Betrayal in Death of a Salesman

Instructor: Margaret Stone

Margaret has taught both college and high school English and has a master's degree in English.

The theme of betrayal in Arthur Miller's 'Death of a Salesman' is illustrated by several characters. Miller explores this theme in the characters' relationships with each other and with people from the past, as well as in Willy Loman's life as a traveling salesman.

Fathers and Sons

Willy Loman's father appears only as a memory in the play; he is already dead when the play opens. Willy has only one distinct memory of his father, and that is as he leaves the family. Willy's older brother Ben tells Willy that their father had been a flute maker, and the family traveled from town to town to sell the flutes.

When Willy was about four years old, his father disappeared 'down some open road' toward Alaska. To the young boy, this abandonment surely felt like a betrayal as his father exchanged his family for his dream of the wilderness.

Perhaps his own lost father is the reason Willy attempts such a heavy-handed presence in his sons' lives. Willy is present, always pressing, always advising his sons, though their tutelage at Willy's knee has not brought success to either of his sons. Because of Willy's pomposity and bluster, his sons' potential goes unrealized. 'And I never got anywhere because you blew me so full of hot air I could never stand taking orders from anybody!' Biff says.

Willy has instilled his definition of success in Biff and Happy. As far as Willy is concerned, success comes from being well liked. Willy's ideas about success have a devastating effect on his sons, for neither is willing to actually work to achieve success. Although Willy has big dreams for his sons, his guidance is a betrayal of sorts. Biff and Happy have shown some potential as teens, but their trust in their father's definition of success has contributed to their failure as adults.

Betrayal on the Road

Willy, a traveling salesman, is out of town when Biff learns he has failed math. Biff wants to consult his father about his options, but he finds his father in a hotel with a woman when he arrives unannounced in Boston. This incident changes Biff's view of his father, and he seems to give up on life once he begins to see Willy as a phony. Willy betrays his wife and his son in one fell swoop at the Boston hotel.

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