Analysis Of The Values Willy Loman As Father Instills In His Sons

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The highly acclaimed play, Death of a Salesman, written in 1949 by Arthur Miller, explores the life of an unsuccessful salesman, Willy Loman. The play takes place as Willy is aging alongside his wife, Linda Loman, and his now adult sons, Biff and Happy Loman. Arthur Miller uses character dialogue between Willy, Biff, Happy, and flashbacks Willy has of them in their childhood to develop his stance on the values fathers instill in their sons, and further, how those values affect the future emotional well-being and overall success of his sons.

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Miller employs various dialogue between characters, as well as flashbacks, to showcase exactly what values Willy places the most significance on. At the beginning of the play, through a conversation between Willy and Linda over the return of their son, Biff, it is evident the aspects of life that Willy values, “But it’s more than ten years now and he has yet to make thirty-five dollars a week”. This scene, among many others, indicates that Willy places great importance on making money and that he believes selling is the best avenue for achieving that goal. Yet another value Willy instills in them is “having” women. Whenever Willy reflects on Biff’s high school days he often noted the number of girls Biff attracted. Through flashback readers get a glimpse at the way Willy encouraged his sons to treat women. “Don’t make any promises. No promises of any kind. Because a girl, y’know, they always believe what you tell ‘em”. The overarching lesson he teaches his sons is that if you are well liked, attractive, and have connections you will be successful and that, moreover, this success will translate into making more money, “Because the man who makes an appearance in the business world, the man who creates personal interest, is the man who gets ahead. Be liked and you will never want”. These core values, taken together, play a significant role in his sons’ lives into adulthood.

Through utilization of character dialogue, Miller demonstrates the influence of Willy’s teachings upon how Biff and Happy fashion their lives. One such instance occurs when Happy inquires with Biff as to why Biff has lost his humor and confidence, to which Biff replies by asking Happy why Willy mocks him, “Everything I say there’s a twist of mockery on his face. I can’t get near him. This comment implies that he still yearns for approval from Willy. As this conversation continues they contemplate what they desire in life, both ultimately stating they are unsure. Biff declares he does find happiness working on the farm but he thinks this line of work is not a real career, “What the hell am I doing, playing around with horses, twenty-eight dollars a week”. This indicates the depth that Willy’s sons have internalized the values that Willy finds most important since Biff is able to forgo work that makes him happy for a job that his father would approve of. Happy, on the other hand, despite following in Willy’s line of work, states that he, too, is not content, “But then, it’s what I always wanted. My own apartment, a car, and plenty of women. And still, goddammit, I’m lonely”. Even accomplishing the aspirational goals of money and women that Willy preached and valued, Happy was not fulfilled.

Through Biff’s continued habit of stealing, the reader is able to see additional ways Willy’s parenting affects them into adulthood. Again via flashback, Willy shares an instance of young Biff stealing. During the flashback Biff explains to Happy and Willy that he borrowed a ball from the locker room to which Willy responds that his coach will not get mad but actually praise him for his initiative, “That’s because he likes you. If somebody else took the ball there’d be an uproar”. This lesson strengthens Willy’s notion that being liked comes with glorious rewards. Unfortunately, this is a quirk that follows him into adulthood and prohibits him from sustaining a job and even lands him in jail, “I stole myself out of every good job since high school”.

Other examples of negative consequences from their behavior include Happy’s involvement in dating women engaged in relationships, taking bribes at work, and apparent lack of loyalty to anyone. Following an argument between he, Biff, and Willy about their father, Happy’s dialogue with the girls he meets at dinner indicates to the reader some of these character flaws, “No, that’s not my father. He’s just a guy,” displaying his lack of loyalty to his own father. Overall, these values Willy preached to be used as a means to success leave the boys unfulfilled emotionally and unaccomplished professionally.

The message of the importance of father’s teachings to their sons that Miller attempts to convey to his audience through various literary devices can be supported by other scholars. In agreement with Miller’s verdict, psychologists suggest that parents play an important role in socializing their children to moral issues and acceptable behavior by providing a good example to observe and follow, and by giving specific instructions about how to behave”. The morals that influenced Willy’s parenting took form in fanciful promises made to Biff and Happy which lead to disappointment throughout their lives. Research shows that, “children raised in rejecting or authoritarian environments learn to expect rejection and hostility,” thus considering that the boys experienced the exact opposite and expected to be met with open arms by the real world, it is not hard to understand why they felt letdown. Another factor that contributes to their unsuccessful adult lives is the absence of consequences for their poor behavior as children. The absence of repercussions is clearly due to Willy’s inability to see that the lessons he teaches them to live by are morally inept, which is ironic because he, too, lives by them and has yet to receive any form of positive validation. Another aspect that feeds into their behavior, in particular with Biff, is the feeling of acceptance. Before Biff learns about Willy’s affair he believes everything he says as truth, but once he realizes Willy is cheating on Linda, he begins to reevaluate both Willy’s teachings and his character as a man. Research suggests that, “The combination of acceptance with behavioral control has been shown to result in the most favorable developmental outcomes,” providing an explanation for their mediocre outcome since these aspects were missing from their adolescence.

In the play, Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller expertly employs the literary devices of character dialogue and flashbacks to illustrate his message of how the values or morals fathers teach their sons are the ones that they will live by, even into adulthood. In doing so, Miller is attempting to emphasize the importance of this duty fathers have towards their sons as it will affect their future emotional well-being and overall success in life

Works Cited

  • Camodeca Marina, and Taraschi Emanuela. “Like Father, Like Son? The Link Between Parents’ Moral Disengagement and Children’s Externalizing Behaviors.” Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, vol. 61, no. 1, 2015, p. 173. EBSCOhost, doi:10.13110/merrpalmquar1982.61.1.0173.
  • Flouri, Eirini. “Subjective Well-Being in Midlife: The Role of Involvement of and Closeness to Parents in Childhood.” Journal of Happiness Studies, vol. 5, no. 4, Dec. 2004, pp. 335–358. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1023/B:JOHS.0000048461.21694.92.
  • Kaisa Aunola, and Jari-Erik Nurmi. “The Role of Parenting Styles in Children’s Problem Behavior.” Child Development, vol. 76, no. 6, 2005, p. 1144. EBSCOhost,
  • Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman – WCUSD15. 302/DS Death of a Salesman Complete.pdf.
16 August 2021

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