Biff Loman: Character Analysis in Death of a Salesman

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      When we take our eyes off the hero, Willy Loman, the next character that engages our attention is Willy’s elder son, Biff Loman. Biff Loman plays a very vital role in the play. Most of the action of the play takes its shape through Biff as also does most of Willy’s hope, tension, dream etc. Biff is also a failure like his father. But Biff’s failure involves a greater waste of human potential. Moreover, Biff's failure not only means the shattering of Willy’s dreams; the entire myth that Willy has been living with, crumbles to nothingness. An attractive personality does not lead Biff anywhere near to success. In fact Biff is such a major character that some critics regard him as the real hero of the play. The younger generation sees in Biff, a reflection of its own inescapable predicament. This abject failure in life is a terrible illustration of the tremendous waste of human resources in a world of maddening competition where misdirected energies involve the futile labor of Sisyphus. Youth and Sympathy are strong enough to act as blinkers on the eyes of reason and sway the judgment in favor of Biff.

      Biff Loman, son of Willy and Linda Loman, is two years older than his brother Happy. He is thirty-four and is well-built. In fact, at one spot Willy says that he thanked God for having made both his sons like Adonises. Now Biff wears a worn air and seems less self-assured than his brother Happy. He has succeeded less and ironically, his dreams are stronger and less acceptable than Happy’s. The scenes from the past testify to his personal attraction. There was a time when he was bubbling with confidence, energy and enthusiasm, when girls were mad after him and paid for him, when he was the captain of the college team. But now, as Happy rightly observes, the old humor and the self-confidence has evaporated into the air. The rough strokes of life have devoured his essential reality and he is now a mere shadow of his past self.

      The root cause or the starting point of his disintegration can perhaps be traced back to his father’s mocking tone and lost faith in him. He is perturbed: “Why does Dad mock me all the time ? Everything, I say, there’s a twist of mockery on his face. I can’t get near him”. He does not know what the future has in store for him. But because he is young, he is not completely dejected. He is optimistic and sees a silver line behind the grey clouds of uncertainty. He does not know what he wants, what his dreams and desires are. He is a lost young man. Nothing is more tragic than losing one’s hold on the forces working on him, in the hope that everything would be alright someday.

Biff: a victim of the commercial world

      Biff is almost victimized in the clutches of the world of competition which squeezes his senses out of him, of the unexciting, and uninteresting ordinariness of this world which is divested of any romantic colors. This mechanized world, in which tough labor yields comparatively insignificant results torments his soul, for Biff instinctively loves to be amidst nature, like his father Willy Loman. In a moment of self-analysis and self-realization, Biff says to Happy: “Hap, I’ve had twenty or thirty different kinds of job since I left home before the war, and it always turned out the same. I just realized it lately...This farm I work on, it’s spring there now, see ? And they’ve got about fifteen new colts. Theres nothing more inspiring or beautiful than the sight of a mare and a new colt. And it is cool there now, see ? Texas is cool now, and it is spring. And whenever spring comes to where I am, I suddenly get the feeling, my God, I’m not getting anywhere: What the hell am I doing, playing around with horses, twenty-eight dollars a weak: I’m thirty-four years old, I ought to be making my future that’s when I come running home. And now, I get here, and I don't know what to do with myself...I've always made a point of not wasting my life, and everytime I come back here I know that all I've done is to waste my life:

Biff achieves the tragic poignancy of a hero

      A young man’s potential being wasted, has both irony and poignancy of tragic waste. Biff feels lost and bewildered in this wide world, where he has no one and nothing to belong to: he feels alienated. He wants to belong somewhere, somebody, but cannot. Willy Loman thinks that Biff is just one of the common rut. He blames him, for not settling down as late as the age of thirty-four. He has not launched his career successfully. Willy Loman feels that Biff is not lazy but is simply lost. Willy meets his greatest disappointment in Biff because his failure has negated the myth by which Willy had been living—that personal attractiveness is the key to success. Willy says about him: “Biff Loman is lost. In the greatest country in the world a young man with such personal attractiveness, gets lost. And such a hard worker. There is one thing about Biff—he’s not lazy.”

      But Biff does not respect his father now. There is a developing antipathy between Biff and his father. He knows something about Willy, which has shelved him away from the respect he had for Willy. He fails to understand the cause of Willy’s mocking tone whenever he talks to Biff.

Biff projects his father’s dreamy idealism

      It is worth noticing that it is on Biff that Willy pins all his hopes. Biff is a very abrupt and rare mixture of the idealist poet who wants to realize himself realistically. He is constantly oscillating between idealism and realism.

      Biff is Willy’s son—a chip of the same block. He is also a dreamer but what he actually is, only what Willy has been dreaming all along, to make him. Right till the end Willy feels “that the boy is going to be magnificent” simply because he is growing up as Willy had wanted him to be. The crumbling of Biffs first dream comes when he found out that his father was a ‘phoney little fake’. After this, Biff seems to remain a boy. The mental growth seems to get stunted at this point. But this shock alone does not account for the flaws or weaknesses that go into the making of Biff's character. He is not well liked—this is evident quite early in the play. The staff of his school, the parents of the girls in the neighborhood, the watchman on the building site, Bill Oliver and probably the cops—all had their reservations about him. Biff's traumatic experience is unable to cure him of dreams, that are mainly an evasion, an excuse for failure: especially the dreams of open nature. He is a poorer and a more contemptible failure than his father, because Willy has at least worked hard. But contempt for Biff seems to shy away into the horizons, once we realize the intense tragedy of his situation. At the young age of thirty-four, he is as disappointed, frustrated and lost as Willy is at the mature age of sixties. Willy has at least seen good days— But Biff will perhaps continue to live like this, ‘a small boat looking for an anchor’. His life will perhaps be an internal groping in the dark, futile attempts and inevitable failure. Only anguish and agony will lull him to sleep—and every bright day will mean for him an endless groping in the dark. Some of this dream Biff inherits from his father, the rest of it is fed carefully to him by his father. As a result, Biff has most of the dreams in common with father: the scorn of the city, the fantasy of the open, the interest in cement, to name a few.

Biff breaks off from dreams

      In the end, Biff stages a complete breaking off from his father’s dreams of him and his own dreams of himself. He sheds off the armor of self-pity and self-justification and faces the naked reality of truth. It seems that he almost court-martials himself, almost ruthlessly: ‘I realized what a ridiculous lie my whole life has been. We’ve been talking in a dream for fifteen years.’ In the well-known final confrontation with his father, Biff is courageous enough to shatter the Loman myth: “We never told the truth for ten minutes in this house...I never got anywhere because you blew me so full of hot air, I could never stand taking orders from anyone...I’m not a leader of men, Willy, and neither are you. You were never anything but a hard-working drummer who landed in the ash can like all the rest of them! I’m one dollar an hour, Willy! I’m not bringing home any prizes anymore, and you’re going to stop waiting for me to bring them home!”

      Such cruel honesty is noble and highly commendable.

Biff achieves a greater self-realization than Willy

      Willy deludes himself about his reality and Biff's reality, right till the end. Still he believes that he will leave a mark in the world of salesmanship: and further, he sincerely believes in Biff's capacities which have not been exploited due to lack of financial support. Biff has penetrated the shell of illusions and dream and has learned much more than Willy. He knows his father very well; he gets furious at his weaknesses coupled by occasional stupidity, yet he loves him. He loves him instinctively; no, he is not fed on the notion that virtue will lead to success.

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