Silhouette of a grinning person wearing a top hat with a skull-like face and a red nighttime sky in the background

Death of a Salesman

by Arthur Miller

Start Free Trial

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In Death of a Salesman the expectations of two particular parents, Willy Loman and his neighbor Charley, seem to definitely make a difference in the outcome of their children.

In Willy Loman's mind, success is a combination of personal and physical charm, popularity, and being "well-liked" by others. Sacrifice is not a requirement for success. In fact, bypassing sacrifice and figuring out ways to beat the system are factors that Willy favors more. These were the expectations he placed on Biff, his son. Willy also lived vicariously through the successes of Biff in school.

Bernard can get the best marks Bernard can get the best marks but when he gets out in the business world [...] you are going to be five times ahead of him. [...] You're both built like Adonises.

In turn, Biff lived his entire life not pulling his weight entirely to do anything. His plans for life were as shallow as his father's expectations. Most importantly, he never really amounted to anything important once he realized that his father's view of life was ridiculous, and a double-standard.

In contrast, Charley raised his son Bernard in a way that he allowed his son to just be himself.

Willy even asks Charley whether he (Charley) ever told Bernard what to do. To this, Charley responds that his salvation has been "not to take interest in anything." The result? Bernard, the kid whom Willy and Biff scoffed as a "weakling" ended up becoming a lawyer fighting cases in the Supreme Court. Charley, who is approximately the same age as Willy, continues to work and even ends up lending money to Willy for the latter to pay his bills. A father and son relationship based on honest work and trust paid off well.

In all, the expectations of the parents basically moved their children to make choices based also on the example that the parents set for them, and not just expectations alone. All that Biff saw and got from his father was a "cheat sheet" on how to be popular and find quick success. When Willy himself failed to live up to his own expectations, Biff lost his only role model and mentor, becoming lost in the process.

The exact opposite happened with Bernard. His father allowed him the freedom to find himself. Bernard did just that, and ended up growing into healthy, intelligent young man. This is how these two parents influence their sons in Death of a Salesman.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Both of Willy Loman's boys, Happy and Biff, suffer from their father's misguided direction in life and his expectations.

Happy is the most like Willy and has bought Willy's dream; that is, the delusional idea of getting rich quick and becoming a successful businessman. Also, Happy is very attractive to women. In that department, he appears a success, but he still is portrayed as a lonely character, much like his father. Even at the end of the play, Happy defends Willy even though he has committed suicide. It appears there will be no "happy ending" for Happy either.

In contrast to Happy, Biff, the eldest son, also becomes a victim of his father's expectations but in a different way. Biff is a high school football star and plans to go to college on a scholarship. That is, until he fails a math course. Willy doesn't encourage Biff to make up the math credit; he has tried to instill the same dream in Biff as he did in Happy, the American Dream. However, unlike Happy, Biff finds his own dream, to live a simple life on some land. In this way, Biff appears as a stronger character whose own expectations are more realistic than his father's.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Willy Loman expects his sons Biff and Happy to become successful, wealthy businessmen, but he is disappointed when Biff returns home with no career and no aspirations to attain wealth. Biff's lack of success gives him anxiety, and he feels stressed around Willy because he knows that he cannot please him. However, Willy failed to instill essential values like drive, dignity, and respect into his children when they were young and instead emphasized the importance of being well-liked. Despite his failure as a parent, Willy expects both his sons to attain the American Dream. Willy believes that simply because Biff and Happy were attractive, athletic, popular adolescents, they should easily find success in the business world. Unfortunately, Willy is delusional and not in touch with reality, and he continues to have extremely high expectations for both of his sons. Later in the play, Biff realizes that he can never live up to his father's expectations and accepts the fact that he will never see eye-to-eye with Willy. He also knows that he will not be able to make his father proud and eventually dismisses the idea of attaining the American Dream. Willy's unattainable expectations ruin his relationship with Biff, and instead of taking responsibility for Biff's failures, Willy believes his son is unsuccessful to spite him. Willy's high expectations leave Biff confused, discouraged, and disappointed for the majority of his life. Fortunately, Biff realizes that he will not find happiness pleasing his delusional father and chooses to abandon his pursuit of the American Dream.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In the play, Willy's repeated declarations about Biff's great talent and bright future serve to blind Biff to his true nature. Biff believes he is exceptional because Willy tells him he is.

We see this in Biff's behavior in a number of places in the play. As a boy, Biff steals a football from school. He expects no repercussions to come of this theft. We learn later that he steals from the sporting goods store where he works as a shipping clerk. Biff's sense of entitlement, pressed upon him by his father, leads him to these petty crimes. 

Also, when Biff agrees to approach his former boss to ask for a loan, he is under the impression that he was once a salesman in the sporting goods store. It is not until Biff meets with the store owner that he recalls the exact circumstances of his job there and how it ended. Biff has been persuaded by Willy to believe that he was and is something and someone that he is not. Biff has been led to believe that he is better than he really is. 

This realization occurs to Biff when he is standing in front of his former boss. He shares this realization with both Happy and his father, who each refuse to accept the profound truth that this realization communicates. 

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial