In Death of a Salesman, what effect do the expectations of parents have on the behavior of their children?

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M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Death of a Salesman the expectations of two particular parents, Willy Loman and his neighbor Charley, seem to definitely make a difference in the outcome of their children.

In Willy Loman's mind, success is a combination of personal and physical charm, popularity, and being "well-liked" by others. Sacrifice is not a requirement for success. In fact, bypassing sacrifice and figuring out ways to beat the system are factors that Willy favors more. These were the expectations he placed on Biff, his son. Willy also lived vicariously through the successes of Biff in school.

Bernard can get the best marks Bernard can get the best marks but when he gets out in the business world [...] you are going to be five times ahead of him. [...] You're both built like Adonises.

In turn, Biff lived his entire life not pulling his weight entirely to do anything. His plans for life were as shallow as his father's expectations. Most importantly, he never really amounted to anything important  once he realized that his father's view of life was ridiculous, and a double-standard.

In contrast, Charley raised his son Bernard in a way that he allowed his son to just be himself.

Willy even asks Charley whether he (Charley) ever told Bernard what to do. To this, Charley responds that his salvation  has been "not to take interest in anything." The result? Bernard, the kid whom Willy and Biff  scoffed as a "weakling" ended up becoming a lawyer fighting cases in the Supreme Court. Charley, who is approximately the same age as Willy, continues to work and even ends up lending money to Willy for the latter to pay his bills. A father and son relationship based on honest work and trust paid off well.

In all, the expectations of the parents basically moved their children to make choices based also on the example that the parents set for them, and not just expectations alone. All that Biff saw and got from his father was a "cheat sheet" on how to be popular and find quick success. When Willy himself failed to live up to his own expectations, Biff lost his only role model and mentor, becoming lost in the process.

The exact opposite happened with Bernard. His father allowed him the freedom to find himself. Bernard did just that, and ended up growing into healthy, intelligent young man. This is how these two parents influence their sons in Death of a Salesman.



reidalot eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Both of Willy Loman's boys, Happy and Biff, suffer from their father's misguided direction in life and his expectations.

Happy is the most like Willy and has bought Willy's dream; that is, the delusional idea of getting rich quick and becoming a successful businessman. Also, Happy is very attractive to women. In that department, he appears a success, but he still is portrayed as a lonely character, much like his father. Even at the end of the play, Happy defends Willy even though he has committed suicide. It appears there will be no "happy ending" for Happy either.

In contrast to Happy, Biff, the eldest son, also becomes a victim of his father's expectations but in a different way. Biff is a high school football star and plans to go to college on a scholarship. That is, until he fails a math course. Willy doesn't encourage Biff to make up the math credit; he has tried to instill the same dream in Biff as he did in Happy, the American Dream. However, unlike Happy, Biff finds his own dream, to live a simple life on some land. In this way, Biff appears as a stronger character whose own expectations are more realistic than his father's.


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Death of a Salesman

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