Birth of a Rancher – Death of a Salesman: Polished Critical

…the significance of an individual’s attempt to live unconstrained by convention and circumstance.

Before an individual is born and has the chance to establish the ways in which they want to find success in their life, they are already constrained by the conventional understanding of what it means to be successful, and how an individual is best suited to finding that. Oftentimes, this path to success that is imposed upon someone as they grow and mature will mold them into another product of society who accepts the conventions and lives life according to them; however, sometimes certain individuals realize that they cannot find success in their life through the conventional methods, and will seek to live unconstrained. In Arthur Miller’s play, Death of a Salesman, the character of Biff Loman is an individual who hails from a society in which the belief of how to be successful is conventionally imposed upon everyone. This conventional understanding entails that for an individual to be successful, he must put in all the effort he can and be endless in his pursuit for wealth – as the traditional belief of American society equated wealth with success. As such, Biff is expected to work as hard as he can in order to make money: as he is urged to start a business, and follow in his father’s footsteps as a salesman – although Biff much prefers working manual labour on a ranch where he receives a modest and unflattering wage. This way of life is not in line with the conventional American ideology, which manifests itself through Biff’s father and brother as they push him to work as hard as he must for monetary gain. However, Biff reveals himself to be an individual who is unable to find personal success and fulfillment when he tries to live his life according to the standards that his happiness will be dictated by how much wealth he can acquire, which eventually causes him to separate from the society that harbours these beliefs completely. This character change in Biff Loman from Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman asserts the idea that when individuals realize that they cannot find success by adhering to the conventional understanding of success, they feel constrained by the expectations of the society they are in. For such an individual to live unconstrained by the conventional expectations of society regarding success, one must completely separate themselves from that society in order to pursue their own, non-conventional means of success.

As an individual who was raised in a society with the conventional American ideology that money translates into success, Biff Loman undoubtedly felt these pressures from his father, Willy, and brother, Happy – both of whom worked in the business field. Biff returns to his New York home from his life working in the West as a hired hand. This is much to the dismay of his brother and father who want to establish him as a successful individual according to the conventional ideology of success: hard work equals money, and money equals success. Finally, Happy manages to convince Biff to ask one of his previous employers, Bill Oliver, for a loan to start a business, which Biff eventually agrees to, showing potential hope in his life as a salesman: “Gee, I’m gonna go in to Oliver tomorrow and knock him… You know, with ten thousand bucks, boy!” (50). Here, Biff concedes to the ideology that his brother and father pressure onto him, which is the conventional understanding of American society: wealth will lead to success. This is why Biff resolves to ask for a business loan; at this point, Biff is accepting the conventional belief about success in society. He sees his father and brother in business, and so decides to try and start one himself. The symbolism of a businessman is notable here because businessmen are individuals who work for immediate profit; they sell products directly for monetary gain, which is conventionally believed to equate to success according to typical American ideology. Therefore, a businessman is known as a conventional job, and Biff is being constrained since it is expected of him to work in such a field. Furthermore, Biff’s previous occupation as a ranch-hand symbolizes a job that lacks wealth and status since ranchers work direct physical labour and are paid a relatively low working wage. This represents Biff’s inner mentality that he doesn’t equate success to money, as is reinforced by his words regarding being a rancher: “This farm I work on, it’s spring there now, see? And they’ve got about fifteen new colts. There’s nothing more inspiring or—beautiful than the sight of a mare and a new colt…” (11). This is showing that Biff’s true success and happiness in life is derived from living a simple life working on a farm; something that has been defined as unsuccessful by societal expectations that are imposed on Biff. However, he doesn’t try to break free of these constraints; rather, he merely accepts them and believes that perhaps he can be a salesman, thereby he is attempting to embrace the conventional expectation of success. This demonstrates how an individual’s perception of success is influenced by the society they are in, yet such perceptions can be constraining and limit one’s true desires.

An individual such as Biff who has an inner desire for success that is not supported by the conventional ideologies will eventually realize that he can never be successful if he tries to live according to these conventions. Biff Loman is taught the American societal belief: money equals success, and he is therefore pushed into becoming a businessman – a career that involves an individual harbouring the immediate desire for acquisition of wealth. When Biff Loman visits Bill Oliver to ask him for a $10,000 business loan, he realizes that he does not belong in a world where the ideology that wealth is the priority will constrain individuals like him. He speaks these reflections later to his brother, Happy: “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” (81).  Biff realizes that he was always taught to believe that he should be a businessman and work directly for money, which would lead to success. It is only now that he realizes that he doesn’t belong in this world where the conventional understanding of success is actually suffocatingly constraining; so much to the point where Biff even believed that he was a salesman, showing how the societal ideology was imposed on him by his father and brother. At this point, he no longer simply concedes to the ideology that wealth corresponds to success, as his rejection of the ideas imposed on him constantly reflect that. This shows that individuals will eventually realize that their ideologies of success are actually different from the conventional understanding of the society they are in, which causes them to understand that they will always be constrained and never feel true success if they concede to the conventions. So, Biff realizes that his idea of success is not in line with the idea that has been always imposed on him, and now he strongly rejects a life of constraint in a career where he knows he will never feel truly successful. This moment of change for Biff Loman represents how individuals will eventually realize when their personal understanding of success is being constrained due to the societal convention of success; thus, they resolve that they will never feel successful should they try to live according to the constraints of convention.

Eventually, individuals realize that in order to live a successful life according to their own beliefs, one must remove themselves completely from the conventional understanding of success which constrains them – and Biff eventually does exactly this. When Biff returns home, he has an emotional confrontation with his father, who pushed him to live a life according to societal understandings of success. At this point, Biff has already realized he has no place in the business world, and is relaying this awareness to his father when he confronts his father saying, “Why am I trying to become what I don’t want to be? What am I doing in an office, making a contemptuous, begging fool of myself, when all I want is out there, waiting for me the minute I say I know who I am!” (105).  This is an incredibly courageous moment of truth for Biff as it represents his final resolution: he will no longer live unconstrained by the conventional understanding of success that does not allow him to personally pursue what he desires most, regardless of wealth. He does not want to become something he is not – a businessman – an expectation that constrains him and makes him unhappy and unsuccessful. Furthermore, Biff also states that he knows what he truly wishes for in life is available for him as soon as he admits to himself that he knows who he is. Here, Biff is talking about being a labourer on a ranch, which is what he knows he wants to be, and cannot bear to delude himself into thinking that he can be a salesman. What he wants “out there” refers to the ranch, which Biff equates to success, although this is completely unconventional according to traditional American society. The use of the words “out there” also reference Biff’s breaking free of societal conventions, and his dissociation with them. This is reinforced further when Biff claims that he will “go in the morning” (106), which illustrates Biff’s character change completely: now he knows that he can never find success if he stays in this society that constrains him with its conventional expectations. Instead, he must leave and go to a ranch where he knows that he belongs and will find true success. Although he would undoubtedly make more money being a business owner, Biff is content with just working on a ranch and doing manual labour because he doesn’t believe that money translates to success, like his brother and father (who represent society) do. This evidence proves how individuals who seek to live unconstrained by the conventional understanding of success, and instead want to forge their own life dictated by their personal belief of success, must separate themselves completely from the society with restrictive conventions.

For Biff Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, the belief he was raised with was that monetary gain will bring success – which is the ideology enforced by American society. He believed this when he resolved to try and start a business, although his true desire came from living life as a hired man on the ranch: working for something that is not directly profit. However, Biff ignored these inner desires and instead tried to start a business, although he realized that he did not belong in the world of sales and was actually being forced to believe that he did because of the expectations of his father and brother. Biff Loman eventually comes to the understanding that he will never feel successful if he lives his life according to the convention idea of success: that wealth is what one must aspire to accumulate. So, Biff resolves to leave New York behind: the one with all the constraints of convention, and live his life working on a ranch, where he knows he belongs and will feel successful. This character change of Biff demonstrates how individuals who believe in a method of achieving success that is contradicted by society’s conventional understanding of success will eventually realize that they cannot live a fulfilled life if they continue to live constrained by the conventions of society. This causes them to completely separate from the society that constrained them, so that they can use their own unconventional understanding of success to live their life unconstrained.

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