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Willy Loman is the main character and protagonist of the play. He has been a traveling salesman, the lowest of positions, for the Wagner Company for thirty-four years. Never very successful in sales, Willy has earned a meager income and owns little. His refrigerator, his car, and his house are all old - used up and falling apart, much like Willy. Willy, however, is unable to face the truth about himself. He kids himself into believing that he is well liked by his customers in the New England territory and by the company, who is sure to give him a promotion or opportunity to make more income.
Willy's dream is to become like Dave Singleman, who was very popular with his clients and able to do business by just making phone calls. Because he was so well liked, when Singleman died, customers from all over his region came to his funeral. Willy dares to believe that his funeral will be similar to Singleman's. Ironically, when Willy commits suicide, almost no one attends the funeral, proving the error of his philosophies. Throughout his life, Willy believed that if one was attractive and well liked, everything would be perfect. The doors would automatically open for such a man, and he was sure to be successful.
In order to believe that he and his family are successes, Willy lies to himself and lives in a world of illusions. He says of himself that he is well liked in all the towns he visits and by all the customers that he calls on; he also erroneously believes that he is vital to the New England territory and will some day receive a promotion for his hard work. He even lies to himself, and then his boss, about how much he actually earns. Because he wants to prove to himself that he is well liked, Willy has at least one affair, attracting the young woman by offering to purchase her a pair of silk stockings. When Biff discovers his father in the hotel room with the woman, he recognizes Willy for what he is and calls him a liar and a fake.
Willy also lives in a world of illusions about his two sons. He is convinced that Happy is a content, successful young man who will soon become a store manager. In truth, Happy is a loser, like his father, who lives in his own world of illusions and contributes to keeping Willy in his fantasies. Although he has his own apartment and car and claims to have relationships with women, Happy admits that he is lonely and unhappy, with no clue of how to rise above the unhappiness. Willy is even more naïve about Biff. Since he is the more attractive son who has been a successful athlete in high school, Willy has placed most of his dreams in this older son. Biff, however, fails miserably. He flunks math and cannot continue his education. He is a compulsive thief, who has lost every job because of his stealing. Biff even admits he is a "nothing," a total failure. Willy refuses to see the truth about Biff, even when the son tries to tell him. In fact, Willy commits suicide so that Biff will have his life insurance money. He is certain that Biff can make something of himself with twenty thousand dollars.
Willy Loman is a tragic figure who is largely to blame for his own downfall. He is fired from the Wagner Company because he is no longer effective and gets angry with and lies to the boss. He misjudges his sons and fails to accept the truth about either of them. He even puts his wife Linda into the position where she is totally dependent on him; in order, to protect herself and her family, she supports Willy's illusions, even telling him that he is a good provider. Because Willy has an incorrigible inability to tell the truth, even to himself, and an unreasonable mode of thinking, he justifies his death by saying that his sacrifice will save his sons, particularly Biff; the insurance money they collect will be a tangible remembrance of Willy. The people at the funeral, who Willy is sure will be in attendance, will prove to his sons that he was respected and well liked. It is obvious that even until the last moments of his life, Willy lives a lie.
The one redeeming quality in Willy Loman is his love for his family, particularly for his unworthy son, Biff. Even when Biff forces his father to face reality, Willy is unable to accept the truth as presented to him by his elder son. Instead, he chooses to commit suicide, believing it will give Biff a better chance to succeed in life. In his mind, Willy is making the ultimate sacrifice for his family when he kills himself. Therefore, Willy, in his own mind, dies as a father and husband, not as a salesman as Miller indicates in the title of the play.