Sample Essay 3
Illusion, Pain, and the American Dream: Conflict in Death of a Salesman
Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is a classic play about one man’s futile attempts at achieving success, fulfillment, and honor in his profession and with his family. It is a story of faith, relationships, and acceptance. It is a story of conflict, truth, and illusions. It is a story of the death of the American dream. The play focuses on the relationship between Willy Loman and his son, Biff. The tension between these two characters is fraught with underlying anger and misunderstanding. Father and son are constantly at odds, blaming each other for their mistakes and failed relationships. Their tensions are a manifestation of the frustration that exists between two men who try desperately to conceal their failures and shortcomings, of two men trying hard not to face the realities of their imperfections. The discord between the two characters contributes to the theme that sacrificing pride in situations of need is neither wrong nor shameful, but builds the character that establishes firm foundations. Throughout the play, Willy continually feeds his illusions of success, thus destroying his family and ultimately himself.
The conflict between Biff and Willy is introduced when Biff fails his high school math course, thus preventing him from graduating and moving on to college. However, the conflict is rooted in Biff’s early childhood. Willy deceives himself in hiding his inadequacies from his son. He pretends that he is wealthy and has meaningful professional contacts, thus instilling in Biff an unrealistic picture of his father’s success. Willy teaches his young sons to be proud and tough on the football field rather than teaching them the importance of humility and intellect. As a father, Willy emphasizes charm and good luck rather than hard work and dedication. Willy does not support Biff in his struggle to succeed in math, believing instead that Biff’s charm will win over his teacher and earn him a good, though undeserved, grade. When charm does not work for Biff, he becomes bitter and spiteful toward his father and his family. Biff comes to believe that his father is to blame for his failures in school and in business. He does not take full responsibility for his problems and fails to overcome his arrogance.
Biff and Willy’s conflict also stems from an ongoing inability to accept their mutual failures. Willy is unable to be supportive of his son when he is weak, because Willy refuses to see weakness, even his own. In addition, Biff cannot accept the fact that his father failed as a business and family man, so he frequently lashes out and causes his father grief. The two men want to be defined by their wealth and status rather than their character. Because neither man has what they desire, they become misguided and frustrated. They alienate their family and each other because they have a weak foundation for their idealism and dreams. They do not learn that sacrificing pride can build strong character and firm foundations for the future.
The fault for the conflict may lie deeper in Willy than in Biff, because Willy seeks to blame Biff for his own problems while at the same time looking toward Biff for solutions. He is an adult looking at the world through child-like eyes. As written in the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Death of a Salesman, “No wonder [Willy] searches desperately back through his life for evidence of the moment he took a wrong path; no wonder he looks to the next generation to give him back that life” (Bigsby vii). Willy never has a chance to improve his life, but Biff’s outburst at the end of the play gives the audience hope that he will change his ways as a result of a confrontation with his own identity. “Why am I trying to become what I don’t want to be?” he says. “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 105).
The painful and harsh conflict between Biff and Willy also springs from the underlying discrepancy between Willy’s illusions and reality. Willy has illusions of success, so he pretends that his career is in tact even when he is fired. Willy has illusions of dedication, so he is unable to find another job when the company to which he devoted his life no longer wants him. Willy has illusions of trust, so he expects Biff to believe that the naked woman in his hotel room is taking a shower and not engaging in an extramarital relationship. Biff sees through his father’s illusions. He attempts to alert his father to his true character when he says, “Pop! I’m a dime a dozen, and so are you!...I am not a leader of men, Willy, and neither are you. You were never anything but a hard-working drummer who landed in the ash can like all the rest of them!” (Miller 105). These illusions interfere with Willy’s ability to cast off his pride and strengthen his character. These illusions are the core of the conflict between Biff and Willy, and ultimately lead to Willy’s instability and eventual suicide.
The anger and hatred between father and son also stem, perhaps most directly, from Biff seeing his father with another woman. Biff and his brother Happy have an undying respect and appreciation for their mother, so Biff cannot bear to witness his father’s indiscretion. He sees Willy’s infidelity as the ultimate act of sacrilege against his family. Biff’s feelings of abandonment and despair are expressed when he cries, “You gave her Mama’s stockings!” (Miller 95). It is this event that is the catalyst for the irreparable damage between father and son in Miller’s play.
Biff and Willy are unable to look within and face the world honestly and with character. At times it is difficult to read the play, as the reader so desperately wants Biff to accept his father, wants Willy to nurture his sons, and wants Willy to live with realistic dreams. The reader needs Willy to live in the present, to cast off his fateful longing for the past. The reader acknowledges that the members of the Loman family live for their dreams but have no mechanism to cope with their failures. The reader realizes that Willy does not need to disappoint his family, have an affair, and commit suicide. The tragedy in Death of a Salesman lies in the fact that Biff and Willy could have cast off their costly pride. However, Biff and Willy are unable to abandon their arrogance, address their problems, and move forward into a healthy relationship and a fulfilling life.
The conflict between Biff and Willy Loman leads to the death of Willy’s dreams. As the play unfolds, Willy expresses deepening anger with himself and his son and his inability to adequately provide for his family. Willy eventually loses touch with reality and commits suicide. This ultimate rash act occurs just before his dream of owning his home is realized. The irony of his death is that a part of his version of the American dream comes true but he is not alive to witness it. Death of a Salesman is not merely about the death of Willy Loman. It is about the death of a career, the death of hope, the death of dreams, the death of a family, and the death of the life that Willy imagined for himself. The play is truly a requiem to the life of Willy Loman.
In Death of a Salesman, blind pursuit of the American dream leads to endless emotional pain for the Loman family. The conflict between Biff and Willy is an example of the theme that swallowing one’s pride is often a solution, and that clinging to false pride can have irreversible costs. Idealism in the face of failure can cause delusion rather than healthy solutions. However, Willy’s idealism was the driving force behind his career, even though it proved to be his downfall. These illusions may stem from fate. They may be the consequence of the prideful pursuit of a false ideal. Willy Loman may have been destined to be a failure the moment he chose his career. As Charley states in the Requiem, “A salesman is got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory” (Miller 111).
Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. New York: Penguin Group, 1998. Print.
Bigsby, Christopher. Introduction. Death of a Salesman. By Arthur Miller. New York: Penguin Group, 1998. vii-xxvii.