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How Far Is Linda Complicit in Willy's Downfall in Death of a Salesman?

In: English and Literature

Submitted By BigBoyBopit
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How does Miller convey Linda’s complicity in the tragedy and in the patterns of self-delusion?

In ‘Death of a Salesman’ Miller writes Linda’s situation as being one of an exceptionally difficult and intractable nature; we see that she is aware of Willy’s suicidal tendencies as well as his financial issues and yet keeps them to herself. Stuck in an invariably volatile relationship, Linda is shown to be doing her best for her husband and sons, yet struggles with the burden of responsibility. She seeks solace in what she deems to be the only way possible; almost by ignoring the problem rather than confront them. Whilst some may denounce Linda as a form of tragic villain, it seems more fitting to view her as a victim of circumstance, her failings in aiding Willy derived only from her well-intentioned yet misguided attempts to be there for him.
‘You’re my foundation and my support,” Willy tells Linda, only highlighting Linda’s profound devotion to him despite everything. Willy needs Linda to stay sane- she provides stability to his otherwise uncertain state. It would be expected then that Willy would pay Linda the utmost respect and reciprocal love, but we find this not to be the case; instead Willy treats her rather cruelly and even cheats on her. Why then does Linda stay with him? The answer is clear: she loves Willy unconditionally. Linda believes and supports Willy’s dreams to a great extent, even talking him out of the opportunity his brother Ben offered him in Alaska, choosing instead to encourage Willy’s career as a salesman with the Wagner firm. Maybe this is a mistake, but Linda like Willy is a firm believer in the American Dream, she believes success is based on material wealth so encourages Willy to continue down his own self-destructive path.
It could be said that the problem with Linda is not what she does, but what she doesn’t do; that’s to challenge Willy or open his eyes. When Linda finds the rubber pipe with which Willy plans to kill himself, she does not confront him, but hides the pipe- covering all evidence of it. “I am ashamed” Linda says “how can I insult him like that?” it is clear here that once again Willy’s image is more important even than his safety, and that his mental stability is so fragile that Linda daren’t confront him for fear of pushing him over the edge. Linda could have helped Willy by talking through his issues, potentially she could have prevented his eventual suicide, but her own fear of him and what might happen prevented her. This is a clear example of when Linda tries to protect Willy, albeit with adverse consequences.
Linda serves as a shield for Willy from the harsh realities of the outside world, not just through hiding Willy’s suicide mechanism but also through constantly lying to him. Willy is quite clearly an insecure man, obsessed with image yet failing to attain the standards he unrealistically strives for, but he is led by Linda to believe he does. When Willy expresses one of these insecurities by telling Linda “I’m fat. I’m very- foolish to look at” she immediately panders to him, telling him he’s “the most handsomest man in the world” and that “few men are idolised by their children the way you are.” Naturally this serves to cheer Willy up, but it also sets a precedent- Willy believes he is well-liked and that his sons respect him despite the opposite being true, any fleeting moments of anagnorisis are all too soon extinguished by Linda, even if for the right reasons, leading to Willy’s inflated ego and delusions about his success and social standing.
The sons, Happy and especially Biff, can often be seen on the receiving end of criticism from Linda, who projects her genuine thoughts of Willy onto them. Whilst Linda is their mother, and her relationship with her sons is one based on love, she acts primarily to defend Willy’s image, at least inside the Loman household. Linda takes this to such wild extremes, “Biff, dear, if you don't have any feeling for him [Willy], then you can't have any feeling for me,” essentially rejecting her own son’s affections if he refuses to accept his father, going so far as to imply disowning “then make Charley your father.” Such blind devotion from Linda can also be seen when she makes more excuses for Willy against criticism from his sons, “the man is exhausted”, it is also made clear that Linda is aware that Willy isn’t perfect, “he’s not the finest character that ever lived” yet still she defends him to the end, by making excuses for Willy, Linda somewhat justifies his irrational behaviour. Linda calls Biff a “philandering bum” comparing he and Happy to the “ungrateful bastards” who rejected Willy, in her eyes, they are as much to blame as the company which turned its back on one of its oldest salesmen- rather than accept that Willy is a poor salesman she deludes herself into thinking it’s entirely the fault of the corporate world.
Biff “knows [Willy’s] a fake” and almost exposes him as such several times, even Willy himself demanded Linda stop repairing stockings because they reminded him of the illicit affair he’d been having. It might be expected that with such obvious hints to an affair that Linda might suspect something, yet she remains ignorant- even when there’s a glimpse of realisation “it seems there’s a woman” she rejects it and changes the point. Whether she simply doesn’t understand or chooses to accept the idea of Willy’s infidelity, it doesn’t taint Linda’s view of her husband who, to her, is doing the best for her and her sons.
There are points in the play, however, where some break from the characters’ delusions can be seen; at one point Willy begins to realise that he might not be as well-liked as he thought, he realises “they laugh at [him]” and he acknowledges that he “talks too much” and “jokes too much” yet every glimpse of an opportunity for Willy’s realisation is quickly dashed by Linda’s sympathetic and comforting words. The effect of this can be seen when Willy blatantly contradicts himself in the same sentence claiming he’s “very well-liked in Hartford” but then expressing concerns that “people don’t seem to take to [him].” An exceptionally clear contradiction, even outright lie can be seen from Linda whilst comforting Willy, “you’re making seventy to a hundred dollars a week” she says, when we know not only that to be untrue, but Linda knows it too. In fact, Linda later tells her sons that Willy "has to go to Charley and borrow fifty dollars a week and pretend that it’s his pay” the reason for this disparity is clear: to preserve Willy’s dignity, at least in front of him, behind Willy’s back however, she tells tales of his poor earnings and lack of success- “I know you laugh at me behind my back,” as Willy Loman himself says.
Whether or not Linda intends to hinder her husband’s journey of realisation and self-improvement, she does. By concealing the truth from Willy and convincing him he is superior, she only raises the platform from which he will inevitably fall. It is impossible to claim that Linda is simply ignorant as she is entirely aware of the unfolding situation, so why does Linda do nothing to help? There could be many reasons, from a desire to maintain the paradigmatic image of the American Dream; a successful public reputation and happy family or if her intentions were perhaps more sinister- it’s clear that Linda plays a significant role in both the development and the downfall of Willy Loman.

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