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Death of a Salesman

by Arthur Miller

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If Willy is the protagonist in Death of a Salesman, who or what is the antagonist? Is it the same if Biff is considered the protagonist?

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The essential conflict in Death of a Salesman is the human being versus society, but its corollary is humans against themselves. Arthur Miller makes it clear that he intends Willy Loman as the protagonist. There is not a human antagonist. Although Biff , Happy, and Linda are very important in Willy’s life, they are minor characters who all rotate around Willy’s center. A case could be made for Biff as the protagonist, but part of his problem is precisely that he has not taken charge of his own life. Biff is so strongly influenced by his father that he suffers from arrested development.

The diverse elements of societal opposition that endanger Willy’s well-being include business, time and progress, materialism, and hypocrisy. Willy’s occupation as a salesman—and Miller’s famous refusal to state what he sells and what is in his cases—stands for the impossibility of business, and by extension corporate capitalism, to satisfy Americans. Willy valiantly tries to sell something, anything, to the American people, but his sense of inferiority damages his ability to persuade others. As America grew out of the Depression and through World War II, a more aggressive, forward-looking personality was required. A man who had already failed in his own era, Willy certainly will never succeed in this new environment.

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It would not be the same.

If Willy is the protagonist, the antagonist would be the force that wrecks him: The fake ideal of the American Dream and its assumption that hard work earns you the happiness that you deserve.

If Biff is considered the protagonist, his antagonist would have been his own father. He was the character who changed Biff's life and sent it spiraling down. It was his Dad's infidelity what made Biff change the image of greatness that he had of his father, and eventually what made his life lose meaning.

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