The Death of a Salesman portrays a life story of Willy and his son Biff, their life expectations and hopes. In this play, Arthur Miller depicts contradiction between industrial society and personal values, false dreams and inability to understand and find his place in this society. Willy Loman is a true protagonist whose ideas and dreams influence his family, happiness and life paths of his son, Biff.
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Willy Loman is a true protagonist because he establishes life choices and dreams of his children. Biff is influenced by false ideals and values of his father prying to reject and oppose them. Biff’s boyhood popularity is contrasted with Willy’s laughableness. In the first act, the memory scene begins when Willy praises Biff for polishing his car, but he soon gives advice about the girls with whom Biff is “makin’ a hit.” At the end of Willy’s recollection of Biff’s day of success, Willy boasts and complains in typical self-contradiction:
Oh, I’ll knock ’em dead next week. I’ll go to Hartford. I’m very well liked in Hartford. You know, the trouble is, Linda, people don’t seem to take to me” (Miller 34).
Willy directs and advices Biff how to behavior and achieve his dreams. As he describes how people laugh at him, a woman’s laugh is heard, introducing Willy’s memory within a memory. Unlike the girls who pay for Biff, Willy’s Woman has to be bought with silk stockings, while Linda mends her stockings at home. When Willy returns to his first memory, all is soured—Biff is failing math, he steals, the mothers complain that he is too rough with the girls. The emotional shift, conveyed entirely by dialogue, foreshadows the play’s climactic confrontation between Willy and Biff. The opening scenes of act 2 not only develop the precarious quality of Willy’s dream; they also set up father-son foils to Willy and Biff. Old man Wagner’s son Howard is successful by inheritance, and his idiom reflects his security. Charley’s son Bernard is successful by hard work, and his idiom reflects his studiousness. Both sons succeeded within the framework of American capitalism. Yet Biff is a failure because he remained a slave to his father’s “false dream” even after he has rejected his father as a “false fake.” This concept reflects his immaturity; even his name is a boy’s nickname. Willy dreams of success for Biff because he himself is a failure (Bloom 33).
Willy is a true protagonist of the story because he has dreams and lie expectations, hopes and values while Biff lives in the world of cruelty and darkness unable to realize his life chances and opportunities. Willy’s dream, vague in detail, is the American dream of success. Miller disturbs his own consistency by his scene: Willy’s memory of Biff’s discovery of a woman in his Boston hotel room. The scene of Biff’s self-recognition is a recognition of the phoniness of his father’s dream: “He thinks I’ve been spiting him all these years and it’s eating him up”—pointedly economical—”We’ve been talking in a dream for fifteen years” (Miller 55). Before the climax, Miller dramatizes Biff’s recognition of the impossibility, if not the insubstantiality, of Willy’s dream. Readers see Willy rejected by Howard, and we hear of Biff’s parallel rejection by Oliver.
Willy is a true protagonist depicted as a tragic character shaped by false dreams and illusions. Readers are elated that Willy died happily deluded, but readers are hurt and assess their own contribution to the death of a man all know. Salesman is a drama with the sounds and rhythms and cycles of dream. Miler gives mental allegiance to his protagonist’s morality, but identifies passionately with his character’s humanity. Salesman makes Willy neither saint nor villain. The play criticizes modern world as a place of infinite gradations of the moral values of actions. Wily is a true protagonist because he embodies the most common values and characteristics typical for a common man. Willy says: “I’ve always made a point of not wasting my life, and every time I come back here I know that all I’ve done is to waste my life” (Miller 89). Readers sympathize with Willy, and in so doing play out the endless play of lives by giving and forsaking ourselves to the same perhaps fated and unavoidable dream of knowledge and power and purity.
In contrast to Willy, Biff is perceived as a negative character obsessed with thoughts of wealth and prosperity. Thus, he is one of the character who sees the truth of life and false dreams of his father. At one point Biff says, “I tell ya, Hap, I don’t know what the future is. I don’t know—what I’m supposed to want” (Miller 76). Miller vividly portrays that different lens can be a good source to study social changes and aspiration of people. Miller uses the concept of self as a part of self-understanding and identification with the American nation and famous American dream. Any man with an absolutely firm position on the American business-success dream is no friend. the following dialogue vividly portrays relations between Willy and his son Biff.
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WILLY: What happened? He took you into his office and what?
BIFF: Well—I talked. And—and he listened, see.
WILLY: Famous for the way he listens, y’know. What was his answer?
BIFF: His answer was—(He breaks off, suddenly angry). Dad, you’re not letting me tell you what I want to tell you!
WILLY, (accusing, angered): You didn’t see him, did you?
BIFF: I did see him!
WILLY: What’d you insult him or something? You insulted him, didn’t you? (Miller 91).
The repetitions of “listen” stress Willy’s inability to listen to any contradiction of his dream. Uttered without strain, Biff’s “I can’t talk to him” summarizes the scene and Biff’s whole life. Biff’s recognition scene dovetails neatly with Willy’s next memory scene, but the two are not related thematically. A false dream of success should be exploded by a scene about the success, and not about illicit sex. The final part of the scene leaves readers with a strong impression of Willy’s self-contradiction—begging on his knees as he threatens Biff with a beating. So Willy justifies all those days spent shining the Chevy with Biff and Happy by committing suicide. It is the only way he can keep his dream intact. To save his life, he has to kill himself.
In sum, Willy is a true protagonist of the play because he establishes the order in his family, creates its values and dreams, directs and guides his sons. The character of Biff can be perceived as a reflection of false dreams and values shared by his father. Though Willy dies without recognizing the triviality of his dream, the play makes readers aware of that personal failure.
- Bloom, H. Willy Loman. Chelsea House, 1991.
- Miller, A. Death of a Salesman: 50th Anniversary Edition, Penguin Books; 50th Annni edition, 1999.