Death of a Salesman is a non-linear play. It interweaves the protagonist Willy Loman's present (the late 1940s) with his memories of a happier past. Because of Willy's frail mind, the old salesman sometimes doesn't know if he is living in the realm of today or yesterday.
Playwright Arthur Miller wants to portray Willy Loman as the Common Man. This notion contrasts much of Greek theater which sought to tell tragic stories of "great" men. Miller gives us a tragedy about a so-called average man. Instead of Greek Gods bestowing a cruel fate upon the protagonist, Willy Loman makes several terrible mistakes that result in a meager, pathetic life.
Willy Loman's Childhood:
Throughout Death of a Salesman, details about Willy Loman's infancy and adolesence are not fully divulged. However, during the "memory scene" between Willy and his brother Ben, the audience learns a few bits of information. Willy Loman was born in the late 1870s. (We learn that he is 63 in Act One). His nomadic father and family roamed across the country in a wagon. According to Ben, their father was a great inventor, but he doesn't specify what sort of gadgets he created, with the exception of his hand-crafted flutes. Willy remembers being a toddler, sitting around a fire and listening to his father play the flute. It is one of his only memories about his father.
Willy's dad left the family when Willy was three years old. Ben, who seems at least 15 years older than Willy, departed in search of their father. Instead of heading north for Alaska, Ben accidentally went south and found himself in Africa at the age of 17. He made a fortune by the age of 21.
Willy never hears from his father again. When he is much older, Ben visits him twice -- in between travel destinations. According to Willy, his mother died "a long time ago," probably sometime after Willy matures into adulthood. Did the lack of a father negatively affect Willy's character?
Willy is desperate for his brother Ben to extend his visit. He wants to make certain that his boys are being raised correctly. Aside from being unsure about his parental abilities, Willy is self-conscious about how others perceive him. (He once punched a man for calling him a "walrus"). It could be argued that Willy's character flaws stem from parental abandonment.
Willy Loman: A Poor Role Model
Sometime during Willy's early adulthood, he meets and marries Linda. They live in Brooklyn and raise two sons, Biff and Happy. As a father, Willy Loman offers his sons terrible advice. For example, this is what the old salesman tells teenage Biff about women:
WILLY: Just wanna be careful with those girls, Biff, that's all. Don't make any promises. No promises of any kind. Because a girl, y'know, they always believe what you tell 'em.
This attitude is adopted all too well by his sons. During her son's teen years, Linda notes that Biff is "too rough with the girls." Happy grows up to become a womanizer who sleeps with women who are engaged to his managers. Several times during the play, Happy promises that he is going to get married -- but it is a flimsy lie that no one takes seriously.
Willy also condones Biff's theivery. Biff, who eventually develops a compulsion to steal things, swipes a football from his coach's locker room. Instead of disciplining his son about the theft, he laughs about the incident and says, "Coach'll probably congratulate you on your initiative!" Above all things, Willy Loman believes that popularity and charisma will outdo hard work and innovation.
Willy Loman's Affair:
Willy's actions are worse than his words. Throughout the play, Willy mentions his lonely life on the road. To alleviate his loneliness, he has an affair with a woman that works at one of his client's offices. While Willy and the nameless woman rendezvous in a Boston hotel, Biff pays his father a surprise visit. Once Biff realizes that his father is a "phony little fake," Willy's son becomes ashamed and distant. His father is no longer his hero. After his role model falls from grace, Biff starts to drift from one job to the next, stealing petty things to rebel against authority figures.
Willy's Friends and Neighbors:
Willy Loman belittles his industrious and intelligent neighbors, Charley and his son Bernard. Willy mocks both individuals when Biff is a high school football star, but after Biff becomes a jaded drifter, he turns to his neighbors for help. Charley lends Willy fifty dollars a week, sometimes more, in order to help Willy pay the bills. However, whenever Charley offers Willy a decent job, Willy becomes insulted. He is too proud to accept a job from his rival and friend. It would be an admission of defeat.
Charley might be a surly old man, but Miller has imbued this character with a great deal of pity and compassion. In every scene, we can see that Charley hopes to gently steer Willy onto a less self-destructive path. He tells Willy that it is sometimes best to let go of disappointment. He tries to praise Willy's accomplishments (especially in regards to putting up the ceiling). He doesn't boast or brag about his successful son Bernard. Sensing that Willy is contemplating suicide, Charley tells him, "Nobody's worth nothin' dead." (Perhaps Charley's double-negative confused the salesman!)
In their last scene together, Willy confesses: "Charley, you're the only friend I got. Isn't that a remarkable thing." When Willy ultimately commits suicide, it makes the audience wonder why he could not embrace the friendship that he knew existed. Too much guilt? Too much self-loathing? Too much pride? Too much mental instabiliity? Too much of a coldhearted business world? The motivation of Willy's final action is open to interpretation. What do you think?