Father-Son Relationships in Death of a Salesman

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Katherine Garner

Katie teaches middle school English/Language Arts and has a master's degree in Secondary English Education

This lesson explores the complicated relationship between Willy Loman and his son Biff in the 1949 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, ''Death of a Salesman'', by Arthur Miller.

The Loman Family

Death of a Salesman, by Arthur Miller, centers on the Loman family, which consists of Willy, a travelling salesman; Linda, his wife; and their two sons, Biff and Happy. The action of the play takes place only over several days, but there are many flashbacks, or visions of the past, that include Willy's brother, Ben, his neighbor, Charley, and Charley's son, Bernard.

Willy is aging, growing tired of traveling, and becoming less and less successful at his sales job. The Lomans' older son, Biff, is at home visiting, and there is tension in the house because he is thirty-four and has never held a steady, respectable job. Willy is openly disappointed in Biff, while Linda tries to keep the peace and defend each of the men to the other.

The most significant father-son relationship in the play is the one between Willy and Biff, though it is important to note that Willy does compare himself and Biff with his neighbor Charley and his son Bernard, who seem more successful. Willy also mentions that his father left when he was very young, which probably impacts his own role as a father.

The play alternates between past and present, showing how Willy and Biff's relationship has changed, and a final flashback reveals the event that changed everything. The following sections will explore the father-son relationship in the present versus the past.

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  • 0:03 The Loman Family
  • 1:24 Willy and Biff: Present
  • 3:25 Willy and Biff: Past
  • 4:59 Lesson Summary
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Willy and Biff: Present

The play opens during the present time, with Willy as an aging salesman and Biff a thirty-four year old ''bum,'' as Willy sees him. Biff is visiting his family in New York from Texas; he has been traveling around doing a variety of jobs involving physical labor. Willy is frustrated that Biff is in his thirties and hasn't settled down; he calls him a lazy bum and recalls the past, when Biff was a football star in high school and destined to go to college.

Willy, Linda, and Happy encourage Biff to go back to a former employer to ask for money to help start a new business. They recall that everyone, including this boss, has always loved Biff and would be thrilled to support him.

Biff tries to sell an idea and get money from this former boss, but the boss will not even give him a minute. Eventually, it occurs to Biff that he did not have the positive relationship with this former boss that he thought he had had. He realizes that his whole family, including his father, has deluded themselves into thinking they are much more important and successful than they ever were.

Biff says to his family, ''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. '' Directly to his father, Biff says, ''We never told the truth for ten minutes in this houseā€¦and I never got anywhere because you blew me so full of hot air I could never stand taking orders from anybody!'' He clearly blames his father for blowing his ego out of proportion when he was young and for over-inflating himself in his job as a salesman.

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