The Character Of Uncle Ben In Death Of A Salesman

2588 words - 10 pages

The Character of Uncle Ben in Death of a Salesman

The character of Ben in Arthur Miller's Death of A Salesman serves a complex dramatic function.  He is Willy Loman's real brother, the idealized memory of that brother, and an aspect of Willy's own personality, and these distinct functions are sometimes simultaneous.  Through his aggressive actions and vibrant speech, the audience is given a strong contrast to Willy's self-doubt and self-contradiction.  In addition, the encounters between Ben and Willy serve as an extended examination of professional and familial morality.  Finally, Ben personifies the burden of Willy's expectations in regards to both material success and the proper role of a father.

The most fundamental of Ben's characteristics evident in his language is his haste.  Appearing in the middle of Willy and Charley's card game, Ben's first words are, "I only have a few minutes"  (45).  He makes his departure shortly after announcing, "I'll be late for my train"  (52).  During his second appearance, he declares, "I haven't much time" and "I've got to go"  (85-6).  These lines are emblematic.  In the two scenes with his brother that are based on Willy's memories, Ben comes and goes when he chooses, despite sometimes desperate pleas that he stay.  This is in direct contrast to Willy, whose life has been structured around appointments and whose livelihood depends on the forbearance of near strangers.

Because of his position as a traveling salesman, Willy never controls the parameters of his interaction with other people.  He calls upon customers and must depend upon their willingness to see him in order to make a living.  Willy's affair with The Woman is only partially motivated by a need for sexual fulfillment.  While there can be no doubt that she re-masculinizes him through sex, she also empowers him professionally, promising "I'll put you right through to the buyers"  (39).  But this affair has long been over when the events of the play occur.  When Willy tells Linda, "I'm vital in New England"  (14), he should be speaking in the past tense.  In the present, he is sexually and professionally emasculated.  In compensation, Willy exerts control by compulsively concluding personal encounters.  Thus, in Act One, he sends Linda upstairs ahead of him.  Faced with Ben's spectre, he drives Charley away by disrupting the card game.  And much of his anger with Biff may result from Biff's refusal to allow Willy to dictate the pattern of their conversation.  Typically, Biff defends his mother against Willy's anger, forcing him to walk away, "beaten down, guilt-ridden"  (65).

The pointlessness of Willy's attempts at control is revealed in Act Two, in which the recurring motif is abandonment.  Howard leaves Willy behind twice in the course of their scene together, even though the scene occurs in Howard's office.  One would expect Willy would be told to leave, but instead in both instances Howard tells him, "pull yourself...

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