Ben Motif In Death Of A Salesman Essay

Importance of Ben Loman in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman

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The Importance of Ben Loman in in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman

Ben Loman is an important character in Death of a Salesman but he is quite unusual. The audience encounters Uncle Ben during Willy Loman's hallucinations of the past and as a result, it is tempting to disregard his character as just another creation of Willy's delusional mind. However, Ben is much more than that. His character is representative of Willy's unrealistic dreams as well as the realty of his life.

When the audience first encounters Ben (Miller 44), he represents the success that Willy is striving for. Before the audience learns of the success that Ben encountered in Africa, they see him on the stage accompanied by an idyllic musical motif…show more content…

This time, however, Ben's motif, which turns out to be more sinister than idyllic, precedes him; sotto voce at first then coming to a crescendo as repressed suicidal thoughts come forward when Willy loses his job (Launsberry). When Ben finally appears, Willy must ask him, "how did you do it?" (Miller 84) Ben's theme is heard for the last time towards the end of the play "in accents of dread" (Miller 133) as Willy finally resolves to commit suicide so that Biff may receive the insurance money. While the idyllic theme music that accompanies Ben ad his father would at first seem to represent Willy's positive memories of the past and optimistic views of the future, they really represent selling out and abandonment. They oppose the fine theme of nature that begins and ends the play (Launsberry).

Ben is also a very peculiar character. The audience first encounters him with the full knowledge that he is dead. Ben is also the one figure that is able to move freely between the past and the present. Because Ben represents that which Willy seeks, Willy feels that he can achieve his goal the same way that Ben did and so he believes that "opportunism, cheating and cruelty are success incarnate" (Smith).

Ben is also a peculiar character in that he is not really a character. For one, he was completely a figment of Willy's imagination. He also does not appear inn the requiem (Smith). In a Paris Review Interview, Miller acknowledged

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The Uncle Ben character has several functions in the play. He serves the practical function of demonstrating Willy's dementia and of offering a means of background exposition for Willy's character. Also, the scenes with Uncle Ben help to articulate the nature of Willy's ambition and disappointment. 

Willy initially refers to Uncle Ben after an episode in Act I where Willy has been engaged in a delusion/memory of finding out that Biff was flunking math and stealing. When brought back to the present moment by Happy, Willy expresses his regrets at having not followed Ben to Alaska. 

"Why didn't I go to Alaska with my brother Ben that time! Ben! That man was a genius, that man was success incarnate! What a mistake! He begged me to go."

An idea is conveyed here that Willy feels will never measure up to his own standards of success (symbolized by the excessive success of his brother Ben). He has made mistakes and poor decisions. Ben, on the contrary, made bold decisions and was rewarded for them with "diamond mines." 

Importantly, Uncle Ben appears only as a false image. In the action of the play Ben is a figment of Willy's imagination/memory. He is not real as the other characters are. Uncle Ben is, instead, a fantasy for Willy and so can be seen as Willy's fantasy of success. The fact that Willy is "haunted" in a way by Uncle Ben is suggestive of Willy's relationship to his failed ambitions. As much as he is haunted by the figment of his older brother, Willy is also unable to escape his thoughts of what he could have been in the world (and what he ended up being - a failure in his own eyes). 

The fact that Uncle Ben's success is strongly associated with material wealth is also quite important, but we should also note that Ben is not described as having a family. Ben's success appears to be entirely individual. The significance of this idea can perhaps be best seen in the light of Linda's insistence that Willy is not a failure. 

For the play's audience, there are at least two ways available to understand Willy Loman in the context of success. One way is to see Willy as a moral failure who made mistakes that he ran away from and who continues to choose against facing up to his own defects honestly. Another way to see Willy is to recognize that Willy not only refuses to see his flaws clearly but he fails also to see his achievements. 

When the play opens, Willy and Linda are set to make the final payment on their house - a standard symbolic moment representing the achievement of the "American Dream" of property ownership. The couple have raised two children to adulthood. One child, Biff, ultimately proves himself capable of self-knowledge and of compassion (he is a good person in the end). 

These examples of success do not appear to Willy as "true" marks of achievement. He denies their worth and his own just as he denies his failings. So, again, we can see that illusory nature of the Uncle Ben character as a symptom and symbol of the nature of Willy's ambition, which is ineluctably tied to a very specific and far-fetched kind of success. 

Ben's character also creates the opportunity for the play to explore Willy's childhood where is it revealed that Willy never really knew his own father. As Arthur Miller's penchant for occasional Freudianism might suggest, Willy's personal family history may help to explain his issues with Biff. Never having had a father, Willy worries that he is failing to "do it right" as a father and so cannot overcome a deeply nagging doubt about his value in that role.  

Without Uncle Ben to talk to, Willy's childhood would have no other apparent opportunity for discussion in the play.

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