Death of A Salesman by Arthur MillerOne of the motifs that is prominent  in this play is the notion of the cyclical pattern of family, that is, the idea that the sins and virtues of one generation...

Death of A Salesman by Arthur Miller

One of the motifs that is prominent  in this play is the notion of the cyclical pattern of family, that is, the idea that the sins and virtues of one generation are played out again in the next.  Demonstrate how this pattern affects the characters in this play, and is there any real hope to break free of it?

Expert Answers
timbrady eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This is an intriguing question which has two possible answers.  In some ways, all boys seem to try to become the man their father is ... there's a kind of godlike character in most boy's sense of their father, even if that relationship isn't perfect.  When the boy discovers that his father is a lot less godlike than he may have thought many things can happen.  "Young Goodman Brown" typifies one type of reaction --- rejection.  When Biff and Happy realized that their father's vision of success was inadequate for the new world that they and Willy live in, they lost some sense of who he and his dad were.  (Of course, Biff has other reasons to reject Willy, again based on finding out that Willy was not everything that Biff once though he was).

On the other hand, you can argue that we all have free will and that, although affected by our past(s), we are not determined by them.  So there is always the chance that we will "break out" of our pasts; in fact, people do it all the time.

I don't know what is going to become of Biff; I don't hold out much hope for happy.  And I don't hold out all that much for Biff.  Wouldn't it have been great if Miller had written just one more play :)





















Susan Hurn eNotes educator| Certified Educator

While they were growing up, Biff and Happy adopted the flawed values of their father. They learned to lie, cheat and steal in order to succeed or to "get ahead." They grew up believing that making a good appearance and being popular are more important than hard work. As a result, both became irresponsible and unreliable adult men who succeeded at nothing in life.

Throughout the play, nothing indicates that Happy is capable of introspection or moral growth. By the play's conclusion, he continues to deny reality and make promises he never will keep. Biff, however, is developed as a dynamic character in that he no longer makes excuses for his own failures. He looks at his life with honesty. Since he confronts many unpleasant truths about himself and his family, there may be hope for Biff to make a better life for himself. However, Biff's self-assessment is very harsh; he sees himself only as "a dime a dozen." Unless he can find some redeeming values in himself and some hope in becoming a better man, he will remain trapped in the past.

epollock | Student


This is what I wrote in a previous post considering themes of the play.

Heredity also works against Willy and his sons. Each generation repeats patterns of behavior  established by their parents. Both Willy and Biff have been less successful than their brothers. Presumably, both Willy and his "wild-hearted" father were unfaithful, both fathers failed their sons and left them insecure. Willy explains, "Dad left when I was such a baby...I still feel temporary about myself." 

The play clearly has parallels with cyclical patterns of family behavior. Linda does play the role of supportive and loving wife, though she may be partly responsible for Willy not moving to Alaska--this is somewhat unclear, At least Biff is able to break free in the end when he says to Happy, "I know who I am, kid."

Read the study guide:
Death of a Salesman

Access hundreds of thousands of answers with a free trial.

Start Free Trial
Ask a Question