Death of a Salesman (Review)

Labels: Great Works


Death of a Salesman
Arthur Miller, 1949
pp. 144

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
January 2012

Long considered a defining drama of American theater, Death of a Salesman is typically seen as a tragedy of the common man. The focus is on Willy Loman, a man caught up in the calculating world of commerce—a sphere that strips away human dignity.

Yet the more I've read the play, seen it performed, and taught it to students, the more I see it as the story of Willy's son, Biff, and his struggle to achieve manhood. For me, the story centers on Biff as much as Willy.

The play opens as Willy returns home unexpectedly from a sales trip; a dizzy spell on the highway has undermined his confidence. At home the presence of his two grown sons goads him to anger—both disappointments, neither young man has fulfulled his early promise. This is especially true of the elder son, Biff. The hostility between Willy and Biff becomes central to the story.

Through a series of flashbacks, we see Biff as the favored son, a natural leader in high school, a fine athlete with a college scholarship in his future. The mystery of the play has to do not just with Willy's downfall, but with what happened to Biff all those years ago—why he and Willy come to near fisticuffs...and what threw Biff's life off track.

In confrontng his father toward the end of the play, Biff's utters lines that resonate:

[W]hy am I trying to become what I don't want to be? What am I doing in an office, making a contemptuous, begging fool of myself, when all I want is out there, waiting for me the minute I say I know who I am! Why can't I say that, Willy?

At the very end, Biff can—and does—say those very words: "I know who I am." By now Biff has discovered some core truth about himself that his father could never find in his own self. However or wherever Biff ends up, he will live a life truer to himself than Willy ever could.

This is a wonderful play...whether you read it or see a performance. Do both if you can...then talk about whether Willy is really a tragic figure...and whether or not Biff is the heart of the story. There is, by the way, a fine 1985 TV production with Dustin Hoffman as Willy and John Malkovich as Biff.

See our Reading Guide for Death of a Salesman.

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