Death of a Salesman Questions and Answers

Arthur Miller

Read real teacher answers to our most interesting Death of a Salesman questions.

What is the significance of the tape recorder?

In Act 2 Willy goes to see his boss Howard to ask to be transferred to a local territory in which he wouldn't have to spend so many hours just driving. He is wearing out his car, and his car is wearing him out at the same time. He can't make any money until he gets wherever he is going. Howard is engrossed in a gadget he has just purchased, a recording machine. The time was around 1949. Home recorders were new on the market, along with many other new devices and appliances which manufacturers had waited to introduce until after World War II ended and production facilities for domestic consumption were again available. While Howard is out of the office, Willy starts to fool around with the tape recorder. He turns it on but can't turn it off. The simple device is too complicated for him. He becomes panicked. Howard returns and angrily turns it off by yanking out the electric plug. This little episode is intended to symbolize Willy's inability to adjust to changing circumstances because of his age. He is sixty years old. The recording machine is just one sign of how the world is changing while Willy is unable to change with it. Younger people can learn to operate new gadgets very quickly, as can be seen with all the young people playing with handheld gadgets on public transportation. People of the older generation don't even know the names or functions of all the gadgetry that enable the users to talk to people all over the world, take pictures, listen to music, follow the news, watch movies, and do many other things, all at the same time. The problem for older people, as someone has said, is that they have to unlearn too much, while younger people accept innovations as if they had always existed. Howard has recorded his young daughter whistling a song. That girl will grow up knowing all about many things which are complete mysteries to Willy. The recording machine might also be regarded as just another development in the Industrial Revolution, which is creating new jobs for new people while throwing old people out of work. Willy has old-fashioned ideas. He believes in interpersonal relationships, handshakes, verbal agreements. But people are becoming increasingly alienated. That alienation is taking place even in Willy's own home. The death of one particular salesman may be intended to symbolize the death of an entire way of life, largely due to capitalism, competition, and the juggernaut of the Industrial Revolution.

Why does Willy admire Dave Singleman?

WILLY: His name was Dave Singleman. And he was eighty-four years old, and he’d drummed merchandise in thirty-one states. And old Dave, he’d go up to his room, y’understand, put on his green velvet slippers—I’ll never forget—and pick up his phone and call the buyers, and without ever leaving his room, at the age of eighty-four, he made his living. And when I saw that, I realized that selling was the greatest career a man could want.

Willy is trying to persuade Howard to let him represent the firm locally so that he doesn’t have to do all that traveling throughout New England. Willy realizes that Howard thinks he is getting too old either to cover New England or to adjust to an entirely new territory in the vicinity of New York City. He brings up the memory of Dave Singleman to show that a man can be a successful salesman even in his mid-eighties. Willy is only hurting himself by dredging up memories of the distant past which make him seem like an old-timer.

In addition to inspiring him to become a traveling salesman, Dave Singleman gave Willy the illusion that he didn’t have to plan for or worry about the future. Willy has persuaded himself that he would never have to retire. He doesn’t know anything but selling. He wouldn’t know what to do with himself if he were able to retire. If he were unable to retire, he could just go on doing what he has been doing most of his life. He believes that the job should actually get easier with advancing age because he would build up so many valuable contacts that, like Dave Singleman, he could just pick up the phone and take orders without even putting on his shoes and leaving his hotel room. Those kinds of easy jobs do exist, but they never last. Competition catches up with them.

Dave Singleman was only a casual acquaintance. There is no reason to think he was telling young Willy the whole truth. Singleman may have been working because he had to scratch out a living and couldn’t retire even at the age of eighty-four. Willy doesn't tell Howard that Singleman made a good living but only that he "made his living." In other words, he was just existing. The name Singleman is pretty obviously intended to suggest that he was unmarried and probably never was married. Unlike Willy, he didn’t have a family to support and mortgage payments to make. Singleman probably enjoyed life on the road even if he was just making a bare living for himself alone. It was better than sitting in some bleak room in New York staring at the four walls--and he did get to meet a lot of people in his travels, even though they were no longer people of his generation and may have been tossing him a little business out of charity.

Willy didn’t plan ahead because he thought he could just go on selling into his eighties. He doesn't realize Dave Singleman was an anomaly. Willy is already worn out and used up at only sixty-three. He based his whole life on a single example. If he had ever thought about what he might do in retirement, he must have seen himself puttering in his garden. When he finally got around to planting some seeds as a sort of experiment in retired life, it was the middle of the night and the vegetables couldn’t grow anyway because the surrounding apartment buildings were cutting off most of the sunlight.

In addition to suggesting that Singleman was a bachelor, the name suggests that he is a single instance on which Willy had placed too much reliance. Dave Singleman is a single, unique phenomenon. Willy met him many years earlier when he himself was a young man. If Singleman had been 84 when Willy met him, say around 1920, the old man would have been born around 1840. His life expectancy at birth would have been around 42 years. Willy's life expectancy in the 1880s when he was born would have been about 53 years. 

Throughout the play, Willy is characterized as being inflexible and impervious to advice. He just shuts people out and refuses to listen. This is probably his tragic flaw: he can't face reality until reality overwhelms him. Arthur Miller once said:

The essence of all drama is this: The chickens come home to roost.


How does Miller deal with scenes that are set in the past?

One of the remarkable things about Arthur Miller's play is the way he has managed to show past and present as well as reality and subjectivity all in a single stage set. Most plays and movies are in the present tense. What we see onstage or on the screen is happening now. The scripts are even written in the present tense, unlike most novels and short stories. Movies have conditioned audiences to understanding some cinematic "vocabulary," including the meaning of "flashbacks." An actor is gazing out the window or into a pool of water and then the camera creates a "slow dissolve" or an "oil dissolve" and we know we are back in the past--but the past is still rendered as the present. It is hard to escape from the present tense in drama. (An interesting French film that tries hard to escape the iron grip of the present tense is Last Year at Marienbad.) Arthur Miller has created an impressionistic set in which different locations represent the present and the past. The audience is to understand that whatever is supposed to be taking place in the past is occurring as the present in Willy's "imaginings." The scenes that take place in what Miller calls the "city scenes," which occur in the present tense in the same part of the stage setting. In the case of the city scenes, they are occurring in the past but in a different location away from the Loman home. It would seem that Miller intended almost everything that occurs on the forestage to be taking place in Willy's "imaginings." Miller depicts past and present, reality and subjectivity. Here is an excerpt from his detailed description of this single impressionistic stage setting.

Before the house lies an apron, curving beyond the forestage into the orchestra. This forward area serves as the back yard as well as the locale of all Willy's imaginings and of his city scenes. Whenever the action is in the present the actors observe the imaginary wall-lines, entering the house only through its door at the left. But 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.

Willy's encounters with his brother Ben would take place on the forestage, as would his meeting with Howard. So too would his memories of the days when Biff was a high-school football hero. The audience quickly catches on to the avant-garde stagecraft devices and succumbs to the illusions of being in the past, present, or inside Willy's imagination in a sort of never-never land. 

For the sake of comparison, Shakespeare never tried to show the past as the present. He would simply have one of the characters describe a past event in dialogue. Miller's play is a good example of modernism in theater because of its impressionistic staging as well as its intentional and radical flouting of Aristotle's unities and the ancient Greek philosopher's dictum that a tragedy had to deal with the downfall of a Very Important Person.

What is Uncle Ben Loman's role in the story?

The main reason for Willy's older brother Ben being in the play is that he gives Willy someone to confide in. Stage plays rely heavily on dialogue. If Willy didn't have Ben to talk to about his private thoughts, there would be no way to convey such information to the audience--except for resorting to soliloquies, as in Shakespeare's Hamlet. Soliloquies seem unnatural because they are unnatural. They would seem especially out of place in drama that is naturalistic like this one. Yet somehow it does not seem unnatural for Willy to be holding conversations with Ben when we are well aware that Ben is only present in Willy's mind. Evidently this is because this is something we all do--or most of us, anyway. We imagine ourselves having conversations with "important others" in our lives, often trying to justify or rationalize what we have done, or what we intend to do, or what we failed to do. These important others will usually include fathers, mothers, former friends, and former lovers. They also come to us in our dreams. Whoever they are, they are people who made their mark on us. They still live inside our minds, even though many of them may be dead.

A good example of Willy's relationship with Ben is found towards the end of the play, when Willy seeks his brother's approval of his plan to commit suicide in order to let his son Biff collect the $20,000 premium. Willy will fake it to look like an accident because the policy pays double indemnity.

WILLY: Can you imagine that magnificence with twenty thousand dollars in his pocket?....Imagine? When the mail comes he'll be ahead of Bernard again!
BEN: A perfect proposition all around.
WILLY: Did you see how he cried to me? Oh, if I could kiss him, Ben!
BEN: Time, William, time!
WILLY: Oh, Ben, I always knew one way or another we were gonna make it, Biff and I!

Who has had a strong impact on Willy?

All of us are influenced by other people, often called "important others" by psychologists. These generally include a mother, father, sibling, best friend, spouse, and perhaps one or two lovers. Arthur Miller incorporates all the important others in Willy's life in his older brother Ben. This is for the sake of practical necessity. Miller did not want to go into Willy's entire biography. But the audience must think it a little strange that Ben should have played such an important role in Willy's life and nobody else had any apparent influence--not even Linda, Willy's wife. So Miller probably invented the story about Dave Singleman to suggest that there were other influential people in Willy's long lifetime besides Ben. Willy would have met hundreds and hundreds of people during the years he worked as a traveling salesman, and he seems like a man who is easily influenced. There must have been others who made a strong impression on him. Singleman may have been intended to stand in for all those latter-day acquaintances whom Miller could not cast in his drama. Most of us, when we summon up remembrance of things past, will recall a number of people who shaped our thinking and the paths we took in life. Willy couldn't have been much different from the rest of us. 

What is the relationship between Willy and Charley?

Charley is a friendly, generous man, and his son Bernard seems sensitive and sincere. Bernard in his youth was what young people call a "nerd" or a "geek." He was obviously not athletic. He was a "drudge" or a "grind," or a "drone," a weakling, "not well liked." He not only becomes a successful lawyer, but he is the kind of lawyer who is permitted to argue cases in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. And he hob-nobs with important people who have their own tennis courts, which means big homes and manicured acreage. It is a case of "He who laughs last, laughs best." There has always been a mixture of friendship and competition between Charley and Willy. That is why Willy won't work for Charley and why he insists he is keeping a strict record of every penny he borrows and insists he will definitely pay Charley back. That may even help to explain why Willy decides to commit suicide. He tells his brother Ben, in one of his hallucinations, he is doing it for Biff.

When the mail comes he'll be ahead of Bernard again!....Oh, Ben. I always knew one way or another we were gonna make it, Biff and I!

Does Willy Loman have an inferiority complex?

It was Alfred Adler, a colleague of Sigmund Freud and C. G. Jung, who coined the term "inferiority complex." Willy Loman is a good example of a man who tries to convince himself he is important just because he knows he is not at all important. He even confides in his wife that people in the business world laugh at him. He is a dime a dozen, but he rages at his son Biff, "I am not a dime a dozen. I'm Willy Loman." Since he can't prove his importance by achieving financial success, and in fact proves just the opposite, he continually reminisces about the few good years he had in his younger days. He also projects his ambitions onto his son Biff, who could make Willy look successful if only he became successful himself. Willy even dies for success and approval, probably hoping, and hoping in vain, that he will at least have a beautiful funeral with many acquaintances coming from all over New England to attend it.

When was Death of a Salesman published and what is its genre?

Death of a Salesman could be described as social realism, drama, or tragedy. It was published in 1949.