Parents are, by far, the most influential people in a person's life. They are with the child the whole time they are growing up and serve as the child's first role model. In the Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman wants more than anything to have sons that can grow up better off and happier than he has been. But his lack of acceptable morals makes it impossible for Willy to accomplish even this final goal.
One of the major conflicts in Death of a Salesman is in the relationship between Willy and his sons, Biff and Happy. Biff and Happy are both adults living as children. In contrast to their behavior, both men appear grown with their tall and physically fit bodies. Even the names of the two men, Happy and Biff, are childish nicknames inappropriate for grown adults.
Biff is a drifter who is immature and irresponsible.
He moves from job to job without any goals. Biff is self-destructive, ruining every job opportunity that he might have. Biff believes he is a failure because he has not made anything out of his adult life-such as having a steady job or stable home life. He knows that he is a disappointment to Willy, who has high expectations for him.
Happy, on the other hand, has not yet realized all his failures, and is equally confused and immature. He alludes to having relationships with many women but never shows respect for them. Although he works in a decent job, Happy feels he should not have to take orders from someone who is physically less strong, believing that physical strength is more important than intelligence. Although Happy has a stable job, he still feels empty and unfulfilled.
Willy instills in his sons a belief that appearances are more important than actual achievement or talent, which he dismisses as unimportant in business. It is no surprise that his sons sacrifice their schoolwork for athletic achievement. This is apparent when Biff fails his math class and Happy continuously comments about losing weight. Willy also teaches his sons that stealing is acceptable. He never has a problem when the boys steal from the constructions site nearby or when Biff steals from the locker rooms. Willy believes that success is a result of luck, not the result of hard work and discipline. Willy also has an affair with another women, which may suggest why Happy treats women the way he does.
Throughout the play, the setting shifts from the present to the past and from location to location. The main setting of the play is Willy's small run-down neighborhood where it is hard to even grow grass. It can symbolically be seen as the way Willy's belief in the American Dream is falling apart and how his children have no hope of amounting to anything. The scenes that take place in the past help foreshadow later troubles and are a way of showing how the family's past has affected their future. Many of the flashbacks occur in Willy's imagination and show that Willy is becoming more and more confused. The looks into Willy's idealized past also show that Willy is trying to believe in something that never existed. Miller also defines several themes of Death of a Salesman in flashbacks. One is the different look at various characters' definition of success-from Charlie who owns his own business, to Bernard who is a great student.
Throughout the whole play, we only see Willy teaching his sons the shortcuts in life. The boys never learn that it is wrong to steal, that an education is important, that hard work and perseverance pays off, or that it is important to treat all people with respect. In all these aspects, Willy failed to raise his sons to be successful adults, but he always tried his hardest.