In Death of a Salesman, what are three examples of character foils, and how is each important in the play? Provide quotes to support your argument.

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Let's define what is a foil character. A foil character is usually a secondary or minor character whose job is to contrast another character, typically a major character, in order to delineate the traits and features that stand out from that major character. Think of it like the opposite of...

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Let's define what is a foil character. A foil character is usually a secondary or minor character whose job is to contrast another character, typically a major character, in order to delineate the traits and features that stand out from that major character. Think of it like the opposite of a character; someone who has become, done, or achieved what the major character struggles to become, do, or achieve.

Right away, we are introduced to one minor character who has become, done, and achieved everything that Willy Loman could not: Charley. As Willy's only friend, Charley has succeeded at everything Willy failed at in life, from finances to parenthood. Interestingly, Willy spent most of his life putting Charley and his son down, calling them nerdy and unpopular.

As Willy went through life trying to become rich quick and finding shortcuts to everything, Charley continued living life at his own pace and, above all, was true to himself. This is a huge contrast with Willy, who truly believed that he was a big time salesman. This why, years later, Willy finds himself asking Charley for money and feels embarrassed and humiliated (unjustifiably) when Charley offers him a job.

A similar situation occurs with Charley's son, Bernard, and Willy's son, Biff. Bernard was once a butt of jokes for Biff and Willy alike. They—Biff and Willy—really thought they were superior to Charley and Bernard:

Bernard can get the best marks in school [...] 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. [...] the man who makes an appearance in the business world, the man who creates personal interest, is the man who gets ahead.

Years later, Bernard is a respectable attorney who will soon argue a case in the Supreme Court. Moreover, he has managed to remain humble, and he continues to care about Biff and Willy regardless of their treatment of him. He is ultimately the one who discloses to Willy that Biff suffered some emotional shock in his senior year of high school that ultimately led him to fail in life. This shock occurred when Biff caught his father having an affair with a coworker. Willy was unaware of this.

So, in contrast with Biff, Bernard is a successful man who achieves a real career and seems to be focused on real goals, rather than dreams that will continue to evaporate.

The third foil could be Willy Loman's brother, Ben. Even though he is dead in the play, it is clear that he influenced Willy because he continuously shows up in Willy's flashbacks.

The one thing that seems to affect Willy the most is the fact that his brother took risks that Willy was either unable or unwilling to take. Ben left the family home, which is something Willy would have loved to be able to do.

Why, boys, when I was seventeen I walked into the jungle, and when I was twenty-one I walked out ... And by God I was rich.

Ben also chose to forgo the idea of having a family. Instead, he opted to go for financial success. It paid off for Ben, but it left Willy constantly wondering what would have happened if he had also dared to take such a huge risk. It is clear that it affects him and pushes him to realize what he is quite limited in comparison to his brother.

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1. Charley, Willy Loman's longtime neighbor, is a foil throughout the play. Charley is a practical, humble person, who is also a successful businessman. Unlike Willy, Charley is rational and down-to-earth. In contrast, Willy is delusional, boastful, and relatively unsuccessful. Charley's character emphasizes Willy's out-of-touch mental state and provides the audience with a rational person to compare to Willy. The following quotes portray Willy exaggerating the importance of his son's high school football game, which emphasizes the theme of rationality through the two characters.

WILLY: [the last to leave, turning to Charley]: I don’t think that was funny, Charley. This is the greatest day of his life.

CHARLEY: Willy, when are you going to grow up?

WILLY: Yeah, heh? When this game is over, you’ll be laughing out of the other side of your face. They’ll be calling him another Red Grange. Twenty-five thousand a year. (Act 2)

2. Charley's son Bernard is Biff Loman's foil throughout the play. Unlike Biff, Bernard is a dedicated, intelligent lawyer, who has the opportunity to present a case in front of the Supreme Court. In contrast, Biff is a lazy kleptomaniac, who has squandered every professional opportunity he has ever been given. Bernard's success illustrates the importance of developing quality character traits like integrity and hard work in children. However, Biff was not raised properly, which negatively impacts the trajectory of his life. The following conversation between Bernard and Willy reveals why Biff has not become a success.

WILLY (confidentially, desperately): You were his friend, his boyhood friend. There’s something I don’t understand about it. His life ended after that Ebbets Field game. From the age of seventeen nothing good ever happened to him.

BERNARD: He never trained himself for anything. (Act Two)

The Woman is Linda's foil throughout the play. The Woman carries on a secret affair with Willy while he is out of town. She is not involved with Willy's children and doesn't support him through difficult times like his wife. In contrast, Linda is portrayed as a compassionate, loving wife and mother, who fully supports her husband despite his numerous shortcomings.

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Willy is a struggling salesman who can barely make ends meet.  Charley is a successful business man.  Willy thinks success means being well liked; success is being popular. Charley does not need people to like him, and he does not see that people’s adulation equates to success. Charley understands that people like others based on superficial material. 

  

Ben and Charley are successful businessmen. They are foils simply because the way in which they become successful.  Ben achieves success instantly; it takes Charley years to succeed.This foil shows how the American dream can be a disillusionment.  Willy sees Ben and thinks that success can fall into anyone’s lap.  In America, people can discover wealth, but this is not an everyday occurrence. Most American success is through hard work.  

 

 

Biff was an attractive, popular football star. Bernard was a nerd.  Biff never becomes the successful college athlete he was hoping to be.  Bernard, the one who is unpopular and “not well liked” (Miller 1576) becomes a lawyer.This foil shows how buying into an American dream without the ability to make wise choices produces more failure.  These two young men represent the next generation; they are extensions of their fathers.  However, if parents have the wrong values, they only bestow these ills to their children, causing more failures. Traditional hard work is always the best choice. 

 

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