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 Bernard?
Life in your own head can be complicated. Sometimes someone else, just by observing you, can understand you better than you can yourself. Bernard is just such a character.
Bernard grows up next door to the Loman family in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. He looks up to Willy's son Biff, viewing Biff's athletic prowess with something approaching hero worship. In one scene he even carries Biff's athletic gear into the clubhouse before a game just to gain entry into Biff's world. As Biff, his brother, and Bernard enter their thirties however, Bernard is far more successful and stable.
The character serves several purposes in the play. First, by including the studious Bernard, Miller establishes a contrast between this character and the brothers, Biff and Happy Loman. The Loman brothers are talented athletes, while Bernard is academically gifted. In addition, Bernard's career flourishes, while Biff and Happy falter. Bernard also provides an outsider's view of the Loman family. From Bernard, the play's audience gains information that would not be available otherwise.
Bernard as a Teen
Bernard first appears in the play in a flashback. He rushes in to warn Biff that he needs to study for math. His first act shows concern for his friend Biff. After Biff displays his shoes and shows how he has printed ''University of Virginia,'' Bernard is the voice of reason. ''Just because he printed University of Virginia on his sneakers doesn't mean they've got to graduate him, Uncle Willy!'' Bernard says. He knows that athletic ability alone will not get Biff into college.
Willy, Biff's father, brushes aside the idea that his son needs to work harder: ''What're you talking about? With scholarships to three universities they're gonna flunk him?''
Bernard again tries to impress upon them the serious nature of the situation. Bernard says Mr. Birnbaum, the math teacher, has said that Biff will fail if he doesn't study. Bernard even offers to tutor Biff. ''Don't be a pest, Bernard!'' Willy says and then calls Bernard ''an anemic'' to his sons. Bernard, the teenager, appears much more mature than Willy Loman in this scene.
Later, Willy goes so far as to suggest that Bernard should allow Biff to cheat on the Regents Exam. ''You'll give him the answers!'' Willy says to Bernard. Bernard says the he does give Biff test answers normally, but ''That's a state exam! They're liable to arrest me!''
Bernard as an Adult
Back in the present, Willy encounters Bernard at his father's office. Bernard is about to argue before the Supreme Court, but he downplays his professional accomplishments when he speaks to Willy. As usual, when Willy discusses his own son's accomplishments, he is all bluster and bluff. He claims that Biff is doing well and involved in a promising deal with Bill Oliver.
At this point in the play, however, Willy is at an emotional low point. Willy's demeanor changes suddenly, and for once, he acknowledges the truth about Biff's failures. He asks Bernard for his secret and wonders why Biff could never ''catch on.'' Bernard says that he doesn't know, but he does point out that Biff ''never trained himself for anything.''
Bernard thinks back to high school when Biff failed the math class. Something has always bothered Bernard, and he uses this accidental meeting to ask Willy about it. Bernard says that Biff had intended to go to summer school until he went to Boston to see Willy. Bernard finally asks, ''I've often thought of how strange it was that I knew he'd given up his life. What happened in Boston, Willy?''
Willy is defensive and does not reveal the truth to Bernard, but he remembers the visit. When Biff arrived in Boston, hoping to talk to Willy about what he should do, Willy was involved in an illicit encounter with a woman in his hotel. Biff loses respect for Willy for this betrayal of his mother and begins to view his father as a phony. Bernard's question about what happened in Boston that caused Biff to give up on his future leads Willy to reveal information that is vital to understanding the way Biff lives his life.
Bernard is an admirable character who shows genuine concern for Biff Loman. Bernard plays a significant role in Death of a Salesman, as his memories of growing up next door to the Lomans offer a revealing look at the dynamics of the Loman family. While others in the situation might have been jealous of Biff's athletic achievements, Bernard appears to idolize Biff to some extent. He even gives him the answers to his math tests, though, when Willy asks that Bernard also do this for the state exam, Bernard refuses.
Bernard grows up to become a successful lawyer, in stark contrast to Biff who has not achieved anything. He also serves to drive the big reveal in the play when he asks Willy what happened in Boston that made Biff give up on school. We find out that Biff discovered Willy having an affair, which is why he lost respect for his father and became disillusioned to follow a path to success.
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