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

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dashing-danny-dillinger's profile pic

dashing-danny-dillinger | College Teacher | (Level 2) Assistant Educator

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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. 

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sullymonster | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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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.