Willy Loman, defining success, and the Great Recession

In a thoughtful piece for Newsweek, columnist Julia Baird examines American attitudes toward success and failure against the backdrop of the Great Recession, using the life of Willy Loman — Arthur Miller’s lead character in Death of a Salesman — as a mirror for our times:

Willy is, perhaps, America’s consummate loser, a failure to his family. But if you can bear with me for one moment, imagine he lived in current times, not amid the postwar prosperity of 1949. Sure, his career was ebbing, but Willy kept a job for 38 years, he owned his house—he had just made the last mortgage payment—and had a wife and two children. Today he’d be a survivor.

Baird goes on to link unemployment with our evolving attitudes toward success and failure, noting that the latter was not always “associated with individual identity.”

Finding ourselves, accepting plateaus

In fact, adversity and failure sometimes can force us to dig deep and find our true selves. Baird cites a Harvard commencement speech by J.K. Rowling, who told the graduates that bottoming-out as a financially-strapped single mom prodded her to finish the manuscript that led to the Harry Potter series. Rowling smartly added: “You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity.”

But Baird also implicitly recognizes that adversity won’t turn us all into bestselling authors. Hopefully the recession also teaches us “we can accept plateaus, understand that a life has troughs we can climb out of, and that a long view is the wisest one.”

“I coulda been a contender”

This maddening, perhaps uniquely American mix of boundless possibilities and harsh limitations can be hard to process. Journalist Abby Ellin, in a piece titled “I Coulda Been a Contender” for Psychology Today, examines her own life and career against the crush of personal and external expectations:

We all gauge our own success against that of others, at least in part, and we always compare up. Universal though it is, the negative comparison habit may be amplified by America’s striving spirit: Here, everyone can, and therefore should, make it to the top–or so we think. Those of us who’ve had more opportunities may wind up feeling that much worse.

Reading the rest of Ellin’s article, you sense the author is struggling to accept the lurking wisdom behind her own words. Her advice leads us to no other conclusion:

Every night, write down three to five things you feel proud about from that day. Recording your accomplishments keeps them front and center in your mind, an exercise that helps crowd out negative rumination.

…But back to real struggle

Ellin’s angst is readily identifiable to anyone who understands America’s culture of success — and if you don’t, just hang around a high-prestige college, law school, or business school for a few weeks and you’ll know what I mean.  In any event, this is not really what the psychological costs of the Great Recession are all about. The stakes run much deeper.

As I have written previously here, when reporter Louis Uchitelle began researching his book The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences (2006), he did not anticipate that he “would be drawn so persistently into the psychiatric aspect of layoffs.”  But he soon understood that the “emotional damage was too palpable to ignore.”  For the suddenly unemployed, “a layoff is an emotional blow from which very few fully recover.”

Uchitelle did his research several years before the meltdown. Today, these personal setbacks are hitting people in virtually every job sector, and cutting across socioeconomic groups. The poor, of course, pay the highest costs. Unemployment and poverty levels are at their highest rates in years.


Julia Baird invites us to recast Willy Loman as a survivor, not a failure. I tip my hat to her for questioning how Americans are wired to think about success.

But maybe there is an even more meaningful narrative playing out across the country, one that stands as a rebuke to the borrow-and-bust mentality that led us into this mess. As the destructive power of this recession continues, millions of people are struggling to pay the bills, raise their families, and keep a roof over their heads. The stories of these lives are those of everyday heroes, not mere survivors.

5 responses

  1. As a theatre person, I have always understood Willy Loman as a “failure” because he failed to realize that he WAS a hero. He bought into a false image of success and passed that on to his kids (“to be liked” becomes the ultimate goal), instead of realizing that his life is worth so much more than money, something his wife realizes when she says at his grave that “Attention must be paid” to people like Willy. It’s interesting: when the play first came out, the British press lambasted it because of the Americans’ tendency to see him as a tragic hero rather than someone who pathetically fails to realize the really important things in life: community, family, LIFE itself. I know it’s easy for people who are relatively well-to-do to have this attitude. But it’s not only middle class or wealthy people who have this attitude. Sometimes it is very poor people who “get it” because they have nothing to lose. The Willies of the world need to stop killing themselves and ORGANIZE. And stop teaching your children that money and popularity are the MOST important things in life. And be nicer to the Lindas!

    • I dont care what anybody says Willy Loman in numbers may have been a failure (sales) but in life such as loving dearly and constantly trying to make better of his boys lives does not match the deffinition of failure in my opinion. As a matter of fact ..compare someone like Willy Loman to someone in todays era where people are constantly getting fired and living off government systems with absolutly no shame. Willy may have had false illusions, but dammit at least he tried his best to make better of his situations where as like a TON of todays everyday losers dont even care. So the answer to was Mr Loman a failure in my opinion was and is a big fat NO.

  2. Susan, thanks for your comment and the added background about reception to Death of a Salesman.

    I’m torn on whether, broadly speaking, different demographic groups “get it” better than others in America. I’m partial to the notion that the tendency to buy into a very superficial definition of success is an American trait regardless of income strata…it’s as if we’re fed the Kool Aid very early in life, and we’re addicted to it.

    As many other social commentators are remarking, perhaps the continuing impact of this recession will force us to (re)discover some core values that seem to have eluded us. That sure would be better than a ramping up of the kind of resentments and rhetoric that appear to be driving the current political season!

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