Self-destruction in Death of a Salesman and the Stone Angel


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Though often unintentional, individuals can be responsible for their own devastating turn of events. This is best exemplified in Death of a Salesman, by Arthur Miller and The Stone Angel, by Margaret Laurence. Death of a Salesman follows the life of Willy Loman, a failing salesman who is obsessed with living the “American dream”. Similarly, The Stone Angel follows Hagar Shipley, a pessimistic 90-year-old woman who constantly reflects on her difficult past. Both Hagar Shipley and Willy Loman possess undesirable qualities that ultimately lead to their self-destruction in life. Both characters have a toxic sense of pride, live in the past, and make poor decisions.

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First, both characters have excessive pride. Willy Loman’s pride distorts his self-image – he convinces himself that he is a well-liked and successful salesman. For instance, Willy says, “I’m the New England man. I’m vital in New England’ (Miller 4). Willy, obviously delusional, makes himself believe that he is powerful in the sales world, while others know this is not true. For example, his wife Linda says, “Willie Loman never made a lot of money (…) He’s not the finest character that ever lived” (Miller 40). Willy’s false perception of himself ultimately destroys his reputation – the people around him are unable to take him seriously, because they know he is not as successful as he proclaims to be. Similarly, Willy’s pride is displayed when his neighbour, Charley, offers him a job. Too arrogant to acknowledge he is a failing salesman, Willy decides to keep his unpaying job, and continues to borrow money from Charley to pay for his insurance. This also contributes to Willy’s self-destruction; incapable of accepting help from the people around him, he ends up in debt from borrowing money. Similarly, Hagar in The Stone Angel believes that showing her emotions will make herself look weak. Her pride makes her bottle her true feelings, regardless of how painful the circumstances are. This is demonstrated when Hagar says, ‘The night my son died I was transformed to stone and never wept at all’ (Laurence 243). Like the stone angel, Hagar is unmoved after her son’s death, so she never gets closure. Consequently, she still thinks about him in her old age, which contributes to her destruction because she inflicts sadness upon herself. Hagar’s pride also makes her extremely stubborn. Since her father believes Bram Shipley is as, “Common as dirt” (Laurence 51), she decides to marry him out of spite which makes her miserable. Later realizing that Bram is an embarrassing drunk, Hagar is driven to leave him, forcing her to support herself and her son, John, independently. Evidently, Willy and Hagar are responsible for negatively impacting their own lives. They fail to realize when they are being too stubborn, which ultimately leads to their sorrow.

Second, both characters choose to live in the past. For example, Willy constantly daydreams about his past, and this contributes to his self-destruction. He begins to reflect on the times with his son, Biff, when he says, “God.. remember that Ebbets Field game? (…) When that team came out – he was the tallest, remember?” (Miller 54). Willy remembers when he was proud of his athletic son, and consequently, his resentment towards Biff builds up in the present because he fails to live up to his high expectations. Willy daydreams to escape from the realities of his current life, which makes him miserable because he remembers when he was happy. Willy’s flashbacks also deteriorate his mental wellbeing. For example, Biff says, “God Almighty, Mom, how long has he been doing this? (…) What the hell is the matter with him?” (Miller 38). As Willy’s past and present begin to intertwine, others see him talking to himself, clearly proving that Willy lacks emotional stability. Comparatively, Hagar in The Stone Angel destroys her own life because she spends an inordinate amount of time thinking about her distressing, vivid past. For instance, Hagar says, ‘How long have I been standing here with lowered head, twiddling with the silken stuff that covers me? Now I am mortified, apologetic (…)” (Laurence 57). As Hagar is consumed in her daydreams, she loses awareness of her surroundings and she is often disoriented when she reconnects in the present. Furthermore, reminiscing the past distracts her from appreciating and sustaining the only relationships she has. While her son, Marvin, and his wife, Doris, consider moving Hagar to an old-age home, Hagar says, “If it were John, he’d not consign his mother to the poorhouse” (Laurence 81). Constantly thinking about her deceased son makes her unappreciative of those that are only trying to help her. Since Hagar has an uncooperative and bitter attitude, she is entirely responsible for the dysfunctional and stressful relationship she has with her family. Overall, since Willy and Hagar constantly think about the past, they destroy their emotional and mental wellbeing, thus proving they are accountable for their personal destruction.

Lastly, both characters make faulty decisions throughout their lives. For instance, as Willy enters a daydream, he remembers a time where his rich brother, Ben, encouraged him to work with him in Alaska to earn a great living. Ben tells him,“There’s a new continent at your doorstep, William. You could walk out rich” (Miller 66). Foolishly, Willy declines his offer to pursue being a salesman, eventually leading to his failed career and debt. Moreover, Willy is still regretful because he had the opportunity to become very successful. Another major decision Willy makes is deciding to kill himself. Even though Willy has some deep-rooted issues, his suicide is mainly driven by the fact that his insurance money can provide Biff with money needed to obtain the “American dream”. When Happy tells Biff to continue being business partners at Willy’s funeral, Biff declines, saying, “I know who I am, kid” (Miller 138). Ultimately, Willy’s suicide is unnecessary, because Biff still avoids pursuing business after Willy sacrifces his life. Similarly, a major decision Hagar makes is leaving her husband, Bram, to escape her horrible marriage. Although this was an act of her independence, she ultimately decides to isolate her son, John, from his father. This leads to Hagar’s self-destruction, because when John decides to take care of Bram when he is ill, she feels betrayed and tries to deter him from leaving. For instance, Hagar says to John, “He never showed much interest in you before. If he wants you back now it’s to get even with me” (Laurence 180). Hagar’s pain is inflicted on herself because it was never her place to assume that John did not want a relationship with Bram as he grew older. Likewise, to avoid staying at an old-age home, Hagar decides to run away from her family to stay at a cottage in Shadow Point. Isolated, she becomes very sick and weak. For example, Hagar says, “I hurt all over, but the worst is that I’m helpless. I grow enraged” (Laurence 207). Since her poor decision making motivates her to run away from her family, she is ultimately responsible for her own pain. Ultimately, instead of living in a nice senior home, Hagar spends her last valuable moments of life alone before she is taken to a hospital. To conclude, Willy and Hagar’s questionable life decisions lead to their regret and misfortune, proving they are responsible for their self-destruction.

Since Willy Loman and Hagar Shipley are flawed in their own ways, they are both responsible for destroying their lives. Undoubtedly, their toxic sense of pride influences the way they view themselves and contributes to their stubborn personality. Similarly, constantly thinking about the past keeps them from appreciating what they have in the present, leading to failed relationships and sadness. Though Willy and Hagar have good intentions, they often fail to recognize their poor decision making, which ultimately leads them to their misery. A person’s flaws do not determine the outcome of their life, though, their inability to accept and fix their imperfections certainly does.

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