Form and Content (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series, Supplement)
Death of a Salesman is a modern tragedy depicting the last days in the life of Willy Loman. When the action occurs in the present, the drama is realistic, both psychologically and emotionally. When the action is set in the past, however, the drama becomes dreamlike. Thus, in the scenes in which Willy’s sons, Biff and Happy, are in high school, only Willy can see them. This flashback technique is also used to incorporate Willy’s older brother Ben, the man to whom Willy turns for advice when circumstances produce a level of stress beyond which Willy can no longer function.
The story of Death of a Salesman is complex not only because it combines past and present but also because it grows out of a lifetime of lies and denials. Willy, unable to maintain a strenuous life on the road as a traveling salesman, seeks a steady job in New York, only to be fired by his boss, Howard Wagner, the son of the man who initially hired Willy. With unpaid bills piling up, Willy is further burdened by the return of his thirty-four-year-old son Biff, who has returned from working as a ranch hand in Texas in the hopes of finding a white-collar job in New York.
Biff and his younger brother, Happy, move back into their parents’ house and lament both the loss of their innocence and their failure to realize their dreams. Only their boyhood friend Bernard, now an attorney, has achieved success. Consequently, both brothers blame their father for...
(The entire section is 579 words.)
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Loman home. Modest house in Brooklyn, New York. Despite the play’s fixed location, playwright Arthur Miller makes it clear that Willy’s alienation and loss of meaning are afflictions of any modern American city. The introductory stage directions he wrote for act 1 state that the “small fragile-seeming home” is surrounded on all sides by “towering, angular shapes,” which have sprung up around it. Throughout the play, the audience is visually aware of a gap between past and present: The house which once stood on a pleasant street of similar homes is now dwarfed by “a solid vault of apartment houses.” Like Willy himself, the house has been made insignificant by progress.
Jo Mielziner, who designed the play’s original stage setting, framed the house so that it was “wholly, or, in some places, partially transparent.” Miller’s stage directions explain that whenever action occurs in the present, “actors observe the imaginary wall-lines, entering the house only through its door at the left.” By contrast, “in the scenes of the past these boundaries are broken, and characters enter or leave a room by stepping ‘through’ a wall onto the forestage.” The stage setting thus represents the two halves of Willy’s life: the realistic present, in which his breakdown is unfolding, and the dreamlike past, where most of his problems originated. “An air of the dream clings to the place,” Miller writes, “a...
(The entire section is 596 words.)
When World War II ended in 1945, the United States embarked upon an unprecedented period of economic prosperity, driven by the increase in industrial production markets brought about by the war. Unlike the Great Depression and the war years, Americans had a surplus of goods and services from which to choose, and the money with which to purchase them. Nonfarming businesses grew by one-third, and housing construction became a booming industry. However, the economic situation was not improved for the poorest Americans during this time. The economic boom brought high inflation, which kept poorer citizens from saving any money, and small farmers faced hard times because of government policies that benefitted larger, corporate farmers. The lowest-paid workers in the country were the migrant farm workers, with sales clerks and unskilled laborers (such as gas station attendants) not far above them. Happy, a sales clerk, and Biff, a farm worker, represent this segment of the American workforce in Death of a Salesman, and each of them struggles to retain his dignity in the face of his lowly position in a largely affluent society.
Because Americans felt so secure in their newfound prosperity, they began using credit to purchase the products and services they desired. Although the prices of these goods and services were driven higher and higher by increased demand, Americans continued to purchase them, using credit to buy what they could not otherwise afford....
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Act I, Part 1: Questions and Answers
1. In what city does Willy Loman live?
2. What surrounds Willy’s house?
3. In what way has Miller used transparent walls to indicate when characters are in the past rather than the present?
4. What is Willy’s job?
5. From where has Willy returned early? Why?
6. Does Willy have confidence in his ability to do his own job?
7. Who has come home to visit Willy and Linda?
8. Whom does Willy criticize and why?
9. Why does Willy stop his criticizing?
10. Who begins to listen to Willy and Linda’s conversation just before Willy goes to the kitchen to make a sandwich?
1. Willy Loman lives in New York City.
2. Recently built apartment buildings surround the house, giving it a small, fragile appearance.
3. When action occurs in the past, characters enter or exit through the walls. When action occurs in the present, they enter and exit through the doors.
4. He is a traveling salesman; specifically, he is his company’s salesman for New England.
5. He has returned early from a sales trip to New England after almost having a car accident while driving.
6. Yes. His confidence is evident in his remark to Linda: “I could sell them!” However, Willy does seem worried or scared about his daydreaming and the loss of self-control it implies.
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Act I, Part 2: Questions and Answers
1. How old are Biff and Hap during their conversation in the bedroom? Does that conversation take place in the past or the present?
2. What was Biff’s latest job? What kind of job or career can he not bear?
3. Why doesn’t Hap accept Biff’s invitation to go West to start a farm?
4. In what kind of unethical behavior has Hap engaged?
5. What plan does Biff tell Hap about as the brothers fall back asleep? Why is Biff somewhat nervous about the plan?
6. How does the audience know that a flashback occurs?
7. Is Willy bashful or shy about his ability as a salesman?
8. How are Biff and Hap different from Bernard?
9. According to Willy, what makes someone successful?
10. How might the flashback affect what you think of the Biff and Hap in the present?
1. The conversation takes place in the present, when Biff is 34 and Hap is 32.
2. Biff’s latest job was as a farmhand in Texas. He cannot bear the drudgery and slow advancement involved with jobs such as a salesman and a shipping clerk.
3. Hap refuses to go because he wants to “show some of those pompous, self-important executives over there that Hap Loman can make the grade.”
4. He has slept with the girlfriends of his bosses and has accepted bribes.
5. Biff tells Hap he intends to ask for a loan from...
(The entire section is 439 words.)
Act I, Part 3: Questions and Answers
1. What do we learn about Willy’s ability as a salesman as this section of the play begins?
2. Does Willy ever doubt that he is attractive and well liked?
3. What memory or daydream does Willy have immediately after he tells Linda, “You’re the best there is”?
4. What gift does Willy not give to Linda, even though he does give it to someone else?
5. Why does Willy scream at Linda and Bernard to “Shut up!”?
6. Do Willy and Charley play cards in the present or in the past of a flashback?
7. Who is Ben and why does Willy admire him?
8. Why is the watchman chasing Biff?
9. What does Charley offer Willy as they play cards? Does Willy accept?
10. Does Willy’s conversation with Ben convince Willy that he has been raising his sons correctly?
1. We discover that Willy exaggerates; after telling Linda he did very well on his recent trip, he admits he is not a very successful salesman and becomes discouraged.
2. Yes. Despite trying to explain away his lack of success in
sales, Willy does confess to Linda that he fears people think of him as fat, foolish, and too talkative.
3. Willy remembers or has a daydream about his affair with a woman in Boston.
4. He gives stockings to his mistress in Boston, but he does not give the same gift to Linda, who mends her...
(The entire section is 449 words.)
Act I, Part 4: Questions and Answers
1. Where does Linda lay the blame for Willy’s disoriented, hallucinatory condition?
2. While trying to convince Biff that he should stop continually fighting with Willy, does Linda argue that Willy has no faults?
3. Why is it that “attention must be paid” to Willy?
4. Why must Willy borrow $50 every week from Charley?
5. According to Biff, why did Willy originally throw him out of the house many years ago?
6. What did Linda learn about Willy from the insurance inspector?
7. What hidden object has Linda recently discovered and why has it caused her to worry?
8. Why does Biff intend to ask Bill Oliver for a loan?
9. What does Willy think of Biff’s idea to ask Oliver for a loan?
10. What does Biff remove from behind the gas heater?
1. Linda believes that Willy’s troubles stem partly from Biff’s failure to write Willy, to reconcile their differences, and to settle into a career.
2. No. Linda admits Willy is “not easy to get along with – nobody knows that better than me.”
3. Linda tells Biff and Hap that “attention must be paid” to Willy not because he is a great man, but simply because he is a human being – an aging man who is exhausted after working for so many years with very little to show for it.
4. He borrows the money because he is not...
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Act II, Part 1: Questions and Answers
1. In the morning, Willy tells Linda he will buy something for the backyard. What does he intend to buy and what does Miller seem to mean by this purchase?
2. As he leaves the house, what does Willy plan to ask Howard?
3. What message does Linda relay to Willy from Biff and Hap?
4. Why do Linda’s stockings make Willy nervous?
5. What machine does Howard show Willy? How might Howard’s comments about this machine make Willy uncomfortable?
6. Does Willy receive a non-traveling job or does he continue in his old job as traveling salesman?
7. Who is Dave Singleman and what significance does he hold for Willy?
8. What reasons does Howard give for not granting Willy’s requests and finally firing him?
9. Why does Willy mention Howard’s father?
10. Where does Howard suggest Willy look for support?
1. Willy intends to buy some seeds to plant a garden in the backyard. The seeds seem to signify Willy’s renewed hope, but because of his lack of success in the past we must question whether anything will change for Willy.
2. Willy plans to ask Howard for a non-traveling sales job. In addition, he plans to ask for an advance in pay so he can settle his bills.
3. Linda tells Willy that he should meet Biff and Hap at a restaurant at six o’clock because his sons want to buy him dinner...
(The entire section is 535 words.)
Act II, Part 2: Questions and Answers
1. Who does Willy “meet” after Howard fires him?
2. When Willy tells his brother that “nothing is working out,” what opportunity does Ben offer Willy?
3. What does Linda think of Ben’s offer?
4. What two things does Linda mention to persuade Willy of her opinion about his current job?
5. Does Willy accept Ben’s offer?
6. When Willy asks one last time if Ben approves of his ideas about business and the way he has raised his son, how does Ben respond?
7. Why is it an important day for Biff?
8. Does Charley expect Willy to accept his invitation to play cards?
9. Why does Willy challenge Charley to fight?
10. What comment does this scene as a whole make about Willy’s mood after being fired by Howard?
1.Willy “meets” Ben, his older brother. More precisely, Willy remembers or daydreams the meeting, which appears to the audience as a flashback to time several years ago when Ben visited Willy after a trip to Alaska.
2. Ben offers Willy the chance to work for him in Alaska.
3. Linda does not want Willy to accept the job in Alaska. She thinks Willy should be happy enough in his present job.
4. To persuade Willy not to accept the job in Alaska, Linda reminds Willy that old man Wagner has said Willy may become a member in the firm; she also reminds him of...
(The entire section is 463 words.)
Act II, Part 3: Questions and Answers
1. How has Bernard changed from when he was a boy?
2. What is Bernard’s job and what will he do in Washington, DC?
3. Why did Biff not graduate from high school?
4. What big question does Bernard ask Willy? How does Willy respond?
5. According to Charley, why doesn’t Bernard mention the reason for his trip to Washington, DC?
6. Why does Willy ask Charley to borrow more than the usual $50?
7. Other than a loan of money, what does Charley offer Willy? Does Willy accept?
8. Does Willy conceal from Charley the fact that Howard fired him?
9. What does Charley say about Willy’s belief that success would come “if a man was impressive, and well liked”?
10. What might Willy mean when he says, “you end up worth more dead than alive”?
1. As an adult, Bernard is mature, likable, self-assured, and athletic – very different from the meek, timid, overly studious teenager whom Willy called “anemic.”
2. Bernard is a lawyer and will argue a case in front of the Supreme Court in Washington, DC.
3. Biff did not graduate because he flunked a math class. Although he planned to attend summer school to make up the class, he never went. The reasons he decided not to attend remain unclear.
4. Bernard asks, “What happened in Boston, Willy?” In other words, did...
(The entire section is 464 words.)
Act II, Part 4: Questions and Answers
1. What lies does Hap tell and why?
2. Did Bill Oliver give Biff the loan? Does Biff tell Hap that he got the loan or not?
3. What particular memory causes Biff to exclaim, “I realized what a ridiculous lie my whole life has been”?
4. What did Biff steal from Oliver’s office? Why?
5. What does Willy want to tell Linda?
6. What are the three flashbacks, memories, or hallucinations that Willy experiences while talking to Biff and Hap?
7. What story do Biff and Hap concoct when Willy’s behavior becomes increasingly confusing and frightening?
8. Why does Biff tell Willy, “I’m no good, can’t you see what I am?”
9. Why does Willy excuse himself from the table to go to the bathroom?
10. Do Biff, Hap, and Willy leave the restaurant together?
1. He lies to Stanley by telling him that Biff is a big cattle man. He lies to Miss Forsythe by telling her that he sells champagne, that he went to West Point, and that Biff is the Giants’ quarterback. These lies are designed to impress Stanley and especially Miss Forsythe, whom Hap sexually desires.
2. Biff tells Hap the truth: Bill Oliver did not give Biff the loan.
3. Biff remembers that he was only a shipping clerk for Bill Oliver and never a salesman. Convincing himself he was a salesman strikes Biff as an example of how he...
(The entire section is 507 words.)
Act II, Part 5: Questions and Answers
1. Who is The Woman?
2. Approximately what age is Biff when he visits Willy in Boston?
3. What event causes Biff to come to Boston to see Willy?
4. What favor does Biff ask Willy to do?
5. What gift does The Woman insist that Willy give her before she will leave his room?
6. How does Willy initially explain the presence of The Woman in his room?
7. What is Biff’s reaction to finding The Woman in his father’s room? What does he yell at Willy as he leaves the room?
8. Why is Linda angry with Biff and Hap when they return to the house?
9. What does Linda order Biff and Hap to do? How does Biff respond?
10. Where is Willy at the end of this section? What is he doing?
1. She is the woman with whom Willy has an affair during his sales trips to Boston. At one point he calls her “Miss Francis,” but we cannot be sure this is her real name.
2. Biff is a senior in high school (about 17 or 18 years old). Most importantly, this is the young Biff, not the adult Biff who is in the restaurant as the Boston flashback begins.
3. Biff comes to Boston to find Willy after flunking math, which will prevent him from graduating high school.
4. Biff asks Willy to convince his math teacher not to flunk him, thus allowing him to graduate.
5. She insists Willy give her the...
(The entire section is 378 words.)
Act II, Part 6: Questions and Answers
1. What is Willy’s “proposition”?
2. What effect does Willy think his death will have on Linda and Biff?
3. Will the insurance company pay if it determines that Willy’s death is a suicide rather than an accident?
4. What is Biff’s solution to ending the conflict between him and his father?
5. What object does Biff show Willy?
6. Has Biff spited Willy?
7. Does Ben approve of Willy’s “proposition”?
8. What effect does Willy anticipate his death having on the continuing competition he imagines between Bernard and Biff?
9. By the end of the scene, is Willy still angry with Biff?
10. How does Willy kill himself? What does the audience see or hear that reveals Willy’s death?
1. His “proposition” refers to his plan to kill himself in order to leave Linda and Biff with $20,000 of insurance money.
2. He believes his suicide will benefit rather than hurt Linda and Biff. Willy believes his death will end Linda’s suffering because the insurance money will provide her with a comfortable life that Willy has not been able to give her. He thinks his death will also give Biff money with which to start a new life, causing Biff to “worship” Willy; furthermore, Willy thinks a well-attended funeral will impress Biff. Willy momentarily fears his suicide will cause Biff to consider...
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Requiem: Questions and Answers
1. Do many people attended Willy’s funeral?
2. What is Hap’s mood? What does he plan to do?
3. According to Charley, to what should we attribute Willy’s frustration and death?
4. Where does Biff think Willy actually put his greatest feeling – into his job as a salesman or elsewhere?
5. According to Biff, why did Willy live a life of misplaced hope, a life that ended in suicide?
6. Will Biff stay in New York and pursue the career Willy hoped he would?
7. Has Willy’s family received the $20,000 that Willy thought the insurance company would pay them upon his death?
8. Why does Linda find it hard to understand why Willy killed himself?
9. What words does Linda repeat as the play ends?
10. What music lingers as the play ends? What becomes more prominent visually at the same time?
1. No. Unlike Dave Singleman’s funeral, Willy’s funeral is attended by very few people – only Linda, Biff, Hap, Charley, and Bernard.
2. Hap is very angry with Willy for killing himself, but he plans to stay in New York and work to see Willy’s dream come true.
3. Charley thinks growing frustration from his lack of success as a salesman caused Willy’s frustration and suicide; a salesman loses confidence when unliked, when customers no longer smile back.
4. Biff points out...
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Death of a Salesman is a drama set in 1949, in New York City and Boston. The action of the play takes place largely inside the Loman home in Brooklyn, but other places in New York and Boston are used as well, including hotel rooms, Willy's office, a restaurant, and Willy's gravesite. The play is grounded in realism, which means that it depicts realistically what happens in the lives of its characters, but it also contains elements of expressionism, specifically when it depicts imaginary sequences and portrays for the audience the inner workings of the characters' minds and their emotions. The play is largely a representation of what takes place in the mind of Willy Loman during the last two days of his life.
Willy reminisces about past events and imagines situations, and the audience is able to see his thoughts played out on the stage. The reminiscences and imaginary sequences allow the audience to understand the characters' inner thoughts and provide insight into their behavior during the present-day scenes. For example, the audience learns, during one such reminiscence, that Biff has been tormented for since he was a young child by the discovery that his father had an extramarital affair. This insight helps the audience to better understand both Willy and Biff, explains some of Biff's anger toward his father, and indicates why he is so disillusioned. The instructions for setting in the play provide insight into how Arthur Miller wanted the play...
(The entire section is 443 words.)
Compare and Contrast
1949: Post-World War II economic growth combined with advertisements promising the American Dream created widespread optimism among Americans with hopes of attaining material wealth.
Today: An unpredictable economic climate coupled with a more media-savvy public has created an environment of cynicism and doubt regarding the validity of the American Dream.
1949: The German Federal Republic (West Germany) is established and the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) is established under Soviet control, effectively splitting the country following its defeat during World War II.
Today: Germany was reunified in 1990, and has shown a steady increase in economic and cultural stature in the world.
1949: The era of smooth-talking sales, when powers of persuasion often overshadowed knowledge and ability, was ending, giving way to careers requiring training and specialized knowledge.
Today: The advent of "infomercials" and multi-media accessibility has sparked a resurgence in slick showmanship and sales techniques reliant on gimmickry.
1949: National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences presents its first Emmy Award ceremony; nine percent of American households own a television set.
Today: The annual Emmy Awards are a major television event and, like hundreds of other programs, are part of millions of Americans' everyday life; over...
(The entire section is 203 words.)
Topics for Further Study
Research the economic growth America experienced during the post-World War II years. What do you feel led people like Willy Loman to expectations regarding success and the "American Dream."
In what ways could the Loman family have avoided their sad situation by the play's end? Consider such elements as communication and compromise.
Compare and contrast the characters of Willy Loman and Amanda Wingfield (from Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie); both of these characters spend much of their time recalling their past, often incorrectly. In what ways does this selective perception of their pasts affect their current situations?
Miller's play criticizes the false promises of the American Dream. Discuss facets of late twentieth century life that lead people to similar misconceptions of attainable success. Consider the role that advertising, music, television, and films have on this issue.
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What Do I Read Next?
King Lear, a play by William Shakespeare written in approximately 1605 is a classic tragedy which also concerns generational discord, this time between a father and his daughters. The play confronts the difficulty of interpreting events and the actions of others with accuracy.
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, published in 1963, concerns a young woman's psychological instability and her eventual suicide.
The Crucible, a play Arthur Miller wrote in 1953, has a multi-layered plot. On the surface, it concerns the Salem witch trials, while the subtext concerns the U.S. Senate's investigation into alleged communist activity in Hollywood.
Necessary Losses by Judith Viorst, published in 1986, is a psychological study which concerns how people negotiate loss in order to reach greater maturity. She argues that people must give up some expectations as well as suffer loss through death and physical separation.
Making a Living While Making a Difference, published by Melissa Everett in 1995, is a career guide for people who desire a profession which is socially meaningful. This book is designed for people who want to be financially successful without undermining their own ethics.
(The entire section is 181 words.)
Bibliography and Further Reading
Bloom, Harold, ed. Arthur Miller: Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.
Carson, Neil. Arthur Miller, Grove, 1982
This book offers an overview of Miller's major works, with an emphasis on their status as theater.
Comgan, Robert W. Arthur Miller: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall, 1969.
An excellent resource for critical information on Miller and his work Death of a Salesman is discussed at length.
Helterman, Jeffrey. “Arthur Miller.” Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 7: Twentieth-Century American Dramatists. John MacNicholas, ed. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1981.
Koon, Helene Wickham, ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of Death of a Salesman: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1983.
Matlaw, Myron, editor. Modern World Drama, Dutton, 1972, pp 194-96.
This is primarily a plot summary with introductory comments situating the play within dramatic literary tradition.
Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman: Certain Private Conversations in Two Acts and a Requiem. 1949. New York: Penguin Books, 1985.
Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman: Text and Criticism. Gerald Weales, ed. New York: Viking/Penguin, 1981.
Moss, Leonard. Arthur Miller. Revised edition. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1980.
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Bloom, Harold, ed. Willy Loman. New York: Chelsea House, 1991. A collection of sixteen focused extracts from books and articles, with ten complete essays providing an excellent selection of criticism focusing on Willy as a literary character. Includes a provocative introduction by Bloom in which he discusses Willy as a tragic hero.
Bloom, Harold. Modern Critical Interpretations: Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.” New York: Chelsea House, 1988.
Dukore, Bernard F. “Death of a Salesman” and “The Crucible.” Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press International, 1989. An excellent introduction for beginning students. Analyzes the text from both literary and theatrical points of view and examines selected productions of the play to demonstrate the rich embodiment of literary ideas.
Koon, Helene Wickham, ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of “Death of a Salesman.” Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1983. An anthology of ten essays that provide a wide variety of critical approaches to the play. A standard source.
Miller, Arthur. Timebends: A Life. New York: Grove Press, 1987.
Miller, Arthur. “Salesman” in Beijing. New York: Viking Press, 1984. Miller’s fascinating and...
(The entire section is 285 words.)