What is the central conflict in Death of a Salesman?

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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....

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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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“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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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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