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The Nineteen-Forties was a very patriarchal era. The father was the head of the house and his life’s works were passed down to his sons. A strong relationship between a man and his sons was crucial to maintaining a healthy household. Once the relationship began to deteriorate, the entire family unraveled. Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman displays how the relationship between Willy and his two sons creates the downfall of the Loman family. The relationship is constantly changing throughout the story. Biff and Happy idolize and have nothing but love for their father when they are children, but when they grow up, they realize how their father failed to prepare them for the real world.
Willy Loman is portrayed as an un-fit father. Willy never really had a father when he was growing up. He lost his father when he was very young. Because Willy was deprived of affection as a child, he smothers his sons with love and oppresses them with the nakedness of his hopes for their success. (Carson pg. 92) His older brother Ben stepped in and served as a substitute father. (Carson pg. 90) As a result of not having a true father figure in his childhood, Willy struggled with fatherhood because had no example to base his parenting on.
How it works
When Ben passed away, Willy lost his last connection to his father. (Carson pg. 91) Willy’s lack of a real father has left him as an insecure person. He has been trying his whole life to compensate for his loss. Willy is constantly unsure of himself and the way he raises his boys. This can be seen in the scene where he is imagining his dead brother Ben is visiting. Willy says, “Dad left when I was such a baby and I never had a chance to talk to him and I still feel — kind of temporary about myself.” (Miller pg. 36) He repeatedly asks Ben if he’s raising his boys right and even asks for Ben to stay for a few days. (Miller pg. 36) His insecurity does not allow him to see the inconsistencies of his beliefs and the lessons he teaches his boys. (Carson pg. 92) Willy feels that he needs Ben’s approval for how he is raising his sons. (Centola pg. 28) He can be heard asking imaginary Ben, “Ben, how should I teach them?” (Miller pg. 36) Willy’s problems as a father are shown to be a direct result of his own deprivation as a son. (Carson pg. 89)
The father/son relationship in the play is very ironic. One would assume that a poor relationship stems from lack of love and attention from the father. The Loman family’s circumstances could be considered the complete opposite. From the day his first son was born, Willy Loman’s life goal was to become the perfect father. He becomes obsessed with his image as a father. Nearly everything he does can be traced back to somehow trying to give his sons a better life. Willy values his family more than anything else in the world and only wishes for his sons to be what he sees as successful. (Carson pg. 92) Although Willy is not a good salesman by any means, he relentlessly believes that trying his hardest at work gives others the impression that he is an excellent provider. All of his struggles, sacrifices, and even final suicide are for his sons, not himself. (Carson pg. 92) Willy pawns his diamond watch, received as a gift from his beloved brother Ben, in order to pay for Biff’s radio correspondence course. Willy even commits the ultimate sacrifice for his sons. He believes that by bequeathing them $20,000 in insurance money by committing suicide, he will provide conclusive proof of his immutable essence as a good father. (Bigsby pg. 130) From the first line to the last line of the play, Willy Loman is in constant pursuit of becoming and staying the perfect father.
The saying, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”, relates perfectly to the father/son relationship in Death of a Salesman. Willy has had nothing but the best of intentions when it comes to raising his boys. He constantly attempts to push his sons towards success. One of Willy’s biggest flaws is how he neglects to realize all the negative values he has instilled. (Centola pg. 28) These negative values are inherited by Willy during his turbulent childhood. He encourages competitive and even unlawful behavior at times. When Biff brings home a stolen football without consequences and when the boys are ordered to steal lumber from a nearby construction site, Willy is unknowingly teaching that it is acceptable to take what they cannot earn. (Bigsby pg.130) This especially leads to problems with Biff down the road. Biff gets fired from a decent job because he is accused of stealing basketballs. (Miller pg. 48) In a confrontation with his father, Biff screams “I stole myself out of every good job since high school!” (Miller pg.105)
Willy Loman’s version of success is very superficial and materialistic compared with most other peoples’ version of success. Ordinary work has always been deemed unacceptable. Biff and Happy are taught to not respect manual labor. (Centola pg. 31) Early in the story in a conversation with his wife Linda, Willy asks:
How can he find himself on a farm? Is that a Life? A farmhand? In the beginning, when he was young, I thought, well, a young man, it’s good for him to tramp around, take a lot of different jobs. But it’s more than ten years now and he has yet to make thirty-five dollars a week! (Miller pg. 5)
This shows how important money is to Willy. The importance of money tends to cause problems for Biff. Biff can never be happy working inside in an office building. He wants nothing more than to work outside with his shirt off. Biff tells his brother “What the hell am I doing, playing around with horses, twenty-eight dollars a week! I’m thirty-four years old, I oughta be makin’ my future.” (Miller pg. 11) Success is directly proportional with one’s salary in the Loman family. The more one makes, the more successful one is. Whenever Biff finds a job working outside, he feels that he is wasting away his life because even though he enjoys manual labor, it can never live up to his father’s standards of a big paycheck. (Centola pg. 31) Willy convinces himself and his sons that success is a product of being well liked. (Carson pg. 89) Biff and Happy try to purchase approval from others after watching their father attempt the same thing throughout their childhood. (Bigsby pg. 128)
Biff and Happy are not functional adults as a result of their upbringing. One major problem for the Loman boys was that they were always treated as if they were infallible. There are several instances of when Willy can be found inflating his son’s ego. When asked if an old boss will remember Biff, Willy says, “You know why he remembered you, don’t you? Because you impressed him in those days.” (Miller pg. 84) He also says that “ There’s fifty men in the City of New York that who’d stake him.” (Miller pg. 46) These two statements turn out to be false. Biff finally gains the courage to ask Bill Oliver for money after listening to his father. When he has to wait all day just to be embarrassed by Bill Oliver, Biff realizes that his father tends to make up what he wants to be true. These lies cause resentment towards his father. During a flashback, Willy states to Biff:
Bernard can get the best marks in school, y’understand, but when he gets out in the business world, y’understand, you are going to be five times ahead of him… Because the man who makes an appearance in the business world, the man who creates personal interest, is the man who gets ahead. Be liked and you will never want. You take me, for instance. I never have to wait in line to see a buyer. (Miller pg. 21)
Willy is embellishing the truth and once again unknowingly instilling his distorted vision of success. Biff becomes extremely self-confident and results in a lack of effort in things such as school. Why should he have to work hard when his charming personality will get him out of any problems he is likely to encounter? This can be related back to Willy’s flawed view of success where being well liked is of much more importance than being the best at what one does. Over-inflated egos lead to nothing but failure and misery for Biff and Happy in the business world.
Both sons inherited their father’s dreams of greatness but have no idea how to reach them. (Centola pg. 31) Biff wants nothing more than to work outside with his hands but is not able to because it doesn’t meet his father’s definition of success. Happy has a job more acceptable to Willy, but there is no opportunity for growth. He is not satisfied with his life but never changes anything because all he wants to do is please his father. He has lived in the shadow of athletic Biff for his entire life. Happy feels that to receive attention he must constantly strive to impress his father. One can see that in Willy’s flashback. While Willy was bragging about Biff, Happy kept reminding him how he’s losing weight. When Biff returns home and the whole family is reunited, tempers begin to rise. With both boys still living at home in their thirties, it becomes more apparent to Willy that his sons are not as perfect as he had always thought. Willy Loman’s quest to become the perfect father would not allow him to sit back and watch from the sidelines as his sons continued down the path of failure. Willy relentlessly pushes Biff and Happy towards success. This constant pressure causes conflict at home between Biff and Willy.
Another major problem with the father/son relationship in Death of a Salesman is the amount of love. It could be stated that Willy has smothered his sons with love. Willy is determined to have a large impact on his sons’ lives because his father had little impact on his. (Carson pg. 89) The constant support as children has molded the Lomans into men who always flee back to their home whenever trouble arises. Biff says, “I never got anywhere because you blew me so full of hot air I could never stand taking orders from anybody!” (Miller pg. 105) Willy has tried so hard in his life to be the perfect father, yet his sons do not appreciate all that he does for them. The only way he can understand this is by claiming that his sons have been spiting him. (Miller pg. 105)
A very pivotal scene for the father/son relationship in Death of a Salesman is the scene where Willy meets Happy and Biff in a restaurant to discuss how much money they will be loaned to start their business endeavor. While Biff tries to explain the failure of a day he had, Willy is so blinded by the thought of his sons finally becoming successful that he is not listening to what Biff is saying. When it finally sinks in that Biff was never even a salesman for Oliver, Willy cannot take it. Willy Loman’s boys are the best sons a man could hope for. They are all-American boys who simply cannot fail. Willy tries to convince himself that the information must be false. This belief of perfection frustrates and puts unfair pressure on Biff. Earlier in the play he says, “he’s got to understand that I’m not the man somebody lends that kind of money to.” (Miller pg. 81) Willy yells after hitting Biff, “Are you spiting me?” (Miller pg. 88) Unable to cope with the bombshell that had just been dropped, Willy staggers into the bathroom where he can be heard talking to himself and having a flashback. This is the point of no return for the father/son relationship. Biff and Happy decide to leave their father at the restaurant by himself while they leave with two women. It is revealed that Happy has given up on his father when a woman from the restaurant named Letta asks Happy if he is going to tell his father they are leaving, Happy responds by saying “No, that’s not my father. He’s just a guy.” (Miller pg. 91) After this decision to desert Willy, there will never again be any hope that the Lomans can come to terms with each other. Leaving Willy behind can be viewed as leaving behind their relationship. Since Willy’s most prized possession is his sons, taking them, and his relationship with them, away is essentially killing him.
After the restaurant incident, Willy has completely given up. He is a lost soul, nowhere to go, no purpose in life without his sons. When Biff and Happy come home, they return to an angry mother who is infuriated at how they have destroyed the man who has dedicated his whole life to them. Once Willy comes inside after his attempt at gardening, the arguing once again commences. One of the key problems between Biff and Willy reveals itself in this final scene. Biff feels that Willy has been trying to mold him into something that he is not. Biff just wants his father to let him be who he wants to be. He wants his father to let him go. (Miller pg. 106) He pleads to Willy, “I’m not bringing home any prizes any more, and you’re going to stop waiting for me to bring them home!” (Miller pg. 106) Willy cannot understand why Biff wants to leave him. Willy does not realize how he has been influencing Biff to become what he sees in his mind as the perfect, all American son, which Biff is obviously not. He still thinks that his sons are spiting him because he yells “You vengeful, spiteful mutt!” (Miller pg. 106) Once Biff breaks down and begins to cry, Willy starts to understand what Biff has been saying and that he loves him. Willy says to his late brother “Did you see how he cried to me? Oh, if I could kiss him, Ben!” (Miller pg. 108) Even though he is positive about his relationship with his son, Willy is still an insecure man because he continues to hallucinate and talk with his dead brother Ben. Now that he is sure his sons have loved him all along, there is only one way to ensure that he cannot mess it up. By promptly committing suicide, Willy feels that there is no way that he will ever lose his sons’ love. (Centola pg. 31) The desperation for love between father and son results in the breakup of the Loman family at the end of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.
To understand why Willy Loman would go to such an extreme to preserve his sons’ love, one must realize how poor the father/son relationship was. Willy felt that it was weak enough to warrant him committing suicide. A major problem is that the father/son relationship is bedeviled by guilt. (Bigsby pg. 126) The earliest incident of guilt affecting the relationship is when Biff walks in on Willy and his mistress in Boston. Willy feels guilty for his sin and spends the rest of his life trying to make it up to Biff. (Centola pg. 31) Willy was always the man who knew everything and could do no wrong. Biff immediately lost trust for his father and was heartbroken when he witnessed that his father is not as perfect as he thought. No relationship can be considered functional without trust from all parties involved. Willy feels guilty for his sons’ lack of success. (Centola pg. 31) He knows that he has not raised them to be the best they could be, but he does not want to admit it. He also feels guilty about exaggerating his own accomplishments and encouraging his sons to disregard the law. (Carson pg. 88) Nothing good has come from embellishing success and breaking the law. Biff feels just as guilty because he knows he will never be able to redeem Willy’s meaningless life. (Bigsby pg. 126)
The father/son relationship in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman leads to the downfall of the Loman family. Willy tried so hard for such a long time to be the perfect father but did not have much success. Willy’s failure to come to terms with his own father cripples him in his ability to be a father in his turn. (Carson pg. 92) Once Willy knows that he has his sons’ love, he is immediately over whelmed. He commits suicide to make sure he never loses his sons’ love and to help them. Willy’s definition of success also leads to the suicide because he believes that insurance money will help make Biff and Happy successful. Willy’s quick exit leaves the Linda, Biff, and Happy forever devastated.
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