The Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller has a non-linear narrative structure, which interweaves Willy Loman’s happy past with the stressful present. Because of his old age, he does not know if he is living in the past in the present. After one of his trips, Linda convinces him to ask his boss to transfer him to New York where he would not have to travel. However, the manager fires him leading him to frustration, which eventually makes him commit suicide. His son Biff comes home trying to get a loan to start a business, but he does not get it. This makes him realize that they have been living a lie, and he cannot live to his dad’s expectations. Happy, the younger son, tries to emulate his father’s version of success, but he does not succeed being left lonely and frustrated. Linda, the wife, tries to comfort her husband in all tough situations.
Willy Loman is self-deluded, insecure sales man who believes in easy wealth and success, but never achieves it. His sons also do not fulfill this dream, and when his illusions start failing under the pressing reality, his mental health pushes him to commit suicide. Biff is the 34-year-old son, who was hugely popular in school, but did not perform well. He develops kleptomania, which gets him fired. He is in constant fight with his father since he cannot live to his expectations. Linda is a loving loyal wife who suffers because of her husband’s self-delusions and grandiose. She is far more realistic than Willy, and she encourages him through all his life until his collapse. Happy is the young son who lives in Biffs’ shadow all his life but compensates this through nurturing his professional ambition.
In various literary works, family relationships form the key to the major plot. The family usually has a number of people in some way connected physically and emotionally to one another. These people can be the father and mother, brothers and sisters, father and son, father and daughter, mother and daughter or even mother and son. Through these family interactions with each other, the reader is able to make sense of the conflicts in the work. In the Death of a Salesman, the relations between Willy and his sons Biff and Happy allow the reader to decipher the father-son relations and the arising conflicts because of the interaction.
One of the main conflicts in this story arises when the father decides to become a player in his sons’ lives, which the sons feel is not necessary. When Biffs decides to come home and relocate from where he was working before, his father perceives this as a failure. The father is so desperate to see his eldest son succeed in life that he decides to take matters in his own hands. The fathers say, "I’ll get him a job selling”. In addition, he will be successful in short time. When Biff decided to come back home, he wanted to figure out what he wanted in life, but his father’s interference made matters even more complicated that they were before.
The other conflict relates to Happy and his father. Willy is so obsessed with his elder son’s success that he totally forgets about his younger son. Willy is always complimenting his elder son emphasizing how brilliant he is. In most situations, Willy tells Biff, “You got all kinds of greatness" (Miller, xxxviii), but he rarely makes any such comments to the younger son. In retrospect, the younger son believes that he must work hard and become his dad’s version of a success by becoming popular and acquiring a lot of wealth. This way, he will be able to attract his father’s attention, but this does not happen. Eventually, Happy becomes lonely and miserable since he cannot get Willy’s attention despite the efforts he makes. Consequently, disharmony arises in the father-son relationships and in the son’s life.
The other conflict is the personal conflict within Willy himself. Over the years, Willy believed he was a perfect sales person liked by everyone in his company. When he starts aging, his wife encourages him to ask transfer to work from a place near home. He believes that his boss will certainly grant him a transfer, but the boss fires him instead. He gets so disappointed that he heads straight to the bar. He wonders what happened to his boss and why he did not offer him a transfer but fired him. He even starts talking to the imaginary creatures loudly and wakes up everyone at night. He is also in denial since he cannot make enough money to support his family like their neighbor Charlie. He laments, "My God if business doesn't pick up” (Miller, xxxviii), it will be hard for him to provide for his family. These frustrations push him to commit suicide in the hope that his son will use his insurance money to start a business.
There also arises a conflict between the mother and the sons after they leave their father in the restaurant alone. When Willy gets fired, he heads straight to the restaurant, where he starts reliving his dreamy past. Biff and Happy join him to keep him company, but they leave shortly after that for girls. When they get home after their dates, their mother is fuming mad because they left their father alone knowing his disturbed condition. An argument erupts, and no one is willing to listen to Buff, but he manages to explain that he cannot live to his father’s expectations anymore.