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Death of a Salesman

by Arthur Miller

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The main character in Death of a Salesman: Willy or Biff?

Summary:

Willy Loman is the main character in Death of a Salesman. The play primarily focuses on Willy's struggles with his career, his mental health, and his relationships with his family, particularly his son Biff. While Biff plays a significant role, the central narrative revolves around Willy's experiences and ultimate downfall.

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

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

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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In Death of a Salesman, who is the main character: Willy or Biff?

I would argue that Willy is the play's central character. Though Biff has a flashback scene, it includes Willy. Willy is Biff's fixation and it is Willy's fate that this play is interested in exploring centrally, not Biff's. 

Willy, simply, receives more attention in the play and is more fully explored emotionally, thematically, and narratively. 

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In Death of a Salesman, who is the main character: Willy or Biff?

Willy is, no doubt, the play's main character; Biff, however, plays a particularly significant role in the play. Besides being a dynamic and well developed character in his own right, Biff is a functional character in the play. It is his discovery of Willy in the hotel room with the woman that originally poisoned his relationship with his father, and it is their conflict that largely drives the play and forms its subtext. Biff functions in another capacity, as well. He is the living proof of failure--Willy's failure as a father and the failure of the corrupt values upon which Willy built his life, his career, and his family. Happy's life echoes failure, as well, but Happy continues to skate through life, unaware of his own superficiality and unimportance. It is Biff who gains self-awareness, sees his life for what it has been--and suffers for the sins of his father.

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In Death of a Salesman, who is the main character: Willy or Biff?

Death of a Salesman is a modern tragedy.  The definition of a tragedy is a story that tells the downfall of the main character as a result of his own mistake.  Biff experiences hardship in the play - he certainly isn't doing well in his life - but Willy is the one who experiences a downfall.  His illusions about life are slowly destroyed to the point that he commits suicide.

Consider how the action of the play is organized.  The flashbacks are structured to demonstrate how Willy got to the stage he is at right now.  We see him in contrast with his brother, showing how it is that Willy was set up to believe in the possibility of "get rich quick" schemes.  We see how he lost face as a father when Biff discovers his infidelity.  We see Willy face off against Charlie and admit that Charlie is his only friend.  Biff's storyline of seeking for a path in life just highlights Willy's mistakes.  We see in Biff, from the teenage Biff to the current one, a man who believes too hard in the power of name and appearance over hard work and on a man who believes in getting rich quick.  Biff's conversations with Willy and Happy help to underline the tragedy of Willy's life.  There is no moment of change for Biff.

Consider also that the other characters are concerned with and center around Willy.  Linda protects him, Happy seeks his approval, and Biff tries to accept his flaws.  Miller structures the story around the father in the family, not the son.  The play doesn't end with Biff's new life - it ends with the family, and Charley, gathering for Willy.

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In Death of a Salesman, who is the main character: Willy or Biff?

I think it has to be Willy.   Without him, there would be no play which is clearly about the inadequacy of his vision of the world in the time in which he lives.  Biff is a product of this failed vision; Willy raises Biff to think that being well known, well liked is the key to "success."  He fills Biff this half-truth, so much so that Biff is fails to do the other things you must do to be success ... such as passing algebra (although we know that his failing algebra has as much to do with discovering his Father with the "buyer" in Boston).

So I see Biff as an important "minor" character whose purpose is to enflesh the incorrect decisions that Willy has made in his question for success --- so that we can see rather than just think about.

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In Death of a Salesman, assess how Willy is the main character over Biff.

I think that one has to consider Willy to be the main character in the drama.  Certainly, Biff occupies a central role in the drama.  He experiences the same heartache and loss as his father.  Yet, he comes to an understanding about his father that is only evident after his father has died.  The reality is that the drama is about Willy. The thematic applications of the drama only happen because of Willy and his own condition.  It is Willy who is the central character because it is through him that Biff, and the audience, understands the shortcomings of living a life like the one that Willy has led.  It is one where there is emptiness and a sense of pain, a condition that Willy has to embody in order for the audience to understand both the protagonist's condition and their own.  Biff, like us, is impacted by Willy and his actions, but it is Willy's predicament upon which we place the greater amount of focus.  When Miller observes an audience literally weeping for their own condition that is being rendered on stage, it is because they identify with the sadness of Willy.  The "matrix" that governs him and renders him incapable of happiness is where their focus lies and through this, he becomes the center point of the drama.  It is here where I think that Willy would have to be considered the primary focus of the drama over Biff.

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