Study Guide

Death of a Salesman

by Arthur Miller

Death of a Salesman Analysis

Form and Content (Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

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 misdirecting them, although their bitterness is nevertheless fraught with admiration and love.

During a family quarrel, Linda reveals to her sons that Willy has been attempting suicide, both with the car in a series of staged accidents and with a rubber pipe fastened to a gas line in the basement. Biff resolves to reform his life for the sake of his father, and act 1 closes with the familiar denial of old wounds and Biff’s promise to make a business deal in New York.

In act 2, after Willy has been fired, he meets Biff and Happy at a restaurant, hoping to hear good news from Biff. Instead of the promised deal, Biff reveals that he stole the fountain pen of the man who interviewed him. Stunned, Willy retreats to the bathroom, where he relives a pivotal moment in both his and Biff’s life: the time that Biff caught him in a Boston hotel room with his mistress. Crushed by his father’s betrayal of his mother, Biff refused to take a course in summer school and failed to graduate, thus beginning the string of small disasters and petty thefts that have ruined his life.

Having abandoned Willy in the restaurant, the family members reunite at home, where they have a final, explosive confrontation. Biff accuses Willy of having blown him full of hot air, and Willy accuses Biff of ruining his life out of spite. Forever the peacemaker, Linda tries to quiet them and is shouted down, as is Happy. Biff throws the rubber pipe onto the table and demands to know if Willy thinks that his suicide will make a hero out of him. Willy breaks down, and he and Biff are reconciled, but, when the rest of the family trudges off to bed, Willy speeds off in his car to kill himself, hoping that the insurance money will provide Biff with the new start in life that he so desperately needs.

Death of a Salesman Places Discussed (Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Loman home

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 dream rising out of reality.” Examples of the nature of these two halves pervade the play, concluding in the short “Requiem” in which Willy is buried. All those who hold onto their past, Miller implies—and all the Lomans are guilty of doing this—will have trouble adapting to the present.

*Brooklyn

*Brooklyn. New York City borough in which the Lomans live. Willy’s failed career, his splintering family, and the materialism that has overtaken his life are also real problems audiences can recognize in the city that has arisen around his house. The play’s setting perfectly grounds its themes: No trees or grass grow in Brooklyn, only “the hard towers of apartment buildings.” Throughout the play, Miller contrasts this harsh urban environment with the country—such as Willy’s New England sales territory, his memories of his rural childhood, and his son Biff’s wanderings in the American West.

Willy clearly lacks the tools for success in this modern urban world. Values on which he grew up—represented by his brother Ben and salesman Dave Singleman—are those that came out of a nineteenth century world in which frontiers were still open and the American Dream was a reality. The modern world has been transformed into a consumer culture (represented by products such as cars and refrigerators that Willy complains about), leaving little room for men like Willy. The success myth Willy has followed his whole life is dead. In the end, his son Happy takes up his false dreams, but Biff frees himself from this urban tragedy. The city, the play shows, holds little promise for those who cannot understand themselves and the world they inhabit.

*Boston

*Boston. Massachusetts city to which Biff rushes in a flashback scene late in the play to get Willy’s help so he can finish high school. When Biff discovers his father with a woman, his idealized image of his parent collapses, and his nomadic life begins. The scene could take place in almost any city; however, the Boston hotel room effectively represents both the life of the salesman on the road, and the location for his son’s loss of innocence.

Death of a Salesman Historical Context

When World War II ended in 1945, the United States embarked upon an unprecedented period of economic prosperity, driven by the increase in...

(The entire section is 726 words.)

Death of a Salesman Quizzes

Act I, Part 1: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
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?

Answers
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(The entire section is 298 words.)

Act I, Part 2: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
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?

...

(The entire section is 439 words.)

Act I, Part 3: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
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...

(The entire section is 449 words.)

Act I, Part 4: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
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?...

(The entire section is 397 words.)

Act II, Part 1: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
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...

(The entire section is 535 words.)

Act II, Part 2: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
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...

(The entire section is 463 words.)

Act II, Part 3: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
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...

(The entire section is 464 words.)

Act II, Part 4: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
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...

(The entire section is 507 words.)

Act II, Part 5: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
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?

...

(The entire section is 378 words.)

Act II, Part 6: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
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....

(The entire section is 510 words.)

Requiem: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
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...

(The entire section is 460 words.)