is dead, her two sons still hold grudges, and the last payment on their house has been made. But there’s no one in that house except a lonely old woman named Linda Loman.