Can you explain dramatic structure of Death of A Salesman by Arthur Miller? (Exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution.)

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In Death of A Salesman by Arthur Miller, the exposition of the play lays the groundwork for the audience’s introduction to the main character, Willy, as well as to Linda and Biff. In the opening of act 1, the audience is introduced to Willy. The stage directions note,


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In Death of A Salesman by Arthur Miller, the exposition of the play lays the groundwork for the audience’s introduction to the main character, Willy, as well as to Linda and Biff. In the opening of act 1, the audience is introduced to Willy. The stage directions note,

Willy Loman, the Salesman, enters, carrying two large sample cases. The flute plays on. He hears but is not aware of it. He is past sixty years of age, dressed quietly. Even as he crosses the stage to the doorway of the house, his exhaustion is apparent.

When Linda seems worried that Willy has returned earlier than expected, he says,

WILLY [with casual irritation]: I said nothing happened. Didn’t you hear me?

LINDA: Don’t you feel well?

WILLY: I’m tired to the death. [The flute has faded away. He sits on the bed beside her, a little numb.] I couldn’t make it. I just couldn’t make it, Linda.

LINDA [very carefully, delicately]: Where were you all day? You look terrible.

From just these few lines, we are cued in to Willy’s outlook on life. He says, “I’m tired to the death,” from which we also get foreshadowing about his ultimate death in the play, as the title suggests. That “the flute has faded away” also suggests that Willy’s life has faded away. Shortly afterwards, Willy says about his employers, “I’m the New England man. I’m vital in New England.” This is also part of the exposition. The audience will soon learn how self-delusional this statement is when it becomes apparent that he is not “vital” at all to his employer.

Then Willy asks Linda about Biff, and she replies, “You shouldn’t have criticized him, Willy, especially after he just got off the train. You mustn’t lose your temper with him.” We learn immediately about the tension between Biff and Willy, which is another element of the exposition and introduces the audience to Biff’s character.

In the next portion of the dialogue, which comprises the rising action in the play, we learn why Willy is so critical of Biff. He’s “lazy,” Willy says. He has not accomplished anything in life. Willy and Linda continue to talk about the old days and about how much promise Biff had then, which further contributes to the audience's understanding and is part of the rising action.

The next scene in the boys’ bedroom between Biff and Happy is another element of the rising action. They are also discussing the past, and the audience gets the impression that all the important characters in the Loman family are stuck in the past, presumably because they never fulfilled their original aspirations. The flashback scene when Willy returns from the New England sales trip and discusses it, as well as his outlook on life, is another element, as well as the scene between Willy and “The Woman” and Biff’s surprise visit to the hotel, which shockingly reveals to him that his father is having an affair.

The climax of the play comes towards the end when Willy realizes that Biff loves him. He says,

WILLY [after a long pause, astonished, elevated]: Isn’t that— isn’t that remarkable? Biff—he likes me!

LINDA: He loves you, Willy!

HAPPY [deeply moved]: Always did, Pop.

WILLY: Oh, Biff! [Staring wildly] He cried! Cried to me. [He is choking with his love, and now cries out his promise.] That boy—that boy is going to be magnificent! [Ben appears in the light just outside the kitchen.]

BEN: Yes, outstanding, with twenty thousand behind him.

LINDA [sensing the racing of his mind, fearfully, carefully]: Now come to bed, Willy. It’s all settled now.

WILLY [finding it difficult not to rush out of the house]: Yes, we’ll sleep. Come on. Go to sleep, Hap.”

Thereafter, the falling action follows the climax and is seen in Willy’s death and the requiem. Seemingly almost in slow motion, “Biff slowly returns to his bedroom. He and Happy gravely don their jackets. Linda slowly walks out of her room. The music has developed into a dead march” and Charley and Bernard are dressed somberly with “Linda, in clothes of mourning” and the stage direction notes they “All stare down at the grave.”

The resolution comes when in the Requiem, Biff says, “He had the wrong dreams. All, all, wrong ... He never knew who he was.” Presumably, Biff will not follow his father’s lead and make the same mistake. The conflict between Biff and Willy is resolved. Willy was happy in the knowledge that Biff loved him, and Biff is more convinced of the importance of following one’s dreams.

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Throughout the exposition of the play, the Loman family and their problems are presented to the audience. Willy's stressful job as a failing salesman is illustrated, as well as Biff and Happy's stagnant lives. Miller presents the characters' current situations, and gives insight into why Biff and Happy are not successful through Willy's flashback hallucinations. Also, the conflict between Willy and Biff is developed in the opening scenes as Willy voices his displeasure concerning Biff's lack of success. Willy's affair with "The Woman" and his brother's successful business venture are also displayed through his hallucinations.

The rising action includes Willy's meeting with his boss and his visit to Charley's office. Miller portrays Willy's dire financial situation, which includes him getting fired, as well as Bernard's subsequent success when he runs into Willy before leaving to present a case in front of the Supreme Court. Biff's meeting with his old boss is also presented in the rising action. Biff fails to get a loan from Oliver and ends up stealing the man's pen before leaving his office. Biff then meets with Happy at a restaurant as they wait for Willy to show up.

The climax takes place at the restaurant when Biff realizes that he has been a failure his entire life. Biff tells Happy that he has been living a lie and attempts to confront his father about their illusions. However, Willy begins to hallucinate, and Miller depicts Willy's past affair, which is the exact moment that Biff lost all respect for his father. While Biff has the fortitude to accept reality, Willy does not and believes that Biff has not become successful out of spite.

The falling action begins as Biff attempts to reconcile with his father by agreeing to leave. Willy seems to find happiness after realizing that Biff actually cares about him, and decides to commit suicide after having an imagined conversation with Ben.

The resolution includes the Requiem, where the family and Charley attend Willy's funeral. Charley's speech about Willy's dreams as a salesman serves as a sort of respectful eulogy for Willy.

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The exposition of the play lays the groundwork for the various conflicts that face Willy (and the rest of the Loman family). In the early portion of the play, Biff's return is discussed as well as Willy's difficulties continuing to work on the road. The conflict between Willy and Biff is central to the play and Willy's professional failure is central to his character and to his internal conflict (which anchors the play). Included in the exposition portion, Willy speaks with a hallucination of his brother Ben and has a discussion with Charley.

The rising action begins when these conflicts are directly explored and engaged. Biff and Willy argue. Their animosity toward one another and their attempts to normalize their relationship are each clearly and painfully displayed. Linda's attempts to support Willy and to keep him from going over an emotional precipice are also examined in the rising action of the play.

Willy's termination at work, Biff's agreement to talk to his former boss, and Willy's discussions with Bernard and Charley are also part of the rising action. The flashback to Willy's affair is also an important part of the rising action, immediately preceding the play's climax.

The dinner scene begins the climax of the play. The conflicts begin to be resolved here. Biff comes to an important realization. His own internal conflicts become resolved when he admits that was never a salesman in the sporting goods store. He tries to convey his new humility to Willy, but instead brings on a violent (and psychotic) episode from his father. Willy has a mental break from which he does not recover. The climax continues through the next scenes, wherein Biff once again attempts to confront Willy after being chastised by Linda. 

The falling action includes Willy's final discussion with his brother Ben and the play's resolution is presented in the funeral/requiem scene. 

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