Arthur Miller (1915-present) character Ben in Death Of A Salesman helps the development of the main character Willy. Ben is used as somewhat of a mentor for Willy; Ben is everything that Willy wants to be in life. We can see who Willy is by exploring who Ben is. Ben’s morals and actions are everything that Willy believes in and wishes for himself and his sons. When we understand who Ben is, we can see the theme of the book appear, that is, you cannot let yourself get caught up in the “American Dream.” Ben only appears three times in the entire play, first in a flashback, second in a quasi-flashback where Willy has inserted him into a scenario that actually happened, and finally in a complete hallucination. When we compare and analyze each of these occurrences, it gives us the chance to see who Willy Loman really is. This is Miller’s main purpose for Ben in this play; he is a utensil that allows us to understand what Willy Loman is thinking.
Arthur Miller was born the second of three children to Isidore and Augusta Miller in October of 1915. Miller was born in Harlem, which at that time was an “…elegant, mixed neighborhood…”(BBC Education) but later had to move to Brooklyn for financial reasons. Miller attended the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor in 1934 and studied journalism and drama. Miller has won various awards for his writings including the Theatre Guild Bureau of New Plays Prize and he even earned a Pulitzer. Miller continues to write to this day and is quoted as saying, “”I couldn’t retire. It would be like cutting my heart out. Why would I do that?”(BBC Education).
Ben first appears in this play as a flashback in Willy’s mind. Willy is feeling bad about his present situation and the flashback is meant to interrupt this feeling. Willy has returned home from a selling trip, unable to concentrate, and unable to keep his mind in the present. Ben, in Willy’s flashback, becomes a way for Willy to forget about his problems and feelings. We are presented with a large amount of information about Ben in this flashback, and we can in turn apply this information to Willy as well. We first learn that although Willy and Ben are brothers, they did not grow up together. Ben is also a lot of wealthier and more successful than Willy. (Miller, 44) Although Ben and Willy were never close, Willy idolizes Ben. “Ben! I’ve been waiting for you for so long! What’s the answer? How did you do it?”(Miller, 47) Obviously, Ben has achieved what Willy wishes he could achieve. He has made it in life basically by using other people for everything he can. “When I was seventeen I walked into the jungle, and when I was twenty-one I walked out. And by god he was rich.”(Miller, 52) Willy truly believes that this is a wonderful way to make money and with that, we learn a lot of the character of Willy. He does not believe that people need to put in hard work to gain success. The other main thing that Ben shows us happens during his fight with Biff. He says, “Never fight fair with a stranger.”(Miller, 49) His morals and values that you cannot trust people and you should always take advantage of people you don’t know is brought out in this quote. The essence of Ben, that you should take advantage of which you can and use it for your own good in any way possible can be very plainly seen. Willy believes that Ben is the perfect example of success and that his boys should follow this example. We have evidence in the play that Willy does believe that you should take advantage of people when he tells Biff not to worry about his math, that Bernard will let him cheat off him. (Miller, 40) Willy’s flashback does more than provide basic character traits. It strengthens our view of Willy as someone who tends to stretch the truth in his advantage. We know that he has told us that Ben asked him to go to Alaska with him, but we soon see that that is not the truth. Actually, it is the complete opposite of the truth.
The second flashback, or quasi-flashback, has Ben in a scene in Willy’s mind even though he was never there. Miller makes us believe that before the first flashback, Ben only came once, as can be seen in Charlie’s line, “You never heard from him again, heh? Since that time?”(Miller, 45) Suddenly Ben shows up in another scene, appearing the same as before. This gives us a glimpse of how Willy thinks, how he sees things as they could have happened, and he actually believes them until he is put into a situation where he is forced not to. For example, Willy was telling Linda how much he had sold while on his sales trip, and it turns out that he actually sold less than what he thought he did. In his mind, if certain different things had happened, he would have actually sold that much. However, when he is forced back to reality, he recants his claims of wonderful sales and sees the truth. (Miller, 35) Ben is used as a scapegoat for Willy in his head. Willy was just fired and does not want to deal with the truth. He “remembers” a flashback that never actually happened, and is talking to Ben just how he would if it were actually occurring in the present. “Oh Ben, how did you do it? What is the answer?”(Miller, 84) Willy is looking up to his brother for advice on how to get by in life. His current situation, in the past, has left him feeling desperate, as he remembers this; it seems to make sense that this talk with Ben is in the present because these are things he would have wanted to say to Ben. Willy somehow has Linda enter the scene. Linda is Willy’s positive support, she tells him that his sons care about him and that he is well-liked. She even says, “someday . . . he’ll be a member of the firm.”(Miller, 85) She offers this as a description of where honest work, unlike Ben’s, can get you. Willy figures this out and begins to say that he, at one time, did believe in himself and did think he could make it. The play then switches to a scene in which Willy is sure of himself. The scene, that of Biff’s football game, shows Willy believing in himself and his boys.
Miller has used Ben as a tool to get on with the play, that is, use him as a way to re-direct the play, to get Willy out of one situation and into another. The prior scene tells us a lot about Willy. Once the flashback scene ends, the plots move to Willy in Charley’s office. Charley is the complete opposite of Willy. Charley is a hardworking family man that has become somewhat of a success as he gets older. Although Charley has made a success of his life and has much to idolize, Willie still looks up to Ben because of his immediate success. The fact that Willy looks up to Ben is apparent in Willy’s job as a salesman. Being a salesman means that one day you may have a really good day yet tomorrow could be a really bad day. Willy thinks that trying to achieve success quickly is a better way to go, as seen in his belief of Ben’s method.
The third and final appearance of Ben is a hallucination of Willy’s. He is just a figment of Willy’s imagination. He is the person Willy is talking to about his decision to commit suicide. Miller uses Ben in this scene to give support to Willy wanting to commit suicide. Ben becomes Willy in this last scene. Through his eyes we can see the last struggle that Willy has in his mind before he commits suicide. Ben gives Willy justification to commit suicide. Willy wants so desperately to find a way to provide for his sons. The scene stops with Willy finding out that Biff does care for him, “- he likes me!”(Miller, 133) Right after he realizes this, Ben comes back in, saying yes, Biff will be outstanding “with twenty thousand behind him.”(Miller, 133) At this point, Willy has made up his mind, he is going to kill himself and in return his sons are going to receive insurance money to live on. We can see that Willy really wants this. Though he does not see his suicide as the end of his life, he sees it as the only way possible for him to provide his sons with money. Because from the beginning, all Willy ever wanted was to provide for his family and make them happy.
Ben seems to be Willy’s idol throughout the entire play. He is, in Willy’s mind, a person who has lived the “American Dream.” He came out of the jungle at 21 and was rich. (Miller, 52) Miller also uses Ben to add to the overall theme of the play. Biff states at the end of the play, at Willy’s funeral, “he had all the wrong dreams.”(Miller, 138) This is probably true, he was so entangled in the thought of achieving the “American Dream,” as Ben had, that he could not see that everyone had different dreams. He could not see who he wanted to be and therefore did not choose attainable goals for himself. Miller used Ben as a beacon of light for Willy throughout the whole play. And with an in depth look at who Ben is, we can have answers as to who Willy is. We can think that if Ben had never been part of Willy’s life, Willy may have ended up differently. If Ben were not present, Willy would have not tried to live his dream. He would have been able to have his own dreams. That seems to be the point Miller tries to get across, people should not get entangled in the “American Dream”, but they should have their own dream. Ben takes the plot a bit further in this play to demonstrate it, and is not a good influence on Willy.
Miller uses Ben as an idol for Willy. With Ben’s three appearances, we understand Willy’s character by his interactions with Ben and his belief that Ben is who he wants to be. We know that Willy believes in Ben’s beliefs in how to succeed in life and believes that his sons’ should be like this. Ben is an extremely important character in this play because Willy is constantly seeking him; he constantly wants to be like his brother. Right down to the very end, when Ben is just a figment of Willy’s imagination, Willy trusts him. He makes that decision to commit suicide.
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