Notes on Death of a Salesman Themes

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Death of a Salesman Topic Tracking: Dishonesty

Act 1, Part 1

Dishonesty 1: Dishonesty is common throughout Death of a Salesman. Whether the lies are intentional or delusional, Willy, Biff, and Happy seem to be spewing out untruths all the time, and Biff finally realizes that they've been lying to each other and themselves so much, that they don't even know who they really are. The dishonesty begins with Willy telling Linda that he came home because he couldn't drive anymore. The reason, he later admits, is that he almost ran over a kid in Yonkers, and it spooked him. But he doesn't lie only about the reason for his return, he also lies about his importance to the company in New England, and how he'd already be running New York if his original employer were still alive. There's no guarantee that Willy and his former boss were good friends, and Willy hasn't been important in New England for a long time (if indeed, he ever really was). He creates a false image of a skilled salesman in demand, when in reality, he's really washed up.

Dishonesty 2: Willy is on a tirade about Biff because he thinks that Biff is wasting his life; he has become a shiftless bum, when Willy had such high expectations for him. As Willy is talking to Linda about Biff, he says that he's lazy and that's why he's a failure. But in the next breath, Willy says that he doesn't understand why someone as hard-working as Biff isn't more successful. Willy's speech is constantly riddled with inconsistencies and contradictions. These contradictions make his convictions completely unreliable.

Act 1, Part 2

Dishonesty 3: Happy admits that he seduces the fiancees of top executives at the store, and he also takes bribes. He laughs about it like it's a game, and Biff pays it no attention. Their disregard for ethics and morality is evident; accepting bribes seems everyday and normal. It doesn't occur to either of the boys that there's something wrong with this, and the audience is left to wonder how they developed such an attitude.

Dishonesty 4: Biff quit working for Bill Oliver because he was accused of stealing a carton of basketballs (which he did), but despite that, Biff believes that Oliver will loan him $10,000 to start a ranch. Biff is creating a dishonest vision of the past (like his dad). He stole from and lied to Oliver when he worked for him, and now he's lying to himself by asserting how much Oliver liked him. His lies are convinced enough to become the truth, and he can't remember which version of the story is right.

Act 1, Part 3

Dishonesty 5: Biff stole a football from the locker room when he was in high school, and he claimed that he took it because the coach told him to work on his passing. Willy acts for a moment as if Biff should return it, but when Hap implies that Biff was wrong for taking the ball, Willy defends Biff and declares that the coach, rather than being angry with Biff for stealing, would have been proud and impressed with Biff's initiative. Willy tells Biff that it's OK that he took the ball because the coach likes him. Willy tells his son it's perfectly fine to steal from people, as long as you are well liked; they'll let you get away with it.

Dishonesty 6: Willy lies to the boys about meeting and having coffee with the mayor of Providence. He likes to make his sons believe that he's an important and great man, when in reality, he is just an average guy, like everyone else. Willy gets trapped in the false image he has created, believing the lies he has been telling himself for years. He is unable to confront reality and has the expectation that people are going to react to him as a successful and important salesman. He cannot understand why people treat him like an unknown, washed up pity-case (which he is). He's just a common, everyday guy who talks as if he's so much more (he has built up an image with his kids that he cannot fill), and when he realizes that he's a failure, and everyone knows his "success" is a fake, life is no longer worth living. Willy feels worth more dead, than alive.

Dishonesty 7: When Linda asked Willy how well he did on his trip, Willy lied about how much he sold. He admitted the truth only a few sentences later, and Linda ignores the whopper he told her, but the fact remains that Willy is a liar. He contradicts himself continuously -- one minute the Chevy is the greatest car ever built, the next minute it's a hunk of scrap metal. One minute he's making $1200 sales, and the next instant, it was only a $200 sale. That's a $1,000 lie, and no one calls him on it or makes him accountable for it, so he just goes right one lying to himself and everyone else.

Act 1, Part 4

Dishonesty 8: Willy's mistress is another example of his immorality and dishonesty. He cheats on Linda, his adoring and supportive wife, with some secretary, so that he has a contact with the buyers in Boston.

Act 1, Part 7

Dishonesty 9: Willy sent the boys to steal sand from a construction site so they could rebuild the stoop of their house. Although Charley warns that the watchman is keeping an eye out for the boys because they stole lumber earlier, Willy doesn't care. He is convinced that stealing those supplies isn't wrong, and is proud of the boys being so fearless, but he never explains why it's OK for them to steal. Even when the watchman is chasing Biff, Willy refuses to admit that they're wrong. Linda, however, seems to know that what they're doing is dishonest, and she worries about the boys getting into trouble for it.

Act 1, Part 8

Dishonesty 10: Hap tells Biff that part of the reason people in the business world think he's crazy, is because he didn't lie to cover himself when he wanted to take a day off. Hap, however, brags about his excellent ability to cover himself; he can leave if he wants and the boss will never be able to pin him down for playing hooky.

Dishonesty 11: Willy tells Biff to pretend his work out West was business related instead of farm work to impress Oliver.

Act 2, Part 1

Dishonesty 12: Willy, feeling guilty about betraying Linda with adultery, gets anxious and upset any time he sees her mending her silk stockings; stockings were the gift he always gave the Woman when they met. While Linda had to mend her stockings because they were so expensive, Willy's mistress got two pair every time she and Willy had their little fling in Boston.

Act 2, Part 4

Dishonesty 13: Willy lies to Bernard about how Bill Oliver called Biff in to work for him. He is intimidated by Bernard's success and embarrassed by how little Biff has done with his own life. Willy lies to make Biff seem important and successful (much like he does with himself).

Act 2, Part 5

Dishonesty 14: Hap lies to the girl he's hitting on so that he can get her attention. He's a natural at dishonesty, and he doesn't feel bad about it at all. Biff, however, realized in his meeting with Oliver, that he'd never been a salesman, just a shipping clerk. He realizes at that moment, his entire life has been a lie. His father and his brother are liars, too, because they all pretend to be what they aren't. Biff is tired of lying, and he plans to tell Willy the truth about his meeting with Oliver, but Hap encourages him to just lie and tell Willy what he wants to hear.

Act 2, Part 6

Dishonesty 15: Biff is destroyed by the realization that his father is a fraud. Finding out about Willy's affair made Biff realize his father's life was a charade. This is when Biff gives up on his own future.

Act 2, Part 7

Dishonesty 16: Biff finally confronts Willy about the lies they've all been living. He tells Willy that stealing has cost him every good job he's had since he was in high school, and that they all have been lying to each other about who and what they really are. He's tired of the lies and feels he must leave because he can't keep trying to be what he isn't. His father won't hear any of it.

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