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Free Barron's Booknotes-Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller-Free Book Notes
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THE CHARACTERS (continued)


Biff is 34 and has just come home again from farm work in the West. A star athlete in high school, Biff would conquer the world, thought Willy. Biff's success would mean that Willy had raised him right. But Biff is not a success. He feels "mixed up," confused, uncertain, as though he's wasting his life.

Is he wasting his life, though? When he talks about the farms where he's worked, from the Dakotas to Texas, he speaks with such enthusiasm and eloquence that his brother calls him a "poet." That he doesn't make enough money to "get ahead" makes him feel that he isn't fulfilling his father's expectations. He has been forced to move from job to job because he steals. Now he has come home to try to figure out how to get into something permanent-a job or a marriage. But at home he fights with his father.

While he was growing up, Biff had idolized his father, and Willy had thought Biff could do no wrong. But during Biff's senior year of high school something happened between him and Willy that no one else knows anything about. The two of them have not admitted, even to each other, what happened, but it has affected their relationship ever since. Biff's return upsets Willy, and brings back the first experience from the past.

Of course, the Biff we see in the past is Willy's romanticized version, but still we may begin to see how his problems developed. Willy favored Biff so clearly over his younger brother, Happy, that Hap would literally jump up and down trying to get attention. All Biff's friends fawn over him, eager to do whatever little job he'll give them. Bernard, the neighbor's unathletic son, loves and admires Biff and helps him with his studies.

Willy believes-and makes Biff believe-that anyone so confident, so gorgeous, so natural a leader has the right to make his own rules. He doesn't punish Biff for "borrowing" a football from school; he lets Biff drive without a license; he encourages Biff to steal from a nearby construction site. Biff so believes in his father that when he fails a math exam, he's certain Willy can talk to the teacher, and goes to Boston to find him. When Biff discovers something about his father that shocks him, he gives up on himself and on his father. He refuses to grow up and accept responsibilities. At 34, Biff says to his brother, "I'm like a boy."

Biff is the mentor of the same false ideals that are killing his father. Like his grandfather and father before him, Biff is good with his hands and has an appealing personality, but he doesn't want to start at the bottom. He says to Willy, "You blew me so full of hot air I could never stand taking orders from anybody."

Biff, like his father, has refused to see what he has actually done with his life. But on this return to his parents' home a crucial difference between Biff and Willy develops. Biff is aware of his own unhappiness. He takes a long and clear-eyed look at himself-and at his father. He insists on telling his father what he sees: that he has never been what his father thinks he is. From that new and painful truth, Biff is able to understand Willy and to forgive him and to give him the love that has long been stilled between them. The hope we are given at the end of the play is that Biff is capable of accepting himself. This balances the futility of Willy's life.

Biff says Willy had the wrong dreams, "All, all wrong." What becomes of Biff after his father's death is an intriguing question, but he'll do it on his own terms. He has become his own man.

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