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Death of a Salesman

by Arthur Miller

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How could one argue that Biff, not Willy, is the main character of Death of a Salesman?

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On the surface, Willy Loman seems to be the protagonist of Death of a Salesman. As his name suggests, he is the main character and drives the plot forward. However, Biff's gradual transformation and motivation are equally vital to plot. Both Willy and Biff are complex characters who undergo a dramatic change in their lives. Although Willy commits suicide at the end of the play, Biff's epiphany shows that there is hope for him too, which balances out Willy's tragedy and lends itself to an argument that Biff is actually the protagonist.

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One could argue that Biff is the protagonist of Death of a Salesman because his actions drive the plot, he is a complex character, and his change of heart has a dramatic impact on the play. The story is as much about Biff's transformation and maturation than it is about...

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Willy Loman's suicide. Biff's arrival at the beginning of the play is a catalyst for Willy's hallucinations, which depicts Biff's childhood and significant moments in his adolescence. Biff agreeing to meet with Bill Oliver also drives the plot and gives Willy hope for a positive future. Biff is also the only character who knows about his father's affair with The Woman, which has negatively impacted their relationship. The audience learns that Biff resents his father for having the affair, which has affected his motivation in life and is partially responsible for his lack of success. Following Biff's meeting with Bill Oliver, he experiences a dramatic change of heart and accepts reality for the first time in his life. Biff's epiphany and transformation is a significant moment in the play and turning point in his life. Although Biff fails to change his father's perspective, the audience is content knowing that he has found himself, which somewhat balances Willy's tragic suicide. Overall, Biff's transformation, maturation, and ability to come to terms with reality are very much the focal points of the play, which would make him the protagonist.

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One could say that Biff is the main character in Death of a Salesman because, of all the characters, he drives the action, past and present, and he alone changes as a result of the events of the story.

What kicks off the action of the play is that Biff has come home after a long absence. Biff knows the relationship with his father has many loose ends, and it bothers him. In flashbacks, we see that the relationship with Willy and Biff has been the hardest thing in both of their lives. Biff is the only one besides Willy who knows the details of Willy's affair, but he reacts in passive-aggressive style, blowing his chance to go to college and becoming a failure at every career he tries. Biff puts himself into a situation where he is going to make decisions about his life just to please his father, and he steals a pen.

This creates an epiphany for him. He asks himself, "Why am I trying to become what I don't want to be...when all I want is out there, waiting for me the minute I say I know who I am!" He then confronts his father, telling him that both of them are nobodies. But he can also acknowledge, "There's no spite in it anymore." With this, he has reached a place of emotional healing and is able to stop blaming his father for his own failures. Biff's revelation does not prevent Willy from taking his life, but it allows Biff to pursue a different dream for himself. In the Requiem, Biff is able to state to Happy, "I know who I am, kid." Biff is the one who leads Linda off the stage at the end of the play. 

Because the action of the play, both in the present and in flashback, revolves around Biff, and because Biff is the only character who has an epiphany and changes in the play, one could easily make a case for Biff, not Willy, being the main character of Death of a Salesman.

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In Death of a Salesman, why do so many readers consider Biff to be the true protagonist, rather than Willy?

A case can be made for either Willy or Biff as protagonist. However, it is DEATH OF A SALESMAN. Yet, the conflict between Biff and Willy is what drives the play. Noted playwright David Mamet said, and I'm paraphrasing, that in order for a scene to take place, two characters have to want something from each other. Willy wants success for Biff (and Happy as well, I suppose, although any dreams for Happy are never mentioned) and Biff wants Willy to tell the truth. Namely, he wants Willy to own up to the fact that all of the values he taught the boys growing up, the importance of being well-liked, personal attractiveness, having a likable personality, are all false values. As Biff puts it, Willy blew the boys "so full of hot air that [Biff} had to be boss big-shot in two weeks." The dramatic confrontation at the end of Act two puts both characters in center stage where they have it out. Perhaps people think it is "Biff's play" because he survives. He is the one who breaks the cycle of lies and impossible dreams. We know Biff will be ok and that Happy will more than likely grow up to be just like his father. If Miller had kept his orginal title of PRIVATE CONVERSATIONS, then Biff might be a more viable protagonist. He didn't, so what we have left is Willy's story, not Biff's.

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In Death of a Salesman, why do so many readers consider Biff to be the true protagonist, rather than Willy?

One reason why Biff could be considered the true protagonist is because his character is more dynamic in terms of the current story line than Willy. What we know about Willy Loman we only witness through the memories of Biff and the delusional ramblings of Willy. Willy may have been dynamic in his past, but as of the present, Willy does not change at all throughout the current story.

Biff, however, does change eventually as a result of the events that took place once he faced his father and tried to call it a truce for the second time, without success. His character obtains an additional dimension that we cannot apply to Willy.

I, however, still think that the protagonist in this story is the salesman, Willy. It is his story and his own pre-conceived notions of success and the American Dream what landed his fate, and that of others, of course. But he was the one who came defeated amongst them all.

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