Death of a Salesman: Masculinities Influences and Limitations

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Table of contents

  1. Introduction to Masculinity in 'Death of a Salesman'
  2. Willy Loman's Misguided Beliefs on Masculinity and Success
  3. The Impact of Willy's Ideals on Biff and Happy's Lives
  4. The Contrast Between Loman's Ideals and Charley and Bernard's Success
  5. Conclusion: The Limitations of Narrow-Minded Masculinity
  6. Works Cited

Introduction to Masculinity in 'Death of a Salesman'

The idea of masculinity is an expectation that plays a role in how someone approaches their everyday life. Masculinity is often interpreted as a requirement men must possess to be classified as “masculine” or “a real man.” If this idea of masculinity is taken the wrong way, it can lead to severe limitations on people’s true abilities to reach success. This thematic concept is present in Arthur Miller’s play, Death of a Salesman, and it is explored through various characters in the play. It is evident that the Lomans’, primarily the men, are limited in their full potential due to their narrow-minded idea of masculinity, as this mindset about masculinity plays a significant role in how these characters view their priorities in life. Both Biff and Happy fail to find themselves satisfied with their lives, both struggling to find emotional satisfaction and commercial success as a result, Willy’s influence on his beliefs. However, Willy, just like his sons, is also seen struggling with his life due to this idea of masculinity and how they believe that to be successful, you have to assert yourself as a masculine figure. Even though Charley and Bernard are not masculine figures in Willy’s mind, they show more personal success than Willy and his two sons through their own, more realistic perspective on masculinity.

Willy Loman's Misguided Beliefs on Masculinity and Success

Willy Loman’s strong belief that having a great personality, a charming appearance, and overall being a well-liked person is key to becoming successful in the business world. He prioritized this philosophy, always talked about how being academically smart does not matter, as long as you are a well-liked person. Willy continued to preach this mindset to his two sons, Biff and Happy. Willy, being not only a salesman but also their father, helps him further influence this idea that personality is more important than smarts. Biff is clearly seen to be influenced by this idea when Willy asks if his friend, Bernard, is well-liked at school, “[Bernard’s] liked, but he’s not well-liked” (Miller 33). Biff clearly, “inherits from his father an extremely fragile sense of self-worth dependent on the perceptions of others.” (Ribkoff 122), and as a result convinces Biff that in order to be successful, you have to be a well-liked man, that having a great personality is a more masculine trait than being academically smart.

Willy continues to encourage this false sense of masculinity and success through Biffs’ school life. When a man is described as masculine, it is often interpreted that that man is fearless, physically fit, charming, and although the reality is that that is not always true, there are men who are constantly trying to fit that description of masculinity, often having their judgment clouded by this idea and leading them into a hole of unhappiness and disappointment.

This can be reflected upon Willy and Biff. Willy prioritizes athletics over academics since it is seen as a more masculine trait and believes that since Biff is an outstanding athlete, he will be set on the road of success. He tells his sons, “Bernard can get the best marks in school, y’understand, but when he gets out in the business world, y’understand, you are going to be five times of him... you’re both built like Adonises… Be liked and you will never want.” (Miller 33). Willy carelessly misguides both his sons, telling Biff and Happy that they will always be a bigger success than Bernard because athleticism is a masculine quality, and therefore becomes a key trait to being a successful man. Willy is too focused on being well-liked that it blinds him to see the reality that Biff struggled academically. If Biff had instead focused on academics and studied with Bernard, he would not have failed math and could have continued playing football in university, which is a more successful path than where Willy lead him.

The Impact of Willy's Ideals on Biff and Happy's Lives

Biff, like his father, believes that the job of a salesman is a more masculine, well-respected job and that having any other job will prevent him from reaching success. At the beginning of the play, Biff struggled to take hold of his life and achieve emotional and commercial success. This idea of masculinity prevents Biff from pursuing a job where he gets to work with his hands, something that Biff actually finds enjoyment in. When Happy asks Biff if he really enjoys working on the farm and is content with himself, Biff tells Happy, “There’s nothing more inspiring or—beautiful than the sight of a mare and a new colt … What the hell am I doing, playing around with horses, twenty-eight dollars a week!… That’s when I come running home. And now, I get here, and I don’t know what to do with myself” (Miller 22). Biff struggles to find a job where he feels content with himself because he is always pursuing the masculine job of a salesman. Biff neglects all other jobs and continued his search to acquire a job as a salesman, not because he wants to but as a result of his belief that the job of a salesman is a more masculine job and that that is the only job which will lead him to success. This idea of masculinity that is embedded into Biffs’ mind hinders him from finding a job that suits his best interests and provides him enjoyment.

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Happy, Willy’s other son, also fails to find emotional success. Although Happy is making money and is relatively successful in comparison to Biff, he still finds himself emotionally unsatisfied. Despite having, “My [his] own apartment, a car, and plenty of women. And still, goddamnit, I’m [he is] lonely.” (Miller 23). Happy thought he had everything he would need in life. He had a job, money, a car, and women, yet his feelings of loneliness overwhelm all feelings of success. This loneliness is derived from the Lomans’ ideology of masculinity. He is unable to find a woman to settle down with and create a proper and meaningful relationship with, instead of having multiple women for a one night stand. He sees women as a cure for his loneliness and as a trophy for success, which in Happy’s mind, translates to being a powerful man. This idea that Happy must obtain numerous amounts of women hinders him from finding a partner to love and leaves him with this feeling of emotional emptiness.

Willy is the main influencer of these ideas on masculinity and how it leads to success. Although Willy wants Biff and Happy to pursue this dream of being a successful man, Willy himself struggles to attain this fantasy as a result of his decisions being limited by his mindset on masculinity. When Willy is offered a job by Charley, he tells him, “[He’s] got a job… [he] don’t want [Charley’s] goddamn job!... When the hell are [Willy] going to grow up?” (Miller 96 - 97).

Willy’s pride is the clear influencer on his choices. Despite the fact that Willy is in extreme financial need, he refuses Charley's job offer, saying that he has his own job and he does not require Charley's help. Willy wants to prove himself by being independent and going forth with becoming the perfect salesman, yet his idea on masculinity blinds him to see the reality that he is not going to become successful this way and the salesman’s job is ruining him. Willy’s idea of masculinity limits him to make poor choices which leads him away from reaching commercial success.

The Contrast Between Loman's Ideals and Charley and Bernard's Success

In contrast to the Loman’s perspective on masculinity, Charley and Bernard can be shown as an alternative perception of masculinity, both becoming successful and content with where they are. Both Bernard and Charley understood that success does not come from having just a well-liked personality, but understood that success comes from working hard and taking the time to focus on academics. Bernard clearly understands this concept about academics leading to success when he went to the Loman’s household and asks, “Biff, where are you? You’re supposed to study with me today… [Biff’s] gotta study, Uncle Willy. [Biff’s] got Regents next week.” (Miller 32). Bernard understood the importance of academics and portrayed this through his concern for Biffs’ lack of studying. This reflects Bernards’ character, showing that he had a clear idea of what he needed to focus on in order to build his future and showed his concern for other people’s futures. This enabled Bernard to become successful in the future, both emotional and commercial success. When Willy hears about how Bernard is going to argue a case at the Supreme Court, Willy, in shock replies, “No! The Supreme Court!” (Miller 95). Willy is astonished that Bernard has become this successful, completely destroying Willy’s belief that personality outweighed academics. Willy always believed that being a well-liked, powerful man, was the key to unlocking the door of success, yet Bernard contradicts this by finding the personal success that neither Willy or his sons have yet to achieve. Bernards’ success shows an alternate viewpoint on masculinity, showing that someone can not just be well-liked, but instead a proper mix of reputation and academics.

The idea that success does have a direct relation to how masculine someone presents themselves is prevalent through the example of Ben Loman, who discovered a diamond mine at the age of twenty-one and became incredibly rich. Willy idolizes Ben, seeing him as a prime example of “success and manhood for his sons to live up to,” (Ribkoff 122) and that Ben is Willy’s influence for “bringing [Willy’s sons] up… rugged, well-liked, all-around” (Miller 49). Ben is seen as a symbol of success and manhood by Willy, and as a result, leads Willy’s to conclude that being a well-liked man is how someone becomes successful. This conclusion by Willy, however, is very misguided. Willy does not understand that Ben did not mean to end up in Africa, it was by sheer luck that he ended up there instead of Alaska. If Ben had made it to Alaska, it is likely that he would not be the successful man that Willy thinks of him now. This false accusation on how Ben became successful leads, Willy, to create false ideas of masculinity and results in the Loman men being personally unsuccessful.

Conclusion: The Limitations of Narrow-Minded Masculinity

The Loman men are restricted in their true abilities and passions through Willy’s narrow-minded idea of masculinity. Willy taught Biff and Happy false ideas of masculinity, leading both of them struggling to find personal success, never really feeling satisfied with how their lives are going. Willy has also steered himself away from success because of his idea of masculinity, unlike Bernard, who has become a success by the end of the play as a result of his clear mindset on masculinity, which steers him to make wise choices and ends up becoming successful and content with his life. The typical idea of masculinity is that a man must be strong and fearless, however, this idea can drive people down the wrong road. Masculinity is not a concept that people will understand or have an idea about on their own but rather learned or influenced through the words of others.

Works Cited

  1. Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. Penguin Plays, 2000.
  2. Ribkoff, Fred. “Shame, Guilt, and Empathy, and the Search for Identity in Arthur Miller’s Death
  3. of a Salesman” Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Updated Edition. Ed. Harold
  4. Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 2007. 121-128.
  5. Shmoop Editorial Team. “Ben in Death of a Salesman.” Shmoop, Shmoop University, 11 Nov. 2008,
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