Success in Death of a Salesman

There must be a line between professional and personal success: a line between the acquisition of money and the acquisition of happiness. For some, this line is thin. Professional success is dictated by outside factors, by other peoples’ perception, whereas personal success is a matter of mindset. Because personal success is determined by each person individually, it should be weighed more significantly than professional success. This interplay between the two as barometers of success is illustrated in the play by Arthur Miller: Death of a Salesman. The play follows the life of Willy Loman and his family: wife, Linda, and sons Biff and Happy. Willy is a failed salesman, riding in the depths of depression as he thrusts his own expectations of success onto his two sons. The relationship between Willy and his son Biff is confounded by their two disparate views of success. Willy believes professional success and outside accolades determine overall success in life, while Biff places his personal happiness before professional prospects, much to the chagrin of his father.

Willy Loman is facing his life winding down around him. The beliefs he held dear in the pursuit of success failed him as he is forced into retirement while still not being able to pay his bills. Willy’s perception of success was influenced by his brother Ben’s success of which he achieved with little work. As Willy puts it: “[Ben] walked into a jungle, and comes out, the age of twenty-one, and he’s rich!”(41). This ‘magical’ quality that Willy sees in success makes him resentful, because to Willy, he’s been equally as deserving of success as his brother Ben. He chooses to place his resentment in a one-time decision to not accompany Ben to Alaska. But what Willy doesn’t choose to dwell on is the personal happiness Ben lacked. Ben was extremely detached from his family: being unaware his own mother had passed. Ben also had a twisted moral code: “never fight fair with a stranger, boy. You’ll never get out of the jungle that way”(49). Willy has championed this supposedly quick and painless success as the standard, not the exception. This standard skewed his sons’ sense of the world as well as his own.

For both of the sons, they’ve inherited Willy’s persistence that professional success and the respect, or rather envy of others, is the end all be all. But Biff is different. Biff found the thin line between professional and personal success: football. In high school, Biff dominated in football, with, as Willy notes, “ three great universities... begging for him”(86). In other words, Biff found his element, what Sir Ken Robinson calls the collision of passion and natural ability. This is why later, when the football scholarship falls through when he fails his math class, he is unable to settle for just professional success, unable to settle for the slog that is the corporate ladder. He craves the physical exertion, the fulfillment, and the happiness that football brought him. Every job that doesn’t allow him that freedom is strangling. “[Biff speaking] And it’s a measly manner of existence. To get on that subway on the hot mornings in summer. To devote your whole life to keeping stock, or making phone calls, or selling or buying. To suffer fifty weeks of the year for the sake of a two-week vacation, when all you really desire is to be outdoors, with your shirt off. And always to have to get ahead of the next fella. And still–that’s how you build a future”(22). Happy, who didn’t find personal and professional success in high school, is much more willing to sacrifice personal happiness for a while in the spirit of acquiring wealth. But Biff is steadfast in his commitment to his personal happiness. “[Biff to Happy] But look at your friend. Builds an estate and then hasn’t got the peace of mind to live in it”(24) Yet Willy’s influence still looms large as Biff still craves his father’s respect. As Carol Dweck notes in her essay The Mindsets, “Everyone has a role model, someone who pointed the way at a critical moment in their lives”(Dweck 55) and Biff’s role model, for a very long time, was Willy, but Willy led him astray. His continued stubbornness that professional success was one part personality and one part luck, which he was convinced Biff possessed, and thus discouraged Biff from any hard work, which made him resort to stealing. “I stole myself out of every good job since high school!”(131).

The importance of material success in the form of money varies between Willy and Biff, because Willy had people dependent on him, while Biff does not. His pride as the breadwinner was dictated by his own father, who was also quite prideful: “He was an adventurous man. We’ve got quite a streak of self-reliance in our family”(81). But it was not only money that came along with the professional success that Willy craved so desperately it was how others perceived him. Willy tells the story of this older salesman’s funeral: “–when he died, hundreds of salesmen and buyers were at his funeral...There was respect, and comradeship, and gratitude in it”(81). Willy is so taken in by this visual he deceives it into reality. His suicidal thoughts and later actions in part stem from this idea that in death, he would receive the same admiration the old salesman did. At the end of the play, the only people who attended his funeral were the ones he rebuffed in favor of wider respect: his family and his close friend Charley.

Biff finally shrugs off his father’s influence and reaches his own conclusion of success. Success first demands personal success, happiness and keeping to your own morals, and then one can reach for professional success. “[Biff speaking] And I looked at the pen and said to myself, what the hell am I grabbing this for Why am I trying to become what I don’t want to be? What am I doing in an office, making a contemptuous, begging fool of myself, when all I want is out there, waiting for me the minute I say I know who I am!”(132) This self-realization is critical to the possibility of Biff’s future success as this personal success is determined by mindset: a willingness to put happiness first. Carol Dweck confirms how influential your mindset can be: “For twenty years, my research has shown that the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life”(56).

This is not to suggest professional success is inconsequential, nor that placing money at a priority over personal happiness is wrong, but it should not be dominating. Willy held before a mythical version of success, propagated by his brother Ben, and the older salesman, while being blind to the success right in front of him: his two, charismatic, healthy sons, his loving wife, and a long-time friend. Professional success should motivate one insofar it doesn’t mask other smaller, but equally important successes. The mindset needs to frame them equally. The key is summed up best in the Hebrew word dayenu which means it would have been enough. It would have been enough to just have one healthy son, but he had two. It would have been enough to marry someone to keep him company, but Linda also loved him and took care of him. It would have been enough if he had a job that fed his family, but it was also a job he loved for the many years he was actively employed. If Willy approached his life from this perspective, with his own professional goals framed in gratitude, Willy would have ended up much happier. Success, like most things, is relative. To compare one’s success with another is missing all the nuances of what it means to lead a personally successful life.


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