Death of a Salesman
1. How does Willy’s home function as a metaphor for his ambitions?
When Willy and Linda purchased their home, the neighborhood was quieter than they now find it. The house was surrounded by space and sunlight. Willy was a young man with ambitious hopes for the future, and his house represented a space in which he could expand his dreams. In the present, the house is hemmed in on all sides by apartment units. Willy is a much older man, and his chances of achieving his dreams are much slimmer. His home now represents the reduction of his hopes. There is less room to expand, and the sunlight does not even reach into his yard. In the past, the house was the site of hopeful departure and triumphant return. Willy would set out each week to make a load of money. When he returned, his worshipful sons greeted him, and he whispered into their eager ears his hopes to open his own business. Now, the house is the site of Willy’s frustrated ambitions. When the play opens, Willy returns to his home a defeated man, unable to complete his latest business trip, and with his argument with Biff left unresolved.
2. What role does the fear of abandonment play in Willy’s life?
Willy’s obsession with making his family conform to the ideals of the American Dream seems rooted in the childhood emotional trauma of his abandonment by his father. Since his father left him with nothing, Willy feels an acute need to put his sons—especially Biff—on the right path in life. He convinces himself that he is capable of doing so, which leads to his inflated sense of self-importance (as when he tells his young sons about how well known he is in New England). Willy’s ultimate belief in the deluded prospect of Biff’s imminent success causes him to trade in his own life to leave Biff $ 20,000. As an additional consequence of being abandoned, Willy knows little about his father and thus has to ask Ben to tell Biff and Happy about their grandfather.
Willy’s fear of abandonment is probably also responsible for his obsession with being well liked. Somewhat childlike, Willy craves approval and reacts to any perceived hint of dislike by either throwing a tantrum or retreating into self-pity. When Ben visits Willy’s home, Willy proudly shows his sons to Ben, practically begging for a word of approval. When Ben notes that he has to leave to catch his train, Willy begs him to stay a little longer. Even as an adult, Willy’s relationship to Ben is fraught with this fear of abandonment. Howard abandons Willy by firing him, and after Happy and Biff abandon him in the restaurant, Willy returns home like a dejected child. After these blows, the power of Willy’s fantasies to deny unpleasant facts about his reality abandons him as well.
3. Willy and Biff have different explanations for Biff’s failure to succeed in the business world. How are their explanations different?
Willy believes that Biff’s discovery of Willy’s adulterous affair contributed to Biff’s disillusionment with the American Dream that Willy cherishes so dearly. He remembers that Biff called him a “phony little fake.” Essentially, Willy interprets Biff’s words to mean that Biff thinks of him as a charlatan: Willy believes that his affair prevented him from selling Biff on the American Dream. On the other hand, Biff believes that he failed to succeed in business precisely because Willy sold him so successfully on the American Dream of easy success. By the time he took his first job, Biff was so convinced that success would inevitably fall into his lap that he was unwilling to work hard in order to advance to more important positions. Biff did not want to start at the bottom and deal with taking orders. He had faith in Willy’s prediction that he was naturally destined to move ahead, so he made no efforts to do so through hard work, and, as a result, he failed miserably.
Suggested Essay Topics
1. Willy recalls his sons’ teenage years as an idyllic past. What evidence can we find to show that the past is not as idyllic as Willy imagines it to be?
2. What evidence can we find to show that Willy may have chosen a profession that is at odds with his natural inclinations?
3. Why does Willy reject Charley’s job offer?
4. How does Willy’s interview with Howard reveal that Willy transfers his professional anxieties onto his relationship with his family and conflates the professional and personal realms of his life?
5. What evidence can we find to show that Willy misses the distinction between being loved and being well liked? What are the consequences of Willy’s failure to distinguish between the two?
6. How is Willy’s retreat into the past a form of escape from his unpleasant present reality? How does it function as a way for Willy to cope with the failure to realize his ambitions?
7. How does Willy’s desperate quest for the American Dream resemble a religious crusade?
Death of a Salesman
Drama, Family Drama, Tragedy
Well, the play is definitely a drama, because, you know… it’s a play, a piece of literature meant to be spoken by actors in front of a live audience. This particular drama centers on the trials and tribulations of the Loman family, making it a family drama.
Death of a Salesman is also in many ways a tragedy. You’ve got the basic ingredients here. A misguided person sets out to accomplish something that he thinks is the right thing, but ironically it is that very thing that causes pain and anguish to himself and everyone around him. Just add wide-sweeping themes that show just what’s wrong with all of society, and voila …you’ve got a nice steaming dish of tragedy.
Of course, Death of a Salesman has a lot of differences from the ancient Greek version of the genre. There are no choruses in this play and the protagonist, Willy Loman, differs in several ways from a traditional tragic hero. The main difference is that he’s not a king or mighty warrior of some kind—he’s just a salesman. And an unsuccessful one at that. With Death of a Salesman. Arthur Miller set out to create what he called a “tragedy of the common man.” He wanted to show that the sorrows of your average everyday guy were just as worthy of dramatization as those of kings.
See “Characters: Willy Loman ” for more. Also, check out Shmoop’s take on Miller’s A View from the Bridge if you want another example of a tragedy of the common man.
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Death of a Salesman Summary
In Death of a Salesman. Willy Loman is an aging salesman who’s fired from his job. When his son Biff admits that he couldn’t get a loan to start his new business, Willy commits suicide so that Biff can use the insurance money to secure his future.
Death of a Salesman summary key points:
- Willy expresses disappointment with his son Biff, who’s unable to find a job at the beginning of the play.
A series of flashbacks reveals Willy’s thoughts of suicide, which his sons dispel by promising to go into business together.
Despite Willy’s last wishes, his funeral is not well attended. The play ends tragically.
Summary of the Play
Death of a Salesman is subtitled “Certain Private Conversations in Two Acts and a Requiem” and, accordingly, the acts are divided into conversations – in the present and from the past – that flow in and out of each other. The play encompasses an evening and the following day, but the action is interrupted by or mixed with flashbacks or memories of a period approximately 17 years earlier.
Act I opens in Willy Loman’s house in Brooklyn. Willy, a traveling salesman of 63, is exhausted after years of making his trips. (Even by the end of the play, we do not know what product he sells.) He has yet to reach a level of success that would allow him to stop traveling and afford the household bills that always seem to swallow his diminishing wages. We learn that Willy’s grown son, Biff, has returned to visit. And we come to know Willy’s character as he complains to his wife Linda about his disappointment in Biff’s failure to find a steady, serious job. Willy is tired, confused, and argumentative, a man who loves his son and has tried to infuse him with a salesman’s enthusiastic optimism and self-confidence.
In the rest of Act I, through various flashbacks that might also be Willy’s memories, we become familiar with the salesman’s philosophy of success that has guided Willy to his current less-than-successful state. Compared with his neighbor Charley and Charley’s son Bernard, Willy and his sons Biff and Hap are athletic, rather than studious; in Willy’s mind, a likable personality is more important for success than academic grades. Willy endorses Biff’s cheating at school; and, we learn, Willy himself cheated on his wife by having an extramarital affair with a woman in Boston. Linda informs Biff and Hap she has discovered that Willy has secretly started to contemplate suicide. The evening of Act I winds down as Biff and Hap attempt to cheer up Willy by promising to go into business together.
In Act II, which encompasses the day following the evening of Act I, Willy asks his boss for a new, non-traveling job. Instead of being rewarded for years of service, Willy is fired because he has not been able to sell enough. Bewildered, he asks his friend Charley for another of many loans and, while doing so, meets Bernard, now a successful lawyer. In the evening, Willy joins Biff and Hap at a restaurant and eventually tells them his bad news; unable to depress a father who wants good news at the end of a terrible day, Biff fails to tell Willy that he did not get the loan that would have made it possible for Hap and him to start a business together. The scene then changes to years earlier, when Biff comes to Boston just after flunking math, which has endangered his chances for college by preventing him from graduating high school. Biff there discovers Willy is having an affair.
In the present, when Biff and Hap return to the house, their mother reproaches them for abandoning Willy in the restaurant. Delusional, Willy is planting a garden in the dark and having an imaginary conversation with his elder brother Ben, who made a fortune in diamonds as a young man. Biff tries to explain the ungranted loan to Willy, as well as his decision to leave so as not to disappoint Willy ever again. Willy believes Biff has been unsuccessful out of spite for him, but when Biff begins to cry, Willy sees Biff’s love for him. Inspired by this realization, but obviously disoriented, Willy sneaks away that night and kills himself in a car accident, thinking his life insurance money will give Biff a new start and that a well-attended funeral will prove his own popularity. In a very short third act that Miller calls a “Requiem,” we see that almost no one has attended the funeral. Although Hap defends Willy’s “good dream,” Biff is subdued and Linda weeps as she asks Willy’s grave why he did such a thing.
Estimated Reading Time
The entire play is about 130 pages, but because of the spaces between characters’ lines it will read faster than a novel. An average student, reading about 25-30 pages an hour, will need 4-5 hours to read the play. If you do not have enough time to read it all at once, the best plan might be two sittings – Act I, then Act II and the short “Requiem” – of about two hours each. Arthur Miller did not divide his play into scenes within each act. Instead, the action is continuous, even when flashbacks occur. Therefore, for the purposes of this study guide, the acts have been divided into parts, each covering about 15 pages of the play.
Time and Subjectivity in Death of a Salesman
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” also 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. So would his meeting with Howard. And so 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.
Part 4 covers the action up to the end of Act I.
The flashback involving Ben has ended, leaving Willy alone when Linda comes looking for him. In a dreamy state, still thinking of Ben, Willy has headed out of the house to take a short walk despite the late hour. Woken up by Willy’s loud, imagined conversation with Ben moments ago, Biff and Happy now come downstairs to talk with their mother about Willy. Surprised by the severity of Willy’s hallucinations, Biff asks why his mother had not told him of Willy’s condition. Linda responds that Willy’s disturbed state stems partly from Biff’s failure to write Willy, to reconcile their differences, and to settle into a career.
(The entire section is 1327 words.)
Death of a Salesman Act II, Part 1: Summary and Analysis
Howard Wagner: Willy’s boss
Part I covers the action from the beginning of Act II until Howard Wagner says to Willy, “Pull yourself together, kid, there’s people outside.”
The act opens with bright, cheerful music as Linda sees Willy off to work. Both of them are in high spirits, feeling confident that Biff will receive the loan from Bill Oliver today. Linda tells Willy that Biff’s “whole attitude seemed to be hopeful” when he left the house earlier in the morning. “He’s heading for a change,” replies Willy, who then remarks that he may buy some seeds tonight to plant a garden in the backyard.
Rather than starting on a sales.
(The entire section is 1555 words.)
Death of a Salesman Act II, Part 2: Summary and Analysis
Part 2 covers the action up to when Willy says “Put up your hands!” to Charley.
The previous section ends with Howard leaving his office. Willy remains and the lights change. Ben’s music begins to play, and Willy begins talking to him as he enters from the right carrying a suitcase and an umbrella. Ben tells Willy he has finished his business trip to Alaska and must soon board a boat to return to Africa. From this information the audience realizes that after getting fired Willy has begun daydreaming again and that a flashback has begun. Even though Ben is in a rush, Willy needs to talk to him: “Ben, nothing’s working out. I don’t know what to do.” Ben offers Willy a job supervising his.
(The entire section is 939 words.)
Death of a Salesman Act II, Part 3: Summary and Analysis
Jenny: Charley’s secretary
Part 3 covers the action up to when Willy says, “Charley, you’re the only friend I got. Isn’t that a remarkable thing?”
The flashback in which Willy challenges Charley to fight has ended, but Willy is still heard talking loudly offstage. The lights come up on a new scene: Bernard, now an adult, and Jenny, Charley’s secretary, in Charley’s office. After being fired, Willy has come to Charley’s office – as he does every week, Jenny tells Bernard. Jenny has work to do and asks Bernard to deal with Willy, who is obviously very disoriented, talking to himself as if he were in the flashback of Part 2. As Willy enters, he.
(The entire section is 1204 words.)
Death of a Salesman Act II, Part 4: Summary and Analysis
Stanley: a young waiter at the restaurant where Biff, Happy, and Willy meet
Miss Forsythe: a woman whom Biff and Happy meet in the restaurant. (In the text she is referred to as simply “Girl” before her name is given.)
Letta: Miss Forsythe’s friend, who eventually joins her, Biff, and Happy at the restaurant
Part 4 covers the action up to when Stanley calls to Hap, “Mr. Loman! Mr. Loman!”
The scene has changed to a restaurant. Hap finds a table with the help of Stanley, a waiter who knows Hap and treats him very well. Bending the truth, Hap tells Stanley that Biff is an important cattle man out West; Hap orders champagne.
(The entire section is 1578 words.)
Death of a Salesman Act II, Part 5: Summary and Analysis
Part 5 covers the action up to when Linda says, “He’s planting the garden!”
After Biff, Hap, and the two women leave the restaurant, Willy’s daydream involving the Boston woman becomes a full-fledged flashback. The Woman is in a black slip and Willy is buttoning his shirt. We hear raw, sexy music as The Woman teases Willy, telling him to stop dressing in the middle of the night. The audience must suspect that The Woman is Willy’s mistress, with whom he just finished making love in this hotel room. When Willy says he’s lonely, The Woman – a secretary at a company that Willy sells to – tries to cheer and console him by telling him that from now on she will send him right through to see.
(The entire section is 1519 words.)
Death of a Salesman Act II, Part 6: Summary and Analysis
Part 6 covers the action up to the end of Act II.
After Biff leaves the house with Linda, we see Willy alone on stage. Blue light covers the stage, indicating night time. With a flashlight, a hoe, and several packets of seeds, Willy begins to plant his garden. Ben appears and listens to Willy describe his “proposition,” one that would leave $20,000 to Linda, who Willy says has suffered. (Today, that $20,000 would be equivalent to roughly $250,000.) The “proposition” implied is Willy’s suicide, which would leave Linda the large amount of insurance money. Ben warns Willy that the insurance company might not pay if Willy’s death were a suicide, but Willy remains confident that Linda would.
(The entire section is 1849 words.)
Death of a Salesman Requiem: Summary and Analysis
The play’s action flows smoothly from Willy’s crash to his funeral. In the “Requiem” scene, we see Linda, Biff, Hap, Charley, and Bernard gathered at Willy’s grave. Hap, very angry, contends that Willy had no right to kill himself, especially when Hap and Biff would have helped him through his difficulties. Linda, kneeling in front of the grave, wonders why no one has attended Willy’s funeral: “But where are all the people he knew? Maybe they blame him.” Charley comforts her, telling her no one should blame Willy for being who he was – a salesman. A salesman, Charley maintains, is someone who dreams: “He’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they.
(The entire section is 1460 words.)
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Death of a Salesman Homework Help Questions
Death of a Salesman was first published in 1949. In creating the character of Willy Loman, Arthur Miller aimed to mirror one of the everyday “characters” of Post WWII American society. In fact.
Linda is a loving and affectionate wife to Willy. She presents an image that she thinks is appropriate for a wife, which is that of a cheerful and living companion. She encourages both Willy and.