Death of a Salesman

by: Arthur Miller

Self-Deception

1

That’s just what I mean. Bernard can get the best marks in school, y’understand, but when he gets out in the business world, you are going to be five times ahead of him. That’s why I thank Almighty God you’re both built like Adonises. Because 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. You take me, for instance. I never have to wait in line to see a buyer. “Willy Loman is here!” That’s all they have to know, and I go right through.

Willy Loman is talking to his sons as part of a memory from Biff’s senior year in high school. Bernard, Biff’s friend and rival, has just warned them that Biff is in danger of flunking math. Willy is trying to bolster Biff’s confidence. Willy’s speech shows how much he depends on self-deception for his own self-esteem. He has convinced himself that appearance means more than doing well in school, his own boys are as handsome as Greek gods, and he himself is good-looking, well liked, and successful.

2

Like a young god. Hercules—something like that. And the sun, the sun all around him. Remember how he waved to me? Right up from the field, with the representatives of three colleges standing by? And the buyers I brought, and the cheers when he came out—Loman! Loman! Loman! God Almighty, he’ll be great yet. A star like that, magnificent, can never really fade away.

At the end of Act I, Willy Loman explains to his wife, Linda, that he is hopeful again because their son Biff has shared his plan to ask for a loan to buy a ranch. Just hearing Biff’s plan is enough to transform Willy’s attitude from depression to almost manic optimism. He remembers Biff as a high school football hero, which was also a moment of triumph for Willy. Willy transfers his own hopes and ambitions to his son, and he deceives himself that his son is too magnificent to fail.

3

Oh, yeah, my father lived many years in Alaska. He was an adventurous man. We’ve got quite a little streak of self-reliance in our family.

Willy Loman is trying to convince his boss Howard to give him a job in the New York office. Howard has already told Willy that there is no job, but Willy continues to make increasingly desperate requests. Willy has rewritten the truth of his father’s desertion of the family; now his father’s adventures have become part of Willy’s sales pitch. To give himself courage, Willy has deceived himself into believing he is an independent spirit, a self-reliant pioneer hero like his father, whereas in reality he is begging for his job.

4

I’m not a leader of men, Willy, and neither are you. You were never anything but a hard-working drummer who landed in the ash can like all the rest of them! I’m one dollar an hour, Willy! I tried seven states and I couldn’t raise it. A buck an hour! Do you gather my meaning? I’m not bringing home any prizes any more, and you’re going to stop waiting for me to bring them home!

Near the end of the play, Biff Loman confronts his father Willy. Biff attempts to express his own need to stop deceiving himself in his efforts to fulfill his father’s dreams. Biff is also blowing the whistle on the constant rationalizing Willy constructs about his lack of success. Biff’s coming to terms with his own self-deception is the moment when he finds himself at last, by seeing himself as he really is. His emotional outburst leads to Willy’s recognition that his son loves him, implying that it is only when self-deception ends that true caring is possible.