Death of a Salesman Questions and Answers
by Arthur Miller

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What is the central conflict in "Death of a Salesman"?

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William Delaney eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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There are five principal characters in Death of a Salesman. They are Willy, Linda, Biff, Happy, and Charley. The only big conflict between any two of these characters is between Willy and Biff, and it has been going on for years. Biff has just recently arrived back at home. His mother tells him:

When you write you're coming, he's all smiles, and talks about the future, and--he's just wonderful. And then the closer you seem to come, the more shaky he gets, and then, by the time you get here, he's arguing, and he seems angry at you. I think it's just that maybe he can't bring himself to--to open up to you. Why are you so hateful to each other? Why is that?

Willy has known for a long time that he is never going to realize his youthful dreams of success. When a father starts to wonder if his life has had any meaning or purpose, he is likely to remind himself that at least he has been a biological success. He has produced one or more children and has managed to support them to adulthood. But having children is not success unless at least one of those children is successful. Many fathers, as well as many mothers, put too much pressure on their children to succeed in order to make up for the parents' lack of success in life. Willy must be a good salesman, because he has sold his illusion to his entire family. Willy has pinned his hopes on Biff because Biff was such a big success in high school. In various subtle ways Willy has conditioned Biff to want to succeed in the business world and make a lot of money in order to please his father. But Biff has come to realize that he hates big-city life, that he is not qualified to be a big success in business, and that he has been living a lie because of his love for his father and his desire for his father's approval. This is what causes the conflict between father and son. It also causes Biff's internal conflict. He would like to live a simple life and have an undemanding outdoor job, but he still has this more-or-less unconscious compulsion to try to please his father.The climax comes when Biff, as a result of the fiasco at Bill Oliver's office, realizes the whole truth and tells his father:

I am not a leader of men, Willy, and neither are you. You were never anything but a hard-working drummer who landed in the ash can like all the rest of them! I'm one dollar an hour, Willy! I tried seven states and couldn't raise it. A buck an hour! Do you gather my meaning? I'm not bringing home any prizes any more, and you're going to stop waiting for me to bring them home!

Biff is young enough to see the truth and to change his life; but it is too late for Willy to change. He says:

You vengeful, spiteful mut!

The only thing that can break Willy's emotional hold on his son is death. Biff is free after that and can go his own way, but this love-hate, father-son conflict has been driving the play from the beginning. 

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timbrady eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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“He had all the wrong dreams. All, all wrong.”

There is no doubt that the failure of the American Dream is a large part of the conflict in the play.  But there is another conflict that I think is important:  the conflict between the best self we imagine (our dreams) and the best self that we can become (our "reality").  Willie believes that being "well liked" is the way to success as a salesman.  It's difficult from the text to know if Willie was ever a good salesman; the hint is that he was just an ordinary "drummer" who slugged it out, doing something that he wasn't all that good at, placing all his faith in something that could never happen. 

He did the same thing with Biff, filling him with the nonesense that anything could happen because he was "well-liked."  He didn't have to learn Algebra (look at Bernard, the one who wasn't "well-liked," who could learn Algebra, and who did succeed), he would succeed because of who he was ....

If there is a central conflict, then, I would label it the conflict between our illusions about ourselves and the reality of what we can be/achieve.    I am reminded of the words for the Robert Burns poem:

O would some Power, the gift to give us,

To see ourselves as others see us.

In the original ..... (much more poetic :))

O wad some Power the giftie gie us,
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,

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ms-mcgregor eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Through the main character in the play, Willy Loman, Arthur Miller explores the American dream and what happens to a family when the dream is not fulfilled. Willy Loman has been a saleman all his life but never had much success. He always believed that he would be able to be happy once he was able to obtain material sucess. In fact, he believed that living in America was somehow a guarantee of wealth and happiness. However, in his search of his dreams, he ignored and alienated those closest to him, especially his oldest son, Biff. At the end of his career, Willy is forced to confront his broken dreams and the consequences his beliefs and dreams have had on his life and family.

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zumba96 | Student

Some people could say this is all revolving around the American Dream. Willy pushed his sons to believe that 'manliness' and 'football' was all there was to be successful. While Bernard was viewed as a nerd to the family, in the end Bernard was the one who benefited the most. Willy also followed the role of the 'man' back in the time and was rude to Linda and had an affair while he had children. This was one of the reasons Biff  started to give up on becoming a star football player. Not only this, Willy dealt with constant abandonment whether this involves his father, or his employer, or his sons. The classic 'American Dream' becomes shattered in their eyes and is the conflict of this play. 

franzo | Student

The central conflict is 'idealization'. Willy idealizes three different men at three different levels, he idealizes Ben for his wealth, Wagner of his money and social contacts and Biff of his talents to win the world though he was not successful. In case of Biff, he idealized his father but it was a huge shock when he realized his father cheating on his mother. So, basically, its a critique on American dream of a capitalist society, it provokes the question what you get out of all this idealization, what this material world leads to... These are the questions this piece of work arises.

broscover | Student

The central conflict in "Death of a Salesman", is Willy's inability to accept that being well-liked is not the only thing that gets someone through life. He is so set in his ways of thinking that it affects not only his life but everyone around him as well, especially his children. Linda also enables this behavior from Willy, and even though there are times that Willy starts to realize the errors of his ways, Linda is always there to push him back into his false reality that being well-liked is all you need. Biff and Happy, who are Willy's two sons, play a big role in the conflict of this story. Happy is an egotistical womanizing creep, and he lives by the things his father taught him, which again all falls back to if you can be well-liked then you can accomplish anything. Biff has also lived his life by his father's standards but in the story he finally realizes the truth, that everything his father instilled in him is crazy and that he is pretty much a nobody and he tries desperately to get his father to see the truth but is unsuccessful. It can easily be argued what the actual main conflict is, because in this story there really is more than just one conflict. Willy and Linda's relationship is a big part of the story, but also Willy and his son's relationship is just as important. So I say that the basic general conflict is Willy's idea of being well-liked will get you through life and how much it affects those around him.

shaarif | Student

I believe the major conflict in this story is of abandonment. It all starts from Willy's childhood when he was abandoned by his father. Consequently, Willy, frantically, tries to make up for his childhood by making his sons 'perfect' in his eyes. He explains to them that success is achieved by charisma and personality, not by hard work. This fundamentally wrong idea destroys his sons' lives. They expected success to jump in their lap if they were physically attractive, but they were proven very wrong.

Willy was, further, 'abandoned' by his employer, Howard and in the restaurant, by his sons. Even his power of self-deception/false self-satisfaction abandoned him and he completely broke, thus commited suicide. These abandonments caused Willy's ideas about 'American Dream' to continously shift and scatter around. He became extremely confused and unsure about his present and thus 'turned to his much-better-past' through his hallucinations to reminisce good ol' times. Which was another of Willy's numerous mistakes.

Hence, these conflicts can be summarized into one major conflict: Being unsure about one self and then going on a spree of making wrong decisions.

plshelpme | Student

I think the central conflict in Death of a Salesman is Willy Loman's idea of being successful, (which is being well liked)

Just an idea.

zahraamousawe | Student

I think that Willy's problem with his dreams and beliefs is the central conflict. There is a contrast mainly between what is there in reality and what is in Willy's mind. The major problem is Willy's incapability of realizing that distinction. He lives by his own dreams and could not get out of them to real life where he can really do something remarkable, and this is, I guess, the problem of sp many people, not only in America but everywhere. Therefore we all could be seeing something of ourselves in the character of Willy.

gototheshop | Student

I tend towards timbrady's analysis. Yes, the American Dream is a label for aspirations and can be seen as a destructive illusion. In Willy Loman's case and in Lennie and George's case in Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, the American Dream is a fantasy. It suggests that wealth is available for all who work hard. However, in Death of a Salesman, as in Of Mice and Men, the authors show that for some people, no matter how hard they work and how much they slave, often the dream is impossible due to personal faults, social oppression and lack of opportunity. Thus, the hope that the American Dream offers to these people is false, torturous and doomed.

However, as timbrady suggests, Death of a Salesman is more than about the intoxication of the American Dream. Arthur Miller focuses more on the personal than the public. Thus, his focus seems to be on the tragedy of Willy's delusions - his belief that wealth and power are so vital, that they can be attained by talk and good-looks and not effort. Miller does not closely examine where these delusions come from, rather he examines our destructive they are. Willy's delusions contribute towards the sufferings of his wife and his sons.

I would argue, therefore, that the central conflict in Death of a Salesman is between vanity (or pride) and reality. The American Dream is an aspect of this but not the whole story.