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Death of a Salesman Characters - Willy Loman
I’m sitting here on this little outdoor stage, thinking about how different a play can be, than a novel. A play has really got to be character-driven. Remember, we don’t have an author who can take paragraphs to describe setting or what people are like. So character in plays is crucial. That’s what we’re going to be talking about today.
First we’re going to discuss major characters, then minor characters. The last thing we’re going to do, is a little what’s in a name. And see what the significance of some of the names in this play, really is. Including, completely getting rid of this myth about Willy Loman and his last name. So if you’re ready to go, I am too. Let’s get started.
So I want to start with the primary characters. This is kind of the who’s who of this play. Let’s start of course with the main, man Willy Loman. He is our protagonist. Remember that’s just a fancy way of saying the main character. He’s a 61-year old salesman. He’s been demoted, and then he’s been fired. We do find out at the beginning that he’s not working for the same amount that he was earlier. He really tries to provide for his family. This is the struggle he has throughout the entire play. That’s all he really wants to be able to do.
He confuses fantasy and reality. As we keep going in the play, there’s more flashbacks, and he’s really going back and forth between memories and present day life. At the end of the play of course, he commits suicide. And he does this with the intention, that his family is going to receive insurance money. In that way, he’s actually going to be able to truly provide for them for the first time in his life.
Next, his faithful wife, Linda Loman. She is extremely devoted to him, to the point where she makes excuses for him. Sometimes she’s almost an enabler. She plays peacemaker when Willy is at odds with their sons. Sometimes they get into confrontations, Linda is always the one who gets in between them and wants to stop things and smooth them out. She does focus a lot of money. She is often reminding Willy about different bills that they have to pay. She’s also pretty naïve. Willy is having an affair, he has been for a while. And they’re definitely signs there that she either doesn’t see, or chooses not to look at.
The next Loman is Biff. Biff is 34 years old, and he’s Willy’s favorite son. In high school, he was a really big deal. He was a football star and we see him as the big man on campus. He had a lot of promise. However, in his senior year; he missed graduation by one Math course. He went out to his dad’s hotel, his dad was away on business. Because he was so concerned with this and he wanted his father to talk to his teacher about it.
At this point, he discovers the affair. He actually goes to the hotel room and finds Willy and his mistress together. He’s absolutely devastated. It completely shutters him. We find out that he starts stealing. He’s almost a bit of a kleptomaniac. He doesn’t steal to really have things, he does it without really knowing he’s doing it. He gets nervous and he just does it. He does get caught for it at one point, and he ends up in jail. At this point, when we see him in the present day in the play, he’s really craving a simple tame existence. He doesn’t want any drama anymore. He doesn’t want to try to be the person with promise, or a big star any longer. He wants a plain and simple life that he can enjoy.
Now Happy Loman, he’s kind of the forgotten son in Death of the Salesman. He’s the younger one and he’s the second best all the time. He’s very similar to his father. They have a lot of the same ideas, and are kind of in denial about realities of life. He’s definitely a womanizer. This is a way that he competes with his older brother, who usually beats him in everything. Happy is constantly with a parade of women, so that’s one way that he won ups his older brother.
Happy also maintains his belief in the American Dream. This is significant because it’s a huge theme in the book of whether the American Dream is really feasible or not for the average Joe. Whereas Biff realizes that maybe it’s not, Happy really stubbornly holds on to the idea that it is. So those are the four Lomans, the central characters. We’re going to move on next to the secondary ones.
Moving on to the secondary characters, there’s actually one who is also a Loman. This is Ben Loman. But I can’t really call him a primary character, because he is dead. He’s Willy’s deceased brother. He appears in Willy’s imagination all the time. We find out through some conversation that he acquired his wealth through the African Diamond mining industry, which is really exotic and interesting. He gives the appearance of someone who has actually accomplished the American Dream. He says he walked into the jungle and he walked out three years later and he was rich. This is like what the American Dream is all about, starting with nothing and going to something great.
He is really someone that his brother Willy looks up to and he’s like, "Well, my brother did it, I can do it too." Ben however, is a little bit shady. In one of the flashback scenes, they show his sparring with Biff, then he basically chip shots him. So he’s not the greatest character. So we see him really only through Willy’s eyes. So I would say we’d have to take some of this with a little bit of a grain of salt.
The next character we’re going to talk about, is Charley. Charley is basically like the next door neighbor. He’s a good family friend of Willy and Linda. He really tries to help Willy. We talked about the fact earlier that he loans him money, when he can’t pay his bills. What’s interesting is that, Charley also offers Willy a job, but Willy refuses. He says he has a job and even after he’s been fired from that job, he doesn’t want his friend’s help.
Charley and his son are really bookish. And Willy has always been a little mean to them thinking that maybe they’re not the right kind of successful. So it’s interesting that he really doesn’t want help from him in some ways, but in other ways he’s really depending on him. Charley can be seen as a voice of reason. He’s very clear, whereas Willy is really muddled, and things are very fuzzy with him sometimes. What’s interesting is when Willy makes fun of him, he allows it to happen. So we see different aspects of his personality there. He’s a very, very good friend.
Bernard is Charley’s son. He was friends with Biff and Happy when they were all younger. He was like the docky, nerdy friend that you have to hang out with, because your parents are friends with their parents. He tags along all the time with Biff and with Happy. Now as an adult in the present day, he’s a very successful attorney and he’s really a good guy. He is going to have a case with the Supreme Court and he doesn’t even mention it. He remains very, very humble and doesn’t brag about his many, many accomplishments, especially because the Loman’s don’t have anything comparable to share.
Howard Wagner is another secondary character. Howard is actually Willy’s boss. He hasn’t been his boss all along. He inherited the business from his father, who Willy worked with for a very, very long time. He’s only 36 years old. Now if we think about the fact that Willy is 61, he’s reporting to this young kid of 36, who’s just a little bit older than his own son, we can see some problems there already. Especially at one point, I’m going to skip down here, he was actually named by Willy. Willy and his dad, his old boss, were such good friends and Willy helped pick out his name. So he feels like he has a really great tie to him, but he doesn’t. He actually demoted Willy and then fired him within the play.
Howard’s really preoccupied with technology. When Willy is really singing his sad song to him and pouring his heart out and telling about all these hard times, Howard is really focused on his new recording device, which is high technology for that time period. He’s not even really listening to what Willy has to say. So we get a big feeling for his personality too. He’s not the nicest or the warmest guys in the world.
The last character we’re going to talk about is the woman. We later see her as Miss Francis. But it’s significant to see that when her speaking parts come up, she’s just listed as the woman. In fact she is the other woman. She is Willy’s mistress. We find out that she worked in the Boston business office. And that’s one of the places that Willy was a lot of the time for business. She doesn’t really seem ashamed of their affair at all. In the scene in which Biff arrives at their hotel room, she doesn’t hide. When she’s asked basically to go hide in the bathroom by Willy, she goes for a little bit and then when one of them makes a joke, she starts laughing from the bathroom. Then she comes out. So we’ve got to wonder a little bit about her conscience.
Another interesting thing about the woman, is that Willy is always bringing her silk stockings. This is going to become a really, really big symbol later on.
So now we’ve developed a working knowledge of the primary characters, and the secondary characters. I want to point out a little bit more with them, and go a little bit deeper with the significance of some of their names.
When we’re talking about significance of names in this play, I really need to share this first thing with you. A lot of you might have thought this when you were reading, or even if you’re like me, were told by your high school English teacher, that Willy’s last name Loman is significant because you can think of it as ‘Low- man’. kind of like a low man on the totem pole. We would see this as a reflection, see the pretty reflection of Willy’s status. That he is not high up in society, that he’s not the big man on campus. That he’s down here somewhere. So that would be a way to interpret it. Like I said, that’s actually what I learned in high school.
However, this is not true. You know how we know it’s not true. Arthur Miller himself commented on this. He said, “In later years, I found it discouraging to observe the confidence with which some commentators on Death of a Salesman smirked at the heavy-handed symbolism of ‘Low-man.’ The name really meant to me was a terror-stricken man calling into the void for help that will never come.” All right Mr. Dramatic, he’s like no that’s beneath me to do ‘Low-man.’ So I feel like it’s my duty to tell you that that’s not really what he says, it’s supposed to be about. I don’t know. You can make up your own mind on that one, but he was very, very indignant about it. He didn’t like this idea. This was actually from his autobiography that he included this piece of information.
He also added a very highbrow reference here. He said that the actual origin of the name Loman comes from a character named Lohmann with a German spelling in the Fritz Lang Film, "The Testament of Dr. Mabuse." Whatever, you can take that with interest if you would like to. I actually linked some information about this movie in the bonus material section. If you want to explore it further, or if you think maybe Arthur Miller was telling the truth, or maybe he was just trying to save face and look even smarter. I don’t know, but that’s important to know about Loman and Low-man. Your English teacher might not know either. So it might be something you want to share in class.
Let’s look at the name Happy. I’m sure that you, like I did, the first time I read this I was like, "Really, his name is Happy really?" Happy is really only happy at surface level. He’s actually very miserable. So it’s definitely an ironic twist that this is the name he’s been given. It’s not a nick-name. It’s really what Linda and Willy decided to name their kid. He lives in the shadow of his older brother and that makes him unhappy. He is kind of a younger version of Willy. Willy is not really happy either.
He doesn’t understand why he and his father are not successful. So essentially, he’s not happy at all. He might be happy at surface level, but when we come down to it, he’s really a discouraged individual and miserable living in everybody’s shadow. At one point, he actually denies that Happy is his name, when he’s trying to pick up some of his chicks that he likes to. He says, “That’s my name, Hap. It’s really Harold, but at West Point they called me Happy.” No, not so much. That’s not true, that’s him just trying to deny that his parents gave him that particular monocle.
Let’s look at some more interesting names. What I did was take some of the names of characters from this play and plugged them into one of those websites, where you can find out the origin and the meaning for names. So Benjamin, like Ben, Willy’s brother, means blessed. I thought that was really significant. Because if you think about it, at 18 years old he walked into the jungle and walked out at age 21, a rich millionaire. I would say that he’s been blessed for sure. Especially because he was trying get to Alaska, and he ended up in Africa. So he’s had some things brought upon him that maybe he didn’t deserve, or that he didn’t anticipate getting.
Now David, do you remember who David is in this story? I didn’t list him in the characters when we were in that section, because he’s just someone who’s referred to once. David Singleman is actually the first salesman that Willy talks about, other than himself. He’s the one that Willy refers to when we have the whole section about the Death of the Salesman. He died the "death of a salesman" is the quotation that Willy uses. David had so many people come to his funeral. This is so significant, because that’s what Willy wants. He’s very well-liked, whereas remember Willy says, he’s just 'well-liked'. So David id the salesman he wants to be worldly successful and very popular. So I don’t think it’s really coincidental that his name means beloved.
The last name William, Willy. Willy means resolute guardian. Now I don’t think that I could really think of a better way to describe Willy Loman. He wants nothing more than to take care of his family. He’s very stubborn about that, and stubborn to the point where he takes his own life in order to be able to do so. So none of this is really coincidental. It’s very significant and maybe Arthur Miller would yell at me too, if he heard the way that I was interpreting things. But I don’t think this is an accident. So you know how Shakespeare said what’s in a name? I think in Death of a Salesman, there is a lot.
So in this episode we talked about what’s in a name. But in case you were busy trying to Google weird celebrity names Calel, Apple, are you kidding me? Let’s see the gist of what you missed. We talked about major characters like Happy, Biff, Willy, and Linda. Then we talked about some secondary characters like Uncle Ben, not to be confused with the rice guy.
The last thing we did is talk about some of the significant of names, like the irony oh Happy’s name. So in our next episode, we’re going to get ready to really dive in deep with things like theme and motif. So take a break if you need to, I’ll be waiting for you here. Tell me when you’re ready to get your feet wet.