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Death of a Salesman

by Arthur Miller

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Describe Willy's relationship with his sons in Death of a Salesman.

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Willy Loman has a very difficult relationship with his sons. His relationship with Biff is especially fraught. This is because Biff hasn't achieved his potential. Once upon a time, Biff was a star football player in high school and seemed destined for success. A well-liked man with a large circle of friends, he seemed to have it all. But after he caught his old man having an affair with a secretary, he went completely off the rails, so much so that he flunked his math test, thus missing out on a college scholarship.

Ever since then, Biff has been nothing but a disappointment to his father, even though it is Willy himself who's largely responsible for his son's failures in life. As for Biff, he cannot respect Willy, not just because of the incident with the secretary, but also because Willy has become a dinosaur, unable to change with the times when it comes to the modern world of salesmanship.

Happy is also a disappointment to his father. Although he has a better relationship with Willy than Biff—that's not saying much—he still doesn't meet Willy's required standards of what a successful man looks like. Again, this is largely Willy's fault. He's always drummed into Happy the notion that all you need to succeed in life is to be a well-liked man. Well, Happy is indeed a well-liked man, but has achieved virtually nothing. Instead, he spends most of his time in a fruitless search for the next big thing, the golden opportunity that will provide a shortcut to wealth and success. But somehow it never comes, and so Willy remains deeply disappointed in his youngest son.

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Willy Loman has a difficult, tense relationship with both of his sons throughout the play. Happy and Biff have not grown into the men Willy wished they would become. Biff is unsettled at the age of thirty-four and has not achieved material success. Happy is also in his thirties and is relatively unsuccessful in the business world. Willy feels that his sons, especially Biff, have all the tools they need to be successful. However, Willy does not realize that he has not instilled a sense of responsibility, work ethic, or morals into Happy and Biff. He feels that Biff has refused to go to college and apply himself out of spite. Willy does not understand that his affair traumatized Biff and was the moment that his oldest son lost all respect for him. Willy blames Biff, instead of himself, for his shortcomings and places unattainable expectations on his sons. Essentially, Willy feels disappointed in his sons and refuses to recognize his own mistakes as a father.

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Willy has a tense and difficult relationship with his elder son Biff. He feels that Biff has let him down by not being any more successful in life than Willy himself has been. Biff has no proper job, is not married, and  is unable to settle down to anything. Willy seems to feel that Biff has failed on purpose, just to spite his father: 'You don't want to be anything, is that what's behind it?' he accuses Biff during their confrontation in the restaurant (Act II).

What Willy does not understand is that Biff has become very confused about life. As Biff tells his brother Happy early on in the play:

I tell ya Hap, I don't know what the future is. I don't know - what I'm supposed to want. (Act I)

Biff, therefore, has no direction at all - he doesn't know what he should be aiming for.

Willy is a major reason why Biff feels like this. When younger, Biff looked up to his father as a role model - at least this is how Willy remembers it - but his faith in him was severely shaken by accidentally finding out that Willy was having an affair. Ever since this he has scorned Willy's devoted husband and father act, although evidently he has never brought himself to tell anyone else of this affair.

Even more damaging, though, from Biff's perspective, are Willy's ideas of how to get on in life. Willy has taught his sons that being popular is really all that matters, that success will follow if one is 'well-liked', rather than inculcating the virtues of study, and hard and steady work. Biff feels that this led to his failure in high school and thereafter he has been unable to apply himself to anything. 

Willy's relationship with his younger son Happy is not as fraught as his relationship with Biff, but it is still unsatisfactory.  Although, on the surface, Happy appears more settled than Biff, he has not turned out a success either. He is in a low-paid job, living on rent, and like Biff he has not settled down and got married, but continues to run around with various women. He vies for his father's attention, but Willy is always more focussed on Biff, his one-time favourite son, on whom  he seems to have pinned all his hopes. Yet it is Happy that Willy ends up influencing the most; he shares his father's delusions about gaining success and wealth, whereas Biff is able to see through them.

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In addition to Willy Loman's impossibly high expectations that he sets for his sons, his relationship with Biff in particular is strained because of Willy's own hypocrisy.

We learn in one of Willy's dream sequences that Biff caught his father with "The Woman," or Willy's mistress with whom he cheated on Linda. Biff's discovery of his father's infidelity shatters the young man's image of his father. After hearing The Woman's laugh as she hides, he calls Willy a "fake." Biff experiences an epiphany in this moment, realizing that the father he always idolized was a deeply flawed man rather than a hero to whom Biff could aspire.

It is after this moment in Boston that Biff's relationship with Willy becomes particularly contentious. Biff abandons his father's delusions of grandeur in favor of a more realistic life. The fracturing of this relationship also affects Willy. In many of his dream sequences, Willy's thoughts include a memory of Biff, which shows that Willy likely regrets causing Biff grief.

While Happy does not have the same personal grudge against Willy, he is clearly not his father's favorite. Despite knowing this, Happy chooses to follow in his father's footsteps as a way to honor Willy's memory after his death.

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In Death of a Salesman, the relationship between Willy and his sons Biff and Happy is fairly contentious because Willy has imposed a set of impossible standards on his sons.  When the boys were in high school, Willy likened them to young "Adonises" and believed that they would be financially successful because people liked them.  However, Biff and Happy did not follow the path of success imagined by Willy:  Biff has been arrested for stealing, and Happy remains a low-level clerk in the company for which he works.  Willy continues to tell his sons that they will be great someday, but Biff in particular has a different set of dreams.  Biff wants to work in the outdoors, and he has come to accept the fact that there is nothing special about him.  Willy, however, will not accept this perspective and hangs on to his dream of greatness.  This clash in values creates the contentious relationship between Willy and his sons.

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Describe the relationship between Willy and his sons as Ben influences them as a family in Death of a Salesman.

Ben Loman represents a story and standard of success that Willy adopts for himself and his sons. In this way, Ben becomes a symbol of success that reflects Willy's failure. He also becomes an ideological tool - an intellectual concept - which serves to distance Willy, Biff and Happy from reality and also to distance them from one another. 

Primarily, we can see Ben as a symbol (and a symptom) of Willy's persistent and complex delusions regarding success. 

He appears in scenes which take place in Willy's imagination, and appears larger-than-life, all-knowing, powerful, a great adventurer; he is everything Willy dreams of becoming.

As a young man, Ben sets off to seek his fortune. After living in the wilds of Alaska and Africa, Ben succeeds in his adventures and becomes quite wealthy.

Willy states directly that he sees Ben as a great example for his own boys. Willy reminds Biff and Happy about the greatness of their uncle and seems to fully expect them to achieve similar things. 

While Biff realizes that this potential simply is not in him and ultimately faces up to the reality of his character, Happy internalizes the dream that Willy repeated so often. This becomes perfectly clear at Willy's funeral, when Happy offers his take on Willy's character. 

"I'm gonna show you and everybody else that Willy Loman did not die in vain. He had a good dream. It's the only dream you can have—to come out number-one man. He fought it out here, and this is where I'm gonna win it for him."

Willy's high expectations for himself and for his two sons proves damaging all around. The schism that so plainly exists in Willy's mind regarding who he truly is and who he believes himself to be leads to a moral failing in Willy, demonstrated by the affair that Biff discovers in Boston. 

Unable to accept his station in life and unsatisfied with his modest achievements, Willy defends himself through bluster and lies both to Biff and to his neighbor Charlie. Willy's talent for delusion and his preference for fantasy both lead Biff to steal as a child and to attempt to get a loan from his old boss as an adult.

Biff comes to realize that this elevated self-regard is nothing more than fantasy. He attempts to bring his father around to this realization as well, but Willy feels that Biff is simply attacking him again. Willy clings to the notion that he once was "somebody" and that his brother Ben still stands as an example of achievement suited to his own personality, or at least that of his sons.

Biff, it appears, comes to the sad realization that his father "didn't know who he was," and how his father's unrealistic dreams led him away from the satisfaction he could have found if he had pursued a goal that reflected his talents...

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