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.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of this article. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
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.)
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?
(The entire section is 298 words.)
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?...
(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...
(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?...
(The entire section is 397 words.)
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?
(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...
(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...
(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...
(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?...
(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?
(The entire section is 510 words.)
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...
(The entire section is 460 words.)
Compare and Contrast
Topics for Further Study
What Do I Read Next?
Bibliography and Further Reading
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...
(The entire section is 285 words.)