In Death of a Salesman, why does Willy get angry at Bernard?

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timbrady's profile pic

timbrady | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator

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There is another reason why Willy is angry at Bernard.  Bernard represents the "traditional" way to succeed --- work hard, study, go to school, get the degree.  Bernard has no personality, no "personal attractiveness" --- this is the antithesis of what Willy preaches to Biff ... that success is based on personality, on the appearance you make (remember the conversation about what he should wear when he meets with Bill Oliver).  Willy thinks that Bernard has it all wrong, that he will never amount to anything, that BERNARD, and not he, has all the wrong dreams.  I think Willy knows that if Bernard is right, he's wrong, and this leads to his anger and general abuse of Bernard.

mshurn's profile pic

Susan Hurn | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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His defenses down and very emotional, Willy falls into a conversation with Bernard, who has achieved success in life as a respected attorney with a growing family. Willy asks Bernard about the "secret" for his success and asks why Biff did not succeed, as well. This opens the door for Bernard to speak "candidly" about Biff; he wants to know why Biff didn't go to summer school in order to graduate from high school and go on to college. Bernard remembers that Biff was all set to go to summer school, but then he dropped out of sight for several weeks. Bernard believed that Biff had gone to Boston to see his father. Innocently, Bernard is leading Willy to the painful truth of Biff's discovery of his father's adultery in the Boston hotel room. Bernard tells Willy how Biff reacted when he showed up again:

And he came back after that month and took his sneakers--remember those sneakers with "University of Virginia" printed on them? He was so proud of those, wore them every day. And he took them down in the cellar, and burned them up in the furnace . . . . I knew he'd given up his life. What happened in Boston, Willy?

This is no doubt the first time Willy has heard this story about Biff burning his college sneakers, clearly an indicator of how deeply angry and disillusioned he was after the incident in Boston. Bernard, without realizing it, has made it clear to Willy that if Biff had not caught his father in that hotel room, he most likely would have gone to summer school, graduated, and attended college. Willy becomes infuriated:

What are you trying to do, blame it on me? If a boy lays down is that my fault . . . . don't talk to me that way! What does that mean, "What happened?"

Willy becomes defensive and angry with Bernard out of his own deep feelings of guilt and shame--and his pain in realizing the role he had played in destroying his son's future.

mahrukhrana's profile pic

mahrukhrana | Student, Grade 11 | eNotes Newbie

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willy's converstion with bernard revives willy's attempt to understand why biff never made a material successof his life , despite his bright and promising youth.willy and bernard discuss biff and consider possible reasons for his lack of motivation and success.Bernard says biff changed right after high school when he visited willy in boston.he question willy about what happened there which changed biff and made him an insecure person.In this conversation miller portrayswilly in a state of mental hyperacticity.His mind is overacting and he cannot see things clearly.His mind run out of control and he yells and uses abusive language."oh, that son of a bitch......" .Willy had accepted the fact that he had lost respect infront of his son but he never accepts it.He seems to be more concerned about society than other values. When bernard questions willy about what happened in boston which changed biff's intention and drained his motivaion.willy becomes angry and resentful after hearing thus qestion and demands to know if bernard blames him for biff's failure. 

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