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

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Death of a Salesman contains several scenes that are outside the play’s main plot. The abrupt interruptions to the linear narrative serve to emphasis that Arthur Miller ’s work is expressionist more than naturalistic. Because the scenes emerge from Willy Loman’s mind, the audience cannot be sure if they are...

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Death of a Salesman contains several scenes that are outside the play’s main plot. The abrupt interruptions to the linear narrative serve to emphasis that Arthur Miller’s work is expressionist more than naturalistic. Because the scenes emerge from Willy Loman’s mind, the audience cannot be sure if they are flashbacks, which accurately represent past events, or memories, which are strongly colored by Willy’s unstable mental condition. The past increasingly intrudes on the present in Willy’s mind and bolsters his feelings of guilt and self-recrimination over all his failings, including his affair with the Woman.

As the play progresses, however, the audience grows less certain that some of these events actually occurred. Willy’s conversation with his brother Ben, for example, highlights the extreme adventures and successes his brother has enjoyed. It seems more likely that these are projections that Willy has fantasized, symbolizing his regrets over not having taking risks and settling for a mundane existence.

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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. 

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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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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.

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