Willy Loman and Amanda Wingfield are the main characters in to great American tragedies that both suffer from a tragic flaw. A tragic flaw is a misperception or a lack of insight due to one’s strengths. Both Willy and Amanda cannot see their worlds fully and understand those around them because of their own pride which blinds them. Amanda’s pride keeps her rooted in a past that she can never recreate for her daughter and results in her inability to see her children for who they really are. Willy’s pride in his work prevents him from truly seeing his sons for what they have become and eventually drives him into madness.
Written by Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman became an instant American classic when it was published in 1940. The main character, Willy Loman is a traveling salesman who is responsible for the New England territory. He is married to Linda and has two grown sons, Biff and Happy. Happy has a steady job as an assistant buyer and Biff works as a farm and ranch hand out west, he jumps from job to job. Willy’s wife is extremely supportive of her husband and recognizes that he is becoming depressed and is acting erratically. The play opens with Will returning home late one evening when he should be out on the road selling. He tells Linda, “I suddenly couldn’t drive anymore. The car kept going on to the shoulder, y’know?” (Miller 3). This foreshadowing shows that Willy is having difficulty driving, Linda confirms this fact when she implores, “Willy, dear. Talk to them again. There’s no reason why you can’t work in New York.” (Miller 4). As the play progresses the audience begins to see the madness that has descended on Willy. He talks to himself, reminisces about happier times when his sons were growing up and his son finds a hose near the gas furnace which is intended as a device for Willy to kill himself. As a salesman, Willy has worked his entire life on the road traveling and selling. He is slave to capitalism and at age sixty he has no savings and the appliances and other belongings he has purchased are constantly breaking down and having to be repaired. He cannot even think about retirement, he and Linda have nothing. Willy is no great hero, he is a small man, a nobody. He has deceived his wife into thinking that he is the most important employee at his company, a company that frankly no longer wants him. No one has lied to Willy or deceived him, he has deceived himself all of his life. He sees his oldest son Biff as the football hero he was in high school, not as the ranch hand and loser he has evolved into. He has ignored his other son, Happy and does not recognize that he has grown up to be a womanizer and is also locker in a dead end job. He has several conversations throughout the play with his deceased brother, Ben who was a success in life. Willy constantly recalls how he could have gone with his brother to Alaska and strike it rich himself. In one of these conversations, Ben observes Willy’s sons as teenagers, Willy lies to Ben about how he is raising them, “That’s just the way I’m bringing them up, Ben- rugged, well liked, all-around.” (Miller 34). Willy is hardly home to be instrumental in raising his sons. In one flashback, Willy admits that he knows that Biff is stealing lumber and other items from a construction site but Willy accepts it and never reprimands Biff. Popkin (11) states the Willy represents the death of the American dream; Willy pursues money and acceptance by his customers. He values personality and appearances. He tries to instill these values in his sons, without success.
Amanda Wingfield’s pride is derived from her memories pf a past life that no longer exists. She talks incessantly about her young adulthood and the dozens of gentlemen callers she had before marrying. In the living room the portrait of her husband who walked out and abandoned the family years ago, hangs proudly in the living room. Amanda has deluded herself about the past. She tries to bend her children to her will and to live their lives according to her expectations. She never acknowledges that her son Tom aspires to be a writer and her daughter, Laura is so painfully shy that she cannot function in society appropriately. She even tries to ignore the fact that Laura is slightly crippled. In response to Laura’s about her disability (a brace on her leg), Amanda says, “Why you’re not crippled, you have a little defect- hardly noticeable eve!” (Williams 19). Amanda forbids the use of the word “crippled” in regards to Laura. Unlike Willy who hardly present for his children, Amanda is controlling and nags them constantly, especially Tom. She fusses over Tom’s hair, the books he reads, his smoking and drinking and harps on him to try and move up in the warehouse where he works. He does not share this ambition, he hates his job. Amanda is angry when she discovers that Laura has dropped out of business school but latches onto the idea that Laura must be married in order to have any type of future. This is the life Amanda lived, the receiving of gentlemen callers, the selection of a husband, marriage and family. Amanda never acknowledges the fact that the path in life she took has ended badly, abandoned by her husband. Just as Willy is blind to the realities of his children, so is Amanda. Her pride in her former life is her tragic flaw that blinds her.
Willy’s son Biff, concocts a plan to approach a former employer and request a loan to buy his own ranch or open a business of his own. Happy jumps on the bandwagon and the brothers excitedly discuss what kind of business venture they can embark on. Biff later describes his “meeting” with his former employer as a failure and steals a pen from the man’s desk. Willy is so caught up in the notion that Biff needs to become a business success, he makes excuses for Biff. He tries to convince Biff to see the former employer and return the pen, “You give it to him and tell him it was an oversight!” (Miller 88). Biff even admits to stealing balls from the same company when he worked for them but Willy chooses to ignore that fact too. Willy cannot see that Biff will never be a businessman and has taken to thieving. Biff is not afraid to look at himself and to accept what he is whereas Will is unable to examine himself honestly. In a flashback to one of his trips to Boston, Biff unexpectedly arrives and discovers the Will is having an affair. Willy tries toile about the situation and maintains the lie that the woman is a client whose room is being painted. This breaks Biff’s respect for his father. Willy chooses to ignore the situation, as he does with all negative discoveries in his life. Willy is so driven by money and financial success that his suicidal thoughts are fueled by the fact that his life insurance policy is worth $20,000. Willy places no value on his life, he does not see his strengths and his weaknesses. There is no self-realization for Willy, just the roads and the sales and his home. His wife gives him comfort and he is grateful for that but he is unable to love the members of his family in a real way because he has no love for himself. When it is revealed that his friend Charlie has been lending him money because of his inability to sell anymore, it is revealed that Willy has hit his bottom. In his conversation with Charlie’s son and Biff’s friend Bernard, Willy admits that he simply does not understand his son. He says to Bernard, “Why did he lay down? What is the story there? You were his friend!” (Miller 72). Bernard tells him how Biff failed math in high school and after his trip to Boston to see Willy, he was never the same. This angers Willy who responds, “What are you trying to do, blame it on me? If a boy lays down that is my fault?” (Miller 73). Willy refuses to admit that the revelation of his affair deeply hurt Biff, not to anyone and certainly not to himself. Amanda also chooses to ignore her shortcomings in regard to her children. She deceives herself in thinking that her pushing of her children into the places she feels they should be in because she knows best. She never admits that she made mistakes in her life. In recalling her younger years and her dozens of gentlemen callers she remembers them all fondly as being wealthy and becoming successes, “Hadley Stevenson who was drowned in Moon Lake and left his widow one hundred fifty thousand in government bonds.” (Williams 14). Then she ends up marrying a man who works for the telephone company who eventually leaves them. She never admits that she has made devastating mistake, she prefers to laugh these things off. In preparing for dinner with Tom’s friend, Jim O’Connor she dresses in a dress from her youth, long and white with a blue sash. To see a woman dressed like a young Southern belle while living in a cramped apartment and considerably older only proves that Amanda cannot truly see herself for who she has become, she is clinging to a way of life that no longer exists. Like Willy, she never achieves self-realization. She does not know herself and cannot love herself or her children in a meaningful way.
Amanda has taught her children how to avoid reality and meaningful relationships. Laura is incapable of functioning in the world and remains in the house, listening to her old records and playing with her collection of glass figurines (Barnard 2007). Although Tom has a job and aspires to join the Merchant Marines, he has no friends or love interests and he finds escape in books, movies and liquor (Barnard 2007). They have learned to escape reality as Amanda has, she does so by living in the past. Tom describes to his friend Jim that the movies are the new escape for most people from reality, the opportunity for adventure. Tom states, “Hollywood characters are supposed to have all of the adventures for everybody in America.” (Williams 72). Biff has rebelled against his father lifestyle and business by escaping out west to work outside but struggles with his choice to do so. Happy has a job in business but is unfulfilled and tries to fill what’s missing in his life with women. Willy gives Biff much more attention than Happy and Happy is constantly trying to gain his approval. Happy announces that he is going to get married and he and Biff will open a successful business together but these are nothing but pipe dreams. Willy has valued his life on money, he comes to the realization that his life is worth more if he is dead. As the play unfolds, it is revealed that he has attempted to kill himself before. By the end of the play, the visits from his brother Ben finally give him the courage to go through with the suicide. Ben tells him, “Its dark there but full of diamonds.” (Miller 108). Willy has fooled himself into thinking that the life insurance will solve all of his family’s problems he is blind to the fact that the family is suffering emotionally and unable to grapple with reality. Only Biff is beginning to accept the person he has become, he doesn’t want his father’s money. Linda wants her husband to retire so that they can spend some time together and Happy requires recognition from his father.
Both plays portray the tragic flaws of two very different people that result in the alienation of their families. Willy Loman is a salesman to the core, he represents the American Dream that no longer exists. He never understands his place in his family and does not give his wife and sons the love they require, in the end his blindness to this fact causes him to kill himself in order to leave them with some money. It was never the money that they wanted, it was a husband and a father. Amanda Wingfield appears to greatly love her children by fussing over them and pushing them to do her will but she cannot because she does not really love herself. She is blind to her failures and her children’s escape from reality. She and Willy never achieve self-realization for who they are. Their actions in Death of a Salesman and The Glass Menagerie result in tragedies from which there is really no escape for their children. Biff will never change, he is a thief and incapable of being a businessman even when he receives the life insurance money. Laura will probably never marry or find a real job despite her mother’s efforts and pushing. Tom’s escape into the Merchant Marines is only a physical escape, he too will wrestle with reality and his place in it. The misconception of their relationships with their family by both of these characters was their tragic flaw and the reason they are never able to attain self-realization.
Barnard, D.B. “The Symbolism of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie: An Inductive
Approach.” Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College, 2007.
Web 15 Jul, 2015 http://etd.lsu.edu/docs/available/etd-07122007-190055/unrestricted/
Popkin, Henry. Willy Loman. Harry Bloom (Ed.) New York: Chelsea House Publishing, 1991.
Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. New York: Penguin Classics, 1998. Print.
Williams, Tennessee. The Glass Menagerie. New York: New Directions Publishing, 1999. Print.