Self-deception, pride and the Willy Loman in all of us

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Willy Loman
Death of a Salesman. Nationaal Archief, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

“Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No,'” said Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. “Anything more is from the evil one” (Mt 5:37). I thought of this passage often as I re-read, and then rewatched, a fine production of Arthur Miller’s tragic play “Death of a Salesman.” Premiering on Broadway 75 years ago, in February 1949, Miller’s work is a meditation on the corrosive effect of deceit and deception, both of self and others.

“Death of a Salesman” is sometimes read as an indictment of the ruthlessness of American capitalism. In this reading, Willy Loman is essentially a good man who, after toiling faithfully for 35 years, is cast aside by his employer as just another used-up cog in the machine. In this reading, the “American dream” is a nightmare for the Willy Lomans of the world. Willy is ground down and eventually destroyed by a system that is inherently indifferent to his humanity.

A different, somewhat related, interpretation of the play is that Willy Loman’s own greed and blind ambition destroyed him, not the system in which he toiled. Traveling constantly, and always chasing the next big commission, Willy prioritized making money over caring for his family. His flashbacks to an imagined period of joy and contentment with his young sons, Biff and Happy, are Willy’s idealized fantasies about what might have been if Willy had not been chasing the almighty dollar. In this reading, Willy’s avarice, not capitalism, destroyed him.

I do not gainsay the merits of either of these interpretations. Elements of the play lend themselves to the reasonableness of both (or some combination of) these readings. Certain lines of dialogue and narrative certainly give them credence. But in my opinion, neither of these economic interpretations of “Death of a Salesman” get to the real essence of the play, or to the cause of Willy Loman’s demise.

‘Death of a Salesman’ has much to say about Christians

Rather, the play is about — and Willy is killed by — deceit and deception, sustained by pride, the thread that holds them together. As such, “Death of a Salesman” has much to say to us Christians as we navigate the highways and backroads of our own moral lives. In the tragic ending of the play, Willy commits suicide by deliberately crashing his car. But he was dead before he got into the car, consumed by his own self-deception.

Human beings “are subtle creatures capable of infinite modes of self-deception,” observes theologian Stanley Hauerwas in his memoir, “Hannah’s Child.” Elsewhere, Hauerwas and Holy Cross Father David Burrell, elaborated the point. Self-deception, they argue, does not arise from a single decision, “but reverts to a policy not to spell out certain activities in which the agent is involved. Moreover, once such a policy has been adopted, there is ever more reason to continue it, so that a process of self-deception has been initiated.”

Our self-deception leads to commitments, Father Burrell and Hauerwas argue, which “require us to keep up an ongoing policy of avoidance.” Thus, we “feel compelled to maintain our web of illusion because we have drawn others into it,” they conclude.

We see this observation played out in the third chapter of the Book of Genesis, in which our primordial parents engage in the first (and cataclysmic) exercise in self-deception. After deceiving themselves that they were gods, they felt “compelled to maintain a web of illusion” and a “policy of avoidance.” Hauerwas and Father Burrell’s observations — and Gn 3 — also resonate with Willy Loman’s lies and deceptions in “Death of a Salesman.”

Controlling the narrative of self-deception

Self-deception requires control and manipulation of the conversation; “controlling the narrative,” as we say now. In “Death of a Salesman,” the characters are forever interrupting and talking over one another. Indeed, in some of Willy’s most painful lines, he screams at his wife, Linda, to “stop interrupting” when Willy is himself busy interrupting Biff’s or Happy’s grandiose tails of self-delusion. When the truth of a story is not going the way Willy wants, he interjects to steer it back toward his web of illusion.

And all Willy’s family is drawn into and ensnared by the web. While Linda tries to resist — and sometimes seems to see through Willy’s deceit — she is at best an innocent victim of his self-deception, if not complicit in it. And, in the end, Willy’s unrepentant self-deception kills him and breaks Linda’s heart.

On this 75th anniversary of its Broadway debut, “Death of a Salesman” is well worth revisiting (or reading for the first time). It is a tragedy of self-deception. But it is a tragedy that reminds us Christians that transparency, repentance, and truthfulness are the first steps toward redemptive comedy.

Kenneth Craycraft

Kenneth Craycraft, an OSV columnist, is a professor of moral theology at Mount St. Mary's Seminary and School of Theology in Cincinnati and author of “Citizens Yet Strangers: Living Authentically Catholic in a Divided America" (OSV Books).