Posted by: Tanmoy Chakrabarti | May 4, 2009

Who is a nice man?

This weekend we watched the film version of the famous play ‘Death of a Salesman’. Written by American playwright Arthur Miller, the film stars Dustin Hoffman in the role of Willy Loman, the main protagonist and a young John Malkovich in the role of his son Biff.

For the benefit of those of you who have neither read the play nor have watched the movie, I would try and provide a brief synopsis of the story. Of course, you can read about it in the Wikipedia link here.

Set in an age when America was slowly transforming itself into being the richest nation in the world, Willy played by Hoffman is an aged salesman. We are introduced to Willy as a person who suffers from depression going through various phases of hallucinations as he nears the end of his career as a salesman. Through his hallucinations we come to know about Willy’s ideals, aspirations and frustrations. These hallucinations form part of the film’s flashback portions.

Willy, the main patriarch of the Loman household has been a salesman for a firm for nearly two decades. His doting wife has always been overawed by Willy’s achievements whatever little they may have been and in many ways have allowed Willy to have his own in running the household. During their younger days, Willy has always been very proud of his two sons – Biff and Happy and had pampered them to extreme. Willy is shown to be obsessed with Biff, who showed promise as a footballer during his youth. However, with time his sons end up being non-achievers largely due to Willy’s reluctance in encouraging them to work hard for their success and also due to their incompetence.

During the course of the story, we see that Willy is fired from his job due to his old age and mental fatigue. His son Biff is incompetent but concerned and his younger son Happy is selfish but smart to hide that feeling. Both sons however are not very eager to take responsibility of neither Willy nor his wife. Willy becomes ill with each passing moment because inside his heart he realises his feeling of non-achievement both as a family man (in raising his kids) and as a professional (not being able to become as rich as his brother was). Willy is shown to be too full of pride to accept any constructive help from his friend whom he has envied all through his life. While seeing the tragedy of Willy’s life one tends to sympathise with Willy’s character because at the end of the day, he is just a nice normal man. However, if one thinks deep one may see the grave consequences of being such a nice normal man as Willy Loman was. I think Miller’s intended objective was to show us the later.

The story highlights some important aspects of a ‘normal man’s’ life and thoughts which were topical not just in the year 1949 but also in to-day’s time.

‘Death of a Salesman’ shows that unless and until one has realistic goals, the ambitions may never be achieved. It also questions the very fact that what sort of ambitions may one have. What are the achievements which should instill self-belief?

Willy has been depicted as a ‘nice-man’ who perhaps crossed the thin line of being nice and being stupid far too often in his life. On one hand, one feels sad at seeing his life and on the other you wish he was sane. The biggest tragedy is, Willy is actually a nice happy-go-lucky individual. We encounter individuals like Willy far too often. We are entertained by their jovial nature, praise their apparent simplicity and move on without even bothering to help them come back to reality. Then when they are in deep misery we lament about the circumstances without really bothering to criticise their actions. Willy has been depicted as that kind of human being, who may spread laughter or two in our lives but at the end of the day hurt themselves much more than anyone else.

A nation which is on a path of notional progress sees many such human beings who cannot relate their ambitions with the realities of lives. Mind you, even India is currently on a path of notional progress, and sadly many of us may end up like Willy if we are not cautious.

Being nice is nice but then it is prudent to be a smart nice man.

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