Death of a Salesman

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Themes and Colors
The American Dream Theme Icon
Fathers and Sons Theme Icon
Nature vs. City Theme Icon
Abandonment and Betrayal Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Death of a Salesman, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Fathers and Sons Theme Icon

The central conflict of the play is between Willy and his elder son Biff, who showed great promise as a young athlete and ladies' man, but in adulthood has become a thief and drifter with no clear direction. Willy's other son, Happy, while on a more secure career path, is superficial and seems to have no loyalty to anyone.

By delving into Willy's memories, the play is able to trace how the values Willy instilled in his sons—luck over hard work, likability over expertise—led them to disappoint both him and themselves as adults. The dream of grand, easy success that Willy passed on to his sons is both barren and overwhelming, and so Biff and Happy are aimless, producing nothing, and it is Willy who is still working, trying to plant seeds in the middle of the night, in order to give his family sustenance. Biff realizes, at the play's climax, that only by escaping from the dream that Willy has instilled in him will father and son be free to pursue fulfilling lives. Happy never realizes this, and at the end of the play he vows to continue in his father's footsteps, pursuing an American Dream that will leave him empty and alone.

Fathers and Sons ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Fathers and Sons appears in each act of Death of a Salesman. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Fathers and Sons Quotes in Death of a Salesman

Below you will find the important quotes in Death of a Salesman related to the theme of Fathers and Sons.
Act 1 Quotes
Work a lifetime to pay off a house. You finally own it, and there's nobody to live in it.
Related Characters: Willy Loman (speaker)
Page Number: 4
Explanation and Analysis:

Willy asks Linda about how his two sons, Happy and Biff, are doing. Linda tells him that they are getting along and that she loves watching them shave together. We learn here that they are grown men. Willy comments on Linda's remarks with this quote. 

Once again, Willy has distilled one of the darkest aspects of the American Dream. Like many, he has worked his entire life to provide for his family, so much so that he has missed out on most of his children's' lives. As he traveled, his sons became men. After this moment he tells Linda, that "some people accomplish" things, suggesting that the time he has lost with his children was pointless. He hasn't accomplished anything, quite possibly because he is searching in the wrong places. This quote also foreshadows the ending of the play, when Willy's death indeed pays off the house—but he isn't alive to live in it.

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And they know me, boys, they know me up and down New England. The finest people. And when I bring you fellas up, there'll be open sesame for all of us, 'cause one thing, boys: I have friends.
Related Characters: Willy Loman (speaker), Biff Loman, Happy Loman
Page Number: 19
Explanation and Analysis:

After returning home from a business trip, Willy recounts his time away to his sons. He explains that he is very well liked when he travels. On this trip he met the mayor of Providence and sat down with him. He also brags about his fame and friends.

This moment is a stark contrast from Willy's first entrance and dialogue with Linda. Here, Willy is putting on a show for his sons. Instead of telling them the truth—that he hates his job and feels like his life is pointless—he regales his sons with stories of his travels. There is a sense of pride inherent in being the father for Willy. He must be successful. He must be an example for his sons. Once again, success, wealth and now, being well-liked become more important than happiness; this is Willy's  perception of the "American Dream." 

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.
Related Characters: Willy Loman (speaker), Biff Loman
Page Number: 51
Explanation and Analysis:

Happy and Biff throw around the idea of starting their own sporting goods business, and they share with Willy that Biff is going to ask his former boss for money. Willy is thrilled by the idea, and throws in a slew of suggestions and thoughts on how they should present themselves. Here, he reflects on a football game where he saw his son Biff being cheered, his own last name ringing around the stadium. This again shows Willy's warped mixture of nostalgia and idealism—he celebrates this heroic moment of the past, even though Biff has gone on to not really accomplish anything. Willy has specific ideas about what "success" is, and his sons fail themselves in trying not to fail their father.

Act 2 Quotes
Willy: Your father came to me the day you were born and asked me what I thought of the name of Howard, may he rest in peace.

Howard: I appreciate that, Willy, but there just is no spot here for you.
Related Characters: Willy Loman (speaker), Howard Wagner (speaker)
Page Number: 59-60
Explanation and Analysis:

Willy goes to meet Howard Wagner, the son of the owner of the company he works for. Encouraged by Linda to find a job that will keep him in New York, and always one for a business deal or "sale," Willy comes into the meeting optimistic. He asks Howard to keep him in New York on a lower salary, and in this moment, Howard refuses. Although only 36 years old, Howard acts patronizingly towards Willy here. He is a much younger man, but like so many others in Willy's life, doesn't respect him. Willy brings up how he helped Howard's father choose his name as a baby.

Although Willy idealizes these kinds of connections, and assumes that being likable and loyal is the ultimate recipe for success, here that idea is shot down. Willy's connection to Howard's father fits in with Willy's ideas of how business works, but to Howard—who, we presume, is more concerned with profit than indulging in nostalgia—this just isn't that important. Thus the very things that Willy counted on here abandon and betray him.

I even believed myself that I'd been a salesman for him! And he gave me one look and - I realized what a ridiculous lie my whole life has been!
Related Characters: Biff Loman (speaker), Bill Oliver
Page Number: 81
Explanation and Analysis:

Biff returns from trying to meet with his former boss, Bill Oliver. He waited all day in his office and when Bill came out, he didn't even recognize Biff. He looked at him and walked away, and Biff couldn't find the courage to speak to Bill. This causes Biff to wonder why he even thought he could become a salesman in the first place. Biff is in the same dangerous, self-destructive cycle as his father. Parallel to Willy's moment with Howard, Biff has been abandoned by someone he had an idealized view of. In his fantasy, he imagined Bill Oliver as his friend and business associate, loving his ideas—but similar to his father, Biff's dreams have warped his expectations of reality. Bill does not care about him, and Biff will never be what he truly wants to be. 

But it'll go on forever!

Dad is never so happy as when he's looking forward to something!
Related Characters: Biff Loman (speaker), Happy Loman (speaker), Willy Loman
Page Number: 82
Explanation and Analysis:

After telling Happy the story of his encounter with Bill Oliver, Biff reveals that when no one was looking he snuck into Oliver's office and stole his fountain pen. Biff then tells Happy that he wants to confess to their father, so that Willy can see that Biff is very different from what he appears to be. Happy suggests that instead of telling Willy the truth, they convince him that Oliver agreed to speak with Biff and is looking over their offer. Happy knows that Willy's joy and self-worth hinges on his dreams, so he encourages his brother to lie in order to keep their father happy. Biff, on the other hand, feels he needs to prove something to his father, whom he always felt never understood him. 

She's nothing to me, Biff. I was lonely, I was terribly lonely.

You - you gave her Mama's stockings!
Related Characters: Willy Loman (speaker), Biff Loman (speaker), Linda Loman, The Woman
Related Symbols: Stockings
Page Number: 95
Explanation and Analysis:
While Biff tries to confess about his meeting with Bill Oliver to his father, Willy sinks into another memory. He goes back to the day he found out Biff flunked math. After failing his course, Biff took a train to visit Willy in Boston, and he found him with another woman in his hotel room. Willy tried to hide his mistress in the bathroom, but eventually she comes out, asking Willy for her stockings that he promised her: Linda's stockings. Biff is heartbroken at his father's infidelity. Once again, the stockings are used as a symbol of betrayal. They are the image that Biff and Willy carry with them, a emblem of that night. After that moment, Biff tells Willy that he won't be retaking math or going to college. Throughout the play Willy has been blaming math as the reason why Biff hasn't been successful, when in reality it was this shattering moment of disillusionment. The man that Biff had always looked up to is now a fraud. This forever warps Biff's idea of the "American Dream"; something he once defined as the dream of his father's. He now sees that it is all a sham, and is left directionless in life. 
I've got to get some seeds, right away. Nothing's planted. I don't have a thing in the ground.
Related Characters: Willy Loman (speaker)
Related Symbols: Seeds
Page Number: 96
Explanation and Analysis:

Willy's fantasy about his affair dissolves and he finds himself in the bathroom of the restaurant he was in with his sons. When he returns to the table he sees that his sons are gone—they've paid the check and he is alone. Willy asks his server, Stanley where he can find some seeds to plant. Stanley tells him to go to a hardware store nearby. Willy exits.

Seeds here become a symbol of Willy's desire to die and leave something, no matter how small, behind him. He has nothing to care for anymore. His sons don't respect him, he has just had a vivid memory of his betrayal of his wife, he has lost his job, and he has lost his own sense of self worth. Miller also brings up the idea of nature versus city once again. If the city represents the clouded, capitalistic American Dream, coming back to nature, to the simple planting and reaping of seeds, represents the idea of finding truth and connection. Additionally, unlike Willy, seeds are planted—they are rooted to the ground, and do not travel or move. Willy is desperate for roots and desperate for growth, and he sees death and the planting of seeds as the only way to accomplish this. 

Will you let me go, for Christ's sake? Will you take that phony dream and burn it before something happens?
Related Characters: Biff Loman (speaker), Willy Loman
Page Number: 106
Explanation and Analysis:

Biff and Happy return home, and Linda is furious that they abandoned their father at the restaurant. She tells both of them that they must leave the house and move out if they want to save their father. Biff approaches Willy, who is outside, rambling to himself and planting the seeds he has bought. Biff confesses everything that happened with Bill Oliver, and tells Willy that he is leaving the house. Willy is stuck in his fantasy world, and he doesn't believe that Biff doesn't have a meeting with Oliver. Biff grabs the rubber hose that Willy used to try to kill himself with earlier in the play. He tells his father that killing himself won't make him a hero, and that he has been living in fantasy; he has unrealistic ideas of success and fortune. He tells his father the thing he, Biff, truly loves: being outdoors. He then begs his father to let go of his dreams to save his own life. In this moment, Biff attempts to shatter his father's dreams from a place of love. Biff knows that Willy's delusions of what life should be are killing him, and this is Biff's last-ditch effort to save his father. 

Requiem Quotes
There were a lot of nice days. When he'd come home from a trip; or on Sundays, making the stoop; finishing the cellar; putting on the new porch... You know something, Charley, there's more of him in that front stoop than in all the sales he ever made.
Related Characters: Biff Loman (speaker), Willy Loman, Charley
Page Number: 110
Explanation and Analysis:

After Willy's funeral, Biff brings up Willy's knack for carpentry as one of his better qualities. So much of their home is Willy's making, and this moment suggests that Willy had skills outside of his failed sales career—he was just too caught up in his own pursuit of wealth, and his idea of success as being "likable," to see it. Biff tries to remember the good in his father, both to celebrate him and, in many ways, to protect himself. He is his father's son, and he sees so much of his own failure as a result of that. Yet the suggestion is that Biff has not yet given in entirely to Willy's delusions—there is still a chance for him to find more fulfillment in life than his father did.