How do the themes of alienation and performance relate to Death of a Salesman?

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Susan Hurn eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The themes of alienation and performance are central in the play, and each relates directly to the tragedy of Willy's life. Willy's relationship with Biff is one of alienation stemming from the night when Biff found his father in a hotel room with another woman. Until that evening, Biff had admired his father, but in the hotel room, Biff's respect for his father was destroyed, as was their relationship. Biff did not stop loving his father, however, and his conflicting feelings shape much of the play.

Biff and Willy are alienated in another way, also. Willy holds unrealistic expectations for Biff in terms of his career and financial success. Biff can never fulfill them. Biff has never met the performance standards set for him by his father, and he knows he never will. This constant conflict between Biff and Willy further alienates them as Willy's disappointment and Biff's resentment continually clash.

The idea of performance relates to Willy's view of success; financial success is the standard by which he judges himself and his sons. Success is achieved through performance. A man who cannot perform is therefore of no account. When Willy ages and can no longer perform as a salesman as he once did, his sense of failure destroys his future. Willy cannot live as a failure, and consequently commits suicide.