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Death of a Salesman

by Arthur Miller

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What role does Biff's discovery of Willy's infidelity play in Death of a Salesman's tragedy?

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Biff's sudden realization that his father is having an affair has a devastating effect on him. He previously looked up to and idealized Willy, and suddenly, in a vulnerable period of late adolescence, he realizes his father is a badly-flawed human being who has deceived his wife and family merely to indulge in his own pleasure. Biff loses faith in his father and his father's advice.

This crisis comes at critical moment in Biff's life. He was supposed to attend summer school so he could graduate from high school. (This play is set in the Great Depression, at a time when many Americans did not finish high school, so this graduation would have been an important achievement.) Crushed by his father's betrayal and angry at him, Biff refuses to attend summer school.

As is typical of this family, Biff doesn't talk about what happened but instead buries it away, once again allowing his father to live with his self-destructive illusions.

Already at this point fragile, Willy is confused and disappointed in Biff. He had pinned great hopes on Biff as his own dreams of success and getting rich faded. Biff's self-destructive behavior therefore became yet another nail in the coffin leading to Willy's overwhelming sense of failure and, ultimately, to his suicide. Of course, none of this is Biff's fault: Biff has been damaged by his father's definition of success as something you can achieve through personality rather than gaining expertise. He has been hurt by his father's betrayals and ceaseless illusions.

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Biff's discovery is essentially the catalyst for the events that ultimately bring about Biff and Happy's failures and Willy's death. When Biff discovers Willy’s affair, it becomes clear that Biff’s anger with Willy over the last 17 years stems from his knowledge of Willy’s dishonesty. Rather than reveal Willy’s infidelity to anyone, Biff has remained silent and held a grudge against his father. Willy too has suffered with his guilt, taking his anger and shame out on the son who knows his secret. At one point, Willy throws Biff out of the house because Biff knew he was a “fake.” Although Biff never explained his reasons for calling his father a fake and phony, we now recognize Willy’s affair as the source of Biff’s hostility.

Of course, Biff’s discovery affects every aspect of his life form that point on. After discovering the affair, Biff dismisses his father’s chances of convincing the math teacher to let Biff graduate. The trip to visit his father turns into a life-shattering moment. Biff transforms from a loyal son who idolizes his father (seeing him as the symbol of self-confidence needed to achieve the American dream) into a son betrayed by the father's emptiness and selfishness. Biff probably did, as Willy has suspected, decide not to attend summer school and graduate as a way of hurting, or spiting, Willy. This spirals into a life of failure and drifting, reflecting Willy's own failures in business, and the tragedy of his aging. Despite all this, Willy accuses Biff of spiting him rather than taking responsibility for his own actions and their effects on his young son when he visited him in Boston.

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