Katie teaches middle school English/Language Arts and has a master's degree in Secondary English Education
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.
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 house…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.
Biff tells his father that he would be better off leaving again; if Willy does not know where he is or what he is doing, he doesn't need to worry about whether he has become ''successful.'' After Willy kills himself by crashing his car, Biff reflects that his father never knew himself. He did what he thought he was supposed to do and wanted to be well-thought-of, but never had a sense of who he was and what he actually wanted to do. Biff, by contrast, does recognize that he is meant to do work outdoors, with his hands. An office or sales job would never have suited him, even though that's what his father wanted for him.
Willy and Biff: Past
Willy, who is exhausted and unhappy with his sales job, is increasingly living in the past and talking to himself, worrying his wife and sons. In the first flashback of the play, he recalls how much his sons adored and respected him, a sharp contrast to the tension and resentment that's between them, especially between Willy and Biff, now.
Willy continues to flash back to a time when Biff was preparing for a big football game, but Bernard, the son of their neighbor, Charley, keeps reminding Biff that if he does not study for his math exam he will fail. Willy and Biff both laugh at Bernard, overconfident in his abilities and thinking that everything will work out for Biff.
Willy knows that the turning point for Biff, where he went from a promising, ambitious boy to a floundering, lost man happened around the time of that football game. Eventually, he remembers that Biff did actually fail math, just as Bernard predicted, and goes to visit him when he is in Boston on business. He remembers that Biff came to his hotel to tell him that he had failed math and wanted his father to talk to his teacher. He believed because of the way Willy always portrayed himself, that his father was a charming person and could get things done.
When he enters the hotel room, though, he realizes that his father has been unfaithful to his mother and the other woman is in the hotel room. He leaves, telling his father to forget about talking to his teacher. In this moment, Biff has lost the respect and admiration he had for his father and has also decided to not attend summer school and, subsequently, college. This event in the past is the moment where Willy and Biff's relationship changes forever.
In Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, we meet the Loman family and especially focus on the complicated relationship between the father, Willy Loman, and his older son, Biff. The play jumps from the present to the past, questioning why Biff and Willy do not get along in the present when they had once loved and admired each other.
When a flashback finally reveals Willy's infidelity, we learn why Biff has lost respect for him. We also see that the two men are similar in the way that they inflate their sense of self and level of importance but get disappointed when they realize that no one else sees them that way.
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