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Death of a Salesman

by Arthur Miller
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How does Miller use all four methods of characterization (what Willy says, thinks, and does and what others say about him) to build his character in Death of a Salesman?

Miller develops Willy’s character in Death of a Salesman through what Willy says in dialogue with both real and imagined people. In stage directions, he describes Willy’s actions at home and in the office, but the audience never see him selling. A flashback scene that includes him conversing with his son Biff helps explain both men’s characters. His position at the center of a dysfunctional family is conveyed through conversations between Linda, Biff, and Happy.

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Arthur Miller uses numerous techniques in effectively developing the complex character of Willy Loman. From the very beginning of Death of a Salesman, the audience gets to know a man who is dissatisfied with his life. As the play develops, these diverse techniques help the audience understand how dire Willy’s situation has become.

Willy is often onstage, and his dialogue with his wife and sons is a key method for revealing his troubled relationships with all three of them. Additional dialogue between Willy and his boss, Howard, shows the difficulties he is having with work as well as his attitudes toward sales.

In addition to dialogue with real people who are actually present, Miller includes daydreams or hallucinations as Willy converses with Ben, the brother he has not seen for years. The imagined discussion with Ben helps the audience understand what Willy is thinking as he becomes consumed by unhappiness and envy.

Miller’s descriptions of Willy’s appearance and actions are also important in developing his character. As the play opens, before Willy ever speaks, Miller describes his exhausted look as he carries the heavy sample cases. Stage directions also figure prominently in the flashback scene, as Miller shows Willy involved in an affair while on the road. The scene also incorporates dialogue between Willy and Biff, which gives insights into those characters.

The main characters who speak about Willy are his wife and sons. The young men sometimes discuss their father with each other while their mother is not present. Biff’s criticism and Linda’s defense of Willy help the audience see different sides of the character as well as help the audience understand the great extent of the family’s dysfunction.

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