Seth Cassel
January 2006


Willy Loman's Demise as Caused by his Ego and the Return of His Son

Willy Loman's demise in Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller results from a combination of his distorted view of the American Dream, which he holds onto stubbornly because of his ego, and from his son coming home. Willy has a distorted idea of the American Dream, believing that being liked and popular will make one successful. Willy Loman's ego has made him hold onto his American Dream, and he refuses to give up on it. The return home of his eldest son, Biff, sets up the circumstance for Willy's demise. Upon seeing his son, Willy's ego refuses to accept that his once popular son has not achieved anything in his life after he left high school. Willy's distorted American Dream leads him to commit suicide. Through Willy, Arthur Miller suggests that capitalistic America has passed a distorted idea of the American Dream to everyday Americans. Willy Loman is flawed because of his ego, which makes him obsessed with his perverted American Dream, and when combined with the return of his son, causes his demise.

Willy Loman strives towards a twisted American Dream, in which being liked will make one successful. Willy believes that, "the man who creates personal interest is the man who gets ahead. Be liked and you will never want." Willy equates success with being wealthy and having a great deal of money and thinks that being liked will let one have such success. Willy has a materialistic view of the American Dream, and he refuses to give up on the idea even when presented with proof that he is wrong.

Willy's character flaw, his ego, makes him stubbornly pursue his idea that popularity directly influences success. Charley offers Willy a job out of pity because Willy has lost his job and now has no source of income to pay his bills. When Willy becomes angered, his ego fights off his feeling of failure.


Willy: I don't want your goddam job!

Charley: When the hell are you going to grow up?

Willy, furiously: You big ignoramus, if you say that to me again I'll rap you one! -97


Willy has failed because the popularity he once had among buyers has indeed not made him successful. This contradicts his twisted American Dream, which says that popularity dictates success. If he were to admit this by taking Charley's job offer, he would be saying that all his life's striving has been for naught and the ideal by which he has lived his life is wrong, thus equating Willy with a failure in his own mind. Instead, Willy lies about his achievements. When speaking with his sons, he tells them that he "got on the road, and… went north to Providence. Met the Mayor." It is unlikely that Willy ever met the Mayor of Providence. Willy then goes on and tries to tell Linda that he, "did five hundred gross in Providence." Willy's ego tries to justify his American Dream by telling lies to himself and others around him that overstate his accomplishments to make his idea that popularity dictates success true. Willy's ego does not let him admit that his American Dream is twisted, the characteristic that refuses to let Willy see the reality about Biff.

Willy believes that, in accordance with his theory that success comes from being liked, Biff should be successful; however, Biff is not. When Biff was playing football, Willy saw him as popular and wanted by colleges. This image supported his distorted view of the American Dream in that being liked can make one successful. However, now that Biff has come home a "bum," Willy has a much harder time justifying his idea. When Willy gets upset after Biff comes home, Linda tells Biff that, "when you write you're coming, he's all smiles, and talks about the future, and- he's just wonderful. And then the closer you seem to come, the more shaky he gets, and then, by the time you get here, he's arguing, and he seems angry at you." Biff was always popular, but when he comes home, he is not successful, contrary to what Willy believes. Willy, because of his ego, has trouble dealing with the fact that his theory, in which popularity dictates success, has not held true for his son. The combination of Willy's ego and Biff coming home bring about Willy's demise. When Biff comes home, not successful at all in Willy's eyes, Willy still stubbornly holds onto his distorted idea of the American Dream because of his ego. However, Willy feels that since he has lost his job, he has no way of being successful in accordance with his distorted view of the American Dream. His ego prevents him from seeing other paths through which he could be successful, like providing open love and support for his family or choosing a different career. Nevertheless, Willy's ego makes him see that he, by committing suicide, can truthfully justify his idea of the American Dream. He can, in a perverted way, rationalize the maxim, which he has lived his whole life by; popularity will bring about success. He will be able to show that all the popularity that he and Biff have had has let them each accumulate material wealth, both amounts of wealth in the form of Willy's life insurance money. When Biff comes home, Willy's ego forces him to see that the only way he can accomplish his American Dream and support Biff's is to commit suicide.

Arthur Miller in Death of a Salesman accuses American capitalism of selling a lie, a distorted picture of the American Dream, to everyday Americans like Willy. Willy has been introduced into a distorted view of American capitalism and he now, because of his ego, refuses to give up on it. In the booming, postwar WWII time, when the play was written, America was a superpower and it entered into the Cold War against the socialistic Soviet Union. During this time, capitalistic America tried to paint a positive picture of capitalism to Americans. It suggested ideas like being popular and liked, getting rich, and owning things were important. When explaining to Willy why they bought their refrigerator, Linda says, "they got the biggest ads of any of them." Capitalistic America indoctrinated Americans through commercials and corporate messages, which sent people the idea that if something or someone was popular, it was better. This idea became the standard after which many Americans patterned their lives. Like Willy, Americans thought that the American Dream dealt with the idea that popularity dictates success. Also, because of capitalistic America, people measured success in wealth. This idea is also followed in today's world, when people consider the most hyped item to be the best. Arthur Miller implies that America has forgotten the values that guided previous generations of Americans such as love of family and hard work. He also warns of the consequences of following capitalistic America's ideas without thought. Miller suggests that capitalistic America has instilled Americans, like Willy, with the idea that popularity directly influences success, an idea that is still relevant today.

Willy, an egotistical man, refuses to give up on a twisted version of the American Dream because then he would have to admit that what he has strived for all his life is wrong. He greatly values being liked and thinks popularity will bring success. However, Biff, his older and favorite son, comes home at the age of 34 and, despite having been popular in high school, has not done anything with his life. Although, even with this proof, indicating that Willy has been wrong in his thinking that popularity will bring success, Willy blindly sticks with his belief because of his ego. From the messages that capitalistic America sends Willy, he believes that success, in the form of wealth, will come from being liked. Willy Loman's demise results as a combination of his ego, which makes him blindly strive towards a twisted American dream and from Biff's return home.