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Death of a Salesman Notes on the Failure Themes

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Death of a Salesman Topic Tracking: Failure

Act 1, Part 1

Failure 1: Willy's entire life is a succession of missed opportunities and misinformation, and he considers himself a failure because of it. He has failed to make the drive to his business appointment, so he's going to miss out on making a sale because of it. His failure, and the failure of either of his sons to make something extraordinary of themselves, baffles him because he believes that the keys to success are contacts and popularity. Unfortunately, in the business of sales, Willy has outlived his contacts and his popularity (if he ever had it) and is now unable to make any money. If a man's role is to earn money to support his family, then Willy is a total failure.

Failure 2: Willy considers Biff's life a failure because he's not making enough money or working in the business world. He thinks that he is slacking off working as a farmhand; he had high expectations for Biff: he'd make it big in business (based on Biff's popularity in high school), and now that he hasn't, Willy is disappointed in him and dissatisfied with everything he does.

Act 1, Part 2

Failure 3: Biff can't seem to find a job that suits him, and although things were going well for him in Texas, he panicked because the job he had as a farmhand wasn't the kind of job Willy expected him to have. Biff was supposed to be in business; the fact that he was well liked and popular in high school would ensure his success. Biff failed to fulfill Willy's expectations, and that makes him a complete failure in his father's eyes.

Act 1, Part 3

Failure 4: Willy is beginning to feel like a failure because business is slowing down and he's not providing for his family the way he used to. He's losing popularity (if he ever had it), and his whole idea of what it takes to be successful is betraying him. He feels as if he has worked hard to become well liked, but now he is ignored and laughed at. People don't take him seriously. Who wouldn't feel like a failure in that situation?

Act 1, Part 6

Failure 5: Willy laments the missed opportunity of going to Alaska with his brother, Ben (who struck it rich, but in Africa, not Alaska). When Hap tries to comfort Willy with the promise of retiring him for life, Willy criticizes him because he doesn't make enough money to do that. Willy, a traveling salesman, can't even drive himself to the sales appointments he is able to make. Hap is a failure because he can't keep his word, and Willy is a failure because he can't do his job.

Act 1, Part 7

Failure 6: Willy is a failure when compared to his father. Ben asserts that he could sell more in a week than Willy could in a lifetime. Willy, when measured against Ben, doesn't fare much better, because Ben was rich by the time he was twenty-one.

Act 1, Part 8

Failure 7: Linda tells the boys that Willy has been demoted to merely earning commission on what he sells (like a beginning salesman), and he can't make sales anymore because all his contacts are dead or retired. He has to borrow $50 a week from Charley to pretend that it's his salary so Linda won't find out he's a failure at his job. She is angry because he's tried so hard to support the boys, and now that he's failing at his job, he needs their support, and the boys are choosing to look the other way.

Act 2, Part 2

Failure 8: Willy, after getting in an argument with his boss, gets fired, which means he has no way to pay his insurance or his last payment on the house. He's a complete failure now. His final contact and claim to fame was his friendship with Wagner's late father, but even Wagner doesn't give that much consideration because it probably wasn't true. But whether Wagner's father and Willy were great friends, the fact remains that Willy hasn't been able to do his job, so he loses it. Willy has no contacts, nor is he well liked.

Act 2, Part 5

Failure 9: Willy keeps thinking about how Biff failed math, and he believes that's when Biff's life was ruined. If he hadn't failed math, he would be successful by now.

Act 2, Part 7

Failure 10: Biff tells Willy that they're both ordinary men, common, just like everyone else; this is not such a terrible thing in Biff's eyes, but for Willy, being ordinary is equivalent to failure. He wanted to be the best of salesmen, and he pretended that he was. Willy realizes that his own son knows that he's a fake, and that Biff's wish is only to confront the truth and be an ordinary man. This is the summit of his failures. Willy can think of only one way to prove that he's not a failure: suicide.


Failure 11: Willy expected the funeral to be packed because he was so well known and well liked. His funeral would prove to Biff that his father's life was worth something, but it doesn't turn out this way. The only people at Willy's funeral were his family, Charley, and Bernard. Although Willy aspired to be like Dave Singleman (a revered salesman), it didn't work out that way, and Willy Loman died a failure by his own standards. Biff considers Willy's life a failure because he had the wrong dreams. He spent too much time convincing himself he could be a successful salesman, when what he was clear he was skilled at working with his hands. If he'd followed the right dreams, and confronted his abilities in a realistic and honest way, he may not have been a failure, and his life might not have ended this way. Even in death, Willy Loman's plans fail; no one shows at his funeral, and his life insurance policy doesn't cover suicide.

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