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A father’s love is supposed to be irreplaceable, eternal, and unconditional. As a child you grow up believing that nothing in this world can change that bond and that it is a strong determining factor for your success in life. In ‘Death of a Salesman’, author Arthur Miller alternates between past, present, and memories illustrated dramatically through main character Willy Loman. Through Willy we experience the damaging cycle of self-deception, the struggle with harmonizing betrayal, and the inability of a man to admit his faults.
Miller depicts the issues that arise from inflated dreams, foiled desires, and the tragic results of contradicting ones actions.
In the article ‘How our contradictions make us human and inspire creativity’, author Berliner believes that ‘Being contradictory of yourself makes you more human and is a necessary ingredient for triggering intellectual creativity.’ This statement is a stark contrast from Willy, who has contradicted himself constantly and whose shortcomings don’t add to his character development.
Instead it hinders him and causes Willy to have a rapid decline in his psychological health. In the text Miller uses Willy’s memories to lay out his shortcomings: his failure to ingrain morals in his sons, his guilt over his infidelity, his refusal to view Biff with an open mind, and his obvious unequal love for his sons.
In life usually the one thing people cherish above all is family, but for Willy Loman he prioritized success, prosperity, and popularity above everything. Willy’s misinterpretation strong morals led to a spiral of contradiction and the ruin of his relationships in his family.
While Willy was never successful, which was totally unbeknownst to him, he remains committed to his values and forces them onto his sons; primarily Biff. With Biff he teaches him that personality and popularity are the keys to success.
During a key moment shared between father and son, Biff admits to his father to making fun of his math teachers’ lisp but instead of focusing on the tactless act, he’s more concerned with the classmate’s reaction. ‘I crossed my eyes and talked with a lipth’, ‘You did? The kids like it’ ‘They nearly died laughing’ (Miller pg87). Through this interaction Willy makes the error of celebrating his son’s misdeed, ignoring the emerging troubling pattern of disobedience and eventual petty theft that would ultimately lead to Biff’s downfall. By refusing to discipline Biff and correct him, this gives Biff the impression that he is untouchable and not bound by rules or societies expectations. Biff goes on to commit acts of theft, such as taking lumber from a nearby construction site and stealing a football from the locker room; an escalation in his bad behavior due to his father’s inability to address the real issue. The character of Bernard an academically diligent classmate of Biffs, serves as a constant reminder of Willy’s lack of acceptance of reality and also of Biff’s misdeeds. Bernard is almost symbolic of Biffs inner thoughts, telling him to study and try harder instead of following his father’s misguided advice.
Miller pays particular interest in the change in relationship between father and son, Biff goes from accepting his father’s ideologies as a child but as an adult he considers a father a fake and no longer believes in his father. It’s at this point he loses respect for his father and begins to view the life he is living as a total lie. The drastic change in perception is due to Biff discovering his father’s infidelity and is thrust into a new reality, learning harshly that his perfect father is actually in fact deeply flawed, ‘You fake! You phony little fake! You fake’ (Miller pg89). The revelation of infidelity causes an identity crisis within Biff leading to self-sabotage such as refusing to attend summer school and ending any aspirations he had for himself.
The sense of betrayal is mutual as Willy also feels deceived by Biff, labeling him a ‘lazy bum’ (Miller pg. 8) because of his perception of Biff’s instability as a sign of laziness and lack of character; however, Willy’s opinion of Biff changes rapidly as a result of his memories of a younger more ambitious Biff. ‘Biff Loman is lost. In the greatest country in the world a young man with such personal attractiveness, gets lost. And such a hard worker. There’s one thing about Biff he’s not lazy’ (Miller pg.8). This swift contradiction is baffling and causes the audience to question Willy’s ultimate view of his son; also realizing that Willy who becomes insulted and angry at anyone contradicting him, continuously contradicts his own moral character. In the article ‘Children Feel Pain of Parents’ Betrayals’ the author of this speaks on the affect extramarital affairs have on children and the devastating mistrust that can result from that betrayal. “Stuffing” feelings and concerns can lead to various ills later in adult life’, this is a reflection of the path Biff takes in life. His refusal to verbalize his feelings to Willy leads him to not want to associate with his father and the inability to acknowledge that his father’s actions have deeply affected his life’s decisions.
Willy’s denial about his actions having an effect on Biff is a main source of conflict throughout the play, his refusal to acknowledge his own bad behavior becomes a trademark of his. Bernard musters up the confidence to confront Willy causing him to be defensive, ‘What happened in Boston Willy?’ ‘What are you trying to do, blame it on me? Don’t talk to me that way!’ Willy’s reaction is another example of him becoming angry at being contradicted, although he’s already contradicted his supposed moral character by being unfaithful. When learning of his sons reaction to the incident, Willy starts to realize the impact his affair had on Biff.
The culmination of their relationship occurs at the end of the play when Biff finally tries explaining to his father the revelation of his identity crisis. ‘I tried to explain it to you and I think I’m just not smart enough to make any sense out of it for you, to hell with whose fault it is or anything like that’ (Miller pg.95). Biff’s epiphany that he’s been living a lie brings him relief and the realization of who he truly is, what he wants in life, and finally the separation from pretending to be who Willy wants him to be. “We never told the truth for ten minutes in this house” Biff finally has freedom from his father’s ideals because he is boldly stating he will no longer live by Willy’s ideals, ironically making peace with his father since he too is a ‘fake’ and can hold no ill will towards him when he is guilty of living a life of lies.
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