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The characters of Death of a Salesman consist of the Loman family, comprised of Willy, Linda, Biff and Happy; their neighbor Charley and his successful son Bernard; Willy's employer Howard Wagner; and the “Woman in Boston,” with whom Willy had an affair. They are all urban dwellers save for Ben, Willy's brother, who lives in "the jungle."
The protagonist of the play, Willy Loman is a 62-year-old salesman who lives in Brooklyn but is assigned to the New England region, so he is on the road for five days out of the week. He places great emphasis on his work and the values associated with it. He relates friends and people he admires with professional and personal aspirations. He wants to be as successful as Ben and as well-liked as David Singleman-which explains his lewd humor.
A failed salesman, he fears the present but romanticizes the past, where his mind constantly wanders in the play's time switches. He is alienated from Biff, his eldest son, and this mirrors the alienation he feels in respect to the world at large.
Willy Loman is prone to contradictory statements. For example, he reprimands Biff for being lazy twice, but then he admiringly says his son is not lazy. Similarly, on one occasion he says a man should have few words, only to then course-correct by saying that, since life is short, jokes are in order, then concluding that he jokes too much. This speech and thought pattern reflects his conflicting values and lack of control. It's a franticness that can be traced back to the fact that he cannot fulfil the ideals he is devoted to.
The Lomans' eldest son, Biff is a once promising high school athlete who ended up dropping out of school and has been living intermittently as a drifter, a farmer, and an occasional thief.
Biff rejects his father and his values due to their encounter in Boston, where he discovers his affair with "the Woman." As if to demonstrate the worthlessness of his father's real values, he carries some of the lessons his father taught him to an extreme-as a boy, he was encouraged to steal lumber, and, as an adult, he continues stealing. And while he refuses to follow the path his father hoped he would pursue, namely get a university education and have a business, he still seeks parental approval.
Biff's actions, while off-kilter, parody the adventurous nature of business enterprises.
He is the younger, less-favored son who eventually makes enough money to move out of his parents' house and get a bachelor pad. He tries harder than Biff to be like his father, hoping to be loved by him. He claims to want a girl just like the one his dear old dad married, and exaggerates his professional achievements the way his father used to do. He also mimics his father's speech patterns, as in his line “Don't try honey, try hard.”
On one level, Happy understands his father (a poor salesman, he is “sometimes… a sweet personality”); on another, he fails to learn from his father's mistaken values.
Happy replaces marriage with one night stands. Like his father, he experiences a sense of alienation. Despite a profusion of women, which the audience both hears about and witnesses in a scene, he claims to be lonely, even saying that he keeps “knockin' them over and it doesn't mean anything.” This statement mirrors his father's later assertion that the Woman in Boston means nothing, but while Willy has a real emotional commitment to his wife Linda, Happy doesn't even have a family to sustain him. In the set of values portrayed in the play, this makes him a deterioration from his father.
Willy Loman's wife, Linda is his foundation and support. She tries to make their two sons treat their father decently and gives him encouragement and reassurance. However, her attitude does not indicate passivity or stupidity, and she is far from a doormat when her sons fail their duties to their father. She is not as deluded about reality as Willy is, and wonders whether Bill Oliver will remember Biff. Were she to nag Willy to face reality, that might result in his emulating his father and abandoning the family.
Linda's personality emerges on three occasions when Willy is absent. In the first, she asserts that, despite his mediocrity as a businessman and as a man, he is a human being in crisis who deserves attention. She notes that his business associates do not accord him recognition and neither do his sons, for whose benefit he worked. Then she pleads his case as a father, chastising her sons for having deserted him as they would not have a stranger. Finally, she eulogizes a husband she loves, and her incomprehension as to why he ended his life does not imply her stupidity. She was aware of something the audience was not let in on: the last time she saw Willy, he was happy because Biff loved him.
Charley, Willy's neighbor, is a kind and successful businessman who could afford to give Willy $50 a week for a long time and to offer him a job. Unlike Willy, he is not an idealist and, pragmatically, advises him to forget about Biff and not take his failures and grudges too hard. "That's easy enough for you to say," replies Willy. The compassionate Charley retorts, "That ain't easy for me to say." Charley also has a successful son, Bernard, a former nerd whom Willy used to mock, in stark contrast with Willy's unsuccessful sons.
Willy's employer, he is a doting father of two children, and, like Willy, a product of the current society. As a businessman, he is not so kind. Before the play begins, he downgraded Willy from a salaried position to only working on commission.
Ben is a symbol of the ruthless, self-made millionaire who made his fortune in “the jungle.” He likes to repeat the sentence “when I walked into the jungle, I was seventeen. When I walked out I was twenty-one. And, by God, I was rich!” He is solely seen from Willy's viewpoint.
The Woman in Boston
Like Ben, the Woman in Boston is only seen from Willy's viewpoint, but we learn that she is as lonely as Willy. When he tries to force her out of the room, she expresses feelings of anger and humiliation.