Willy Loman, a character from Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, is on his last leg of life. His career is winding down, his sons are all grown up yet not succeeding, and he is miserably depressed. His eldest son, Biff, cannot seem to find his niche in life. Biff constantly bounces around between manual labor jobs that Willy thinks are beneath his son. While Willy is analyzing the end of his life, he feels very guilty for being Biff’s downfall through poor parenting, magnified false perceptions of identity, and infidelity. At the end of the play, Biff finally understands who he is and what he is meant to do in life. Even more than that Biff understands that the real American dream is to be truly free to live whatever lifestyle he chooses.
Willy is constantly talking up Biff trying to be the supportive father he never had. Telling him he is the greatest specimen of human perfection and that nothing Biff does is ever wrong. Once when Biff stole a football from the school locker room, Willy justified it by saying “Coach’ll probably congratulate you on your initiative!” (Miller 1222). Willy is unknowingly instilling the wrong types of values into both of his sons to lie, to cheat, and to steal. On the other hand, Willy never had a father to provide an example. He spent most of his life looking up to his brother Ben. All Willy knows about his father is from what Ben has to say “And we’d stop in the towns and sell the flutes that he’d made on the way. Great inventor, Father. With one gadget he made more in a week than a man like you could make in a lifetime” (Miller 1232). Willy is raising his sons on whatever values he can surmise from that description.
Around the time when Biff was supposed to graduate high school, he caught Willy in an affair. Biff had run away to find Willy in Boston after learning that he was not going to graduate. By the end of the ordeal Biff told Willy, “You fake! You phony little fake! You fake!” (Miller 1268). Once he caught Willy cheating, Biff gave up on his life and began trying to cope with what he now knew about his father. Even his classmate, Bernard, could understand that something inside Biff had died at the time, “I’ve often thought of how strange it was that I knew he’d given up his life” (Miller 1254). Willy’s apparent lack of parenting skills and shame of being discovered in an affair not only altered the man his son could have been, but also created overwhelming guilt for himself.
Willy’s version of the American dream has to do only with the business world. Without a father, Willy never had someone to be impressed by his accomplishments or validate him as a man. Throughout the play you never know what Willy sells or even what is inside his sample suitcases. His boss also comments on how it seems like Willy is trying to sell himself more than the product. He is seeking the attention and validation of being “well-liked.” Unfortunately, Willy believes “that the values of the family he cherishes are inextricably linked with the values of the business world” (Centola paragraph 6). Without this validation from his family and his peers, Willy remains unsure of himself and what he has set forth as his life accomplishment or American dream. He desperately wishes to be like Dave Singleman, who was so “well-liked” he could sell over the phone at the age of eighty-four and everyone remembered who he was. What Willy does not understand is that you cannot become another person or recreate the same life they had. Even the character’s last name, Singleman, suggests this (Centola paragraph 19). If you put a space in between the two words of Dave’s last name, it is easy to realize that Dave is the single man who can sell over the phone and be remembered. It is ironic for Willy to want to be like Dave so badly. Willy denied valuable traits in himself like his woodworking skills because he believed in being a salesman so much. He never got a chance to be truly happy and free, living the lifestyle of his choice.
Biff’s American dream begins as his father’s dream. Biff was going to go off and play football in college and become highly successful in the business world. For Biff, doing farm work, “the work and the food and time to sit and smoke” brings him happiness (Miller 1274). He has also come to terms with the fact that he is not destined to be a successful businessman. It is okay to let go of his father’s dream (Centola paragraph 21). Willy’s beliefs were almost like personal religious doctrines (Centola paragraph 5). He believed in them so strongly that his sons could not fathom why they would have any different values. The day that Biff caught Willy cheating and called him a phony began Biff’s awakening, the spiral downwards to understanding himself. By the end of the play, all Biff wants is truth and resolve between him and his father. Biff has finally figured out “what you are and what I am” and is telling the truth in their house (Miller 1273). For Biff to be able to understand the American dream, he had to understand himself. There was also the need to build self-esteem away from Willy who “blew me so full of hot air” that he was disrespectful to superiors. Biff’s big epiphany resulted from just seeing the sky and realizing “the things that I love most in this world” (Miller 1274).
Willy’s American dream was focused on the wrong values. He never emphasized working hard or being honest. It was always about being “well-liked” and known all around the business world; these vague terms that are never defined by Willy, but pursued passionately. Biff had to go through a transformation to understand that he could not live as his father had. It felt wrong and therefore was the wrong lifestyle for Biff. Willy knew he loved working with hands and doing carpentry, but his business beliefs held him back. He could have been free and happy in a life where he prospered from manual labor rather than just floating by being a salesman.
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