Illusion Versus Reality in Death of a Salesman
A major theme and source of conflict throughout Miller's play, Death of a Salesman, is the Loman family's inability to distinguish between reality and illusion. This is particularly evident in the father, Willy Loman. Willy has created a fantasy world for himself and his family. In this world, he and his sons are men of greatness that "have what it takes" to make it in the business environment. In reality, none of them can achieve greatness until they confront and deal with this illusion.
Willy's most prominent illusion is that success is dependant upon popularity and having personal attractiveness. Willy builds his entire life around this idea and teaches it to his children. When Willy was young, he had met a man named Dave Singleman who was so well-liked that he was able to make a living simply by staying in his hotel room and telephoning buyers. When Dave Singleman died, buyers and salesmen from all over the country came to his funeral. This is what Willy has been trying to emulate his entire life. Willy's need to feel well-liked is so strong that he often makes up lies about his popularity and success. At times, Willy even believes these lies himself. At one point in the play, Willy tells his family of how well-liked he is in all of his towns and how vital he is to New England. Later, however, he tells Linda that no one remembers him and that the people laugh at him behind his back. As this demonstrates, Willy's need to feel well-liked also causes him to become intensely paranoid. When his son, Biff, for example, is trying to explain why he cannot become successful, Willy believes that Biff is just trying to spite him. Unfortunately, Willy never realizes that his values are flawed. As Biff points out at the end of the play, "he had the wrong dreams."
In many ways Biff is similar to his father. In the beginning of the play we see that Biff shares many of the same ideas as Willy. He values being well-liked above everything else and sees little value in being smart or honest. One of Biff's main flaws is his tendency to steal. Early in the play we learn that he has stolen a football from the school locker. When Willy finds out about this, instead of disciplining Biff, he says that the coach will probably congratulate him on his initiative. We also learn that Biff once stole a box of basketballs from Bill Oliver. This foreshadows the scene in which Biff steals Bill Oliver's fountain pen after trying to get a loan for his sporting goods business. The climactic scene in Biff's life comes when he finds a woman in Willy's hotel room. This causes Biff to realize that Willy is a fake. Biff's tragedy is that he has accepted Willy's values all his life, and now that he finds out they are false, he has no values of his own to rely upon. Thus, Biff becomes lost and must set out to find his own values. Once Biff begins to develop his own beliefs, his opinions about his father change....