PROMPT: Discuss the ideas developed by the text in your chosen text about the ways in which individuals take responsibility for themselves or others.
Despite having grown accustomed to having their dreams and personal desires dictated by the decisions of important people in their life, significant events that change an individual’s perception of said important people sometimes creates a shift in their worldview, allowing them to take responsibility for themselves instead of surrendering their lives to the wills of others. In Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman, the character of Biff Loman is used to demonstrate the dangers of acquiescence to his father’s principles early in life, the consequences of which are reflected in the difficulties he faces as an adult concerning the discernment of his life’s purpose. Through his play, then, Miller demonstrates how individuals robbed of responsibility early in life struggle to take responsibility for themselves in later years. However, strengthened by disillusionment, they are often more determined to break free from the grasp of earlier influences and, as a result, leave more confident over their own destiny.
When the influence of others, especially from those closest to the individual, is permitted to take root at an early stage of development, the person often accepts a worldview constructed by the beliefs of those people controlling his or her destiny. As a consequence, individuals are deterred from taking responsibility for themselves and instead grow entirely dependent on the decisions of other people. Throughout the play, Biff’s childhood is shown through the thoughts of his father, Willy, who finds himself frequently reminiscing about his son, particularly when Biff was still a popular high school student. Willy’s influences on Biff’s development is especially demonstrated in the memory of Biff stealing a football and promising to score a touchdown for his father. Instead of scolding his son for theft, Willy praises his son’s athletic talent, as well as what he deems to be his personal attractiveness, saying, “Coach’ll probably congratulate you on your initiative…That’s because he likes you. If somebody else took that ball there’d be an uproar” (Miller 30). Willy, instead of subjecting Biff to discipline, supports Biff’s actions, emphasizing the importance of popularity. In Willy’s eyes, success – and therefore, his idea of the American Dream – was composed of likeability and material wealth, principles that he ensures are instilled into Biff, who, in turn, willingly believes his father. These early influences from his father are reinforced in another memory; at that time, instead of stealing footballs, however, Biff manages to steal lumber for his father. When confronted by Charley, the Lomans’ neighbour, about the theft, Willy disregards the gravity of the situation and laughs it off, saying, “You shoulda seen the lumber they brought home last week. At least a dozen six-by-tens worth all kinds a money” (Miller 50). The fact that Willy was behind this action – and not Biff – reinforces the idea that an individual’s decisions are often dictated by the wills of other people; consequentially, they adopt the same beliefs and principles, even when misguided, thereby usually causing an impediment to that individual’s moral development. Likewise, as a result of his father’s disregard for theft due to his belief in the more important quality of likeability, Biff grows up without a regard for the rules and this creates within him a belief that he is exempt from the limitations surrounding the rest of society. Thus, when important people in the life of an individual assume responsibility at an early stage in the aforementioned individual’s moral and character development, their influences affect that individual to such an extent that they, too, begin to adopt the same beliefs and practices. These values, while often well-intentioned, can sometimes result in the hindrance of a proper upbringing as a consequence of being erroneous or unsound. The introduction of these principles are often willingly absorbed by impressionable individuals like the young Biff, especially as the people whose influence is deemed significant – including Willy – are almost considered idols or heroic figures worthy of imitation.
Personas built around important people are often shattered, however, when a life-changing event alters others’ perception of them; consequently, when an individual becomes disillusioned by the people on whose influence they thrive, they begin to reject the values long imposed upon them and start to endure the struggles of assuming responsibility for themselves. The moment when Biff’s perception of his father is changed is demonstrated in another of Willy’s flashbacks, where Biff, while in his father’s office in Boston, accidentally discovers his father’s affair with another woman, much to his disgust. When Willy offers to talk to Mr. Birnbaum, Biff’s math teacher, in an attempt to improve Biff’s grade (which is the reason behind Biff’s visit to Boston), Biff refuses, shouting, “Don’t touch me, you – liar! … You fake! You phony little fake! You fake!” (Miller 121). Both disillusioned and disgusted, Biff realizes the falseness surrounding the image his father built for himself. Shattered by his father’s infidelity, Biff’s perception of his father is quickly broken, prompting him to disregard his father’s values in an effort to shake himself free from Willy’s influence as a result of newly established mistrust. Instead of going into summer school to improve his math grade – based, at least in part, on Willy’s own dreams of success for his son – Biff decides to move out of New York and into the Midwest, where he finds himself free from not only his father’s high expectations, but also from the disenchantment he suffers as his image of Willy as the ideal father collapses. Thus, in this way, Biff rejects his father by assuming responsibility for himself. However, after a few years, Biff returns to New York where he is eventually exposed once more to his father’s suffocating ideals, ultimately illustrating the difficulties in assuming complete responsibility and gaining independence after a life run by the values of someone else. In fact, Biff acquiesces once more to Willy’s dreams, albeit reluctantly, when he agrees to ask Bill Oliver, a former employer, for a loan to start a sporting goods business. Biff, still believing in the importance of likeability as a direct reflection of his father’s beliefs, expresses certainty for Bill Oliver’s support, saying, “He did like me. Always liked me (Miller 64).” So, despite Biff’s best efforts, his father’s principles remain deeply entrenched within him. Even when faced with an altered perception of his father and with steps taken to assume responsibility for his own destiny, Biff’s actions continue to be coloured with the influence of his father. Therefore, it is evident that when the beliefs and perceptions of an important person in the life of another individual are challenged, the tendency to accept the decisions of others often begins to fade as assertiveness quickly takes its place. Disenchantment with a long-lived fallacy often motivates an individual to ignore all previous influences and forge a life of their own, an unadulterated version of their own American Dream, one unaffected and uninfluenced by the very people who they once regarded with high-esteem. However, this determination is often quickly stained once more by previous influences, as shown by Biff’s return to New York, which often prove almost impossible to eradicate completely, at least at first.
Given time, despite the difficulties faced in any attempt to uproot influences (especially if planted early in life), individuals often find the strength to completely reject prior influences and perceive them as not just suffocating, but also completely misguided, thereby allowing them to determine their own purpose in life with stronger conviction. Towards the end of the play, after Biff’s meeting with Bill Oliver, he realizes that his expectations regarding Oliver’s attitude towards him were based not on reality, but on his father’s own misconceptions about Biff’s popularity. Biff confides this realization to his brother, Happy, saying, “He walked away. I saw him for one minute…How the hell did I ever get the idea I was a salesman there? I even believed myself that I’d been a salesman for him! And then he gave me one look and – I realized what a ridiculous lie my whole life has been! We’ve been talking in a dream for fifteen years. I was a shipping clerk” (Miller 104). Biff discovers the fallacy surrounding the perception he had of himself, reflecting his failure to realize the deception in his own beliefs while attempting to rid himself of his father’s. He realizes that he is not the salesman he and his father thought he was, but rather was a simple shipping clerk, devoid of any real power or popularity. This marks the beginning of Biff’s journey towards complete detachment from Willy’s personal values, a feat which, given experience, becomes easier to achieve with time. Biff’s ultimate rejection of his father’s principles is more clearly reinforced at the end of the play, after Willy commits suicide, when Biff places his father’s aspirations themselves in a negative light, exclaiming, “He had the wrong dreams. All, all, wrong…He never knew who he was” (Miller 138). By placing blame on his father’s ambitions – and not solely on Willy himself – Biff sheds light on the true source of his deceptive life and learns to distance himself from the dreams themselves. This allows him to clearly ascertain the values worthy of discontinuation, free from any emotion or bias, and thereby allow himself to determine the values he wants to uphold in his own life in a more mature manner. He refuses to follow in his father’s footsteps, even in the aftermath of Willy’s death, which reflects his final rejection of his father’s influences and his decision to assume full responsibility without having his father’s principles haunting him still. In a way, then, Willy’s death effectively severs Biff from his father’s dreams completely, allowing him to clearly see the future that he personally desires, one not of a rich salesman’s, but one of a simple rancher’s, a dream in total opposition to his father’s once-dominant ambitions. As an individual spends more and more time away from the influences of a person once deemed important, they begin to find it easier to assume responsibility for themselves. Upon gaining complete control over determining one’s own purpose in life, they can begin to ascertain the values they want to abandon and those they want to continue upholding, allowing them to form their own morality and therefore, their own desires. Just as they once grew accustomed to heeding to the expectations of others before, they eventually start to grow accustomed to forging their own destiny and living a life free from the control of other people. In Biff’s case, he leaves his father’s wrong dreams in favour of his own ideals and his own version of the American Dream that, regardless of plausibility, at least allowed Biff to know who he was, an achievement that Willy was never able to attain.
Individuals often absorb the influence of those they consider idols, but once aware of an enduring fallacy, they summon the strength to fight for their personal interests and begin a journey of self-discovery and assuming responsibility without the domineering control of other individuals. Through his play Death of a Salesman, Miller asserts that individuals find the will to assume responsibility for themselves after breaking free from previous influences in a life-changing struggle; through the character of Biff Loman, readers witness his initial unwavering acceptance of his father’s idea of success, the disenchantment he faces when his idyllic idea of his father is challenged by the truth, and his eventual escape from his father’s wants and the freedom that he finds in taking control of his own destiny. Thus, individuals who grow up dependent on the decisions of others ultimately find liberation in the face of significant events, occurrences that, no matter how rough, eventually hone individuals into strong independent human beings, allowing them to shine the more brightly like diamonds hidden in a jungle’s darkness; it is a potential to be found only in the truthful pursuit of the American Dream, the traces of which are perhaps found in both the humble aspirations of a rancher and in the lofty ambitions of one hopeful salesman.