Arthur Miller is ones of the leading American playwrights of the twentieth century. He was the son of a women’s clothing store owner in New York city. His father lost his business in the depression and the family was forced to move to a smaller home in Brooklyn. Living through young adulthood during the Great Depression, Miller was shaped by the poverty that surrounded him. The Depression demonstrated to the playwright the fragility and vulnerability of human existence in the modern era. As a writer, Miller always believed that his work and himself are sensitive to the “winds blowing in culture”. He always placed an emphasis on the common man.
Miller is an expert on creating characters that wrestle with power conflicts, personal and social responsibilities, repercussions of past actions and the twin poles of guilt and hope. With the strong personality of each of his characters, Miller also depicts their vulnerability which leads the whole Loman family to live in denial and perpetuate a cycle of denial for each other.
Willy Loman, the protagonist of the play, seems to be the main cause of this cycle of delusion. He seems to be incapable of accepting the face that he is a mediocre salesman. Time and again we see him exaggerating his position, claiming that he is so well known that he can “park his car in any street and the cops will protect it like their own”. He calls himself the “New England man” and makes it a point to let his kids know that he is “well-liked”. However, I’m in one rare occasion we see him confess to Linda that he is in fact, “not noticed” and people seem to laugh at him, calling him a “walrus”. This makes it clear that he is aware of the opinion others hold about him, but, he is still constantly deluding himself and his family. Instead of acknowledging that he is not a well-know success, Willy retreats into the past and chooses to relive the memories and events in which he was perceived as successful. As Willy is only marginally successful, he fantasies about lost opportunities for acquiring wealth, fame and success. He regrets not going the Alaska – “What a mistake! He begged me to go” and views Ben as the ideal rags to riches story.
We also see that Willy cannot resign himself to the fact that Biff no longer respects him because of Willy’s affair. He instead accuses Biff of “spiting” him rather than admitting that their relationship is irreconcilable which makes him retreat to a previous time when Biff admired him, respected him and even went to great lengths to pull off a touchdown just to impress him.
Prior to discovering the affair, Biff adored Willy, believed all of Willy’s stories and even accepted Willly’s philosophy- “Be liked and you will never want”. The realisation that Willy is unfaithful to Linda forces Biff to re-evaluate Willy and Willy’s perception of the world. He realises that Willy has created a false image of himself for his family, society and even himself. Biff calls him. A “phony little fake” and lets his father know that they are a “done a dozen”. Thus, Biff, though previously in denial about his incapability to be a salesman, has now realised that he is in fact not a “leader of men” and accuses Willy of “blowing him full of hot air”. Biff has now realised that being popular or “well-liked” during his school days were of no real use and he finally finds his true calling (“I know who I am, kid”).
Willy’s death seemed to have pulled him out of the illusion of the “ideal American Dream” and he accepts himself for who he is. He calls Willy’s dreams a “wrong, phony dream” and finally seems to have realised something about himself.
Happy, on the other hand, seems to take after Willy more than Biff. He shares Willy’s dream of being well-liked and popular. Like Willy, he manipulates the truth to create a more favourable reality of himself. Just like Willy, he seems to find material possessions more important than happiness. Though he shares Biff’s pleasure of “working with hands”, he wants to continue in the corporate world as it is more rewarding in materialistic terms. He deludes himself that the “only dream you can have is to come out the number-one man”. He seems to be in denial about how “lonely” his life really is, and how bleak his chances of “making it big” really is. We also see that Happy frequently tried to avoid confrontation in the family. He chooses to delude himself and his family that everything in their lives are smooth and easy going. This is made evident as he tries to get Biff to lie to Willy about his appointment with Oliver. The minute Willy falls apart in the restaurant, Happy coldly announces “No, that is not my father”. Happy seems to be constantly in denial about his malfunctioning family.
Linda, although frequently drawn into the cycle of delusion, seems to be aware of the denial of the family. However, she lets Willy delude himself with his fantasies because she knows that the truth would bring him nothing but “humiliation” and “insult”. She is aware that “No one welcomes him” and that “he is not the finest character that ever lived” but her love for him makes all these issues seem small. She admits that “he is not easy to get along with” but she is also very protective of him and lets her sons know that if they “don’t have any feelings for him”, then they can’t have any feelings for her. She realises that Willy may not be able to accept the reality and therefore choose to protect Willy’s illusions by treating them as the truth, even if she must ignore reality.
With these realistically created characters, each so involved and interlinked with the others’ lives, Miller succeeds in revealing to the audience the scary consequences denial and delusion can have on one’s life. Each character loses their grip on reality and although characters like Biff Huff and Linda find a way back, Willy seems to have drowned in his own ocean of lies and illusion. As Charley says, “A salesman is got to dream”, the readers can’t help but wonder if too much “dreaming” is what led Willy to his downfall. However, Charley is absolutely right when he says, “Nobody fast blame this man”. After all, Willy is human and is entitled to want to escape from the harsh reality.
In a way, all of us, the readers, are also in denial of one truth or the other in our lives, be it a family situation or a work situation, and despite ourselves we empathise with these characters and thus, Miller once again is effective in connecting with his readers.