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Death of a Salesman

by Arthur Miller

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How do Biff and Happy's failures in Death of a Salesman reflect their father's unrealistic expectations?

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-Willy has always taught his boys that the key to success in life is to be a "well-liked man." - In the case of Biff, this attitude led to his not putting in much effort at school. So long as he was destined to be a football star—a "well-liked man,"—it didn't much matter. Willy certainly never encouraged Biff to do well in school. But when Biff flunked math and so couldn't get a football scholarship at college, he had nothing to fall back on, and has been drifting aimlessly through life ever since. - As for Happy, he is most definitely a "well-liked man,"

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For years Willy Loman has acted out his fantasies of success through his two sons. He hasn't made much of a success of his life, so he's counting on Biff and Happy to restore the family name. Unfortunately, neither Biff nor Happy have been any more successful in life, mainly...

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due to their father's unrealistic expectations.

Willy has always taught his boys that the key to success in life is to be a "well-liked man." In the case of Biff, this attitude led to his not putting in much effort at school. So long as he was destined to be a football star—a "well-liked man,"—it didn't much matter. Willy certainly never encouraged Biff to do well in school. But when Biff flunked math and so couldn't get a football scholarship at college, he had nothing to fall back on, and has been drifting aimlessly through life ever since.

As for Happy, he is most definitely a "well-liked man," but that's pretty much all he is. He's certainly no more successful than his old man; even less so, in fact. The problem is that he's still trying hard to please his father, to do all the things that Willy would want him to do. Inevitably, this leads to immense frustration for Happy when he discovers that following the old man's example leads nowhere in life. No matter how well-liked he is, he'll never be rich; he'll keep on chasing that elusive pot of gold at the end of the rainbow without getting anywhere near it. And this is mainly because Willy has irresponsibly encouraged him in the pursuit of his delusions.

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In Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman's failures are a product of his unrealistic vision of what his life is and could be and what his sons' lives could be. Led by their father, Biff and Happy similarly develop unrealistic visions of their lives. All of these unrealistic visions and expectations, rather than leading to a solid, stable future for any of the characters, only serve to create a superficial existence that eventually all comes crashing down around the characters.

At the start of the play, we learn that Willy sees himself as a successful salesman when, in reality, he is barely surviving. We see his unrealistic vision of his success when, during a flashback, he boasts to his sons that he never has to "wait in line to see a buyer" (Act 1). He further boasts that, on his most recent business trip, he was "sellin' thousands and thousands" (Act 1). But Willy soon shares the reality of his sales with Linda: he only sold $500 worth in Providence and $700 in Boston, leaving him with a commission of $212, plus evidently another $70 commission in Providence, all of which is just barely enough to cover his bills, totaling to $120, due on the fifteenth of the month.

Willy attributes success to good looks, saying that the "man who makes an appearance in the business world, ... is the man who gets ahead" (Act 1). Since he sees both of his sons as being "built like Adonises," he can't help but see them as being successful in the future even though, in reality, Biff may fail high school.

Just as Willy sees his sons as being successful in the future, both Biff and Happy equally see themselves as having the potential for success. Yet, Biff travels from state to state, trying out different jobs, earning "twenty-eight dollars a week" and feeling like all he has done is "waste [his] life" (Act. 1). Similarly, though Happy is earning a fairly good income, he hates his job because he hates being ordered around by higher-ups and feels like he's doing nothing but waiting for his chance to move up in the business world. He is also lonely. Therefore, neither son feels successful, especially because neither son has a clear idea of what true success would look like for them. Even after their father's suicide at the end of the play, they remain uncertain of what their own dreams should be. Biff thinks he'll be happy starting his own ranch even though before he said he thought he was wasting his life working with horses. Happy decides to keep pursuing his business career, to "come out number-one man," like their father wanted to be, even though before he said he hated his job. All of their floundering shows that, because their father failed to grasp reality, they too are failing, which is leading ultimately to their lack of success.

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How is Willy the cause of Biff and Happy's lack of success as adults in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman?

In Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, Willy is a great deal to blame for his sons' lack of success because of his unrealistic view of the world, and his propensity to live in a world of fantasy (seen in the theme, appearances vs. reality).

Willy Loman lives in the past, forever referring to his success in the business world. And while he may have had some success as a younger man, he lives a life surrounded by the ghost of his brother Ben—a great success in his words:

Why boys, when I was seventeen I walked into the jungle, and when I was twenty-one I walked out...And by God I was rich.

(We have no way of knowing if this is true. We know Ben is dead, but not under what circumstances, or if he was actually wealthy.)

Willy always defends his actions, makes promises of impossible future successes and laments a life of missed opportunities. He fails to give his sons the example of a strong father. He sometimes makes excuses for the boys, or—as with Biff—finds fault for a lack of success.

While Willy lives in the past, he also ignores memories of things he has done that have negatively impacted at least one of his sons—Biff.

Biff was his high school football team's star quarterback. He had been awarded a scholarship to college, but he failed senior math. His friend Bernard recalls that Biff planned to take the class in summer school; and then to go away to school—until he visited Willy in Boston, who was there on a business trip. Willy, who may have seemed a hero to Biff before, destroys Biff's image of his dad, as well as his son's desire to do anything with his life. It was as if Biff's life was stopped dead in its tracks. Bernard recalls when Biff changed:

BERNARD:

Willy, I remember it was June, and our grades came out. And he'd flunked math...Biff just got very angry, I remember, and he was ready to enroll in summer school...He wasn't beaten by it at all. But then, Willy, he disappeared from the block for almost a month. And I got the idea that he'd gone up to New England to see you...And he came back...and took his sneakers—remember those sneakers with "University of Virginia" printed on them?...took them down in the cellar and burned them up in the furnace. We had a fist fight. It lasted at least half an hour. Just the two of us, punching each other...crying right through it.

While Willy refuses to face the significance of that time in Biff's life, the audience knows that Biff showed up in Boston, surprising his father—who was with a woman (not his wife, Linda), in the midst of an affair. Biff never told his mother, but he was never the same with Willy.

Happy (Biff's brother) also lives a life based on lies. He is not interested in seriously working, and has a reputation as a womanizer (much like the hidden life Willy led in the past).

For instance, Happy is at the bar and sees a girl enter. Right away he begins to play his "pick up" game:

HAPPY:

Why don't you bring her—excuse me, miss, do you mind? I sell champagne, and I'd like you to try my brand. Bring her a champagne, Stanley.

Happy does this not only to impress the waiter (Stanley), who thinks Happy is a real "operator," but also to impress the young lady. Happy is not in champagne sales. Happy has no drive, and no desire to work hard and make something of himself. His father, too, "talked the talk" for years. Happy is as lost as his father is.

Under other circumstances, the boys could have been stronger, but Willy never shows them how.

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How do Willy's sons Biff and Happy complicate Willy's achievement of the American Dream in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman?

In Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman's sons, Biff and Happy, complicate their father's achievement of the American Dream by not living up to his expectations of how their lives should be. Let's take a look at this in more detail.

For Willy, part of the American Dream is having successful sons who do well in business and make money. Willy, after all, sees himself as a failure, so he wants his sons to make up for that failure through their successes. But Biff and Happy are simply not successful.

Biff seems to have potential when he is a young person. He is a football star, and he is popular. But Biff fails to succeed in school, and he does not want the kind of life that his father wants for him. He begins stealing and gets fired from many jobs, perhaps unconsciously in response to the pressure from his father's expectations.

Happy is more like his father. He is ambitious and concerned with what society thinks, but he is not especially successful. He is merely an assistant to the assistant buyer at a department store. This is hardly fulfilling the American Dream.

Willy decides that he wants his sons to open a sporting goods store, but to do this, they need to get a loan. They fail to be approved for the money, once again flattening Willy's dream for them. Now in despair, Willy kills himself, thinking that he can serve his family best in that way because at least they get the insurance money.

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