What is the catharsis in Death of a Salesman?

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Arthur Miller's play, Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman, the main character, has for years been living among the illusions of the past. He thinks the world should be as it was, never changing as, for instance, his job and the market place in which he works, changes.

Willy remembers with regret that his brother Ben had encouraged him to go to Africa to become rich, and he has dialogues with Ben all the time, though Ben is dead through flashbacks, but unfortunately, this is where Willy spend a lot of time.

Willy has two sons. His oldest is Biff. When Biff was in high school, he was the star football player, with a scholarship to college. However, at the end of his senior year, Biff fails math and does not graduate. All of his prospects disappear. However, for Willy, Biff is still this man who is well-liked and can do anything. He imagines that Biff can get any job he wants, and that other people see Biff as Willy imagines him to be.

Near the end of the play, Biff has been trying to do what his father asks: go to an old boss and ask for a job. Biff's life is nothing like Willy imagines it, but Willy will never listen when Biff tries over and over to explain. Finally, unsuccessful to even get in to see his old boss, Biff snaps and tells his father how things truly are in his life, and that he is not the man his father believes him to be. He insists that there are no bad feelings on his part for his father, but begs Willy to see him as he really is; he sobs holding onto his father.

This catharsis removes an enormous weight from Biff's shoulders so he can stop trying to be what his dad wants him to be, and simply be Biff, which is a hard job for him in itself. Willy is touched by Biff's behavior and realizes that his son loves him. This is an awe-inspiring moment for him. But the illusion seems to linger: Willy still believes that his son is going to be a great success.

Instability has been growing in Willy throughout the play. And even it appears that he reconnects with Biff, Willy loses the battle to keep his "head above water" in terms of the sorrows and disappointments that weigh him down, and he takes his own life. Biff argues at the funeral that Willy was trying desperately to find out who he was.

The catharsis has allowed Biff to begin to move forward, stating the he knows who he is. While Willy's death is tragic, we see that perhaps Biff will finally be able to turn himself around and experience the satisfaction Willy could never connect with.