During a 1999 interview with Charlie Rose, Arthur Miller stated that his play, Death of a Salesman, is a love story, basically, between a father and son it’s about the loss of love and finding of love again. Miller’s play, written in 1946, focuses on Willy Loman, a salesman who has spent his life trying to succeed in business and popularity, but never quite grasping how to be the success he portrayed himself to be. Realizing early on that he would never be his own definition of success, Willy works to instill in his two young sons, Biff and Happy, the importance of success in business and being well liked.
Unfortunately for Willie, the values that he teaches his sons, and the example he sets only serves to lead them astray. Now in his sixties, Willie is tired. He and Biff have been at odds since Biff discovered him having an affair. The discovery destroyed Biff and his view of his father, resulting in Biff’s drifting unhappily and unsuccessfully through life. Upon his return home, witnessing the hopeless, delusional being that his father has become”suicidal, and unable to separate his memories of the past from the present, Biff attempts to help his father to regain his confidence and hope.
However, the lies of their family run too deep, causing Biff to falter; and Willie, deciding that he is worth more dead than alive, takes his own life. In the course of attempting to help his father, Biff reveals himself as a protagonist in this play as he manages, unlike any of the other characters, to achieve some manner of personal growth by battling his inner demons, his father’s expectations, and his families lies and unrealistic endeavors in pursuit of riches. Biff learns that the only way he will avoid the fate of his father is to live his truth by choosing happiness over success.
Lee Siegel asserts that, Biff’s inability, at the age of 34, to get beyond the discovery, when he was a senior in high school, of his father’s infidelity”committed by Willy out of loneliness and desperation”roots him as fatally in his past as Willy is stuck in his. Until this discovery, Biff was on track to at least finish high school. The product of Willy’s raising, Biff was a gifted football star who valued popularity over academics. Biff followed his father’s dvice as if it were gospel, be liked and youll never want (Miller, Death, 33). Biff and Willy, for a time, exist in a relationship of mutual flattery, unrealistic dreams, and adoration. Willy is willing to overlook Biff’s flaws of being a thief and a bully, and Biff does not believe Willy has any flaws. However, the discovery of Willy’s affair, shakes Biff to his very core and causes him to question everything Willy has ever taught him. If Willy is not authentic, then neither is Biff, for his authenticity depends completely on Willy’s authorizing it (Heims 1180). This event effectively stunts Biff, he is left without a certain idea of success, to battle the happiness he finds on a farm and in nature with his instilled desire to find success in business.
Biff’s stagnation torments Willy. Biff was meant to be Willy’s redemption for his own failures, a heavy burden for a father to place on a son. Willy, grows more irritated with each encounter with Biff and his lack of material success. He questions, How can he find himself on a farm? Is that a life? A farmhand?…it’s more than ten years now and he has yet to make thirty-five dollars a week! (Miller,Death, 16).
However, even though Biff feels mocked by Willy, he also sees that his father is in distress, and feels the need to help him. Biff appears to Willy as a hero who inexplicably has not achieved his heroism and who is, consequently, a source of grief and not joy (Heims 1137). In one last attempt to live up to Willie’s standards, to rescue his father, and help him to regain respect, Biff plans to borrow money from an old boss and start his own sporting goods business with Happy. At this new Willie is overjoyed, pressing his son to succeed, its like the old says to him, but with a seemingly greater sense of desperation and urgency.
However, the former lies of his family have only invaded Biff’s perceptions of past events, his former boss, Mr. Oliver, has no recollection of him. Biff was not the prized salesman he and his family remembered him to be, but just a shipping clerk. In his pride injured state Biff steals the mans pen to make himself feel better. At the same time Willie has been fired, he tells his sons, the woods are burning, boys, you understand. There’s a big blaze going on all around (Miller, Death, 107). As Biff reveals the truth of his day to Willy, disappointing him in his time of great need, Willy is relieving the moment of Biff discovering his affair. Willy begins to lose his last bit of sanity. He has nothing left to give, but Biff refuses to live with the lies anymore.
Biff has changed, he’s had an epiphany in the midst of stealing the pen he asks himself, why am I trying to become what I dont want to be? What am I doing in an office making a contemptuous, begging fool of myself, when all I want is out there, waiting for me the minute I say I know who I am! (Miller, Death, 132). With this realization Biff implores Willy to accept that his failures werent out of spite anymore, but simply because he never took the time to make anything of himself. In Willy’s last confrontation with Biff he realizes too, that the degree of Biff’s alienation from, and rage at him are measures of his love for him (Heims 1080). Willy finally understands that Biff loves him, but it is too late. The only thing that changes in Willy’s decided course of action, is that he dies knowing that Biff loves him.
In the end, it is only Biff who is able realize that happiness and comfort are not found in the reckless pursuit of material goods and popularity, but in the comfort of freedom and truth. It is Bill’s love for Willy that both torments and frees him.
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