Margaret has taught both college and high school English and has a master's degree in English from Mississippi State University. She holds a Mississippi AA Educator License.
Who Is Ben?
Ben is Willy Loman's brother. He's already dead as the play begins, and he appears only in Willy's memories and reveries. Willy looks up to Ben and holds him up as an example to his sons Biff and Happy. 'The man knew what he wanted and went out and got it! Walked into a jungle, and comes out, the age of twenty-one, and he's rich!' Willy says.
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The dream of instant riches, represented in the play by Ben, has done the Lomans no good. Ben was able to achieve success without putting in the years of hard work success typically requires, but Willy doesn't see Ben's success as the anomaly it was. Ben found diamonds in Africa, and he was a wealthy man when he died. Biff and Happy, perhaps buoyed by tales of their Uncle Ben, think they can follow the easy path to success as well. Biff in particular, with his propensity for theft, comes closest to Ben's practice of simply picking up diamonds.
Dreams and Reality
'It's who you know and the smile on your face! It's contacts, Ben, contacts! The whole wealth of Alaska passes over the lunch table at the Commodore Hotel, and that's the wonder, the wonder of this country, that a man can end with diamonds here on the basis of being liked!' Willy says. Here, Willy presents his idea that being well-liked is the ticket to success.
Social contacts, as Willy learns when his career begins to disintegrate, are actually rather ephemeral. Ben's wealth originates from a solid commodity, diamonds, while Willy's livelihood hinges on being liked.
Willy recognizes the difference but fails to understand the significance. 'And Ben! When he walks into a business office his name will sound out like a bell and all the doors will open to him! I've seen it, Ben, I've seen it a thousand times! You can't feel it with your hands like timber, but it's there!'
Contemplating suicide, Willy sees the life insurance policy, a 'guaranteed twenty-thousand-dollar proposition', as a way to achieve in death the success that has eluded him in life. Willy discusses the matter with Ben, who is at first rather noncommittal about the plan. 'You don't want to make a fool of yourself. They might not honor the policy,' Ben points out.
When Willy at last admits his methods of achieving success have left him 'ringing up a zero,' Ben begins to yield to the suicide plan. The twenty-thousand dollars is something concrete, something to be seen and touched. 'And twenty thousand - that is something one can feel with the hand, it is there,' Ben says. This preference for the concrete over the abstract is a bit ironic in a character who appears only in dreams.
Willy keeps trying to sell the idea to Ben. 'I see it like a diamond, shining in the dark, hard and rough, that I can pick up and touch in my hand. Not like--like an appointment!' he says. Ben says he wants to think about it.
In Ben's final scene, he has come around to Willy's way of thinking. 'A perfect proposition all around,' Ben says. Now that the plan has substance, Ben encourages Willy to kill himself. He dangles the treasure in front of Willy, saying, 'One must go in to fetch a diamond out.' Ben has already traversed the darkness, so he can speak with authority. 'It's dark there, but full of diamonds,' Ben assures Willy.
Ben now hurries Willy toward his death. 'Time, William, time!' Ben says, urging Willy to follow him into the darkness. 'The boat. We'll be late,' Ben cautions. Willy doesn't want to miss the boat again, so he roars away in the Studebaker, seeking diamonds in the darkness.
Willy Loman's brother Ben appears on stage only after he is dead. He plays a prominent role in Willy's dreams, appearing as a memory at various times. Ben has achieved the success that Willy has always desired, and in a final attempt to produce something with his life, Willy commits suicide at Ben's urging.
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Ben in Death of a Salesman: Character Analysis
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