Isaiah and Willy Loman

Isaiah prophesied during the eighth century B.C. He is said to be the prophet who brings out the eloquence in God (“For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you” (Isa.54:10).

A general theme of Isaiah is trust in God instead of in human beings. There are a series of judgments against human perversity and failure. Isaiah consistently counsels king and people to live by faith in God, rather than relying in any ultimate way on human beings or political alliances. The message Isaiah tries to get his compatriots to hear is that God is faithful and humans are not. Humans will fail you, so if you are putting your trust in them, prepare to be disappointed. There is the fickleness of human promises. Isaiah keeps reiterating the message: “Stop trusting in man” (Isa.2:22).

This idea is echoed in other parts of Scripture, for example: Psalm 118:6-8: “The Lord is with me; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?. . . It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man.”

There is the disturbing declaration concerning Jesus in John 2:23-25: “While Jesus was in Jerusalem during the Passover Festival, many believed in him as they saw the miracles he performed. But Jesus did not trust himself to them, because he knew what men were really like. There was no need for anyone to tell him about them.”

Ever since it was first performed in 1949, Death of a Salesman, by Arthur Miller, has been recognized as a milestone of the American theater. The play is generally interpreted as a depressing but truthful reflection of our society, a criticism of the American Dream where personal success and self-worth are measured by one’s financial prosperity. Many view it as a harsh criticism of American capitalism and its view that it is the career that makes a person successful.

Death of a Salesman is about many things. I wonder if the play could also be about what Isaiah says about not trusting human resources.

Death of a Salesman is full of betrayal. We learn that the father, Willy, was abandoned by his own father when Willy was still a baby (“I never had a chance to talk to him”). Willy betrays his wife’s love by an affair with another woman.

Willy understands his son Biff’s failure in business and inability to hold a job as a betrayal and rejection of himself. Willy’s other son, Happy, has a decent job and apparently endless women at his disposal, but he is lonely. Willy perceives his philandering and lack of great success as an act of betrayal.

There are three very poignant scenes in the play. One is when Willy decides to ask his boss, Howard, to give him a local office job at the New York headquarters. Willy thinks that getting the new job is a sure thing.  He is certain that Howard likes him and feels happy and confident as he meets with his boss. But rather than giving Willy a transfer to the New York office, Howard fires him (“I don’t want you to represent us. I’ve been meaning to tell you for a long time now.”) Willy literally begs Howard for a job. He recalls how he held Howard in his arms when Howard was a newborn. He begs to be allowed to keep his traveling job, offering himself on lower and lower pay rates. Howard refuses and walks out on Willy.

Another poignant scene is when the son, Biff, decides to ask the man he once worked for, Bill Oliver, for a business loan. Biff thinks he made a good impression and is hopeful Oliver will give him a loan. He recalls Oliver as saying, “Biff, if you ever need anything come to me.” Later Biff tells his brother what happened with Oliver. “I waited six hours for him. Finally, he came out. Had no idea who I was. I saw him for one minute. He walked away.”

The third scene is when Willy and his two sons meet to have dinner together. Willy has looked forward to it all day. He is still shattered  by his experience with Howard, and then hears about Biff and Oliver. He becomes delusional and starts talking to himself.

When he goes to the bathroom, his sons leave him babbling in the toilet and ditch him for two girls they pick up.

One might even say that Willy’s death involves a final betrayal. Willy expects his funeral to be “massive.” “They’ll come from Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire. All the old-timers; I am known! Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey—I am known!” Willy’s actual funeral is sparsely attended, and his wife, Linda, wonders “why didn’t anybody come? Where are all the people he knew?”

I know Isaiah is, and I wonder if Arthur Miller is, telling us not to put ultimate trust in humanity. Don’t put too much trust in other people and their institutions. Human beings are not sufficient for themselves, nor sufficient for others. No one is sufficient to be “THE trusted one.” Don’t trust humanity for what only God can give.

“But those who hope in Yahweh shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not grow weary, they shall walk and never tire” (Isaiah 40:31).

By Thomas H. Hicks
Thomas Hicks is a member of St. Theresa Parish in Trumbull.