Karen has taught high school English and has a master's degree in Shakespearean Studies
Charley: A Character of Contrast
In Death of a Salesman, Charley is situated as a foil character for Willy Loman. A foil character is a minor character who contrasts a main character in order to point out certain personality traits of the main character. In this case, Charley highlights the fact that Willy is prideful, illogical, and bases his decisions on emotion because Charley himself is logical, unemotional, and firmly rooted in reality. This lesson will explore important quotations by Charley which pinpoint his role as a foil character for Willy and discuss the contrasts which exist between both characters.
Charley's Logic vs. Willy's Emotion
Charley's quotes reveal that he views most things in a very logical, emotionally unattached way. For example, in his earliest conversation with Willy, we see that although Willy gets emotionally worked up over frivolous things, Charley typically doesn't engage with Willy or continue the argument. Although the conversation in this scene seems trivial and unimportant, it actually shows the reader the contrast between the two characters and gives an example of how Charley responds to Willy's accusatory language, pitting Charley's logical responses against Willy's overly-emotional accusations.
WILLY: What're you doin' up?
CHARLEY: Couldn't sleep good. I had a heartburn.
WILLY: Well, you don't know how to eat.
CHARLEY: I eat with my mouth.
WILLY: No, you're ignorant. You gotta know about vitamins and things like that ...
CHARLEY: What is it with those vitamins?
WILLY: They build up your bones. Chemistry.
CHARLEY: Yeah, but there's no bones in a heartburn.
WILLY: What are you talkin' about? Do you know the first thing about it?
CHARLEY: Don't get insulted.
WILLY: Don't talk about something you don't know anything about.
You might notice here that Willy is emotional and confrontational about something as insignificant as vitamins, but Charley refuses to engage with Willy's personalized accusations, such as 'Well, you don't know how to eat' and 'Don't talk about something you don't know anything about.' When Willy calls Charley 'ignorant', Charley chooses to change the subject rather than continue to argue with Willy. When Willy says, 'What are you talkin' about? Do you know the first thing about it?', Charley simply says, 'Don't get insulted', a phrase which we see Charley repeat many times throughout the play, particularly in moments where he is trying to get Willy to see how his emotions are making him irrational.
Charley's Practicality vs. Willy's Pride
One of the most important scenes which involves Charley and Willy shows a similar contrast. Willy goes to Charley asking for insurance money after he's been fired. Charley offers Willy both money and a job, despite the fact that he states to Willy, 'nobody can say I'm in love with you,' but Willy refuses to take the job. This scene is important because it shows the extent to which Willy is willing to let his pride get in the way of the thing that would help him the most: a job. Reading the excerpt below, see if you can identify the differences between what Willy values and Charley values and how Willy's values are tied to his personal pride and how he appears to others and Charley's values are practical and detached from his own ego.
WILLY: Charley, I'm strapped ... I don't know what to do. I was just fired.
CHARLEY: Howard fired you?
WILLY: That snotnose. Imagine that? I named him. I named him Howard.
CHARLEY: Willy, when're you gonna realize that them things don't mean anything? You named him Howard, but you can't sell that. The only thing you got in this world is what you can sell. And the funny thing is that you're a salesman, and you don't know that.
WILLY: I've always tried to think otherwise, I guess. I always felt that if a man was impressive, and well liked, that nothing...
CHARLEY: Why must everybody like you? ... Now listen, Willy, I know you don't like me, and nobody can say I'm in love with you, but I'll give you a job because -- just for the hell of it, put it that way. Now what do you say?
WILLY: I -- I just can't work for you, Charley.
CHARLEY: What're you, jealous of me?
WILLY: I can't work for you, that's all, don't ask me why.
CHARLEY (angered, takes out more bills): You been jealous of me all your life, you damned fool! Here, pay your insurance.
Willy is focused on superficial character traits. He is concerned with what people are called and how people appear, but not anything of substance. Charley asks him, 'When're you gonna realize them things don't matter?' but Willy's response shows us he is still focused on what others think, on the intangible opinions of others rather than what is tangible. That is what Charley means when he says, 'The only thing you got in this world is what you can sell.' Things you can sell are tangible. They have value and substance. They are not based on pride, another's opinion, or a name, but rather on what you really have. What Charley is trying to get Willy to see is that his values are placed on things that have no real value. His frustration comes from the fact that even though he is offering Willy the thing he needs most, Willy's pride and misplaced focus on what is important keep him from accepting the very thing he needs to save: his family and ultimately himself.
Charley's role in Death of a Salesman is to serve as a foil character to Willy Loman. Charley approaches life, his job, and his family with logic, practicality, and a lack of personal pride while Willy continually approaches his situation with overly-emotional responses, accusatory language, and so much pride that he ultimately commits suicide rather than accepting help from others. Although Charley is not a major character, he is of vital importance in understanding Willy and the theme of pride and destruction in the play.
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