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Self-Worth in Death of a Salesman

How Arthur Miller's classic novel differentiates career paths from the pursuit of one's importance.

By Ron Published 7 years ago 5 min read

Arthur Miller’s most significant work touches on a wide variety of relatable themes and topics, perhaps none of which as relevant as the underlying motif of a person’s worth, both to themselves and to others. Willy Loman serves as a pivotal example of a person’s true worth, and how it can easily be misrepresented and incorrectly defined, but a varying value of self is displayed by other characters as well, namely Willy’s sons. The play eloquently relates ideals such as the American Dream to a person’s worth, and there is much disagreement and confusion over what truly defines a person as valuable. Death of a Salesman demonstrates the importance of a person’s self-worth and depicts the different variables that can influence an individual’s own value.

Willy Loman is quite frankly the story’s most prevalent example of self-worth and how it is defined; he bases much of his personal value on career success and likability, both of which he mistakenly believes to have himself. He believes in chasing the American Dream, but not simply through hard work and persistence; rather, he promotes the notion that making impressions and being liked is what truly establishes one’s success in life. Willy constantly speaks of his likeability and connections to his sons, while frequently contradicting himself, and promises to use his leverage with all the people he knows (which proves to hardly be any) to ease the boys on to bigger and better things. As he explains to Happy, “America is full of beautiful towns and fine, upstanding people. And they know me, boys, they know me up and down New England. The finest people. And when I bring you fellas up, there’ll be open sesame for all of us, ‘cause one thing boys: I have friends. I can park my car in any street in New England, and the cops protect it like their own.” (Miller, 1245) Willy’s unyielding pride causes him to overestimate his personal connections and status, and he takes liberties (such as explaining how revered he is in New England) that lead the boys to see him as a man of great success and power. His delusional mindset lets him believe that he really has made it far in life, but he is awakened as the story progresses to the reality of his exaggerations, and the consequences they have on him and his family. His self-worth begins at a high level, but only decreases the more he becomes aware of his lack of the success he claims to have.

Willy instills these and other values in his sons so emphatically that they succumb to the pressure and never reach their full potential. This is made evident early in the story, as Willy speaks with his sons about the importance of being well-liked: “...the man who makes an appearance in the business world, the man who creates personal interest, is the man who gets ahead. Be liked and you will never want.” (Miller, 1246) Although he had nothing but the best of intentions for his sons, Willy put little emphasis into the value of actual hard work and rather convinced them that the most important quality a person could have was being well-liked by his peers, even going so far as to correlate this characteristic with achieving success. He compares his sons to their friend Bernard and continues his trend of blowing hot air to them by stating that Bernard’s studiousness and work ethic will only get him so far in life, and that the boys will be “five times ahead of him” when they venture into the real world. Ironically, Bernard achieves more success than any of the Lomans, and eventually, Willy ends up in his office asking him what his secret for success was, and why Biff and Happy could never grasp onto it. This precedes Willy’s conversation with Charley about jobs, in which Willy turns down a decent job offer out of pride, despite having recently been fired, and also accepts a small loan that he undoubtedly is unable to repay. Willy’s false sense of pride in himself and in his sons only serves to facilitate his downfall, as it prevents him from helping himself and from seeing how little his advice and guidance has done for his boys.

From the start, Willy’s mantras about getting ahead of the competition and succeeding in the world of business engender a sense of apathy in the boys, combined with the pressure to succeed but not the means to do so, and ultimately sets them up for failure. Biff stands out among the two boys as in need of more life guidance, and deviates from Willy’s ways of thinking, while Happy strives to impress Willy in all that he does. In the end, Biff’s realizations regarding his father’s impossible standards leads to an explosive argument between the two, in which Biff reveals his struggles in achieving his potential and makes clear to Willy that his well- meaning motivational techniques only guided the boys further off course. Initially, Willy feels that he is being blamed for Biff’s failures, but Biff clarifies: “I never got anywhere because you blew me so full of hot air I could never stand taking orders from anybody! That’s whose fault it is!” (Miller, 1294) The entire conversation revolves around self-worth, and Biff explains how little he has after having been told his entire life that he was born to succeed and had limitless potential. Just as he had done over the course of his sons’ entire lives, Willy remains optimistic throughout, and reinforces to Biff that “The door of your life is wide open!” (1294), to which Biff responds with “Pop! I’m a dime in a dozen, and so are you!” (1294) This prompts Willy to deliver an unabashed statement of self-worth, as he screams “ I am not a dime a dozen! I am Willy Loman, and you are Biff Loman!” (1294) As previously mentioned, Willy’s unfaltering pride once again stands between him and the conscious realization that he has done more harm than good for his sons, and he continues to blindly believe that Biff still has great potential and will pull his life together. Biff’s self-worth continues to plummet, and his negativity can at least be partially attributed to Willy’s high standards for him.

Despite living life as he believed he ought to, and putting forth his best effort to ensure that his boys were trained for success, Willy Loman represents self-worth based on all the wrong aspects. His personal value caused a chain reaction in the ways his sons viewed themselves, with their self-worth remaining at an incredibly high level throughout their early lives until they realized that the bar was simply set too high. Perhaps the most significant moment of self-worth is in the very end of the story during Willy’s funeral, attended only by his family, despite all the people he claimed to have been well liked by. His wife Linda asks why no one else attended, and cannot understand that Willy’s worth to himself and others was blatantly exaggerated. To his mother’s dismay, Biff unapologetically states that “He had the wrong dreams. All, all wrong...He never knew who he was.” (1297) This speaks to Willy’s self-worth, and suggest that he may have lived his entire life without ever truly knowing himself. Self-worth comes from within, and Willy’s may have been lacking due to his neglect to take the time to understand himself and pursue a different of dreams. When his self-worth plunges so immensely that he takes his own life, it brings into question what dreams in life are truly worth chasing, as financial and career success may have nothing to do with a person’s own worth.


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