In his 1950 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, William Faulkner lamented the dearth of problems of the spirit in modern literature and pointed out the importance of the old universal truthslove and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice in weaving a successful, meaningful story. Faulkner placed these human traits into a genus all their own and labeled it the human heart in conflict with itself. Part of the reason Arthur Millers play Death of a Salesman remains relevant more than fifty years after its first publication is that the story embodies all of Faulkners universal truths.
The Loman family is the archetype of the human heart in conflict with itself. At first glance, Willy Loman is a selfish, unloving man. His pride in his son Biffs athletic endeavors is less due to love than it is to vicarious self-validation, and he virtually ignores his younger and less agile son, Happy. Youre my foundation and my support, Linda is probably the closest hes come to actually saying I love you to his wife in years (1640). And, as Linda darns her stockings until there is no more original material to repair, Willy presents boxes of brand-new silk stockings to his mistress in another city.
In short, Willy seems to be a self-absorbed jerk. Upon closer examination, however, Willys conflict of the heart becomes more apparent. Willy is a man of the 1950s. He is steered by pre-feminist gender roles that dictate acceptable ways for men to show love, the cardinal rule being that physical affection means nothing if a man cannot provide for his family. As he struggles to remain successful in a changing business environment, Willy worries that his failures will be translated by Linda as a lack of love.
I get the feeling that Ill never sell anything again, he says, that I wont make a living for you, or a business, a business for the boys (1651). The fact that Willy carries on an extramarital affair further illustrates his conflicted view of the concept of love. He sleeps with a receptionist in Boston to quell his loneliness; the physical contact with another human being makes him feel attached to the world for a few brief moments. While Linda listens to him and supports him and loves him unconditionally, the receptionist belittles him for being self-centered and screeches at him to give her a promised two boxes of size nine sheers (1695).
Once the physical act is over, Willy is again faced with the fact that sex and love are not necessarily interrelated. Despite his affair, in his heart Willy sees himself as an honorable man. He is confused because his idea of honor is quickly becoming obsolete in a changing world. His conflict lies in his inability to understand the new honor code and the consequent inflexibility that results. Willys honor system is based less on hard work than on his personal motto: Be liked and you will never want (1649).
Unfortunately, among the new generation, simply being a good guy doesnt get a person far, and Willy painfully realizes hes no longer taken seriously in the business world. There was respect, and comradeship, and gratitude in it, he laments as he desperately tries to explain to Howard why his job performance has suffered of late. Today, its all cut and dried, and theres no chance for bringing friendship to bear or personality (1674). Willys downfall is ultimately caused by his utter incapability to adapt to his environment; he instead chooses to wallow in self-pity.
When Faulkner spoke of pity as a universal truth, he meant pity in an empathetic sense, not self-pity. Willy is the king of self-pity. In his eyes, his predicament is the fault of others: the unreasonable math teacher who refused to inflate Biffs grade, the boss young enough to be his son who doesnt care about old promises, the mistress who wont stay quiet. He cannot fathom that he may have brought his unhappiness on himself. Willy, however, is certainly the focus of pity by others, and therein lies the conflict. Those who pity Willy do so because, in the words of Linda, hes a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him (1661).
Under the pity, however, lies the unspoken common belief that Willy is partly responsible for his misery. While Linda pities him because hes given his life to a company that has ultimately turned him out on his ear, she also realizes that Willy Loman was not the finest character that ever lived (1661). Charley pities Willy because hes no longer able to support his family, which in that day and age is tantamount to losing ones manhood. Still, it infuriates him to see Willys jealousy and false pride make the situation worse. Biff pities him in the restaurant scene. How can you bear to let it go on? e screams at Happy (1693) as their father wanders incoherently to the restroom, but he also realizes that Willys inability to be happy with being a hard-working drummer and a dime a dozen (1703) has ruined both their lives. Stanley, the waiter at Franks Chop House, is the only character whose pity is pure; he thinks Willy is losing his mind and is disgusted with the boys abandonment of him. Willys pride is ultimately his downfall. He wants to be remembered as a successful man, and he decides to commit suicide rather than stand here the rest of my life ringing up a zero (1699).
Had his pride allowed him to take the job Charley offered, he would have been able to once again support his family and put food on the table, and ringing up zeros would have become a moot point. While Willy never realizes that false pride lies at the root of the majority of his lifes problems, the conflict of the heart lies in Biffs realization that hes the unwilling heir to Willys arrogance. While Biff firmly believed he had a right to happiness, he also struggled with the realization that his father blew [him] so full of hot air [he] could never stand taking orders from anybody (1702).
With the exception of Linda (and even she has her limits), compassion is in short supply in the Loman family. While Willy expects compassion and kindness from others, hes much too self-centered to exhibit the trait himself. Biff and Happy are also incapable of compassion Happy to a greater degree than Biff. In the restaurant scene, as Willy begins to display unreasonable agitation over Biffs aborted meeting with Oliver, Biff at least makes a stab at compassion for his fathers fragile mental state by lying and telling him something goodabout the Florida idea (1691).
Happy, however, reciprocates with the same amount of compassion his father showed him as a child exactly none. When one of the women that hes picked up asks him if he wants to tell his father that theyre leaving, Happy denies his paternity, stating No, thats not my father. Hes just a guy (1693). Happy is unsympathetic; Willy is an embarrassment to him. Happys compassionate conflict of the heart doesnt come until the very end of the play, and ironically — he doesnt even realize it. He had no right to do that! he angrily exhorts (referring to his fathers suicide. ) There was no necessity for it. We wouldve helped him (1705).
In this case, the compassion has come too little, too late. Sacrifice is at the heart of Death of a Salesman. At first glance, the rest of the Loman family seems to bear a disproportionate amount of the sacrificial load in comparison to Willy. Linda sacrificed her happiness; she was too occupied with worry over Willy and his state of mind. Biff sacrificed his future (whether spitefully or not) when he realized his father was a fraud. Willy all but ignored Happys childhood; Willys rememberances of Biff in the first act were peppered with a young Happy pleading for attention: Im losing weight, you notice, Pop? 1647 and 1649). As a result, Happy sacrificed his heart by choosing to satisfy his physical lusts to the exclusion of true, emotional connections. Willy, however, is not completely without sacrifice. At the end of the play, when Biff muses that theres more of him [Willy] in that front stoop than in all the sales he ever made, one realizes that Willy sacrificed his happiness by squelching a talent for construction. He could not reconcile his desperate need to be a great man with a trade so pedestrian and blue-collar as carpentry.
Finally, Faulkner states that man will not merely endure; he will prevail and that it is the responsibility of authors to include the universal truths of the human heart in conflict with itself in their works as one of the pillars to help [man] endure and prevail. Obviously, Willy will not prevail; he commits suicide. Linda will greive, but she will prevail. As much as she loved Willy, his emotional state did not allow her to concentrate on her own well-being. Were free, she repeats over and over in the last line of the play (1707).
While the overt reference is to the fact that there are no more payments to be made on the house, the deeper meaning is that Willy is finally free of his pain and Linda is finally free of his demons. By the end of the play, Biff has come to terms with his own life and his love of outdoor work. He will no longer be confined to the mold his father chose for him, so Biff will prevail. In contrast, Happy will not prevail. Im staying right in this city, and Im gonna beat this racket! he promises in a vain attempt to win his fathers love post-mortem by winning the dream for him (1706).
He will fall into the same traps his father did, and he will fail as well. Not all the members of the Loman family will prevail, but that in itself is a conflict of the heart. The human heart is inextricably tied to others – whether through love or familiarity or a sense of responsibility and each hearts successes (especially in a family) are at least partially based on the successes or failures of others. The universal truths are so named because everyone who lives experiences them and, in the words of Faulkner, can make good writing because only that is worth writing about.