The central character of Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman, is a washed-up, depressed, pessimistic man who always wanted to be bigger than he was. Completely miserable with his work, and disappointed with his family and himself, Willy projects his expectations for his family onto his son Biff. This has disastrous consequences for both his family and himself. Willy Loman kills himself in order to give something back to his son, Biff, because of the disastrous relationship that they had as a result of Willy's own failed sense of success.
Willy Loman, at the end of the play, commits suicide by crashing his car. Willy, now middle-aged and struggling with growing old and unimportant, is an extremely frustrated character throughout the play. He does not like the fact that he did not get the chance to become someone important before he grew too old to do so, and he wants his own children to achieve that success. This sense of self-delusion grows to the point where he believes that, after having had a tearful reconciliation with Biff, that Biff wants to follow in his footsteps and become a businessman. Following through with this fantasy, Willy gets into his car and crashes it, killing himself so that Biff can use the insurance money to live out the American Dream that he so failed to do.
Willy kills himself and leaves this legacy for Biff as an attempt to make amends for the horrible treatment he gives his son. Willy's relationship with Biff is strained at best; Biff rejects Willy's approach to the American dream, while Willy works hard to get him to follow in his footsteps. "I am not a dime a dozen! I am Willy Loman, and you are Biff Loman!" Willy says at one point; this is meant to solidify the sense of misplaced pride he feels in himself, placing himself in competition with Biff as a member of the family (Miller, p. 152). Willy's attitude of favoring personality over hard work makes him teach terrible values to his son - when Biff steals a football from the locker room, Willy merely says, "Coach'll probably congratulate you on your initiative!" (Miller, 1949). Biff's relationship with Willy is further strained when Biff catches Willy with another woman at a hotel; from that point on, Willy knows that Biff no longer respects him, and is constantly looking for ways to make amends.
Willy's tensions with his son, and throughout his life, stem from the central core conflicts that lie at the heart of Willy's perspective. Throughout the play, Willy insists to his two sons that, in order to succeed in life, you need to be "well liked" and have "a smile and a shoeshine" (Miller, 1949). Willy believes that the key to success in life and in America is just to ingratiate yourself with everyone around you. Once that is accomplished, you do not have to work as hard, and you can coast your way to success through your connections. However, this perilous way of pursuing the American Dream is very costly, and often robs Willy of his dignity. Willy is obsessed with technology, for example Willy's love of cars as a symbol of the American Dream (Brucher, 1983). Now middle-aged at the time of the play, Willy is tense, uncomfortable, and delusional; even at the worst of times, Willy commits to his goal, and is adamant that this is the way to success. Willy's perspective is the key of the "relentless competitiveness at the heart of the American capitalist dream," and this is what causes him to neglect what is really important - his family (Panitch and Gindin, p. 1).
In conclusion, Willy Loman is an immensely tragic character brought down by his own misplaced idea of the American dream. He believes that in order to be successful, you just have to look good and speak well; there is no sense of initiative or prowess in place for him. This causes him to lash out at his sons, who are not succeeding as he would like them to, and this distances him from them even further. Willy and Biff grow further apart, as Biff hates Willy for forcing such unwanted, high expectations on him, and Willy hates Biff for not succeeding where he failed. After the cathartic experience that Willy and Biff have, where they finally acknowledge their love for each other, Willy decides to make the ultimate sacrifice so that Biff can have the chance to make a better life. In this way, Willy comes through as a father and as a man, even though his actions were ultimately misguided - still expecting Biff to be a businessman, when that is not what he wanted. Still, the impetus for his suicide is one of love and benevolence, meaning a sense of progress for Willy at the end of the play.
Brucher, Richard T. "Willy Loman and the 'Soul of a New Machine': Technology and the
Common Man." Journal of American Studies, vol. 17, no. 3, pp. 325-336, 1983. Print.
Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. Viking Press, 1949.
Panitch, Leo and Sam Gindin. "Transcending Pessimism: Rekindling Socialist Imagination."
Socialist Register, 2000. Print.