Friday, May 14, 2010

Father-Son Relationship in ‘Death of a Salesman’ and ‘Fences’

Once, talking about his relationship with his father, Arthur Miller said that it was, “like two searchlights on different islands." searching for each other. Nothing can describe better the theme of strained father-son relationship, Miller so passionately explores in his plays like ‘Death of a Salesman’ and ‘All My Sons”. When asked about the reason for this recurring theme, Miller said, “The two greatest plays ever written were Hamlet and Oedipus Rex, and they're both about father-son relationships, you know. So this goes back.” He further said that although “This is an old story. I didn't invent it and I'm sure it will happen again and again.”

August Wilson’s relationship with his father was far from normal. His father was a white German immigrant who never lived with the family and rarely made an appearance. So much so that August Wilson officially erased the memory of his father by adopting his mother’s name in 1970s. Later on, David Bedford, an ex-convict whose race prevented him from getting a football scholarship became Wilson's stepfather. August was a teenager then and the relationship between the father and son was rocky and turbulent. Bedford would later on become the source for his play ‘Fences’. Troy Maxson, the protagonist of ‘Fences’ is a former baseball player who is blocked from the major leagues by segregation. He has a teenaged son, named Cory with whom he has a fractured father-son relationship.

Troy’s ouster from the game he loves, leaves him gravely embittered. He is consumed with bitterness and is convinced that if you are a black man, "you born with two strikes on you before you come to the plate." Powerless to change his situation in society, Troy practically becomes a bully at home. This is one place where he can assert and find comfort in the fact that he is in control. His family, especially his son Cory pays a price to keep him happy thus. Willy wants to make it big in the world of sales and fails miserably. Unable to accept the reality of his position, he turns into a shell of a man; totally incapable to play out his responsibilities as a wise energetic father. Hence, both the plays deal with abnormal psychology of the protagonists, leading to disastrous consequences.

Rev. C. Irving Cummings, of Old Cambridge Baptist Church, during one of his sermons commented: “Father/son relationship is a theme in our culture which is often surrounded with difficulty. How many times, in my office, or among my friends, have I heard a son’s anguish and despair at feeling distant and unable to relate with his father.” It is chiefly the result of the generation gap. This chasm between the father and son can be clearly seen in “Fences.” While in “Death of A Salesman” it is subtle till Biff openly announces, “Pop! I'm a dime a dozen, and so are you!” Although, Happy is not Willy’s favorite son, he does everything possible to keep Willy in good disposition.
Actually, Willy never paid much attention to Happy as he had few expectations from him. As a result of this, Happy, in reality, fails to achieve much in life and keeps lying to Willy about his supposed success. While, Biff ultimately realizes the futility of Willy loman’s dreams, Happy stupidly continues to subscribe to them. He speaks out about Willy after his death, “He had a good dream, the only dream a man can have - to come out number one man. He fought it out here, and this where I'm gonna win it for him." This sure rings a bell. This is an indication that Happy has failed to take a leaf out of the tragic life of his father.

Troy’s failure to play baseball in the Major League due to
the color of his skin makes him grossly unjust towards his family, especially towards his sons. He denies them everything they like or feel good about. Cory is disallowed to play football because it is Cory’s choice and not his father’s. Troy is also least appreciative of Lyon’s love for jazz music and dubs it as inconsequential ‘Chinese music’. He strongly disagrees with Rose who likes to play numbers.

Cory’s complaint to his father is significant, “You ain’t never done nothing but hold me back. Afraid I was gonna be better than you. All you ever did was try and make me scared of you.” This brings into mind the words of Rev. C. Irving Cummings about father-son relationship, “If Freud was right, there’s a lot of “built-in” stuff around that relationship (father-son), perhaps in every culture—certainly in ours. Freud, of course, said, famously, that fathers are inherently jealous of sons because of the attention they claim from the sons’ mothers, their wives. Fathers are a fait accompli; sons are open, ready and yearning to become all the things their fathers are not”.

Although Willy is a Whiteman and Troy is an Afro-American, they both represent the Post-Depression trauma in equal measure. The Depression years, particularly saw fragility of American families as a rising social problem. Miller and Wilson were very well aware of this fact. Miller had long realized, “a simple shift of relationships” could change ordinary plays into great ones. He once said, “In the writing of father-son relationship and of the son’s search for his relatedness there was a fullness of feeling I had never known before; a crescendo was struck with a force I could almost touch”.

The struggle between the father and son over conflicting visions, aspirations and values is the fulcrum and the axis around which the two plays revolve. Instead of commanding respect, Troy literally demands respect from his son Cory and feels great about it. He is completely unmindful of the hurt, he causes in the process. He also fails to recognize the fact that times have changed and Cory stands a reasonable chance to represent the football team in the Major League. According to Rev. C. Irving Cummings, “Freud, of course, received enormous criticism for his suggestion that there are such primitive forces at work between mothers and sons and fathers who, so predictably, and so often, react to their sons with such jealousy, rage and withdrawal.”

Miller proves beyond any iota of doubt the negative influence of American dream on the American families. While Willy’s chases American dream in the field of salesmanship, Troy Maxson tries to realize it in the arena of sports. Biff is Willy’s favorite son. He loves him so much that he forgets that Willy has grown up and has a personality of his own. His failure compounds Willy’s grief. Willy Loman is squarely responsible for Biff’s fiasco. He fills Biff with a lot of hot air, “I’ll get him a job selling. He could be big in no time" He runs down Charley’s son Bernard for not being “well-liked.” He predicts, "Bernard can get the best marks in school . . . but when he gets out into the business world . . . you are going to be five times ahead of him. . . . Be liked and you will never want." He was totally wrong. Bernard grows up to become a successful Supreme Court lawyer.

Willy also makes Biff completely complacent about himself, “You got greatness in you, Biff. . . You got all kinds of greatness." He is also responsible for Biff’s kleptomania. Had Willy not dismissed Biff’s act of stealing football from the school as ‘initiative,’ Biff would not have become a compulsive thief. Biff largely suffers due to the blatantly wrong training his father imparted to him. This alone was sufficient to distance Biff from his father; top it with the Boston episode and you have a recipe for disaster.

Troy Maxson’s name and the way he relates to his sons remind us of the famous Mason-Dixon Line that, starting in 1820, was the term used to describe the imaginary line separating the slave states from the free states. With that kind of a mindset, nothing much can be expected from Troy as a father. Cory’s words about his father surely reflect his inner pain, “The whole time I was growing up….living in the house…Papa was like a shadow that followed you everywhere. It weighed on you and sunk into your flesh….Trying to live through you. Everywhere I looked, Troy Maxson was looking at me….” Cory’s revolt against his father is an assertion of his freedom.

Troy cannot digest his son’s courage to stand up against him. All these years, Troy had been a big banyan tree denying any light or space to the plants below. Infuriated, he gives Cory marching orders, “If you don’t get on the other side of that yard…I ‘m gonna show you how crazy I am! Go on….get the hell out of my yard”. Cory’s reminder to his father, “You ain’t never gave me nothing!” says it all. The father-son relationship hinges on love, caring and spirit of accommodation. This is something that Cory never got from his father. Lyon was lucky to escape Troy’s wrath as he lived elsewhere. His interaction with his father was limited to the time when he visited him for money.

August Wilson portrays Troy as a person who himself had a tumultuous relationship with his father. In both the plays, the sons suffer substantially because of the weak moral character of their fathers. Biff is devastated when he catches his father red-handed with a prostitute. He loses interest in studies and his career gets derailed. Similarly, Troy betrays his wife Rose and has sexual relationship with another woman named Alberta. Both Willy and Troy fall from a high pedestal. They never rise in the eyes of their sons again. Cory physically grapples with his father, the moment he learns about his father’s infidelity towards his mother. This also paves way for Cory to find his manhood away from the dark shadow of his father. Once far from the overbearing and detrimental influence of his father, Cory finds his self-respect by becoming a Marine.

Miller also highlights the fact that Willy and his sons enjoyed a healthy and vibrant relationship in the past. The world then wasn’t so commercial and claustrophobic. The father and the sons thoroughly enjoyed doing manual work and polishing their car in the open. A part of Willy duly realized the importance of the days gone by and of having a safe haven away from the maddening crowd, "Before it's all over we're gonna get a little place out in the country, and I'll raise some vegetables, a couple of chickens..." The delicious memories of the family’s idyllic past send out a clear signal to the readers; commercialization and urbanization is injurious to the well-being of American families. August Wilson’s message in “Fences” is no different.

Willy may have failed miserably as a father but one cannot lose sight of the fact that he loved his sons very much. He wanted the best for his sons; only he couldn’t deliver. He attains martyrdom by sacrificing his life for his sons. He leaves this world in peace, with the knowledge that his sons would be able to start their lives afresh with the 20000 dollars, they would get as his insurance money. In reality Troy is also good at heart. He isn’t that crazy either.

The fact that he cries when Cory leaves him, shows that he loves him basically. His reminder to Lyon to take charge of his life and act responsibly is an important warning that Lyon ignored. As a result, Lyon lands in jail for encashing other people’s checks. Similarly, when Cory wants his father to get him a television, Troy advises him to come up with half of its cost and he would gladly match it. This shows that Troy did want his son Cory to stand up on his feet. Only, if he could get over his rage and illusions, he might have made a nice father. Cory’s act of singing his father’s song about dog named Blue with Raynell, at the time of Troy’s funeral, certainly points in that direction.

Works Cited
Cummings, Irwing C. “A Sermon Preached by the Rev. C. Irving Cummings.” Fathers and Sons. 12 April 2007 <


nisha said...

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Anonymous said...

There is an issue with the part referring to Death of A Salesman at the end- Willy may have intended for his suicide to give his sons a fresh start with the insurance money they would be owed, but the irony is that Willy never in fact was able to pay the final premium on the insurance, so his death had no advantages at all. He had been planning his death for a while, and it just goes to show how much of a failure his life was.

Anonymous said...

thanks I have to do me Lit coursework on Death of a Salesman it due in tomorrow and I forgot to read the book 0_o

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