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Death of a Salesman

by Arthur Miller

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What is the turning point in Willy's life in Death of a Salesman?

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The turning point in Willy’s life is at the end of the play, when he sees Biff cry, and he realizes that his son loves him. This realization causes him to act decisively.

All of his life, Willy has wanted to be liked and loved. He has turned being “well-liked” into the definition of success, believing that if people like you, then that is all that matters. He cares little for hard work and studies. Personal magnetism and popularity define the good life. And he has educated his entire family to believe in this philosophy. His shiny words beam brightly for Linda, Biff, and Happy, who all bask in the glow of Willy’s dreams. The future is always bright.

Until the hotel room.

Throughout Death of a Salesman, Willy is constantly reliving (and getting confused by) scenes from the past. One of the scenes he relives is when Biff was still in high school. Biff had gone to visit Willy, who was on a business trip in Boston. Biff had just flunked his math class, but he was convinced that his dad, the hero, could save everything by talking to his teacher and using his shiny words. However, when Biff arrives in the hotel room and discovers that his father is having an affair, Biff is devastated. Suddenly all the glossiness of his father’s words is stripped away. He sees his dad as a fake, a phony, and rejects his father and the illusory world that his father has created.

This rejection continues into Biff’s adulthood, and Biff’s anger toward his father is seen throughout the play. Willy, who is blind to most of reality, is not blind to his son’s ability to see through the deceptive surface of his words, seeing all of his faults. He knows he has fallen greatly in his son’s eyes.

Until Biff cries.

When Biff, now thirty-four years old but still adrift in the world, cries in desperation, begging the family to be honest with each other, suddenly Willy Loman feels redeemed. He is amazed, marveling, “Biff—he likes me,” to which Linda replies, “He loves you, Willy.” Although he does not heed his son’s words to be “honest” with each other, in fact, he wouldn’t know how, he still feels the great love that Biff always had for him, despite everything that has happened. Willy feels that he has been returned to his proper place as head of the family, the provider, the one who will lead his boys to greatness. And so, this can be seen as the turning point in Willy’s life because, in this moment of glory, he turns with decisiveness to his final plan, his suicide, convinced that the insurance money from his death will provide Biff with the glorious glossy future that Willy always dreamed for him. “A star like that, magnificent, can never really fade away!” Willy is assured that Biff will shine like a star, and thus Willy too will shine with him and never fade away, even in death. At least, that is what Willy believes.

Of course, the reality ends up vastly different from what Willy expects. Unlike his idol, Dave Singleman, the successful salesman who inspired Willy to be a salesman, and whose death drew hundreds of salesmen and buyers to his funeral, when Willy dies, no one comes to his funeral but his family and Charley, who are left hopeless and bewildered by his actions. There is nothing shining at the end.

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For the majority of the play, Willy Loman struggles to accept reality and take responsibility for not instilling values in his children. It is suggested that Willy's several car accidents were actually suicide attempts and Linda even finds a rubber hose in the basement presumably to attach to the water heater's gas pipe, which indicates that he has been contemplating suicide by inhaling gas. When Biff attempts to please his father by asking his old boss for a loan so that he can start a business with his brother, Willy is enthused and plans on approaching his boss about working in the city instead of constantly traveling on the road to make sales. One could argue that the turning point in Willy's life is when he meets with his boss and ends up losing his job. Being fired devastates Willy, who also learns that the "Florida idea" does not work out. Willy's failure, coupled with his sons' lack of success, sends him into a downward spiral in which he begins to hallucinate and eventually decides to commit suicide.

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The turning point in Willy's life in Death of a Salesman is after he loses his job with Howard, refuses the job offer from Charley and is confronted by Biff about the misconceptions that have dominated their lives since Happy and Biff's childhood.  After the confrontation with Biff in the restaurant and the memory of Biff's stumbling upon his secret affair with The Woman, Willy pretty much gives up on life and begins to believe that the only way he will ever be able to help Biff make a life for himself is if Willy can contrive his own death to look like an accident, leaving the life insurance money for his family. 

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