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Death of a Salesman

by Arthur Miller
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In Death of a Salesman, what is the conflict between Willy and Biff?

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In Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman is the eponymous salesman. Willy is disappointed in his son, Biff’s, lifestyle because Biff has never found steady employment. In one exchange with his wife, Linda, Willy explains his feelings about Biff to her:

Willy: When the hell did I lose my temper? I simply asked him if he was making any money. Is that a criticism?

Linda: But, dear, how could he make any money?

Willy [worried and angered]: There’s such an undercurrent in him. He became a moody man. Did he apologize when I left this morning?

Linda: He was crestfallen, Willy. You know how he admires you. I think if he finds himself, then you’ll both be happier and not fight any more.

Willy: How can he find himself on a farm? Is that a life? A farmhand? In the beginning, when he was young, I thought, well, a young man, it’s good for him to tramp around, take a lot of different jobs. But it’s more than ten years now and he has yet to make thirty-five dollars a week! ... Not finding yourself at the age of thirty-four is a disgrace!

Linda: Shh!

Willy: The trouble is he’s lazy, goddammit!

Linda: Willy, please!

Willy: Biff is a lazy bum!

Yet, Willy alternates between characterizing Biff as a bum and then conversely as a hard worker. Further on in the play, Willy tells Linda, “Biff Loman is lost. In the greatest country in the world a young man with such—personal attractiveness, gets lost. And such a hard worker. There’s one thing about Biff—he’s not lazy.”

Willy is particularly disappointed because Biff seemingly had so much promise in his youth. He was attractive, confident, and athletic. Biff is described as “well built, but in these days bears a worn air and seems less self-assured.”

As he has gotten older without achieving success, Biff is more doubtful about his own abilities. Happy tells his brother, “I think I got less bashful and you got more so. What happened, Biff? Where’s the old humor, the old confidence?“ In his heyday, Willy was able to project an outward appearance of confidence even when he was not feeling it inside. Conversely, Biff wears his emotions on his sleeve, which Willy probably views as a weakness in him.

Moreover, as a young school boy, Biff had sought his father’s approval. In one flashback, Biff tells Willy that he will make a touchdown at the next football game just for Willy. Now Biff senses his father’s disappointment in him and resents it. In an exchange between the two brothers, Biff asks Happy:

Biff: Why does Dad mock me all the time?

Happy: He’s not mocking you, he—

Biff: Everything I say there’s a twist of mockery on his face. I can’t get near him.

Happy: He just wants you to make good, that’s all.

Moreover, Willy has also had an affair, which Biff knows. When he was a student, Biff discovered his father at a hotel with his mistress. He had looked up to his father and Willy's deceit made Biff see him in a new light. He is disappointed in Willy and this is a lingering source of friction between them and another source of friction.

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Willy has invested all his hopes and dreams in Biff. So when Biff flunks his math test and loses his chance to be a college football star, Willy is understandably disappointed. Biff's subsequent lack of direction in life generates considerable conflict between father and son. Willy wants Biff to be a go-getter, to head out into the world and stake his claim. But Biff lacks the necessary qualities to be the kind of success that his father wants him to be, and so cannot help but defeat his father's expectations every single time.

Ultimately, however, it's Willy who's responsible for Biff's lack of purpose in life. It was Biff's shocking discovery of Willy's affair with a secretary that provided the catalyst for all his subsequent misfortune. In that terrible moment of realization at the hotel Biff's entire world-view collapsed around his ears. He saw that everything he'd always believed was nothing but a sham and that his father, who'd previously been such a role model to him, was a cheat and a philanderer. Now that the damage has been done, there's no going back, and the relationship between Biff and Willy will be riven with conflict from here on in.

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The conflict between these two characters stems from the discovery that Biff makes about his father and his extra-marital relationship with the woman from Boston, whose memory dogs Willy throughout the play. You might like to analyse this conflict by comparing the relationship that Biff has with his father when he is a child, and then the kind of relationship he has with him when he is an adult.

As a child, Biff clearly idealises, loves and looks up to his father. This is because he has swallowed whole Willy's creed that success is possible in anything if you but work hard enough at it. However, as an adult, we see that Biff's relationship with his father is characterised by disillusionment and cycnism, as he has been forced to accept that not only his own life is a failure, but his father's life is also a failure too. Consider what Biff says with considerable perceptiveness when they are talking about how the company think about Willy:

I don't care what they think! They've laughed at Dad for years, and do you know why? Because we don't belong in this nuthouse of a city! We should be mixing cememnt on some open plain--or carpenters. A carpenter is allowed to whiste!

Biff recognises something that Willy is unable to see. Because of who they are and the kind of talents they possess, the Loman family should not be trying to live their life in an urban environment. Instead, they should be in the countryside working in a trade. It is Willy's inability to drop his implicit faith in the American Dream that therefore creates the conflict with his son. Willy lives the American Dream to the absolute full and he is unable to understand why his son has dispensed with this creed, which, as Biff rightfully recognises, has only brought his father and himself sadness and despair.

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In Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman we encounter an ongoing conflict between salesman Willy Loman and his eldest son, Biff. The conflict stems from Willy's parenting philosophy and his philosophy of life, as a whole. In his eyes, the key to success in life is to be well-liked, attractive, and basically outsmart everybody around you.

He bestowes this philosophy onto Biff as he grows up. Biff becomes a High School football hero. This is reason enough for Willy to believe that he and his son are in tandem: He believes that they are both working together towards a similar goal- to be liked, to be feared, and (with that) to be successful.

When Biff fails Math in his Senior year, he hinders his future college career, bringing all his hopes down. Furthermore, he discovers during a surprise visit to his father that Willy is having an affair. This brings down the idolatry and trust that Biff has in his dad. From that moment on, Biff realizes that his life has only been a continuation of Willy's fantasies, and this is their basic conflict: While Willy strongly holds on to his dreams, Biff is desperately looking for a way out of Willy's fantasy world in order to become who he really is.

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