Stealing Never Leads to Success: Arthur Miller's 'Death of a Salesman' and Its Protagonist

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Death of a Salesman, written by Arthur Miller portrays Biff as a main character in the play who tried to work at many different jobs, and failed at each one due to the fact that he stole. Biff steals because from a young age, Biff was not taught the difference between right and wrong or illusion versus reality. He was taught that it was okay to steal as long as success comes from the stealing. Biff also feels as though the world owes him something, so when the people around him do not give him what he’s owed, he steals from them to punish them in a passive aggressive manner. Even though Biff stole while he was a teenager and was not old enough to know better, he can’t come up with an excuse for stealing a suit in Kansas City as a grown man. The items that Biff stole represent how Willy Loman had never thought his son Biff that stealing was not okay and that being well liked is not an excuse for such thing as stealing. Everytime something goes wrong, Biff now thinks that stealing is a way out of it. As a result, now Biff’s tendency to steal, constantly stands in the way of his path to a job. Throughout the book Biff steals a suit, football, and a pen because it is his passive-aggressive way of getting back at people he feels have unfairly done better in life than he has, but also because stealing gives him an excuse to quit whatever bad job he happens to be in that moment.

While many would say that he wasn’t old enough to know better when he stole as a teenager, not even Biff can come up with an excuse for stealing a suit in Kansas City as a grown man. Amazingly, his family did not know about this incident, but Biff comes clean to his parents when he explains, “You know why I had no address for three months? …I was in jail. I stole myself out of every good job since high school! And I never got anywhere because you blew me so full of hot air I could never stand taking orders from anybody! I had to be boss big shot in two weeks, and I’m through with it” (Miller Act 2). In this instance Biff’s excuse here is that he had to steal because it was a completely reasonable way to cope with his father’s high expectations. Biff broke the law, which isn’t a good way for dealing with personal issues or stress. As a matter of fact, Biff is most responsible for his failure to live a good and rich life, unlike Bernard. Some might think that Willy put a lot of pressure on Biff, but Happy had the exact same pressures growing up and he managed to avoid legal trouble, unlike Biff. Biff stealing the suit symbolizes Biff’s lack of stability in his life in combination with the need to keep up appearances.

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The football, that Biff stole, resembles youth, strength and leadership. The ball itself is touched often by the quarterback. However, in regards to stealing a ball in terms of the game, this would suggest an interception in which the game is now shifting 180 degrees in the opposite direction. Biff’s life follows this pattern as it is apart from Willy’s view of the direction his son should be heading. Willy was proud of Biff when he stole the football instead of getting angry due to the fact that he states that ‘Sure, he’s gotta practice with a regulation ball, doesn’t he? Coach’ll probably congratulate you on the initiative’ (Miller Act 1). Since he was never disciplined properly in this moment, this kind of kleptomaniacal attitude followed him into his adult years where he finds himself in a similar situation. The football symbolizes deceit and lies and throughout the play, football is used to attract attention, though Biff has only ever desired to run the opposite direction.

By Biff stealing, especially the pen, could mean that Biff uses these actions as a source of control and to get back at the people who he feels have mistreated him. Biff expects to be treated a certain way and tries to avoid working towards things and putting in the effort to achieve the things he desperately wants to. Rather, he behaves in a dishonest manner. He doesn’t realise that to be successful and to be happy with his life he will have to be committed and work hard. Also, Biff may steal as it distracts from his own self-loathing and it gives him a sense of power and getting pay back. The fountain pen itself, symbolizes corruption and shallowness. These traits are associated with greed and materialism in the business world. It is also a symbol of his job and failure because he failed at being a traveling salesman. Biff explains to his dad that “I just — wanted to take something I don’t know” (MIller pg 81). This shows that Biff has no control over himself at certain times. After Biff stole the pen, he realizes he doesn’t want the same unhappy and dissatisfying life his father has had for all of these years, but instead he wants to be a normal man. Biff understands that chasing the dream of business leads to frustration. The fountain pen symbolizes a changing point for Biff and it helps him sympathize with his dad over his father’s unfulfilled dreams.

As can be seen, the items that Biff stole represent and symbolize different things. The pen symbolizes a changing point for Biff, the football symbolizes deceit and lies, and the suit symbolizes Biff’s lack of stability in his life. As a matter of fact, all of these items represent Biff’s passive-aggressive way of getting back at people he feels have unfairly done better in life than he has, like Bernard and Oliver. Biff steals because it gives him a source of control in life and he can be considered as a kleptomaniac. A kleptomaniac is someone who has an inability to refrain from the urge for stealing items and is usually done for reasons other than personal use or financial gain. He essentially cannot help himself when he steals Bill Oliver’s fountain pen and runs out of the room. Willy has raised Biff to be a selfish, superficial individual with very little moral values and he has been stealing various items ever since he was a child. As a result, Biff has no moral compass in his life and has never been told anything different. He was also never taught the value of hard work. Instead, Biff tries to cheat his way to becoming a success. Stealing is often an easy way to get what one wants, but is not the right thing to do and is illegal.

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Stealing Never Leads to Success: Arthur Miller’s ‘Death of a Salesman’ and Its Protagonist. (2020, October 20). WritingBros. Retrieved August 19, 2022, from
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