How are Biff and Happy's failures a result of their father's unrealistic expectations in Arthur Miller's play Death of a Salesman?

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Tamara K. H. eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman's failures are a product of his unrealistic vision of what his life is and could be and what his sons' lives could be. Led by their father, Biff and Happy similarly develop unrealistic visions of their lives. All of these unrealistic visions and expectations, rather than leading to a solid, stable future for any of the characters, only serve to create a superficial existence that eventually all comes crashing down around the characters.

At the start of the play, we learn that Willy sees himself as a successful salesman when, in reality, he is barely surviving. We see his unrealistic vision of his success when, during a flashback, he boasts to his sons that he never has to "wait in line to see a buyer" (Act 1). He further boasts that, on his most recent business trip, he was "sellin' thousands and thousands" (Act 1). But Willy soon shares the reality of his sales with Linda: he only sold $500 worth in Providence and $700 in Boston, leaving him with a commission of $212, plus evidently another $70 commission in Providence, all of which is just barely enough to cover his bills, totaling to $120, due on the fifteenth of the month.

Willy attributes success to good looks, saying that the "man who makes an appearance in the business world, ... is the man who gets ahead" (Act 1). Since he sees both of his sons as being "built like Adonises," he can't help but see them as being successful in the future even though, in reality, Biff may fail high school.

Just as Willy sees his sons as being successful in the future, both Biff and Happy equally see themselves as having the potential for success. Yet, Biff travels from state to state, trying out different jobs, earning "twenty-eight dollars a week" and feeling like all he has done is "waste [his] life" (Act. 1). Similarly, though Happy is earning a fairly good income, he hates his job because he hates being ordered around by higher-ups and feels like he's doing nothing but waiting for his chance to move up in the business world. He is also lonely. Therefore, neither son feels successful, especially because neither son has a clear idea of what true success would look like for them. Even after their father's suicide at the end of the play, they remain uncertain of what their own dreams should be. Biff thinks he'll be happy starting his own ranch even though before he said he thought he was wasting his life working with horses. Happy decides to keep pursuing his business career, to "come out number-one man," like their father wanted to be, even though before he said he hated his job. All of their floundering shows that, because their father failed to grasp reality, they too are failing, which is leading ultimately to their lack of success.

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Death of a Salesman

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