Academic journal article Journal of Evolutionary Psychology

"I'm Not a Dime a Dozen! I Am Willy Loman!": The Significance of Names and Numbers in Death of a Salesman

Academic journal article Journal of Evolutionary Psychology

"I'm Not a Dime a Dozen! I Am Willy Loman!": The Significance of Names and Numbers in Death of a Salesman

Article excerpt

In Death of a Salesman, Miller's poetic use of demotic English, the level of language which characters speak and which describes their actions and environment, creates the play's tragic dimension. (1) To achieve the depths of tragedy, Miller expands the ordinarily limited expressive capabilities of demotic English by exploiting the sounds and multiple meanings of simple verbal, visual, and numerical images. Miller's system of onomastic and numerical images and echoes forms a complex network which delineates Willy's insanity and its effects on his family and job.

Much of the play takes place in a psychological construct which Willy creates. An Eden-like paradise which lies at the center of his neurosis, it is characterized by the paradoxical union of reality and his delusory fulfillment of his grandiose dreams of omnipotence. Willy's paradise, which he identifies with the time in which Biff and Happy were growing up in Brooklyn, was also synonymous with his and his sons' exclusive society in which they expressed, reflected, and validated his belief in their virtual divinity. Expressing his enthusiasm for Biff's divine condition, Willy ironically incorporated the concept of progress, time's movement, into his changeless paradise. He believed that Biff, who was already "divine" as a football player, would become more so as a businessman. Before Biff realized Willy's projected future, however, he lost faith in Willy's dreams, left the state of mind or paradise Willy had created, and destroyed its coherence. As a result, Willy moved from the condition of stasis to one created by a confusion of the present and of its fragmented paradise. Willy never experiences the future which is part of normal chronological time because he recognizes only the future which he believes is latent in his paradise. To his destruction, he seeks to actualize it.

Willy Loman reconstructs the past "not chronologically as in flashback, but dynamically with the inner logic of his erupting volcanic unconscious" (Schneider 252.) This "visualized psychoanalytic interpretation woven into reality" (Schneider 253) serves as Miller's principal dramatic method--the simultaneous existence of the past and present in Willy's disordered mind. Miller has said that he was obsessed with "a mode that would open a man's head for a play to take place inside it, evolving through concurrent rather than consecutive actions," which "turned him [Willy] to see present through-past and past through present, a form that ... would be ... a collecting point for all that his ... society had poured into him" (Timebends 129, 131).

The most difficult aspect of the play is the nature of the scenes, seemingly from the past, which are reconstructed by Willy's disordered mind. It is hard to determine whether Willy is hallucinating or actually recalling a past event. Although it may be impossible to resolve this problem, it is possible to determine the psychological associative processes which dictate why and how Willy experiences these events.

Willy is a salesman who values names, of people, places, and products, and numbers, of salaries and commissions, as the coinage of his personal, commercial, and psychological worlds. Miller uses these names, even letters, and numbers to create a network of associations which establish a surrealistic pattern of insistent mockery and fatalism repeated in different but related contexts. As a result, the play becomes "a sort of narrative poem":

 
   Images--car, road, refrigerator, valises, silk stockings, a woman's 
   laughter--through their rhythmic reappeareance in the past and present, in 
   different contexts, grow into symbols of his entire life.... The imagery is 
   drawn from the hard cold facts of the life ... Willy Loman, the salesman 
   for the Wagner Company, who lives in a house in Brooklyn. It grows in 
   meaning by association and juxtaposition to metaphorical significance 
   (Gordon 98,107-08). … 
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