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Death of a Salesman

by Arthur Miller

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In Death of a Salesman, how does Charley and Bernard's relationship contrast with Willy and Biff's?

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The relationship between Charley and Bernard is the kind which Willy wishes he had with Biff. Father and son get along very well, both on a personal and professional level. In addition to Charley's ongoing success in business, Bernard's rapidly moving up in the world, forging a successful career as a hotshot lawyer.

The success of Charley and his son serves to illustrate the huge gap that's opened up between the delusional Willy and the real world he no longer understands. Willy's convinced himself that there's no reason why he can't enjoy the same kind of success as Charley and why Biff can't stake his claim in the world like Bernard. But there's no chance of this happening, and it's all because of Willy. Willy wrecked his relationship with Biff due to an extra-marital affair with a secretary. However many hopes he may have of some kind of reconciliation, they're as unrealistic as his prospects of once more becoming a hotshot salesman. Charley and Bernard symbolize an ideal, an ideal of success, happiness, and opportunity. But for the Lomans it's an unattainable ideal on account of the fantasy world that Willy has constructed for himself, and in which he is trapped.

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Charley and Bernard act as foils to Willy and Biff in Arthur Miller's classic play Death of a Salesman. Unlike Willy, who is a delusional struggling salesman, Charley is a successful businessman. Charley is portrayed as a pragmatic, benevolent individual, and he helps financially support Willy during difficult times. In addition to regularly lending Willy money, Charley also offers him a good-paying job. Unfortunately, Willy is too proud to accept the job. Unlike Charley, Willy struggles to make ends meet and has unrealistic hopes for himself and his sons. Willy is completely out of touch with reality and fails to instill honorable character traits in both of his sons.

Bernard is Biff's foil in the play and is a successful lawyer. Unlike Biff, who focused all of his energy on athletics as an adolescent, Bernard studied, enrolled in and graduated from college, and became a lawyer. Bernard also has admirable character traits that Biff does not possess and is depicted as a humble, intelligent man. Overall, Charley and Bernard's characters act as foils to Willy and Biff and epitomize everything that the Lomans are not.

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This is an excellent question because through it you are identifying how Miller has created a separate father-son relationship to act as a foil for the relationship between Willy and Biff. In a sense, Bernard and Biff's relationship parallels Charley and Willy's relationship. Bernard helps Biff academically with his Maths, as his father helps or tries to help Willy financially, by giving him money and then offering him a job. Both Bernard and Charley try to make Biff and Willy respectively face the realities of life. Bernard is always encouraging Biff to study harder and plays almost a father-like role, telling him he shouldn't drive without a license. Equally, Charley tries to get Willy to face the realities of working life. Ironically, in spite of the way that Willy talks about Charley and Bernard, because of their "unmasculine" traits, it is Charley and Bernard that are the success stories, with Bernard becoming an incredibly successful lawyer.

Another central difference that is reinforced through the comparison of these two father-son relationships is how Charley never dwells on misfortune - he is a very down-to-earth and decent individual who is intensely realistic and practical. Willy, on the other hand, is always talking about what could have been rather than facing the reality of what has actually happened. According to Charley, he owes his success to the fact that "I never took any interest in anything." Bernard and Charley both fail to understand the importance of dreams to Biff and Willy and how their dreams sustain them and give them hope. Unfortunately, it is only Biff who at the end of the play is forced to become more like Bernard and face reality for what it is, rather than living a life deferred waiting for dreams to become substantial.

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Charley and Bernard act as a foil for Willy and Biff. The first pair is a father and son dyad whose relationship is fortified by the daily nuisances of life that bring people together: Working through issues, supporting one another, accepting mistakes, and bringing each other up when the going gets tough. Charley does not demand anything from his son, Bernard. He has no expectations for him except that hoping that his son is happy and does the best that he can to succeed in school. 

Like Willy, Charley is a hardworking man. His son helps Biff with math and also tells Biff over and over that he (Biff) should get serious about school, and that college is right around the corner. 

In a similar fashion, Charley helps Willy by lending him a couple of dollars when the check comes home low, and encourages him to get a better job.

Ironically, Charley and Bernard are both treated by Willy and Biff as unpopular and boring, even though they have been nothing but kind to the Lomans. Keep in mind that these two families are neighbors and friends, regardless. They also share together, support one another and even root for each other, as well. Their differences have never put a damper on their relationship.

Willy and Biff

The second pair, Willy and Biff, are a symptom of Willy's view of life and how it should be lived: shortcuts, loopholes, and shallow competition.

Willy is a traveling salesman who wants to get rich quick. He claims to be a great salesman, but in reality he has not achieved very much. His idea of succeeding is that of being "well-liked" and popular. Likewise, he encourages his son to continue to focus on football, not school, since a football scholarship will get him to college, and perhaps even into professional sports.

Biff, who adores his father and follows his example, has blindly accepted Willy's vision of who Biff really is, and what he will become. Yet, Biff will discover later on that he has lived a fantasy his entire life. This fantasy, propelled by Willy, places Biff at a really high place where Biff is great, and is meant to achieve amazing things.  Far from wishful thinking, these constructs are very real to Willy Loman. So real, indeed, that he goes through his entire life believing all of this to be true, and so does Biff, for a while.

All this being said, here is a shortcut of differences between the two relationships"

1. Charley raised Bernard without expecting anything in particular from his son, and both (father and son) are entirely down to earth.  Willy raised his sons calling them "Adonises", allowing them to be bullies, and encouraging Biff to feel superior to the rest.

2. Charley was supportive of Bernard's academic achievements. Willy was obsessed with Biff's prowess in football, by his son's good looks, and by his slick and cheeky attitude towards teachers.

3. Charley did not intervene in trying to make his son look or appear to look in a specific way. Willy was an enabler since very early in Biff's life. Anything from bullying, to theft, was always forgiven with a good excuse to justify Biff.

The consequences

The result of each of the parenting skills says a lot of how influential parents are in the lives of their kids.

Bernard went on to college, finished school, then went to law school and became a litigating attorney. When Willy sees him for the last time, Bernard is on his way to argue a case in the Supreme Court. Willy is shocked at everything. How was Bernard able to figure out his life, when neither Willy, nor Biff, nor Happy have been able to do that very thing?

Bernard explains to Willy that the summer when Biff failed math, he (Biff)had gone to visit Willy on the road.

Rather than finding succor and support,  Biff finds a woman in his father's hotel room. This is to Biff more than enough evidence that uncovers his father as a liar and a cheat. What else could Willy have lied about? About Biff's greatness? About Biff's sure-to-be successful life? That seems to be exactly what went through Biff's mind. After returning to New York, Biff no longer cared for anything or anyone. His life, as he knew it, was over.

One last thing to consider is the cohesive factor. Willy and Biff are in a consistent quarrel. Biff always ends up gravitating toward Willy, not because he likes his father that much, but because his image and self-awareness depended so much on what Willy made of it, that Biff is essentially crippled by psychological co-dependence. He goes and returns. Toward the end, however, he will want to leave for good.

Bernard, on the other hand, is found at his father's workplace before going to the Supreme Court to litigate a case. This shows that, in contrast to the Lomans, Charley and Bernard remain well-bonded, the way it should be.

In not so many words, while both parents have done the best they can to help their children, the personal issues of Willy superseded any want to make his kids become successful the right way. Charley had no views, nor dreams, nor expectations. As a result, he allowed his child to grow and discover who he is, with much better results than those of the controlling Willy.

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