What is the importance of the flashback scenes in the play "Death of a Salesman"?

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gmuss25 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Miller's use of flashbacks emphasizes Willy's nostalgic, distorted perception of the past, which is juxtaposed against the harsh realities of Willy's present life. The flashback scenes also help to characterize Willy and his sons by portraying how they developed into their modern, unsuccessful selves. During the flashback scenes, Willy's terrible parenting is displayed as he encourages his son's bad behavior and gives them ridiculous advice on how to become successful in life. Instead of instilling the positive character traits of hard work, dedication, and integrity, Willy simply encourages his sons to be well-liked and develop amiable personalities. The audience also learns that his brother's success influences Willy's perception of how to attain the American Dream. Willy's brother Ben made a fortune mining gold in Africa, and Willy regrets not accompanying his brother.

In act 2, Willy's flashback provides significant information which explains why Biff resents his father and never attempted to earn an athletic scholarship by refusing to retake his summer math course in high school. Willy's flashback to the time Biff caught him cheating on Linda provides the audience context and background to their relationship. Overall, Miller's use of flashbacks characterizes Willy and his sons by providing significant information, which explains their current state of affairs, as well as their relationships with one another. The flashbacks also portray Willy's nostalgic view of the past juxtaposed against the harsh realities of his present life. 

dashing-danny-dillinger eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, the flashbacks are crucial scenes that reinforce the play's emphasis on questionable nostalgia and Willy's own distorted vision of what constitutes the American Dream. Indeed, the flashback functions to show how Willy Loman has always valued a warped idea of the American Dream and brilliantly juxtaposes the harsh reality he exists in the present day of the play. The flashbacks tend to have a rosy tint to them; everything was better in the "good old days," and Willy has a nostalgic affection for these times. However, there are obviously dark points lying just beneath the surface of these flashbacks, and they eventually surface as the play continues.

One of the key figures in Willy's flashbacks is his brother Ben. Uncle Ben ventured into Africa, into the so-called "jungle," and became incredibly wealthy from diamond mining. Willy has always regretted not joining his brother in his adventure, and this illustrates Willy's idea of the American Dream. Willy's expectations are unrealistic; one cannot get by simply by being "well-liked" as Willy likes to think. Therefore, the flashbacks are essential scenes that give viewers an insight into Willy's flawed character. 

sullymonster eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Arthur Miller begins this play at the point at which all hope is almost gone.  Willy has already attempted to commit suicide.  The main action of the play is intended to show what pushes him over the edge, and how the people around him influence and react to his downfall. 

Willy is a victim not of society but of his own faults.  Miller used the flashback scenes in order to illustrate those flaws and the slow development of them.  The scenes guide readers to identify Willy's motivations and lead readers to the themes of perception and the American Dream.