Willy Loman's Secret
“Attention must be paid.” It is one of the most famous lines in American literature. You can experience its latest incarnation at New York’s Ethel Barrymore Theater, where Mike Nichols has mounted a superb revival of Death of a Salesman, starring an electrifying Philip Seymour Hoffman as Willy Loman, a performance in which Hoffman establishes himself as the definitive Willy, and as one of the greatest American actors ever to appear on stage or screen.
Yet attention must be paid to what, exactly? Is it to Willy the casualty of capitalism? Or to Willy the emblem of a midlife crisis? To Willy who “had the wrong dreams,” as his angry, alienated son Biff says? Or to Willy who lived the life of a salesman, “way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine,” as Charley, Willy’s cynical yet implausibly generous neighbor, describes him?
Every ten years or so, Death of a Salesman is revived, and every ten years we get the same interpretations: Willy the impossible dreamer, Willy the conformist, Willy the American nightmare on the obverse side of the American dream. Maybe on this sixty-third anniversary of the play—the very age of its enigmatic protagonist—it is possible to get past what makes this play beloved and get to what makes it disturbing.
If there is one interpretation of the play that goes unquestioned it is Biff’s own, that his father had “the wrong dreams.” Traumatized by his unwitting father, whom he catches in the arms of another woman in a hotel room in Boston, Biff confronts his own and Willy’s nature in the play’s climax. “Why am I trying to become what I don’t want to be?” he cries. “What am I doing in an office, making a contemptuous, begging fool of myself, when all I want is out there, waiting for me the minute I say I know who I am!” Biff’s war cry has the purest pedigree: Natty Bumppo, Bartleby, Huck Finn, Nick Adams, Sal Paradise, Holden Caulfield. We all know that what stands in the way of fulfillment in America is America itself: commodified, corporate, commercial America, where transactional routines rob identity of its authenticity. To know who you truly are in America is to be redeemed from America.
In fact, though, Biff’s identity is clear throughout the play. His stealing from employers and other self-destructive habits are neurotic tics derived from his discovery of his father’s unfaithfulness. Beneath them, he is the very image of his father. Nichols nicely emphasizes the fatal connection by making Biff’s (Andrew Garfield) and Willy’s hand gestures—imperious and supplicating all at once—become more and more similar as the play proceeds. Like Willy, Biff is a dreamer who dreams big dreams. Just as Willy deceives himself into thinking he can persuade his young boss, Howard, to take him off the road and put him in the New York office, Biff tricks himself into thinking that someone he once worked for at a menial job will lend him $15,000. Instead, father and son are both crushed. Like Willy, Biff even thinks of dating his former boss’s receptionist to give him an in with his old employer—the very tactic Willy was in the throes of when Biff arrived unexpectedly at his hotel room in Boston.
And just as Willy spends the play regretting that he did not take up his wealthy brother Ben’s offer to join him in Alaska and make his fortune—and thus become Willy Loman—Biff resolves at the end of the play to go out into the American wilderness and become Biff Loman, and thus make his fortune. Biff’s very idea that he will correct his father’s wrong dreams by living the right life is, itself, a grandiose dream. And his inability, at the age of 34, to get beyond the discovery, when he was a senior in high school, of his father’s infidelity—committed by Willy out of loneliness and desperation—roots him as fatally in his past as Willy is stuck in his.
Then, too, are Willy’s dreams “wrong” or “phony,” as Biff calls them? He expects his two handsome sons, his “Adonises,” as he calls them, to conquer the world with their looks and charm. He is counting on Biff to use his athletic prowess to get into a good college. His dreams for his children—boyish, selfish and naïve all at once—are the standard dreams of any father.
Willy dreams of being not merely liked. He wants to be “well-liked.” Surely the difference is a worthy one. You can be liked because of your status or your wealth or your availability to someone else’s needs. You are “well-liked” for who you are. Willy instructs his sons that being well-liked is the route to success, but his definition of success is not merely conventional. He doesn’t just want to sell. He wants to be “remembered and loved and helped by so many different people,” as he puts it. He wants what capitalism, as it cleanly cuts the worker off from the product of his labor, and finally from himself, cannot provide. He wants to be not just liked but well-liked; he wants at the same time to be successful, and to retain his identity as Willy Loman. That is not the cheap desire of a shallow salesman. As for Willy’s dreams that his name, and the names of his children, be “known,” they are hardly undignified illusions. As Miller puts it, meticulously describing the play’s mise-en-scène, Willy’s house and yard: “An air of the dream clings to the place, a dream rising out of reality.”
Willy’s dreams are worthy, his “conformity” simply the wish to retain the capacity to love and be loved in his work; his unadmirable quality of urging his sons to cheat and cut corners on the path to success is sadly run-of-the-mill, par for the course. None of these dimensions are enough to qualify as Willy’s tragic flaw. None of them rise to the object of his wife Linda’s call to attention.
The essence of capitalism, of a transactional society, is its chameleonlike nature. A consumerist society based on selling refracts desire into countless illusory avenues of fulfillment. Therein perhaps lies the answer to the age-old question, beloved of deadline-harassed newspaper editors looking to fill space: what is it that Willy sells? The conventional understanding is that Miller doesn’t specify Willy’s wares because he wants to make Willy’s business as universal as his last name—“low man.” Yet there is a strange moment when, in that fateful Boston hotel room, Willy’s girlfriend demands that he give her the stockings she says he’s promised to her. She says: “You had two boxes of size nine sheers for me, and I want them!” “Two boxes of size nine sheers.” That is not how a woman who is expecting a gift of stockings would ask for them. That is how a woman who is expecting a salesman to give her some of his samples—perhaps as part of a sexual exchange—would specify just what, out of his inventory, she needs. It is perfectly possible that Miller means to give the impression that stockings are part of Willy’s merchandise.
But if they are, it is only in that hotel room, for that woman, in that particular moment. Willy is the market itself. (Is that why Miller, who resisted the idea that Loman meant “low man,” insisting he got the name from a Fritz Lang film, gives Willy the name of a long-established Brooklyn discount clothing store that his audience would immediately have recognized: Loehmann’s?) What Willy sells is immaterial because the buyer sees everything in the shape of her own desire. At that moment, the shape of the woman’s desire was stockings. Willy might embody the next buyer’s desire in the shape of a shaving kit. Because Willy’s merchandise is a protean illusion, Willy is right to consider his “personality” the only stable, overriding element in his business. Of course he counts on being remembered, and even loved. He traffics in the precious stock of emotions and attachment. Willy the human being remains solid, even as the transaction melts into air.
Willy’s need to remain a person even as he is engaged in the mechanical act of selling is the root of his tragic flaw. After Howard, the son of Willy’s old boss, fires him, Willy expresses astonishment to Charley that even after reminding Howard that he, Willy, had suggested the name Howard to the latter’s father, Howard dismissed him anyway. Charley replies: “Willy, when’re you gonna realize that them things don’t mean anything? You named him Howard, but you can’t sell that. The only thing you got in this world is what you can sell. And the funny thing is that you’re a salesman, and you don’t know that.”
But that is not why Willy became a salesman. He tells us that he chose such an existence because he wished to emulate the life of an old salesman he knew, Dave Singleman, who was, to repeat the crucial phrase, “remembered and loved and helped by so many different people.” Willy continues, “In those days there was personality in it…. There was respect, and comradeship, and gratitude in it.” But this is lost on the semi-literate, cynical Charley—whose portrayal, it must be said, as a generous man who selflessly helps Willy, even after years of Willy insulting him and his son, Bernard, is improbable, to put it mildly. He should be played with even more than the hint of malice with which Charles Durning played him to Dustin Hoffman’s Willy. The $50 he gives Willy out of charity every week is more like a pusher’s fix of heroin that keeps Willy addicted to his desperation and failure. Insofar as he rises to a surprising humanity at the end of the play, Charley is no doubt Miller’s concession to a commercially palatable optimism in an otherwise thoroughly grim play.
Charley doesn’t realize that the only thing Willy has in the world is his self, before, during and after the business of transaction. Willy has been selling the fulfillment of other people’s desires in order to retain his human relationship to them over and beyond the act of selling. Far from the rugged individualism so beloved of American capitalism, and typified by his colonialist brother, Ben, Willy sees his vocation as salesman in the context of solidarity. The love and comradeship he seeks are hardly the hallmarks of American laissez-faire. What Willy is talking about is a world where people are attentive to other people’s humanity. He is talking about kindness.
Kindness is Willy’s tragic flaw. His kindness is established in the play’s first few minutes, when he tells Linda that he grew distracted while driving and suddenly realized he was going off the road. “If I’d’ve gone the other way over the white line,” he says, “I might’ve killed somebody.” Not: I might’ve killed myself. Rather: I might’ve killed “somebody.” Willy lacks the essential ingredient for success in an untrammeled capitalism. He lacks a murderous ego; he does not possess the killer instinct. He even pawns a sentimentally precious and economically valuable gift from Ben to pay for a correspondence course for Biff. He does so out of guilt, perhaps. But ruthlessly successful people are not susceptible to guilt.
Ben, who made his fortune in Alaska and in the “jungle” in Africa, is the killer. In one of Willy’s flashbacks, we see Ben inviting Biff to spar playfully with him and then, with a sudden brutality that shocks the Loman family, he throws Biff to the ground and places the tip of his cane against the boy’s neck. “Never fight fair with a stranger, boy,” he says.
Willy is a powerful expression of the grotesque impotence and inferior status of American kindness. American competitiveness is killing him—“The competition is maddening!” he cries. It turns his most human impulses into nascent acts of homicide or suicide. His natural and legitimate desire that his sons succeed becomes his cheap encouragement to them to cheat and steal. His surrender to loneliness destroys his son’s spirit. His touching reminder to Howard that he, Willy, gave him his name only proves his softness and ineffectuality and leads to his dismissal. And so on. His humanity has the effect of making his fate inhuman.
Most of all, his humanness makes him turn toward the past in an effort to recapture the respect, the gratitude, the comradeship, the love that have fled from his life. If attention is this play’s imperative, and its deepest puzzle, Willy is the one person in the play whose inability to pay attention any longer to the present has the most terrible consequences. Instead, he lavishes his attention on bygone attachments and events: on Ben, to whom he is attracted not just because of Ben’s success but because of the lost family connection; to the love he once shared with his sons; to the fulfilling bond he once had with the long-suffering Linda (played by Linda Emond). Willy has spent his life paying attention to the human element in his business situation. The long extinction of that element in his business and personal life is what spells his doom in the form of being fatally distracted by emotions lodged in the fugitive past.
Willy loses control of his destiny just as he begins to lose control of that car—both a death-machine and the very symbol of American power and mobility. But it is not just Willy whose attentiveness is derailed by useless feelings and desires. Everyone in the play is distracted by their cravings, obsessions or self-obsession.
Everyone, that is, except Linda. Women today might cringe at what seems to be Miller’s patronizing celebration of her passive endurance, but in 1949, in this play’s world and within its parameters, Linda is the play’s hero. She alone, of all the characters, possesses the precious quality of absolute vigilance. With quiet ferocity, she pays attention to everything: to the household expenses, to the broken appliances that need to be fixed, to the mortgage, to the danger Ben poses to her family, to her son’s lives and to the nature of their characters, to the hidden corners of her defeated husband’s wavering state of mind. In other words, she is the very embodiment of the qualities of respect, gratitude, comradeship and love that Willy seeks to preserve even in the act of selling.
Linda is her own answer to the question of to what attention must be paid, a question the play raises yet no one thinks to ask. It is not that attention must be paid to anything in particular. It is that attention must be paid, constantly, unceasingly, period. Especially in a social arrangement where the force of self-interest has made distraction the dominant mental condition, attention has the power of salvation. That makes Linda, with her utterly valueless, unmarketable attention, the hero of her own imperative. Even more than its stinging, if prudently ambivalent, critique of late consumerist capitalism (“The woods are burning!” cries Willy, which is as good a synonym as any for “creative destruction”), Death of a Salesman offers a subtle picture of the birth of a new kind of American person, one for whom everything is at stake at every moment and nothing of true value is for sale. It is a kindness with claws—a suspension of self-interest in the name of the preservation of self.