In Arthur Miller's play, Death of a Salesman, a major theme and source of conflict is the Loman family's lack of morality. This is particularly evident in the father, Willy Loman. Willy has created a world of questionable morality 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 competitive world of business. In reality, Willy’s son Biff is a drifter and a thief, his son Hap is continually seducing women with lies, while Willy does not treat his wife with respect and lies to everyone.
Throughout the play, Willy seems unable to distinguish between right and wrong. He continually sends mixed moral signals to his sons. We first discover this when Willy finds Biff practicing football with a new ball. When he finds out that Biff "borrowed" it from the locker room, Willy tells Biff to return the stolen ball but tends to condone his action. Firstly, Willy feels that Biff needs the ball to practice. Secondly, the theft shows independence and daring. Finally, Biff can get away with it because the coach has a high opinion of him. Willy comments that the coach may even appreciate Biff’s initiative, all the while telling him that stealing will get him nowhere.
Willy’s dubious moral code is also exposed when the neighbor, Bernard, states that Biff will fail mathematics and lose his chance to graduate if he does not study. Willy is undisturbed by the news that Biff has not been studying. Willy seems to believe that the school would not dare fail anyone whose athletic achievements had led to offers of scholarships to three universities. Perhaps Willy believes...
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...roic act that would allow Biff to achieve the greatness that had always exceeded Willy’s grasp. In fact, it was an immoral act of a coward – just another sacrifice on the altar of the American dream.
Baym, Franklin, Gottesman, Holland, et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 4th ed. New York: Norton, 1994.
Costello, Donald P. “Arthur Miller’s Circles of Responsibility: A View From a Bridge and Beyond.” Modern Drama. 36 (1993): 443-453.
Hayashi, Tetsumaro. Arthur Miller Criticism. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1969.
Martin, Robert A., ed. Arthur Miller. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1982.
Miller, Arthur. The Archbishop’s Ceiling/The American Clock. New York: Grove Press, 1989.
---. Death of a Salesman. New York: Viking, 1965.
---. Eight Plays. New York: Nelson Doubleday, 1981.
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