Death of a Salesman Analysis

  • Death of a Salesman mostly takes place in Willy's home in New York City. Urban development has boxed the house in. Willy often thinks of his brother's adventures, because he wants to escape.
  • The play switches between the present, which encompasses the final ten days of Willy's life, and the past, particularly the period in which Biff and Hap are adolescents. This temporal layering illuminates the decline of the Loman family.
  • The materialism of the 1950s gives the play its cultural context. Like many Americans of this period, Willy feels that his sense of self is tied to his material status.

Analysis

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Last Updated on February 14, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 579

Death of a Salesman is a modern tragedy depicting the last days in the life of Willy Loman. When the action occurs in the present, the drama is realistic, both psychologically and emotionally. When the action is set in the past, however, the drama becomes dreamlike. Thus, in the scenes in which Willy’s sons, Biff and Happy, are in high school, only Willy can see them. This flashback technique is also used to incorporate Willy’s older brother Ben, the man to whom Willy turns for advice when circumstances produce a level of stress beyond which Willy can no longer function.

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The story of Death of a Salesman is complex not only because it combines past and present but also because it grows out of a lifetime of lies and denials. Willy, unable to maintain a strenuous life on the road as a traveling salesman, seeks a steady job in New York, only to be fired by his boss, Howard Wagner, the son of the man who initially hired Willy. With unpaid bills piling up, Willy is further burdened by the return of his thirty-four-year-old son Biff, who has returned from working as a ranch hand in Texas in the hopes of finding a white-collar job in New York.

Biff and his younger brother, Happy, move back into their parents’ house and lament both the loss of their innocence and their failure to realize their dreams. Only their boyhood friend Bernard, now an attorney, has achieved success. Consequently, both brothers blame their father for misdirecting them, although their bitterness is nevertheless fraught with admiration and love.

During a family quarrel, Linda reveals to her sons that Willy has been attempting suicide, both with the car in a series of staged accidents and with a rubber pipe fastened to a gas line in the basement. Biff resolves to reform his life for the sake of his father, and act 1 closes with the familiar denial of old wounds and Biff’s promise to make a business deal in New York.

In act 2, after Willy has been fired, he meets Biff and Happy at a restaurant, hoping to hear good news from Biff. Instead of the promised deal, Biff reveals that he stole the fountain pen of the man who interviewed him. Stunned, Willy retreats to the bathroom, where he relives a pivotal moment in both his and Biff’s life: the time that Biff caught him in a Boston hotel room with his mistress. Crushed by his father’s betrayal of his mother, Biff refused to take a course in summer school and failed to graduate, thus beginning the string of small disasters and petty thefts that have ruined his life.

Having abandoned Willy in the restaurant, the family members reunite at home, where they have a final, explosive confrontation. Biff accuses Willy of having blown him full of hot air, and Willy accuses Biff of ruining his life out of spite. Forever the peacemaker, Linda tries to quiet them and is shouted down, as is Happy. Biff throws the rubber pipe onto the table and demands to know if Willy thinks that his suicide will make a hero out of him. Willy breaks down, and he and Biff are reconciled, but, when the rest of the family trudges off to bed, Willy speeds off in his car to kill himself, hoping that the insurance money will provide Biff with the new start in life that he so desperately needs.

Places Discussed

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Loman home

Loman home. Modest house in Brooklyn, New York. Despite the play’s fixed location, playwright Arthur Miller makes it clear that Willy’s alienation and loss of meaning are afflictions of any modern American city. The introductory stage directions he wrote for act 1 state that the “small fragile-seeming home” is surrounded on all sides by “towering, angular shapes,” which have sprung up around it. Throughout the play, the audience is visually aware of a gap between past and present: The house which once stood on a pleasant street of similar homes is now dwarfed by “a solid vault of apartment houses.” Like Willy himself, the house has been made insignificant by progress.

Jo Mielziner, who designed the play’s original stage setting, framed the house so that it was “wholly, or, in some places, partially transparent.” Miller’s stage directions explain that whenever action occurs in the present, “actors observe the imaginary wall-lines, entering the house only through its door at the left.” By contrast, “in the scenes of the past these boundaries are broken, and characters enter or leave a room by stepping ‘through’ a wall onto the forestage.” The stage setting thus represents the two halves of Willy’s life: the realistic present, in which his breakdown is unfolding, and the dreamlike past, where most of his problems originated. “An air of the dream clings to the place,” Miller writes, “a dream rising out of reality.” Examples of the nature of these two halves pervade the play, concluding in the short “Requiem” in which Willy is buried. All those who hold onto their past, Miller implies—and all the Lomans are guilty of doing this—will have trouble adapting to the present.

*Brooklyn

*Brooklyn. New York City borough in which the Lomans live. Willy’s failed career, his splintering family, and the materialism that has overtaken his life are also real problems audiences can recognize in the city that has arisen around his house. The play’s setting perfectly grounds its themes: No trees or grass grow in Brooklyn, only “the hard towers of apartment buildings.” Throughout the play, Miller contrasts this harsh urban environment with the country—such as Willy’s New England sales territory, his memories of his rural childhood, and his son Biff’s wanderings in the American West.

Willy clearly lacks the tools for success in this modern urban world. Values on which he grew up—represented by his brother Ben and salesman Dave Singleman—are those that came out of a nineteenth century world in which frontiers were still open and the American Dream was a reality. The modern world has been transformed into a consumer culture (represented by products such as cars and refrigerators that Willy complains about), leaving little room for men like Willy. The success myth Willy has followed his whole life is dead. In the end, his son Happy takes up his false dreams, but Biff frees himself from this urban tragedy. The city, the play shows, holds little promise for those who cannot understand themselves and the world they inhabit.

*Boston

*Boston. Massachusetts city to which Biff rushes in a flashback scene late in the play to get Willy’s help so he can finish high school. When Biff discovers his father with a woman, his idealized image of his parent collapses, and his nomadic life begins. The scene could take place in almost any city; however, the Boston hotel room effectively represents both the life of the salesman on the road, and the location for his son’s loss of innocence.

Historical Context

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When World War II ended in 1945, the United States embarked upon an unprecedented period of economic prosperity, driven by the increase in industrial production markets brought about by the war. Unlike the Great Depression and the war years, Americans had a surplus of goods and services from which to choose, and the money with which to purchase them. Nonfarming businesses grew by one-third, and housing construction became a booming industry. However, the economic situation was not improved for the poorest Americans during this time. The economic boom brought high inflation, which kept poorer citizens from saving any money, and small farmers faced hard times because of government policies that benefitted larger, corporate farmers. The lowest-paid workers in the country were the migrant farm workers, with sales clerks and unskilled laborers (such as gas station attendants) not far above them. Happy, a sales clerk, and Biff, a farm worker, represent this segment of the American workforce in Death of a Salesman, and each of them struggles to retain his dignity in the face of his lowly position in a largely affluent society.

Because Americans felt so secure in their newfound prosperity, they began using credit to purchase the products and services they desired. Although the prices of these goods and services were driven higher and higher by increased demand, Americans continued to purchase them, using credit to buy what they could not otherwise afford. For the first time in history, automobiles were more often purchased on credit than with cash, and the use of long-term credit, such as home mortgages, also rose dramatically. Willy Loman suffers from the effects of relying too much on credit, struggling to keep up his payments while trying to provide the necessities for his family.

The United States emerged from World War II as a "superpower" among the world's nations, but this role led to insecurities on the part of the American government and the American people, who suddenly bore the responsibility of retaining their position in the world, "keeping the world safe for democracy'' by protecting it from the influences of the other world "superpower," the communist Soviet Union. Because of the national pride and feeling of superiority instilled in them by their victories during the war, Americans felt a deep-seated need to prove that capitalism was better than communism during the period that followed World War II, which is known as the Cold War era. Americans felt obligated to achieve financial success, both as a way of defeating the Soviets and as a way to show their gratitude for the freedom they were privileged to possess by virtue of living in a democratic society. Willy's preoccupation with his financial status and his position in society reflect this Cold War attitude.

The Great Depression and World War II led to major changes in the nature of the American government. Beginning with President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal (an economic program that began in response to the Great Depression), government became larger and more influential in the daily lives of American citizens. Furthermore, the growth of large corporations and the spread of such mass communication media as radio and television made Americans feel more like a large, connected society. With this new-found sense of belonging came a new-found desire to conform to the accepted norms and values of the majority. Instead of being a nation of rugged individualists, the United States became a nation of people who wished desperately for acceptance by their peers, which meant that they needed to appear successful in the eyes of society. Willy displays this wish for acceptance in his preoccupation with being "well liked," which he views as the ultimate measure of success. In The Lonely Crowd, a book published in 1950, author David Reisman argues that prior to the Cold War era, Americans were motivated by strict morals and rules of conduct, but following World War II they became more motivated by others' perceptions of them, and altered their behavior according to acceptable societal standards. Reisman classified the pre-Cold War behavior pattern as "inner-directed," and the postwar pattern as "other-directed," maintaining that "other-directed" people, like Willy Loman, have no established sense of identity because they look to other people to determine their self-image. This idea is reflected in Biffs comment at the end of the play when he says that Willy "didn't know who he was."

Literary Style

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Death of a Salesman is a drama set in 1949, in New York City and Boston. The action of the play takes place largely inside the Loman home in Brooklyn, but other places in New York and Boston are used as well, including hotel rooms, Willy's office, a restaurant, and Willy's gravesite. The play is grounded in realism, which means that it depicts realistically what happens in the lives of its characters, but it also contains elements of expressionism, specifically when it depicts imaginary sequences and portrays for the audience the inner workings of the characters' minds and their emotions. The play is largely a representation of what takes place in the mind of Willy Loman during the last two days of his life.

Willy reminisces about past events and imagines situations, and the audience is able to see his thoughts played out on the stage. The reminiscences and imaginary sequences allow the audience to understand the characters' inner thoughts and provide insight into their behavior during the present-day scenes. For example, the audience learns, during one such reminiscence, that Biff has been tormented for since he was a young child by the discovery that his father had an extramarital affair. This insight helps the audience to better understand both Willy and Biff, explains some of Biff's anger toward his father, and indicates why he is so disillusioned. The instructions for setting in the play provide insight into how Arthur Miller wanted the play to be perceived by the audience. Miller includes instructions that the only substantial part of the set should be the Loman home, and all other locales should be merely hinted at by using changes in lighting or setting up a few chairs or a table. In this way, the audience can clearly see which events on stage are taking place in reality, and which are taking place inside of Willy's mind. Miller originally titled the play The Inside of His Head, which illustrates that he intended to show the audience what happens in a man's mind when his dreams are never realized, and when he lives in a world based on illusion. Miller's method of flashing back and forth between the past and the present, and between the imaginary and the realistic, allows the audience to witness how a lifetime of disappointment, delusion, and failure have led to the current situation, and shows facets of each character that would not have been revealed if only the present-day occurrences had been portrayed. Because of the way the play is constructed, the audience can see what the characters have become and what experiences, thoughts, and emotions led them to their present state.

Compare and Contrast

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1949: Post-World War II economic growth combined with advertisements promising the American Dream created widespread optimism among Americans with hopes of attaining material wealth.

Today: An unpredictable economic climate coupled with a more media-savvy public has created an environment of cynicism and doubt regarding the validity of the American Dream.

1949: The German Federal Republic (West Germany) is established and the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) is established under Soviet control, effectively splitting the country following its defeat during World War II.

Today: Germany was reunified in 1990, and has shown a steady increase in economic and cultural stature in the world.

1949: The era of smooth-talking sales, when powers of persuasion often overshadowed knowledge and ability, was ending, giving way to careers requiring training and specialized knowledge.

Today: The advent of "infomercials" and multi-media accessibility has sparked a resurgence in slick showmanship and sales techniques reliant on gimmickry.

1949: National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences presents its first Emmy Award ceremony; nine percent of American households own a television set.

Today: The annual Emmy Awards are a major television event and, like hundreds of other programs, are part of millions of Americans' everyday life; over ninety percent of American households own at least one television set.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Bloom, Harold, ed. Arthur Miller: Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.

Carson, Neil. Arthur Miller, Grove, 1982
This book offers an overview of Miller's major works, with an emphasis on their status as theater.

Comgan, Robert W. Arthur Miller: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall, 1969.
An excellent resource for critical information on Miller and his work Death of a Salesman is discussed at length.

Helterman, Jeffrey. “Arthur Miller.” Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 7: Twentieth-Century American Dramatists. John MacNicholas, ed. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1981.

Koon, Helene Wickham, ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of Death of a Salesman: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1983.

Matlaw, Myron, editor. Modern World Drama, Dutton, 1972, pp 194-96.
This is primarily a plot summary with introductory comments situating the play within dramatic literary tradition.

Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman: Certain Private Conversations in Two Acts and a Requiem. 1949. New York: Penguin Books, 1985.

Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman: Text and Criticism. Gerald Weales, ed. New York: Viking/Penguin, 1981.

Moss, Leonard. Arthur Miller. Revised edition. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1980.

Murray, Edward. Arthur Miller, Dramatist, Ungar, 1967.
Provides analysis of Miller's major works with respect to structure, dialogue, and theme. While not overtly negative, Murray shows distaste for Miller's use of language, calling it unpoetic.

———. The Theater Essays of Arthur Miller. Robert A. Martin, ed. New York: The Viking Press, 1978.

Welland, Dennis. "Death of a Salesman" in his Miller The Playwright, Methuen, 1979.
This book considers much of Miller's work. Welland considers the views of several other critics while coming to a positive evaluation of the play.

Welland, Dennis. Miller: The Playwright. Revised edition. New York and London: Methuen, Inc., 1983.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 285

Suggested Readings

Bloom, Harold, ed. Willy Loman. New York: Chelsea House, 1991. A collection of sixteen focused extracts from books and articles, with ten complete essays providing an excellent selection of criticism focusing on Willy as a literary character. Includes a provocative introduction by Bloom in which he discusses Willy as a tragic hero.

Bloom, Harold. Modern Critical Interpretations: Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.” New York: Chelsea House, 1988.

Dukore, Bernard F. “Death of a Salesman” and “The Crucible.” Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press International, 1989. An excellent introduction for beginning students. Analyzes the text from both literary and theatrical points of view and examines selected productions of the play to demonstrate the rich embodiment of literary ideas.

Koon, Helene Wickham, ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of “Death of a Salesman.” Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1983. An anthology of ten essays that provide a wide variety of critical approaches to the play. A standard source.

Miller, Arthur. Timebends: A Life. New York: Grove Press, 1987.

Miller, Arthur. “Salesman” in Beijing. New York: Viking Press, 1984. Miller’s fascinating and highly readable diary account of the famous production he directed of Death of a Salesman in Beijing, China, in 1983, where the universality of the play became most evident. Includes photographs by his wife, Inge Morath.

Murphy, Brenda. Miller: “Death of a Salesman.” Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Nelson, Benjamin. Arthur Miller: Portrait of a Playwright. New York: David McKay, 1970.

Roudané, Matthew C., ed. Conversations with Arthur Miller. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1987. Transcriptions of thirty-nine interviews with Miller between 1947 and 1986. Notable for personal insights into Miller and the productions of his plays. The interviews persistently return to questions concerning Death of a Salesman and Miller’s theories on tragedy.

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