Willy Loman as Coward in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman
Everybody feels the penetrating presence of fear throughout life. However, people’s reactions to this fear separate the brave souls from the cowards. Mark Twain once said, "Courage is resistance to fear; mastery of fear, not absence of fear" (Twain 6). In Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman fears rejection by his son, Biff, and the business world. His fears master him, creating in him a fantasy world of life as it was eighteen years ago. Willy’s avoidance of reality and his suicide show his cowardice. However, the emphasis he puts on financial success prevents him from realizing the consequences that his suicide would create.
Willy’s refusal to face reality and accept responsibility shows that he is a coward. According to Gordon Hitchens, Willy "broke the first commandment of American business . . . [which is] to be a success" (Hitchens 81). He not only fails as a businessman, but also as a father. He feels especially let down by the bitter state of his relationship with his son, Biff. Nevertheless, instead of facing his dilemmas, Willy cowardly escapes to a fantasy world in which he relives happier times. Furthermore, Biff’s animosity toward his father stems from his discovery of Willy’s affair. When he was eighteen, Biff visited his father in Boston and found him with a female companion. After receiving this shock, Biff’s ambition and confidence, formerly supported by his father, dwindles. Bernard, Biff’s boyhood friend, notices this change and eventually asks Willy what happened in Boston to cause it. Willy becomes defensive and angry. He asks Bernard, "If a boy lays down is that my fault?" (Miller 1257). He refuses to accept responsibility for Biff’s downfall.
Willy’s ultimate act of cowardice is his suicide. Through this action, he escapes the reality of his problems and failures indefinitely. Willy believes that his family will appreciate the twenty thousand dollars insurance money they will receive as a result of his death. However, his motives involve more than helping with finances. Willy thinks his funeral will prove his greatness to Biff. In a daydream, Willy tells his brother, Ben, "That funeral will be massive! . . . He’ll see what I am, Ben! He’s in for a shock, that boy!" (Miller 1275). Willy disregards the fact that establishing a relationship with Biff will affect him more than money. His cowardice causes him to believe that suicide is the only way to gain his son’s respect.
Throughout the play, Willy’s ideas of happiness prevent him from realizing that his acts are cowardly. To him, financial success embodies happiness....