Two Brief Appearances
The Woman appears only twice in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, but both of her scenes carry huge significance for the plot of the play. In her first scene in Act I, Willy Loman's interactions with the Woman in a hotel room reveal his extramarital affair to the audience. She makes her second appearance in Act II, during which Biff Loman discovers the Woman and Willy in a hotel room together. Her second scene in Death of a Salesman is the turning point for Biff, whose grandiose image of his father as a god-like figure comes crashing down when he finds him in the act of adultery.
Indeed, Willy Loman's adulterous betrayal of his wife, Linda Loman, with the Woman has a double effect of making the audience both despise and pity the play's tragic protagonist. While we hate Willy's actions, we cannot help but feel sorry for him when he confides to the Woman about his perpetual loneliness. In the best plays, no character is wasted. Miller's the Woman is an example of a minor character playing a major role in the progression of a drama.
What (Little) We Know
Because the Woman spends such a small amount of time onstage, the audience has only fleeting chances to gather information about her. Based on her conversations with Willy, we learn that she's likely on the administrative staff for one of Willy's buyers in Boston. We also learn that Willy's gift to her, supposedly in exchange for their hotel room trysts, is new stockings, a clothing item that Linda Loman is constantly repairing at home. The choice of stockings is significant because their literal function is to create a veneer over the flaws of one's legs, an effect similar to the lies Willy accumulates in order to deceive himself and his family.
Additionally, the Woman is nearly always associated with laughter, an auditory cue that is both heartbreaking and uplifting for Willy Loman. Immediately before we meet the Woman, for example, Willy expresses his fear to Linda that his business associates laugh at him because of his bumbling manner of telling jokes and his physical size. In the moments before the lights shift to reveal the Woman dressing in Willy's hotel room, we hear the Woman's laughter. Because of the vulnerable conversation we've just witnessed, we begin our introduction to the Woman with a sense that she, too, is laughing at Willy.
Yet in her first scene with Willy, the Woman reveals that she picked Willy as an occasional companion primarily because she believes him to have a good sense of humor. If she is indeed laughing at Willy, he seems blissfully unaware of this fact, thanks to the Woman's artful way of stroking his ego. This is significant because Willy vacillates between taking pride in his sense of humor as a way of making people like him and feeling ashamed of it because it makes people take him less seriously, a sentiment he expresses to Linda in the previous scene. Willy's strong desire to be well liked is a result of his mistaken belief that who you know is more significant than what you can actually do. The unfortunate truth about the Woman is that she gives Willy the misguided satisfaction of being well liked, even though there is little substance to her attentions.
In the grand scheme of the play, the Woman has very few lines. And, yet, Arthur Miller still finds a way to connect her words with other moments in the play. In her second appearance in Act II, the Woman remarks that Willy has ruined her with his attention and gifts, to the point that she will now send him straight to the buyers when Willy comes to sell at her office. Similarly, in Act I, we hear Happy remark that he has ruined a young woman by having an affair with her just five weeks before her wedding to another man. Since this is not the first engaged woman Happy has ruined, he explains that he still plans to go to the wedding.
In both cases, the women who have been 'ruined' continue with their lives as if nothing has happened. The young woman that Happy makes love to five weeks before her wedding still stands at the altar. The Woman's different use of 'ruined' implies that she has been spoiled so much by Willy that she will give him top leads with buyers. This recurring use of 'ruined' is significant for Willy's downward spiral in Death of a Salesman. As audience members or readers, we wait to see if Willy's own 'ruin' will destroy him completely or if he will continue onward.
Although her appearances are brief in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, the Woman plays a major role in helping audience members and readers realize Willy Loman's own self-deception. Not only does she function as the plot device that disillusions Biff Loman about his father's identity, she also serves as a ghost of truthfulness throughout Miller's play. Her scenes with Willy Loman show him at his most vulnerable position, and when she finally says to him that he is 'the saddest, self-centeredest soul I ever did see-saw,' there's a sense that this is the most truthful assessment of Willy in the play.
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