In Death of a Salesman, what are some of the values Willy tried to teach Biff as a boy?Does it connect in any way with his going to see Bill Oliver?

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M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The incident with Bill Oliver can be directly linked to the values that Willy taught Biff (and Happy) when the boys were growing up. Let’s first look into what is going on. Biff and Happy are talking about Biff’s plan to start a business. Biff tells Happy that he is considering to request a startup loan from Bill Oliver.

Bill Oliver, a sporting goods businessman, was once Biff’s employer. However, during the time Biff was employed by Bill, Biff stole a carton of basketballs from him. In fact, the reason why Biff quit his job is because he (Biff) suspected that Bill had found out about the theft. Still, according to Biff, when he decided to quit,  

[Bill Oliver] put his arm on [Biff’s] shoulder, and he said, »Biff, if you ever need anything, come to me.«

And yet, Biff uses this memory as a sensible reason to go to Oliver, nearly ten years after the last time he saw him, to ask him for a loan of 10, 000 dollars for a business idea.

For most people, the very premise of this idea would make no sense. However, the plan itself shows the influence of Willy Loman’s upbringing and teaching of values

During each of Willy’s flashbacks, we see evidence of Willy embellishing reality, and encouraging his children to join in the fantasies that he builds. He makes himself out to be a very successful salesman when, clearly, he is not. He calls his children “Adonises” and complements them excessively on superficial things, like their looks and their popularity at school. This is especially obvious with Biff.

Willy also over exaggerates the importance of Biff’s high school football “career,” and basically raises Biff and Happy to believe that, as long as they are well-liked, they will be automatically successful. We find no evidence of Willy teaching the boys about the value of hard work, personal sacrifice, and respect for others.

These are the reasons why it is no coincidence that Biff would have the brashness to think that it is OK to go to someone whom he has disrespected in the past (by stealing from him) and request a loan for his own benefit.

Part of the Bill Oliver plan is also influenced by the reactions of Willy and Happy when Biff talks about it. We see how Happy completely ignores the theft incident and goes on to encourage Biff to go speak to Oliver

I bet he’d back you. Cause he thought highly of you, Biff. I mean, they all do. You’re well liked, Biff.

 As far as Willy Loman goes, he retakes his tendency to embellish the truth. He assures Linda that Bill Oliver will remember Biff “Wait’ll Oliver gets a look at him.” He also goes on saying that Bill Oliver called Biff all the way “from the West” because he “wants Biff very badly.” The three Lomans essentially view Biff’s decision to appear uninvited at his former boss’s office to request a loan as a sound business decision.

The whole “meeting” with Oliver is a disaster, and it does not even happen. Partly it is because, as expected, Bill Oliver does not even remember Biff. It is during this incident that Biff realizes that he has been living a fantasy created by the ideas of Willy Loman. He basically wakes up from this manipulation and it is clear that he feels more resentment for Willy now than ever before. He realizes now that, because of those null values taught by Willy, he is now the person that he is. 

gmuss25 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Willy Loman fails to instill in his son a sense of integrity, honesty, and morality. As a salesman, Willy places an emphasis on being charismatic and well-liked. He teaches his son that having a good smile and positive appearance are all that it takes to be a success. Willy teaches Biff that being well-liked and popular is more important than hard work and dedication. Willy also encourages his son to exaggerate situations and personal accomplishments. Biff learns firsthand from his father how to inflate his ego, which results in his disillusioned perspective. As was mentioned in the previous post, Willy also condones Biff's immoral behavior as a child. Willy does not address Biff's kleptomania and encourages him to cheat on his tests. When Linda mentions that Biff is too rough with the girls his age, Willy insists that nothing is wrong with his son. Later on in the play, Biff attempts to get a loan from his old boss Bill Oliver. Before Biff meets with his old boss, he attempts to date Oliver's secretary so that he can meet with him sooner. During the meeting, Mr. Oliver doesn't remember Biff, and it turns out that he was only a shipping clerk. When Bill Oliver leaves the meeting, Biff is so upset that he steals his fountain pen. Biff's attempt to date the secretary, his disillusioned thoughts about being Oliver's salesman, and his kleptomania can all be traced to Willy's lessons.

lcassidy eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Willy Loman had a very different set of values than most of society's.  He taught Biff that it was ok to steal a football for example, by condoning his behaviour.  By saying that his son needed to practice with a regulation ball to get better, he taught Biff that there was nothing wrong with stealing.  Consequently, when Biff is in Bill Oliver's office, he steal a fountain pen from his desk for no apparent reason, then runs away.

Willy also taught his son how to close his eyes to reality.  Willy is a self proclaimed hot shot salesman who boasts how well liked he is.  In reality, however, Willy needs to borrow money from his neighbour Charlie on a regular basis to survive on a weekly basis.  We also see how no one knows who he is and this is when he also finally acknowledges the fact that he is a nobody.  This type of behavior actually rendered Biff as a disillusioned character as well.  He had actually convinced his father, as well as himself, that Bill Oliver knew him - which of course is false.

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Death of a Salesman

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