What would it be like to have no personal identity? Human nature is fundamentally oriented toward self-acceptatance and self-understanding. Without these, one feels inadequate and lost. This is certainly the case for poor Biff Loman in “Death of a Salesman,” because Biff’s father Willy simply cannot accept him. Biff is forced to be someone he is not for so long that he loses his true self altogether. As a result, he falls into a despair he cannot understand the genesis of. Additionally, Willy ruins Biff’s future and character. Beyond all the other characters of the play, Willy hurts Biff the most because Willy attacks Biff’s fundamental identity. Willy in effect steals Biff’s identity by forcing Biff to be the person he himself wants to be. Willy lives vicariously through Biff’s accomplishments, wishing they were his own. Eventually, Willy so appropriates Biff that Biff’s accomplishments are, in a way, his own.
Willy speaks about a memory of Biff saying: “Like a young god. Hercules– something like that. And the sun, the sun all around him. Remember how he waved to me? Right up from the field with the representatives of three colleges standing by? And the buyers I brought, and the cheers when he came out– Loman, Loman, Loman! God Almighty, he’ll be great yet. A star like that, magnificent, can never really fade away” (51). Willy evidently thought the world of Biff when Biff was an accomplished highschooler, and Biff even reciprocated these feelings at that age.
However, when Biff grows up, Willy no longer sees him as living up to his potential. Biff likewise no longer admires his father. Unfortunately, Biff spends his whole life doing what his father wants him to do, and after letting go of Willy, he has no identity, no great goal, no dream, and seemingly no future. Both Willy and Biff have expended their entire lives and imaginations upon this false “magnificent” Biff, who doesn’t really exist. The two had been one, and when they let go of that, they both shrank into nothing. ‘False Biff’ was their identity, but ‘False Biff’ accomplishes nothing after high school. The result of Willy forcing Biff to be someone he is not as a child is a lost and empty adult who can never meet expectations.
At the end of his senior year in high school, Biff walks in on his father with another woman who isn’t his mother. Biff cries out at his father in anger, “Don’t touch me you– liar!” (95). Biff had idolized his father, and seeing his father’s adultery crushes him. It crushes him so badly, in fact, that he cannot complete summer school, and therefore cannot attend college. This leaves Biff with no higher education, ambition, or purpose in life, and no one to imitate. In addition to the immediate emotional and psychological shock, it is obvious that Willy makes a hugely negative impact on Biff’s future when he selfishly cheated on Biff’s mother. Biff’s idol is shattered. After witnessing his father’s affair, Biff moves away to the country. Sadly, he cannot even hold down a simple, low-paying job, because his character, conscientiousness, and work ethic are so low as a result of his father’s poor example and absenteeism. Biff is practically a kleptomaniac, because his father never taught him otherwise. In addition, Biff is poorly educated because Willy encourages him to cheat during high school. In a flashback to high school, Bernard says to Willy, “Where is he? If he doesn’t study!” and Willy replies, “You’ll give him the answers!”.
This dialogue is so disturbing because Willy has absolutely no qualms about dishonesty– in fact, he even encourages it. Willy projects his own poor character onto Biff, only caring that Biff protect Willy’s image. Neither is successful as a man, because both are persons of low character. Some might say that other members of the family were hurt more by Willy. For example, Linda spends her every day married to a crazy man who she constantly fears will take his own life. This puts her in a lot of emotional pain, as she frugally tries to protect Willy from himself and others. Linda really puts up with a lot of pressure. Happy also receives his fair share of pain from Willy. Contrary to Biff, Happy receives hardly any attention from his father. He’s left to grow up on his own, and that’s very sad for him. However, Biff really does take the worst of Willy’s burden, because Willy directly makes Biff feel like a failure.
In Biff’s words: “Will you let me go, for Christ’s sake? Will you take that phony dream and burn it before something happens?” . Willy makes Linda and Happy want to change Willy, while Willy makes Biff want to change his own self. Willy erases any trace of good character and separate identity from Biff’s life. And therefore also prevents Biff from having a successful and productive adulthood. Perhaps the most painful of these things to lose is identity, because it throws Biff into so much inner turmoil. Willy’s destruction of Biff’s life, character, and adulthood is total and catastrophic. One wonders though, without Willy, would Biff really have been much better?