He’s a man way out there in the blue . . . A salesman is got to dream, boy.
To Linda’s considerable chagrin and bewilderment, Willy’s family, Charley, and Bernard are the only mourners who attend Willy’s funeral. She wonders where all his supposed business friends are and how he could have killed himself when they were so close to paying off all of their bills. Biff recalls that Willy seemed happier working on the house than he did as a salesman. He states that Willy had all the wrong dreams and that he didn’t know who he was in the way that Biff now knows who he is. Charley replies that a salesman has to dream or he is lost, and he explains the salesman’s undaunted optimism in the face of certain defeat as a function of his irrepressible dreams of selling himself. Happy becomes increasingly angry at Biff’s observations. He resolves to stay in the city and carry out his father’s dream by becoming a top businessman, convinced he can still “beat this racket.” Linda requests some privacy. She reports to Willy that she made the last payment on the house. She apologizes for her inability to cry, since it seems as if Willy is just “on another trip.” She begins to sob, repeating, “We’re free. . . .” Biff helps her up and all exit. The flute music is heard and the high-rise apartments surrounding the Loman house come into focus.
Charley’s speech about the nature of the salesman’s dreams is one of the most memorable passages in the play. His words serve as a kind of respectful eulogy that removes blame from Willy as an individual by explaining the grueling expectations and absurd demands of his profession. The odd, anachronistic, spiritual formality of his remarks (“Nobody dast blame this man”) echo the religious quality of Willy’s quest to sell himself. One can argue that, to a certain extent, Willy Loman is the postwar American equivalent of the medieval crusader, battling desperately for the survival of his own besieged faith.
Charley solemnly observes that a salesman’s life is a constant upward struggle to sell himself—he supports his dreams on the ephemeral power of his own image, on “a smile and a shoeshine.” He suggests that the salesman’s condition is an aggravated enlargement of a discreet facet of the general human condition. Just as Willy is blind to the totality of the American Dream, concentrating on the aspects related to material success, so is the salesman, in general, lacking, blinded to the total human experience by his conflation of the professional and the personal. Like Charley says, “No man only needs a little salary”—no man can sustain himself on money and materiality without an emotional or spiritual life to provide meaning.
When the salesman’s advertising self-image fails to inspire smiles from customers, he is “finished” psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually. According to Charley, “a salesman is got to dream.” The curious and lyrical slang substitution of “is” for “has” indicates a destined necessity for the salesman—not only must the salesman follow the imperative of his dreams during his life, but Miller suggests that he is literally begotten with the sole purpose of dreaming.
In many ways, Willy has done everything that the myth of the American Dream outlines as the key path to success. He acquired a home and the range of modern appliances. He raised a family and journeyed forth into the business world full of hope and ambition. Nevertheless, Willy has failed to receive the fruits that the American Dream promises. His primary problem is that he continues to believe in the myth rather than restructuring his conception of his life and his identity to meet more realistic standards. The values that the myth espouses are not designed to assuage human insecurities and doubts; rather, the myth unrealistically ignores the existence of such weaknesses. Willy bought the sales pitch that America uses to advertise itself, and the price of his faith is death.
Linda’s initial feeling that Willy is just “on another trip” suggests that Willy’s hope for Biff to succeed with the insurance money will not be fulfilled. To an extent, Linda’s comparison debases Willy’s death, stripping it of any possibility of the dignity that Willy imagined. It seems inevitable that the trip toward meaningful death that Willy now takes will end just as fruitlessly as the trip from which he has just returned as the play opens. Indeed, the recurrence of the haunting flute music, symbolic of Willy’s futile pursuit of the American Dream, and the final visual imprint of the overwhelming apartment buildings reinforce the fact that Willy dies as deluded as he lived.