Willy and Nora: Tragic Heroes or Home-wreckers? No one has a perfect life. Despite what Aaron Spelling and his friends in the media might project to society today, no one’s life is perfect. Everyone has conflicts that they must face sooner or later. The ways in which people deal with these conflicts can be just as varied as the people themselves. Some procrastinate and ignore their problems as long as they can, while others attack problems to get them out of the way as soon as possible. The Lowman and Helmer families have a number of problems that they deal with in different ways, which proves their similarities and differences. Both Willy Loman, the protagonist of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and Nora Helmer, protagonist of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House experience an epiphany where they realize that they were not the person the thought they were: while Willy’s catharsis brings about his death, Nora’s brings her to a new life; hers. Both character’s flaws bring about their departure from their respective families as well. They are both overly concerned with the appearances they and their families present to society: as a result they both project false images to others.
From their appearance, both seem to be involved in stable marriages and appear to be going places. Willy’s job as a traveling salesman seems stable (although we never know what it is he sells) when he tells his family that he “knocked ’em cold in Providence, slaughtered ’em in Boston” (Miller 1228). It is not until Willy’s wife, Linda tells us that he “drives 700 miles and when he gets there, no one knows him any more, no one welcomes him” (Miller 1241). If that’s not enough to convince readers of his failure on the job, the fact that he gets fired after working for the same company for 36 years cements his incompetency in the business world to readers. While Nora does not work in the business world, (few woman, if any did over 120 years ago) her failure to take care of her responsibilities becomes quite evident as well.
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When the play opens and Nora enters with a Christmas tree and presents for the children, she gives off the impression of a good mother trying hard to prepare a great Christmas for her family. Upon further analysis we see that Nora’s duties, in general, are restricted to caring for the children, doing housework, and working on her needlepoint. Nora cannot complete these duties even with the full-time help of Anne Marie, a housekeeper who cleans up after Nora just as much as the children. When Nora and Kristine are having a discussion towards the start of the play, Nora informs her friend that, “I’m so happy and relieved [with my marriage]. I must say its lovely to have plenty of money and not have to worry. Isn’t it?” (Ibsen 1119). The rosy picture she painted of her family and marriage are in stark contrast to the “stranger of a man” (Ibsen 1168) she refers to her husband as. We realize that she had not been living her life at all; rather the life that her husband wanted her to live. While both Willy and Nora succeed in giving of the appearance of being competent, efficient and helpful family members who contribute to the well being of their respective families, they prove otherwise as the plays progress.
While the two plays take place nearly 100 years apart, are set on different continents and each have completely different family members, both engage in lies and deceit that hurt their families; after which each protagonist leaves their family. Not only does Willy lie about his performance on the job, he lies about his “faulty car” as well. He tells his family that the Studebaker keeps malfunctioning when in reality we find out through Linda that he has been deliberately trying to kill himself. The biggest way in which Loman deceives his family is by cheating on his wife while away for work in Boston. When his eldest son discovers his father’s unfaithfulness, he loses all trust for his father, and Biff’s life pretty much goes downhill from there. Willy Loman’s lies, deceit, unfaithfulness have resulted in huge problems for his family. Nora also starts trouble in her household through lies and deceit. Nora’s crime of forgery is not even a crime in her mind; she does not realize that the law does not take into account people’s motivations behind their actions. While she knows that Krogstad has been associated with shady law practices, she does not realize that his crime was on the same level, if not less illegal than the one that she has committed.
When Tourvald opens the letter and finds out about her crime, he goes ballistic, and cannot believe that his own wife could be capable of such a crime. This is ultimately the reason / situation that helps Nora realize that she must leave her family in order to begin to live her own life. But Nora even lies about the little things in life such as the eating of macaroons (Ibsen 1126). Her husband forbade her from eating them on account that they will rot her teeth, and when she is seen eating them in her house, she says that they are a gift from Kristine, which is a lie. Both Willy and Nora’s lies and deceitfulness frustrate their families to the point where each protagonist much leave their family; although Willy’s departure is his death, Nora’s is the start of her real life. Both main characters also use an escape mechanism to leave reality when they realize that their lives are on the wrong path. When Loman starts to realize that his pride and joy in life, Biff, “is a lazy bum” (Miller 1218) he begins to talk to himself (Miller 1221). These mental lapses bring Loman to a happier place and time, when his kids were young and innocent and he thought that the best part of his life lay still ahead. This acts almost as a defense mechanism against the pains of reality for Willy.
In the final scene, after Biff tells his father that he is “a dime a dozen” and that the Loman name really doesn’t mean much, Willy engages in the ultimate escape mechanism; suicide. Although it may appear on the surface to be a selfish and coldhearted move to spite his family, he actually did it so that his family may live a better life with money he thinks they will receive from his life insurance policy. When faced with the harsh pains of reality, Nora also uses defense / escape mechanisms to ignore the problems at hand first, then to conquer them in the end. She believes that she has done nothing wrong, and that if what she has done is illegal, that her good intentions will nullify the illegality of her forgery. When Krogstad informs her otherwise, tells her the possible repercussions of her act, and ultimately gives her an ultimatum, this is her first touch of reality outside of the doll’s house that she lives in. To cope with the harshness outside of this doll’s house, she immediately retreats back inside and attempts to distract herself with Christmas decorations (Ibsen 1133).
She uses the tree and presents to distract her from her problems, and tells the nursemaid Anne Marie that she’s too busy to play with her kids who want to see her because she must try to distance her mind from the subject at hand. Here she is only making the problem worse by not dealing with it. When she finally realizes that her “main duty [is] to [her]self” (Ibsen 1166), and that she has been living life according to what her father and husband have wanted rather than what she has wanted, Nora’s epiphany is complete. She knows that the only possible solution that can work for her is to leave right away. Willy and Nora both escape their problems first by drifting away with mental distractions, then when they fully realize their problems, they both must physically leave their families.
For Willy this means death, for Nora, the start of (a new) life. Willy and Nora share a fatal flaw: they try to make others happy before making themselves happy. All that Willy ever wanted in life was to be “well-liked” and for his sons to follow in his footsteps. Their lives focused too much on fulfilling others rather than themselves, and in the end this flaw led to their departure from each of their respective families. When Charley asks Willie “when the hell are you ever going to grow up?” and Biff declares that “we never told the truth in this house for 10 minutes” (Miller 1280) we realize that Willy will never grow up and that he must leave his family because he will never grow up and that nearly his whole life has been a farce. Similarly, when Nora tells her husband that the only way he (and her) can only change if Tourvald has “his doll taken away” (Ibsen 1168) we realize that Nora’s life too has been a farce and that she must leave in order to begin her own life.