Death of a Salesman
“The effect of Miller’s presentation of Linda helps to carry off the nature of tragedy, and without her the play would not work.”
“Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him.” Death of a Salesman follows this psychologically troubled protagonist, who is doomed from the start, and his “most often jovial” wife Linda.
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Linda is an accurate representation of the 1940s and 1950s society expectations of how women should behave. Women were expected to fit the “perfect” housewife stereotype of a loving, caring, obedient wife and mother. The nuclear family was the orthodox family type in society in the 40s and 50s; the husband would have the dominant role as the head of the household and be responsible for providing for his family, whilst the wife stayed at home and did the domestic chores. Linda holds the Loman family together through her quintessential housewife role. She is a constant source of support and care for Willy as she never puts him down or allows anyone else to, she insists that “he’s the dearest man in the world” to her.
However she is much more than a “typical” housewife. Linda is undoubtedly the strongest character in the play, “she has developed an iron repression of her exceptions to Willy’s behaviour” this remarkable power reveals, to the reader, her un-yielding strength and determination which never falters throughout the development of the play. Linda is a very headstrong person who plays a critical role in the family dynamics, she knows from the very start of the play that Willy is trying to kill himself and that it was “only the shallowness of the water” that saved him from his first suicide attempt. It is this vital information which sets Linda apart from the other characters. Linda is the only character who knows about Willy’s suicide attempts – other then Willy. Miller has given her the power of this knowledge however; she has no actual power to change the events of the play – they are inevitable. Willy is determined that he is “worth more dead than alive” because he will be able to “set up” his sons for a better life, financially.
Linda conveys a sense of tragedy through her desperate attempts to stop Biff criticising Willy and to ensure that nobody makes him feel depressed. She claims that he is “the dearest man in the world” to her and she “won’t have anyone making him feel unwanted and low and blue”. However, Linda has bought into Willy’s disillusioned world and by doing so she is only encouraging his un-reachable dreams and isolating him further from reality. This is incredibly ironic because she only wants to help her husband but instead she adds to his deteriorating mental state -through her actions in the play.
Linda loves Willy unconditionally however; it becomes apparent to the audience that her love is potentially quite dangerous. It is destructive because she loves Willy too much; she will stop at nothing to heal her husband’s fragile psychological continuity (even if this means neglecting her sons). There is no doubt that Linda loves Biff and Happy however, it is not conditional. She tells Biff that he’s “not to come” home again if he doesn’t “pay” Willy some “respect”. Linda wants to stop the fighting between them both and make Willy happy. After all “it takes so little to make him happy” and she feels that this is the best way to stabilise his mental well being.
Whenever Biff writes to his parents, to tell them he is coming to visit, Willy is “all smiles, and talks about the future” and in these brief – but blissful – periods it is not only Willy who is cheery but Linda also becomes in high spirits as she has no reason to worry about him. However, she knows that Willy “won’t be alright” in the long-term because he supports a greedy firm which casts him aside callously when he is suffering most. However, she does try to protect him from any more un-necessary despair as she doesn’t want him “to fall into his grave like an old dog”.
Willy fantasies about having the “death of a salesman”, his ideal funeral – for himself – would be similar to the one he attended of Dave Singleman. Similarly, Linda shares this idea because she feels powerless to stop the suicide, so instead she wants to make sure that Willy is content and achieves his final desires. However, unlike Dave Singleman Willy is cast aside and let down by society and after his death only his sons, wife and two neighbours attend his funeral.
The final scene is intensely tragic with Linda’s prose channelling the majority of this unfortunate calamity. She “stares at the grave” unable to let go of the past and hysterically begins to talk to Willy. Finding it impossible to cry she asks him to “help” her. Linda is clearly sad that Willy is dead however she is unsure why he committed suicide – she asks him; “Why did you ever do that?” – because of her uncertainty over his motives for suicide she doesn’t know why or what she should cry for. The prominent concern troubling Linda is the fact that she “never had a chance to say goodbye”, by not having this opportunity she will forever be troubled by this lost chance and this is excruciatingly heartbreaking for an audience to watch.
Aristotle, a Greek philosopher, discussed the concept behind tragedy in his work – “Poetics”. Aristotle’s theories on tragedy influenced playwrights not just in his time but even Shakespeare and more modern tragedy writers of our own time, such as Arthur Miller. “Death of a Salesman” differs from Aristotle’s ideas on tragedies because Willy Loman was an ordinary person with a particularly low status, and according to Aristotle’s Poetics the most effective tragic hero was a person who was of a great status and experienced a change of fortune. Even though Willy is not a typical Aristotelian tragic hero there is still an element and influence of his theories present in the play. The distinct cathartic power of the play demonstrates just how much Aristotle’s Poetics influenced Arthur Miller and the playwrights of the modern day.
The play comes to an end with Linda “sobbing” “we’re free… we’re free…” the repetition and use of ” we” shows how impossible it is for her to let go. She has no power to change the past and bring him back which it appears she is desperate to do. This only adds to the overall tragedy as Linda had a lot of time with Willy prior to his suicide and so it could seem that she has let him down. However, the death was inevitable because Willy was deluded by the unreachable dreams he had bought into. His idolisation of Dave Singleman, a successful salesman, and his brother Ben only deluded him further. Willy truly believed that the American dream – of prosperity and riches – was easily obtainable for anyone who desired it.
This was because he regarded America as “the greatest country in the world” where dreams could become reality. In Willy’s eyes his identity is as a salesman and he looses this when he can no longer sell anything, “he drives seven hundred miles, and when gets there no one knows him anymore”, he can not see the point of living as he feels his life is already over. His whole life was about being a salesman and chasing the American dream (an unreachable illusion) but now he can no longer fulfil his objectives of selling to become successful and with this metaphorical “death” he has lost his identity.
Linda had no power to prevent the death of Willy because he had been influenced by a power much greater, hope. By the time he committed suicide he was already dead metaphorically so to Linda it was not about saving him from death itself (he was no longer the same person) instead she strived to keep him there in body as he was no longer there in mind. The death is much more complex then it would seem. By the time Willy reached the end of Act two he was no longer the same person as he was in the flashbacks to his past. His body continues to exist but his actual personhood has been lost as it is consciousness alone which makes people who they are. Willy’s deteriorating mental state has changed him into someone unrecognisable to his previous self.
There is no doubt that without Linda the play would not work. She is an inspiration to anyone who watches it as they will see how an ordinary housewife manages to deal with the breakdown of her family and still has both oars in the water. Even when she is faced with an obnoxious husband she never gives up – unlike Willy – and she still remains loyal to him after his selfish suicide. She calls him “Willy, dear” which shows that even after everything she has been through she forgives him, and most importantly “she more than love’s him she admires him” for all his big dreams (after all he was only a “little boat looking for a harbour”). However, Linda is not completely perfect and she, like the other characters, has flaws.
She believes that the American dream will bring the whole family together but it is actually pushing them all apart – and is the main reason for Willy’s death. Ironically Linda and Willy are working against each other (even though they do not realise it), this is obvious throughout the course of the play particularly in the beginning of Act two when Linda is dressing him and the stage directions describe how she is: “buttoning up his jacket as he unbuttons it”. Miller’s portrayal of Linda as a strong but softly spoken character is crucial to her carrying off the nature of tragedy effectively.