In Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, the conflict between a father and son shapes the overall meaning of the work and explains all of the adverse events that occur throughout. The sources of Willy and Biff’s conflicts, which include Biff’s delusional perception of the world as a result of ideas planted in him by his father, Biff’s discovery of his father’s affair, and Biff’s lack of business success all accumulate and result in the ultimate rivalry between the father and son. Altogether, these contribute greatly to the formation of the concept that personal dreams and desire to achieve success can often negatively interfere with personal relationships, and causing people to loose sight of what is important in our lives, as Willy and Biff exemplify.
Throughout the play, there are flashbacks to Biff’s childhood as a successful athlete and motivated individual. Willy’s pride in his son’s accomplishments is apparent, as he constantly praises him saying, “Good work Biff!” (1561), yet Willy’s lack of acceptance of reality are as well. Frequently Bernard, a studious young boy, appears and reminds Willy of Biff’s unsatisfactory grades, yet Willy refuses to admit these downfalls and does not accept the reality of his son’s situation. Willy merely tells Bernard, “Don’t be a pest, Bernard! What an anemic!” (1560), and dismisses the negative statements made about Biff. Bernard constantly reappears almost as a symbol of Biff’s conscience, telling him to study or else he will not graduate. Willy does not help the situation and completely combats Bernard’s efforts by filling Biff’s head with lies and selling him on the idea of the American Dream as something that is easily achieved, by giving simple advice such as, “Be liked and you will never want” (1561).
It is apparent that Willy weighs the importance of being well-liked and socially accepted more heavily than actual hard work and success, a negative reflection of his character. Willy preaches his philosophy that, “the man who makes an appearance in the business world, the man who creates personal interest, is the man who gets ahead” (1561). This is purely ironic due to the fact that Willy is the man who creates a personal interest in the business world with men of high status, but when all of his friends pass away he is left with nothing but a glorified past to remember. This false reality that Willy paints for Biff fosters the conflict between father and son due to the fact that Biff fails as a result of the way he was raised. Biff follows his fathers ways and words, and by the time he takes his first job he has been raised to think that success and happiness will just come to him without excessive effort on his part.
As any son would look up to and admire his father, Biff took his father’s advice and therefore makes no excessive efforts and put forth minimal work expecting to become successful merely because of his personality. This sense of entitlement is clearly diminished when Biff fails to keep a job and ends up at home. Willy never takes the time to teach Biff a good work ethic, good values, and strong morals, because Willy himself has not even established these within his own character. Therefore Biff steals, does not work hard, and finds it hard to make it in the real world. Willy himself does not know what is important in life, does not have morals, and does not value his family relationships, therefore he has no way of teaching Biff these vital tools for success and happiness. The resentment Willy feels because of Biff’s lack of success becomes the main conflict throughout the play ultimately reflects negatively upon Willy’s lack of ability to achieve the American dream himself, displaying Willy’s overall weak character.
Biff’s discovery of his father’s affair serves as a main turning point for him as a character, a turning point that sends him downward into a life of struggle and lack of achievement. It is at this point that Biff loses respect for his father and begins to recognize the lie that he is living, thus making it a main source of conflict. Willy is in denial about his involvement with Biff’s failure in life, and when indirectly confronted by Bernard about the incident in Boston asking “What happened in Boston, Willy?” (1600), Willy becomes defensive, saying, “What are you trying to do, blame it on me? Don’t talk to me that way!” (1600). After being told about Biff’s reaction upon his return from Boston and the burning of his favorite University of Virginia shoes that symbolize Biff’s dreams and hopes for the future, Willy realizes the extent of impact that Biff’s discovery of the affair had. Willy’s lack of acceptance of reality adversely affects his relationship with Biff because he never takes responsibility for his affair or even has the courage to admit it to Biff.
As a result, when Biff discovers a woman in his father’s hotel room, he confronts his father, “You fake! You phony little fake! You fake!” (1618) and all Willy can do is attempt to exercise his authority as a father which ultimately fails. Frequently throughout the play, Happy makes references to the man Biff used to be, asking him, “What happened, Biff? Where’s the old humor, the old confidence?” (1552). Learning about his father’s affair and seeing it firsthand that day in Boston was the turning point for Biff, the point where he grew up and realized that his father was a broken and defeated man, not the successful business man he portrayed himself as and used to be. As a result of this, Biff loses all respect for his father, and alternatively Willy begins to loathe Biff as well. Due to his discovery of the affair, Biff not only sees his father as a failed businessman, but a failed man. A man without money does not make him a bad man, but an adulterer who betrayed a woman who gave him everything cannot be forgiven in the eyes of a son.
Throughout Willy’s continuous failures and defeats, his wife still remains supportive of him and loving, constantly reminding him of her affection for him. Despite this, Willy still yearns to have what he does not and thus pursues an extramarital relationship with “the other woman.” It is clear that Willy finds some kind of comfort and validation in this affair with a woman who makes him feel wanted, yet his wife does the same therefore it is clearly a matter of greed. “Willy’s sense of failure, his belief that he has no right to his wife, despite Linda’s love for him, is what motivates Willy’s deceptions, and those of his sons after him” (Bloom, Bloom’s Modern Critical Interpretations: Death of a Salesman).
This event contributes to the overall meaning of the work as a symbol of the failure of the American Dream by Willy, not only in terms of personal success but also in terms of family relationship and his family’s success. Not only does Willy cheat on his wife, loathe his son, and struggle to keep a job, but he has let his values go and seems to have no moral compass of right and wrong. It shows that he has failed in the business aspect of his life, and also in his morals.
Finally, Biff’s lack of success in the real world contributes largely to the conflict between him and his father. After having countless jobs over a period of several years, Biff returns home with loss of all hope of finding a steady job to support himself. Willy is disappointed by Biff’s lack of ability to succeed, and, “It is to Biff, the returning son, to whom Willy relates most affectively.” (Hadomi, Rhythm Between Father and Son.) It is because Willy can see so much of himself in Biff and relates so heavily to him that these resentful feelings arise.
Biff reflects his father’s failed ideals and expectations for himself, which are represented in Willy’s fantasies and flashbacks regarding Biff’s successful and glorious childhood, as well as expectations that Willy originally had for himself. Willy sees his failed life and career as a middle-aged man, and recognizes similar traits and qualities in Biff. Although he never expresses these, it is apparent that Willy largely sees himself in his son and thus takes out his anger for himself on Biff, resulting in constant fighting and conflict.
The conflicted relationship between Willy and Biff exemplifies the theme of the work that in one’s pursuit of professional and material success, it is easy to become preoccupied with superficial aspects of life while simultaneously losing sight of what matters most. Willy’s preoccupation with his quest for material fulfillment ultimately results in a flawed relationship with his family, and ultimately with his son Biff when Willy sees him following in his footsteps. This conflict between father and son is what shapes the theme of the work and serves to highlight Miller’s purpose and the greater meaning of the play; that nothing is more important than family. (Word Count: 1517)