Summer has taught creative writing and sciences at the college level. She holds an MFA in Creative writing and a B.A.S. in English and Nutrition
Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman is a play that focuses on the dynamic between a father and son who interpret the American Dream in different ways. Willy is an older traveling salesman working solely off commission. His son Biff works on the fields. Both men come home, Willy, after an unsuccessful trip, and Biff, who wants to change the direction of his life. Willy doesn't feel that Biff has done enough with his life. Ultimately, Biff accepts who he is, but Willy cannot accept mediocrity and takes his own life.
Death of a Salesman uses the relationship between the father and son as a social critique to examine the shortcomings of the American Dream as well as what it means to be happy. In this lesson, we will look at several quotes by Biff to understand his ideologies and how they impact the play.
Biff Reveals His Identity to His Father
A major theme in Death of a Salesman is the shortcomings of the American Dream. The American Dream implies that Biff is special and can do anything he wants with guaranteed success. Biff realizes that this idealistic thinking hinders his ability to be himself, and he reveals to his father that he is okay with being average.
Biff says to Willy, 'I saw the things that I love in this world. The work and the food and the time to sit and smoke. And I looked at the pen and I thought, what the hell am I grabbing this for? Why am I trying to become what I don't want to be . . . when all I want is out there, waiting for me the minute I say I know who I am.'
This quote is a pivotal moment during the climax of Act II. Biff tells his father that he is comfortable with being 'just like everybody else'--it allows him to take control of his life because he isn't focusing on fulfilling wild, unattainable dreams. His father cannot comprehend this decision to be okay with normal, but Biff is able to liberate himself from the pressure his father had been placing on him to be somebody he is not. Sadly, Biff's acceptance of his identity convinces Willy that he is no longer worthy of living and he drives off to take his own life.
Biff on the Definition of Success
According to Biff's father, achieving the American Dream equates to material success and approval from others. It is the ultimate goal in life. Biff, unlike his father, doesn't want to live a life constantly working solely to gain material success or the approval of others. His idea of success is intrinsic happiness.
In Act I, Biff shows his beliefs about success by saying, 'Well, I spent six or seven years after high school trying to work myself up. Shipping clerk, salesman, business of one kind or another. And it's a measly manner of existence. To get on that subway on the hot mornings in summer. To devote your whole life to keeping stock, or making phone calls, or selling or buying. To suffer fifty weeks of the year for the sake of a two week vacation, when all you really desire is to be outdoors with your shirt off. And always to have to get ahead of the next fella.'
Biff sees the competition and constant push forward to get ahead as detrimental to his happiness. In this quote, Biff attests to trying his best to ascribe to the life his father expects him to lead, but he argues that all of this work is for a mere two weeks of happiness each year when what he truly wants is to be happy every day. Moreover, the quote further supports Biff's ambition to live a simple life with simple pleasures that do not rely on material items or the approval of others. He wants to make himself happy.
Becoming a salesman is the ultimate endeavor in the play. The men spend a lot of time dreaming about how happy they could be if they had financial success. After understanding that he would never become a salesman because of his aptitude, Biff understands that it was never more than a deluded fantasy.
He says, 'And then he gave me one look and--I realized what a ridiculous lie my whole life has been. We've been talking in a dream for fifteen years. I was a shipping clerk.'
Biff was never a salesman and the look that his boss gave him solidifies Biff's position at the company. The concept of the American Dream and the pressure Biff felt to find a career that pleased his father caused him to waste time dreaming of a success that he would never accomplish. As we saw in the previous quote, Biff realizes he never wanted to be a salesman; this epiphany is key to freeing him from delusional dreams and allowing him to accept reality.
Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman takes a hard look at the American Dream. He uses simple-minded Biff to demonstrate that the competition and material success wrapped up in the idea isn't made for everybody. Throughout the play, Biff struggles with pleasing his father while trying to be himself. In these quotes, we see the transformation that takes place in Biff that allows him to accept his identity and achieve success, even if that means destroying the fantasy of the American Dream. For Biff. happiness was his definition of the American Dream, but what does the American Dream mean to you?
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