“Death of a Salesman” is about a dysfunctional family that has difficulty with their sixty year old father. Willy Loman is a salesman and he has worked for the same company for many years. When the story begins, he has come home from a sales trip that was not as successful as he wished for it to be. He is in need of a different job but he does not want to do something different with his life although his family and next door neighbor encourage him to do something different. Central to the story is Willy’s relationship with is wife Linda and his sons Biff and Happy. He is never able to relate to his family because of his fantasies of being someone else in a different place and time. Willy spends most of his time yelling at Biff about being a better son or talking to the ghost of Ben. Willy’s two sons have conversations about how they would like to by a ranch out west, work it and settle down (Johanssen, 1997). Willy begins to have a daydream about his sons getting along very well and about how he as their father joins into the conversation. Willy never really talks to his boys as he does in his fantasy. Willy talks about opening a business that will be bigger than the neighbor’s business (his neighbor is very successful) but the plans go no where (SparkNotes, 2009).
At the beginning of the story Willy is talking to his wife and trying to convince her of the lovely time he had in New York and how it was a very successful trip; he eventually tells her the truth. He states that it did not go well because he is not good at sales and because the people he works for do not like him. This seems to be a recurring theme in the story for Willy because he feels that he is also unloved by his family (SparkNotes, 2009). His wife tries to console him because she is afraid for him and what he might do. Willy goes in and out of his daydreams throughout the play.
Willy is a very troubled man. He gets agitated at one point and he wishes he had gone to Alaska with Ben so that the two of them would be wealthy. Ben had gone to Africa and discovered a diamond mind that created some wealth for him until he died. For Willy, this would have been the height of his success. Willy’s next door neighbor Charley offers him a job but instead of seizing the opportunity, Willy is insulted. Willy does not think highly of Charley and he is jealous because Charley is successful and has always been success; Willy has not.
Willy’s relationship with his son Biff is very tentative and explosive. Willy wants Biff to make something of his life since Willy never had the opportunity to do something with his. He has always had high hopes for Biff and never lets him forget this fact. Biff is trying to figure out his life throughout the play without regard to Willy’s yelling at him. Biff feels that Willy puts too much stress on him and is always criticizing. At the climax of the play Biff finally yells at his father and tells him he feels like he’s “nothing”: “I’m just what I am, that’s all” (Phelps 239) he tells his father before collapsing into his father’s arms. For some reason Willy sees this collapse as a sign from his son that he likes him. The reader does not know why Willy takes this outburst from a son as testimony that he loves him but this is his immediate reaction. Perhaps he is feeling this way because it is the first time that Biff has shown him physical contact of any kind. It could also be part of Willy’s fantasy and hope for a renewed relationship with his son. Happy and Linda attest to the fact that Biff does not only like his father but he loves him (Johanssen, 2009). The reader never knows whether Biff really does love is father but it is curious. Willy finds that the best thing he can do for his son now is to commit suicide; in this way his son will have the money he needs through the insurance money to get the ranch. H. Phelp suggests through is commentary that Willy’s suicide is his ultimate sacrifice for Biff. He says that Willy wants Biff to have this money for a ‘fresh start” (239). It is important to note that it is quite possible that Biff would not have received the money because most life insurance policies will not pay when the policy holder commits suicide.
In the end, Linda and Happy are upset and hurt because Willy’s funeral is not well attended. Charley states that Willy was “a victim of his profession” (Johanssen, 1997). Biff seems to be the only one who sees his father for who he really is and says that he “had the wrong dreams” and “never knew who he was” (Phelps 240). This is very apparent to the reader but the family does not seem to understand this fact. This may be an indication that Biff really did love his father but it shown through the play that Willy cannot return the love. It seems that Willy is incapable of loving his family and they are not sure how to react towards him. At one point, Willy admits to having an affair but this probably means that it was easier to care a little about a stranger than it is to care about his family. In the SparkNotes commentary it states that he is incapable of love which prevents him from reaching out to his family.
Biff is able to see through is father in ways that the rest of the family cannot and he realizes that what his father really needed then and now is compassion. Willy could not accept his failings but Biff could accept them because he understood his own failings and was able to accept them. Because of this Biff is able to show Willy compassion.
“Death of A Salesman”. SparkNotes. 2009. 2 May 2009. <http://www.sparknotes.com/ lit/salesman/summary.html/.
Johannson, David. “Death of a Salesman”. Masterplots II. Juvenile and Young Adult Literature Series, Supplement. 1997. 1 May 2009. EBSCOhost Reference Center Database. [AN: MOL9720000020].
Phelps, H.C. “Miller’s Death of a Salesman.” The Explicator. 53.4 (1995): 239. ProQuest Database. [Document ID: 77179371].