Willy Loman, the unsuccessful salesman whose failure in life constitutes the crux of the conflict in The Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller is at the same time a very sympathetic character. His life is a tragic one; he does not trade well; he mistreats his wife and commit adultery; nevertheless he remains attractive to the reader, evoking pity and sympathy.
Willy Loman deserves pity and compassion because his failure can be partially blamed on the capitalist system in which he had been all his life. It is this merciless system that forced to move around all his life without hope for a peaceful and prosperous old age. He did not do well in the system; but it is the mercilessness of the whole establishment that touches readers’ hearts. It is the system in which it does not matter if you named someone Howard, like Willy did for his current boss, because you “cannot sell it” (Act II). To Willy, these symbols mean something, but they are nothing in the business world where money is everything, and human personality means little if it is not supported with money. Readers who do not connect with the clumsy, ineffective salesman who betrays his wife can connect with the indignation about the system, and this makes Willy attractive to them.
Another feature that attracts hearts to Willy Loman is his ability to dream and hold on to his dreams even when things get sour. Dreaming big is a typical feature of many people, and Willy is certainly a big dreamer. His digressions about the advantages of his profession are certainly intriguing: “what could be more satisfying than to be able to go, at the age of eighty-four, into twenty or thirty different cities, and pick up a phone, and be remembered and loved and helped by so many different people?” (Act II). Speaking of Singleman, his role model, he forgets the obvious fact that the guy was still working into a very old age. Willy totally ignores the facts of his life that dispute his glorious picture. This looks pathetic and in many ways appeals to the readers who have also experienced similar escapism into dreams to avoid the gloomy reality.
Willy’s dreams and the choice of his role models also reveals something childish about him. This is obvious in how he talks about his brother Ben in Africa: “Walked into a jungle and comes out, the age of twenty-one, and he’s rich!” (Act 1) This longing for a miracle to happen to resolve all one’s problems is living in every of us, but in many people this desire gets suppressed by the circumstances. Willy living in peaceful idyll of his childish ideas looks weak, but he also attracts the readers, evoking the desire to pity and support him.
These aspects of the play, the conflict with the system rather than matters of an individual, the childishness of Willy Loman, and his dreaminess make him a truly sympathetic character. He raises sympathy in people because he suffers from what most of us do – illusions that turn into delusions and the mercilessness of the world we live in. Readers can disapprove of Willy, but they cannot help sympathizing with him at the same time.
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