Death of a Salesman reveals the story of an American man confronting failure in a success-driven society and shows the tragic path which eventually leads to his suicide. Willy Loman believes in what he considers the promise of the American Dream wholeheartedly, which is based on the Declaration of Independence stated by Thomas Jefferson in 1776: "We believe that all men are born with these inalienable rights - life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."(Malone, 28)
However, Willy is too caught up in this masculine dream and it does not succeed as he wishes. He tries to live up to it and prove himself by working as a successful salesman, but he does not even come close to it. The play examines the cost of blind faith in the American Dream and how a man cannot escape his own pattern of the past. His sons, Biff and Happy, cannot get away from the pattern Willy imposes on them either.
What is the relationship between this disillusionment of the American Dream and the construction of masculinity? Can the construction of manhood be shattered just like the dream? This essay serves to answer these questions by examining the making of masculinity as seen in the three major characters.
The Modern Tragic Hero
Willy is a character who sets his ideals on the essences of "self-made manhood" and "passionate manhood" described by Rotundo. Although he has been the supporter of the family and is the "head of the household" (Rotundo, 2), he cannot fully exemplify the "communal manhood" phase as suggested by Rotundo. He pays for the house, the refrigerator, the vacuum cleaner, and puts up ceiling in the living room, without his wife's financial or physical involvement. But he never really has a respectable place in the community. His boss, Howard Wagner, does not seem to value him and never does him any favor. The kind of "respect, comradeship, and gratitude" (81) Willy describes are not received from Howard, who is forced to fire Willy for his erratic behavior. He thinks that people seem to laugh at him in Hartford and he is "not noticed" (36). Therefore, Willy's trivial place in society is revealed.
Under the "self-made manhood" phase, "a man took his identity and his social status from his own achievements" (Rotundo, 3) and thus his work role forms the essence of his identity. His fulfillment is constructed in his success in business and professions. Being a sixty year old salesman living in Brooklyn, Willy is a man with powerful strivings and aspirations for success. He believes "selling was the greatest career a man could want" (81) and he does not want Biff to be a carpenter or a cowboy. He is proud of the fact that he used to "average a hundred and seventy dollars a week in the year of 1928" (82) and has been trying all his life to derive personal achievements in work. He is in constant fear that he will never sell anything again, revealing his value is placed greatly on the success in business. He wants to be a "well liked" and "personally attractive" man in business and convinces himself that "I'm vital in New England" because all these lead to success, wealth and power in society. However, the fact that he does not sell anything and is always rejected by buyers suggests that he is not the successful businessman he says he is after all.
Willy also fits into the "passionate manhood" phase in late 19th and early 20th century because he values bodily qualities a lot. Seeing Ben's success in the wilderness, he wants his sons to "walk into a jungle" (52) and as suggested by Ben, if Willy will "screw on your fists, you can fight for a fortune up there" (85). He believes "a man who can't handle tools is not a man" (44), which exemplifies the tough, primitive masculinity that he strongly believes in. He encourages Biff to fight with Ben and asks him to "go to it, go ahead, show him" his physical strength (49). The importance of baseball in the family reveals how the tough body is a "vital component of...
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Malone, Dumas. The Story of the Declaration of Independence; Jefferson the Virginian. New York: Glier Corporation, 1982.
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