…the significance of an individual’s attempt to live unconstrained by convention or circumstance.
Before one is even aware that they are alive, their destiny is determined. Through the combination of conventions, what is expected of every member of a society in order to conform, and circumstances, including the conditions in which one is raised and the values they are taught, every individual has a “correct” path clearly mapped out for them simply by virtue of being born. For the lucky few, this path aligns perfectly with their ambitions and desires, and they can easily follow it to its end. For others, their true wishes lie deep in the uncut brush next to their cleanly paved path; these individuals may find the pavement is easier to follow, but their hearts will always call out towards the woods. One such individual is Biff Loman, the son of the protagonist, Willy Loman, in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Throughout his life, Biff grapples with his desire to live and work outside of the design that his image-obsessed father and his capitalist country have laid out for him. Biff’s enduring internal conflict and his gradual attempt to break free from his limitations suggests that when an individual’s desires conflict with the conventions of society and the values instilled in them by their circumstances, they will defer to authority and accept these conventions and values as true. However, the inability to pursue their true desires and what they believe to be right will lead the individual to a feeling of dissatisfaction with all of their choices, and thus will force them to live unconstrained by convention and circumstance in order to find satisfaction.
Through Biff’s self-reflection and Willy’s distorted rememberings of the past, Biff’s history of constraint through convention and circumstance is revealed; though a part of him always rejected the values he was fed, his innocent mind could not fathom the idea that his father and his society were trying to lead him astray. In an exchange recalled in Willy’s trips into his memory, Biff’s acceptance of convention and circumstance is made plain. In this flashback, Biff parrots Willy’s assertion that their neighbours, Charley and Bernard, are “liked, but [they’re] not well liked.” (Miller 33), and expresses a desire to follow in his father’s footsteps as a travelling salesman. Both of these statements show Biff adhering to the example of authority, represented by his father. Though these memories may be suffering a bit of distortion from Willy’s fading mind, Biff’s own reports of his ambitions and values in his past reflect a similar pattern. Willy’s fixation on reputation and getting by solely on being liked is a value that is repeatedly expounded by Willy, and is something he deeply instilled in his children as evidenced by the quote. Biff’s repetition of Willy’s exact phrase, a phrase which is used to indicate the importance of popularity, shows not only Biff’s willingness to accept the word of authority as law but also his willingness to accept specifically the values his circumstances have taught him. In regards to convention, Biff’s childhood desire to be a salesman, despite his aptitude for sports, already shows him conforming to society’s expectations even before he truly enters adulthood. Capitalism says business and white-collar jobs are the only acceptable option for a successful man, and thus Biff, by aligning his aspirations with that of his father, is again accepting the convention of society against his true desires and skills. Even as a teen who listens blindly to what he is told, Biff’s true desires are fully visible. Rather than trying in school, Biff favours sports, indicating his desire to work a physical job later in life. His disdain for school is yet another instinct that makes Biff incompatible with business, as hard work and regimented focus are key staples of the world of desk jobs Biff claims he wants to enter. One of the strongest illustrations of Biff’s true motives appears, however, in the form of the reoccurring symbol of theft. Biff steals throughout the book, stating that he does not understand the reason, but feels the need to do so anyway. This is representative of the vague dissatisfaction Biff feels with convention and circumstance, and the ideals they push him to pursue. However, at this point in the play, Biff remains unwilling to recognize his desires, and uses the object he steals, a football, to further the ideal of being well-liked as a football player; this symbolizes Biff’s underlying feeling of dissatisfaction being repressed, instead forcing himself into conformity. It is not in a child’s nature to be cynical, so individuals like Biff who conflict with convention and circumstance generally believe the powers that be have their best interests at heart; they accept the advice they are given without question, even if their hearts are not in it. Though this childhood acceptance is a common experience, it only makes the individual’s life harder as they grow and their increasingly prevalent values clash against the deeply ingrained societal and learned values they still cling to. Biff’s inherited idea of success begins as a goal for him to shoot towards, but as he grows and matures, it becomes a hindrance to his happiness and satisfaction.
As an individual develops and discovers more of their true desires, the friction between these desires and the values imposed by convention and circumstance leads the individual to feel constrained to a state of dissatisfaction. In Miller’s play, Biff is introduced in the midst of this crisis. While talking to his brother, Biff vents about the strife he has been experiencing, telling Happy that work in a business environment is “a measly manner of existence” (Miller 22), admitting that what he “really desire[s] is to be outdoors, with [his] shirt off” (Miller 22). Despite all of this, he concludes the rant in resignation, asserting that business is just simply “how you build a future” (Miller 22), and there is no other way. In essence, this rant summarizes Biff’s internal conflict between what he wants and what he believes is right based upon convention and the values taught to him by the circumstances in which he was raised. Biff’s dissatisfaction comes partially from this failure to reconcile his conflicting desires. He states several times in his speech that he cannot be happy in an office when he knows he could be outside doing manual labour, a profession which is a rejection of both the capitalist ideal and his father’s lessons about being liked. When pursuing this, rather than feeling relief, Biff’s guilt over being a failure in the eyes of his authority figures prevents him from truly feeling satisfied. He cannot truly be satisfied until he lives entirely unconstrained by convention and circumstance. This is supported by the symbol of theft, manifesting in this phase of Biff’s life as the theft of a suit that resulted in jail time. Biff’s continued kleptomaniac tendencies, as established before, indicate his resentment of authority and desire to rebel against its constraints, but the jail time adds additional meaning. The fact that this theft was punished parallels Biff’s brief periods of rebellion against convention and circumstance, only to berate himself into returning to a life of servitude in an office. The jail time was symbolic of this period of return to capitalism after the brief rebellion of farm work, and further reinforces Biff’s discomfort with his conflicting motives. While Biff cannot yet find complete satisfaction in the pursuit of his desires due to his lingering guilt, he is far from satisfied with conformity to convention and circumstance. In theory, a job in an office is exactly what childhood Biff claimed to want, as working a white-collar job for profit is the capitalist ideal and thus would satisfy convention. In addition, working as a salesman specifically would fulfill his father’s assertion that charm and charisma are key. However, though Biff should be able to find satisfaction through fulfilling these ideals according to convention, he simply cannot. Biff could fulfill both convention and circumstance, but he still has no desire to, and thus is unhappy when he attempts it. As Biff’s monologue exhibits, individuals with desires that fight conformity are wrought with dissatisfaction. The values they are handed teach them to be disappointed in themselves as societal failures when they follow their desires, but they find themselves constantly unhappy with conformity, as it is not what they want from life. Satisfaction cannot be found through living this way; the individual must seek reconciliation and accept their desires not just as acceptable, but superior to that of convention and circumstance. Unhappiness remains Biff’s lot in life, dooming him to struggle until the last strings tying him to his childish ideals finally break.
For natural nonconformists, dissatisfaction is not a permanent state. When an individual accepts their values above those imposed by convention and circumstance, as Biff does in his final climactic scene with Willy, the individual frees themselves of constraints and permits themselves to live a genuinely fulfilling life. In Biff’s final monologue to Willy, he finally takes ownership of his desires, telling his father that playing at being a businessman is only making Biff into a “contemptuous, begging fool” (Miller 132), and that “all [he] wants is out there, waiting…the minute [he] says [he] know[s] who [he is].” (Miller 132). As he says farewell to his home city and his family, Biff gives them a simple instruction: “In the meantime, forget I’m alive.” (Miller 129) The continual friction Biff experiences has finally eased, and he is willing to accept his true desires and follow them, free of society’s expectations. For Biff, part of freedom is leaving behind his past, and his family members along with it. Conformity doesn’t work, as he states, and he can only find joy in accepting his true path and abandoning the other, along with all the guilt of not following it and choosing to pursue his desires. His speech to Willy shows he is through with pretending to be the salesman, a man that he could never be in profession or in priorities. Thus, with his speech and his honesty, Biff puts the version of himself that he was told to strive for, the ideal of the salesman, to death. Instead, Biff resolves to remove himself from the constraints of his convention by moving, thus escaping the oppressive capitalism of NYC, and by leaving behind the expectations and values his father enforces upon him to free himself of his circumstances as well. The final reoccurrence of theft appears here, in this final scene, and demonstrates Biff’s acceptance of his truth. Biff takes the pen without knowing the reason initially, but for the first time his purpose is made clear to him. He sees the sky, symbolizing his true desires, and understands that his reason for rebellion is his frustration with abandoning his values in favour of authority. He keeps the pen as a symbol of taking ownership and being accepting of his true desires, signalling the profound shift Biff is experiencing. The pen is also the only real concrete thing we see him take on stage and outside of flashbacks, indicating that Biff’s intangible feeling of wrongness now has definition. Biff knows what is wrong, and is finally willing to take action to free himself from the problems of convention and circumstance. As was demonstrated, both of an individual’s value systems coexisting cannot happen, nor can accepting convention and circumstance. By rejecting both convention and circumstance, the individual is finally free to live a genuinely fulfilling life, no longer feeling like an anomaly. By shedding the Salesman identity that his father and his society forced upon him, Biff is finally liberated of his burdens and can pursue a life that will give him satisfaction, and remove the necessity of his little acts of rebellion.
The nonconformist must struggle in ways that the natural conformist will never know. As Biff Loman demonstrates, childish innocence will lead these nonconformists to accept convention and circumstance as truth, repressing their desires until maturity and experience force them to conflict the existence of their conflicting true wishes. Ultimately, the only way to ease the tension and live a life of fulfillment is to accept the validity of one’s own desires over the wishes of society, thus living unconstrained by convention and circumstance. This recipe for happiness under oppressive circumstances appears straightforward, but it rarely is. Even in Biff’s final acceptance of who he is, his conclusion is not that he is right in his reality. He concludes that he is nothing, demonstrating how nonconformists will always be plagued by the insecurity that their choice was the wrong one after all.