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Death of a Salesman

by Arthur Miller

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Willy and Biff's conflict in Death of a Salesman

Summary:

The conflict between Willy and Biff in "Death of a Salesman" arises from Willy's unrealistic expectations and Biff's inability to meet them. Willy's obsession with success and his delusions about Biff's potential create tension, as Biff struggles to find his own identity and reject his father's flawed dreams.

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In Death of a Salesman, why does Willy show interest when Biff mentions Bill Oliver?

Willy has always dreamed that his son would be successful in a social and materialistic way.  Because Biff has always been good looking and physically adept, Willy assumed that Biff would earn great recognition in the world and, in essence, be everything Willy wanted to be and wasn't.

When Biff mentions Bill Oliver, Willy gets excited because he sees a way that his dream for Biff can still come true.  Willy latches onto the idea that Bill always liked Biff, and assumes it is possible for Biff to get a large loan and start his own business.  Willy ignores Biff's lack of experience and/or know-how and just assumes that, given the right resources, Biff can accomplish anything.  Happy helps to fuel the fire because he himself is desparate for his father's attention.  Happy is the one to actually mention Bill Oliver in the first place, and to agree with his father's dream that the boys could take over the business world. 

Biff and Willy fight, though, when Linda tries to put some caution and sense into the conversation.  She tries to point out the problems with the plan, but Willy yells at her for interrupting his words of advice.  Biff gets angry at this, and yells at Willy for yelling at her.  Willy stops dreaming at this point and heads off to his bedroom.

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In Death of a Salesman, why does Willy show interest when Biff mentions Bill Oliver?

Willy desperately wants his son Biff to succeed. When Biff mentions his idea of borrowing money from Bill Oliver so start a sporting goods store, Willy is delighted because it shows the kind of enterprising spirit he has always expected of his son. Biff's idea of borrowing a large sum of money from a man who is only an acquaintance is unrealistic, and his father's encouragement to go ahead with the idea is equally unrealistic. In fact, Willy may seem even more unrealistic because Biff only wants to ask for $10,000, while Willy has such an inflated opinion of his son's potential that he thinks Biff should ask for $15,000. As it turns out, Biff is humiliated when he goes to Oliver's office. Biff realizes as he is sitting waiting for long hours to see his former employer that what he is doing is crazy and that his father must be crazy to believe in it with him. It turns out that the reception at Bill Oliver's office is a blessing in disguise. It forces Biff to wake up to reality; And Biff would like to make Willy face reality to. Biff likes reality because it represents freedom. Reality may be good for Biff, but it is unacceptable to Willy, who is too old to change. It is significant that Biff wants to open a store that sells sporting goods. This seems to illustrate that his love for a physically active outdoor life is involved in the compromise he is trying to make between his real identity and Willy's unrealistic expectations. From what we learn about Biff, it seems unlikely that he would be a successful shopkeeper. He is hoping Bill Oliver won't remember he once stole a box of basketballs--but if he had gotten to talk to Oliver and had mentioned sporting goods, it could have triggered his former employer's recollection of those missing basketballs and his suspicion that his former shipping clerk stole them.

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In Death of a Salesman, why does Willy show interest when Biff mentions Bill Oliver?

Willy thinks that Bill Oliver can fund Biff's proposed sporting goods store, and give his some a chance at a career and some direction in his life.

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In Death of a Salesman, why do Biff and Happy get into an argument? Who is Bill Oliver and what does Biff plan to discuss with him?

The tension that develops between Biff and Happy results from Willy's inequal treatment of both.  Because Willy always pressed upon Biff the idea that he (Biff) was better than his peers, Biff has shied away from the type of low-level  job that Happy has embraced.  Biff's attitude towards such jobs is a further blow to Happy's self-esteem, although Biff is finally able to admit that perhaps he would be better off taking a job than trying to "seek his fortune", as he has done so far.  However, he can't let go of the dreams, and thinks that he and Happy should go and by a farm out West.  Happy refuses, because he wants to stay and try and prove himself.  Biff announces his plan to approach Bill Oliver, a man he used to work for, and ask for a loan.

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In Death of a Salesman, why does mention of Bill Oliver prompt an argument between Willy and Biff?

The part of the play Death of a Salesman that features the argument between Biff and Willy Loman over Bill Oliver occurs in Act 2, scene 5. However, the situation has a different origin.

Willy Loman is interested when Biff mentions Bill Oliver because the latter used to be a supervisor of Biff's many years ago when Biff was younger. Bill Oliver is a successful businessman. That fact alone is enough to get Willy Loman interested. However, this is a businessman for which Biff once worked and (in typical Loman fashion), Biff was thought to be, not the clerk that he was, but an associate of Oliver's. In Willy's mind, Biff was following every mandate and idea of success that Willy had bestowed upon him.

The problem is that Biff stole from Bill Oliver in the past. As a result, he quit working for him. However, the tendency to fantasize had burned through Biff's psyche leading him to falsely remember that Bill Oliver "once had said" that he would be willing to help him in any of his endeavors. This is not the case. Biff imagines all of this.

It is no surprise that, when Biff's fantasy takes him all the way to the office of Bill Oliver to request the help that Bill had supposedly offered, Bill Oliver does not even remember Biff and does not  meet with him. This is the turning point in Biff's life: he now realizes that his life has been nothing but a compilation of Willy Loman's fantasies.

Back to Act 2, scene 5, the Loman men had planned to meet at a restaurant to celebrate the assured success of Biff's meeting with Oliver. At this point, Willy is already convinced that this will be a successful meeting. However, Biff has other plans in mind: he wants to confront Willy, for once and for all, about the false ideas that led him to such a ridiculous meeting in the first place.

Since Willy's mind is traveling from past to present, his hallucinations kept mixing him up between fantasy and reality. This made Biff mad and he obstinately continued to try to make his point. The discussion turned into a loud, public argument that left Happy as the mediator. Unfortunately, Happy was no good at this and his ideas of mediating were to pretend that everything was fine and to coerce Biff into leaving the restaurant with some girls who were presumably escorts that Happy met in the bar previous to the dinner. As a result, the Loman boys left their father at the restaurant, hallucinating, and left to his own devices. The only person to take care of Willy at that point was Stanley, the bartender, who was kind enough to help Willy find his way out.

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What are Biff and Willy arguing about in Death of a Salesman?

Every discussion between Biff and Willy are really about Biff's dissillusionment after he discovered Willie with the women in Boston.  For Biff's part, he is trying to deal with the fact that his dad is just a person, that he made mistakes --- that he was not (could not be???) the idea that Biff had of him.  If you're familiar with Hawthorne, it's similar to Goodman Brown and his inability to accept people as less than perfect.

For his part, Willie always finds Biff "spiteful" --- Willy seems to think that Biff should be willing to forget, to take a more forgiving attitude toward his failing.  He thinks that his explanation, that he was so lonely, should make sense to Biff, but it doesn't.

All their interactions seem tainted by these two opposing forces:  Biff's inability to accept his Dad's failing, and his Dad's inability to understand how seriously this damaged his son.  This isn't always the argument on the surface, which is usually about work/success all the things that Willie thinks are important, but it's the underlying agenda in all their conversations.

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