Major Themes of Death of a Salesman
The American Dream
Willy emphatically believes in the American myth of the rise of the individual in society. The notion that anyone can be achieve economic and social success through hard work is one of Willy’s central beliefs. He takes this in an almost childish sense. He believes that being well-liked and being attractive are all that are necessary to succeed in business.
For this reason, he is shallow in his way of living and ignores things like hard work and dedication. For example, he thinks Bernard is an unlikely person for success because he is awkward and unattractive. His own sons are popular and are more likely to succeed. As Willy is forced to confront the reality of these shallow beliefs, his world comes apart and so does he.
Willy’s entire life can be seen as a series of abandonments. We learn in the play that he was left by his father when quite young. This left him both financially and spiritually abandoned. Ben abandons him for Alaska which leaves Willy completely alone with nothing but his shallow ideals of the American dream.
The conflict between Willy and Biff is one in which Willy feels abandoned by his son, and Willy abandons his paternal responsibilities by cheating on Biff’s mother. In one of the final moments of the play, both Biff and Happy abandon Willy to his ramblings as he descends into madness.
The major conflict in the play centers on what Willy sees as Biff’s betrayal of his expectations. Willy cannot come to grips with the fact that Biff is fundamentally different from the life he imagined for him. He sees Biff’s actions as betrayals of his fatherly guidance and example. This betrayal fractures all of Willy’s illusions about how the world works Willy believes that if things look good, they are good.
That Biff would fail him in some way is betrayal of Willy’s sense of order. Yet, Willy betrays Linda by having an affair with the woman. Biff caught Willy in the act and that affair became a betrayal of the entire family. Thus Biff calls him a “fake.”