In many literary works, family relationships are the key to the plot. It is also a common feature of the American plays written during the first half of the 20th century. Through a family’s interaction with one another, the reader is able decipher the conflicts of the story. Within a literary family, various characters play different roles in each other’s lives. In the Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman, the interaction between Willy Loman and his sons, Happy and Biff, allows Miller to comment on father-son relationships and the conflicts that arise from them.
Death of a Salesman gives us a pen picture of Willy Loman and his relationship with his sons Biff and Happy. Willy would like to be able to count on his two sons, but he knows he can’t. The older one is Biff who is a failure in his life, and the younger one Happy has a steady job. But nobody of them can meet the demand of Willy. Thus there are ups and downs in their relationship in different stages of their life. Though the father-son relationship was quite well at the beginning, it becomes soared with the passage of time and the gap is never bridged up.
As unfortunate as it is, there are many instances where a father favors one son over another, which leads to social conflicts within the less-favoured son. In most cases it is the oldest son that is being favoured while the younger son is ignored. Usually the father doesn’t even realize what is happening. He simply gets too caught up in the successes of his eldest son and he may even try to live out his life through his son’s experiences. Because Willy has dreams of grandeur for Biff, Miller subtly shows how Happy is overlooked.
Biff is the favourite son of Willy and when he was growing up, Biff had idolized his father and Willy had thought Biff could do no wrong. Willy believes and makes Biff believe that any one so confident, so gorgeous is certain to attain success in life. However, at one stage, there relationship collapsed. But Willy bears a good opinion regarding Biff and always believes that Biff has the ability to develop a business of his own.
During most father-son relationships, there are certain times where the father wants to become more of a "player" in his son’s life than his son believes is necessary. The reasons for this are numerous and can be demonstrated in different ways. Miller is able to give an example of this behavior through the actions of Willy Loman. When Biff comes home to recollect himself, Willy perceives it as failure. Since Willy desperately wants his oldest son, Biff, to succeed in every way possible, he tries to take matters into his own hands. "I’ll get him a job selling. He could be big in no time" (16). The reason that Biff came home is to find out what he wants in life. Because Willy gets in the way, matters become more complicated. Partly due to Willy’s persistence in Biff’s life, they have conflicting ideas as to what the American dream is. Willy believes that working on the road by selling is the greatest job a man could have (81). Biff, however, feels the most inspiring job a man could have is working outdoors (22).
When their two dreams collide, it becomes frustrating to Willy because he believes that his way is the right way. If a father becomes too involved in his son’s life, Miller believes friction will be the resultant factor. Thus, their relationship reaches such a point that Biff can not bear Willy. The frustration of Biff begins and he no more feels comfort with the presence of his father. He always tries to keep himself away from him and in a conversation with his brother Happy he says-“why does Dad mock me all the time?” When he finds that he is not fit for any job his criticism goes on towards his father’s upbringing- “You blew me so full of hot air I could never stand taking orders from anybody.”
Willy and Biff are often found passing a happy time, behaving with each other like friends. They share their dreams, hopes and aspirations. Willy tries to make Biff a prominent man in the country. He is so fond of Biff that he overlooks the latter’s bad habits. He totally ignores Biff’s habit of stealing; on the contrary, he seems to encourage it. In course of time, stealing becomes so habitual for Biff that it works as one of the principle causes of his downfall. Again, Willy also does not pay heed to Biff’s education. Willy thinks that education is not necessary for success. Willy does not show any interest in Bernard’s warning that Biff is doing bad in exams. On the contrary, both Willy and Biff humiliates Bernard and mocks at him. Thus, although Biff is a good football player and athlete, these qualities alone are not enough in the business world. Biff is, in fact, devoid of the good family training which his father might have given him.
However, the incident which is mainly responsible for the collapse of the father-son relationship is Willy’s love-making with a Boston girl. Biff travels to Boston to meet his father but he finds in the hotel room that his father is passing his time with a girl. Biff goes to Boston to tell his father that he has failed his exam and Willy needs to talk to his teacher for Biff’s readmission. However, when Biff discovers his father’s betrayal to his mother, he loses his interest in education and job. Here also we find that Willy is largely responsible for Biff’s failure in securing a good career. Besides, the Boston incident sours the father-son relationship permanently.
Miller attempts to show the conflicts that occur as a result of a father not teaching his sons any morals. Willy ingrains in Biff’s head that a person can do anything as long as they are popular. Because of this belief, Biff develops an addiction to stealing. The reason he lost his job with Oliver was because he stole basketballs from him. He has trouble all his life because he steals. "I stole myself out of every good job since high school" (131). It is this reason that has caused all his problems with Willy, and Willy is to blame because he never told him differently. Happy also has a sour relationship with Willy because of the lack of values he has. Willy always tells them that being popular is the best quality to have. Happy meets some women at the restaurant where he and Biff are supposed to meet Willy. When Willy starts to fall apart on them, Happy tries to ignore him so that he won’t look bad in front of the women. "No, that’s not my father. He’s just a guy" (115). Willy never instils family pride in them. It is this reason that a gap exists in their relationship with him. Arthur Miller’s ability to have characters interact with one another allows him to comment on father-son relationships and the conflicts involved.
But Willy on his part always tries to do something for his boys and does never want to depend on them. He commits suicide as it will bring twenty thousand dollars of insurance which will help Biff to make a good fortune. And the son’s respect is shown after his death when Happy says-
“Willy Loman did not die in vain. He had a good dream. It’s only dream you can have-to come out number-one man.”