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Death of a Salesman . Revision notes: key themes and characterisation. note. These notes will give you an overview of the key moments in the play.

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death of a salesman

Death of a Salesman

Revision notes: key themes and characterisation

  • These notes will give you an overview of the key moments in the play.
  • They are not exhaustive and you will have to plan your essays carefully and may want to refer back to the play to find a different example or quotation
  • These quotations are not fully analysed and you will have to think about the techniques the author uses, including his use of stage directions, to explain them fully.
  • Willy is a failure in the terms set by the American Dream, which are that America is a land of opportunity and that with hard work and determination, anyone can “make it”.
  • “Making it” is usually defined as material success: most commonly making a good profit by setting up your own business, allowing you to live “a good life”.
  • The 1950s ideal of a good life was a nice house, modern conveniences such as cars, fridges, washing machines, and importantly, family. A happy marriage and polite, academically successful children.
  • Willy’s inability to accept that he has not achieved success in these terms is at the root of his mental torture…swinging between self-knowledge and delusion, unable to tell the past from the present.
  • It is this fundamental self-delusion that lies at the heart of his conflict with his son, Biff, who becomes determined to reject his father’s values and visions as he sees them as the root of falsehood and unhappiness
characterisation of willy setting
Characterisation of Willy: setting
  • Willy is introduced as an agitated and conflicted character, switching between vulnerable and aggressively unpredictable
  • “But it’s so beautiful up there, Linda, the trees are so thick, and the sun is warm…And then all of a sudden I’m off the road!”
  • “The street is lined with cars. There’s not a breath of fresh air in the neighbourhood. The grass don’t grow anymore, you can’t raise a carrot in the backyard.
  • Despite having worked his whole life to create a “good life”, it is clear that he feels trapped and suffocated by his life: his home, his work and perhaps his family, as he clearly resents his son Biff’s lifestyle.
why a salesman
Why a “salesman”?
  • The contrast between the rat race of corporate “selling” and a more traditional connection with the land and nature is presented as a source of Willy’s unhappiness. There is nothing valuable or necessary about his job, and this reinforces the emptiness of the American Dream.
  • Willy is aware of this deficiency as we see though his conversation with his dead brother, Ben, who did successfully achieve the American dream of success. In the flashback where Willy has rejected Ben’s offer to go to Alaska, he tries to assure himself that he still has a strong connection to nature in his suburban home
  • “oh sure, there’s snakes and rabbits and – that’s why I moved out here. Why, Biff, can fell any one of those trees in no time!”
  • He clearly admires Ben’s spirit of adventure and ambition and dearly wishes for his sons to have these qualities
  • “That’s just the spirit I want to imbue them with! To walk into a jungle! I was right! I was right! I was right!

A salesman is the epitome of American capitalism: a system based on creating desires and needs through advertising. It is never entirely clear what Willy sells.

  • Willy is portrayed as a victim of the false promise of the American dream, where consumerism is often equated with success and happiness. He is trapped a cycle by his home and possessions and has to work into his old age to maintain them.
  • We see this clearly when he comes home with his paycheck and Linda adds up all the money they owe, revealing that Willy is never able to earn enough
Willy’s false dreams:Key quotations: To use these in your essay you will have to provide context and analysis
  • There were clearly happier times, where Willy was able to believe in future success, and his young sons respected and admired him:
  • “And when I bring you fellas up, there’ll be open sesame for all of us, ‘ cause one thing, boys: I have friends. I can park my car in any street in New England and the cops protect it like their own.”
dreams for biff
Dreams for Biff
  • A major source of Willy’s disappointment is the failure of Biff to live up to his potential. The amount of pride he took in Biff’s achievements blinded him to the danger of indulging his son. He laughs off Biff’s increasingly serious bad behaviour.
  • “Bernard can get the best marks in school, y’understand, but when he gets out in the business world, y’understand, you are going to be five times ahead of him. That’s why I thank Almighty God you’re both built like Adonises.”
  • Willy is full of hope when Biff and Happy tell them of their plan to set up a business, and thoroughly deludes himself and everyone else that this plan will work.
  • Willy has moments of self-realisation, where he knows he is losing the qualities of charm and popularity so essential for a salesman.
  • “I’m fat. I’m very – foolish to look at, Linda. ..But they do laugh at me. I know that.
  • Despite this, he refuses to accept Charley’s offer of a job. Filled with hope in Biff’s business plan, he decides to confront his employer.
key scene
Key scene
  • In this scene, he explains his vision of success, revealing how false and limited his dreams are as he describes Dave Singleman:
  • “ … - when he died, hundreds of salesmen and buyers were at his funeral…in those days there was personality in it , Howard. There was respect, and comradeship and gratitude in it.”
  • Despite continually lowering his salary request, Willy is fired by Howard, as he is no longer useful:
  • “I put thirty-four years into this firm, Howard, and now I can’t pay my insurance! You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away – a man is not a piece of fruit!”

This experience does not serve to teach Willy anything, and only drives him into another reverie, where he tells Ben his dreams of being the successful salesman and his hopes for Biff.

  • “It’s who you know and the smile on your face! It’s contacts, Ben, contacts!...a man can end with diamonds here on the basis of being liked! And that’s why when you get out on that field today it’s important. Because thousands of people will be rooting for you and loving you.”
false pride
False pride
  • A vulnerable and mentally fragile Willy is then confronted with Bernard, who has become a very successful lawyer. This underscores the irony of Willy’s earlier mocking of a young Bernard and his confidence in Biff’s popularity and sporting success.
  • “(small and alone) “What’s the secret?”
  • It is clear through his conversation that Biff’s life changed when he learned of his father’s affair, and Willy finds this truth too much to cope with:
  • “Willy looks up at him as at an intruder…What you trying to do, blame it on me? If a boy lays down, is that my fault?”
turning point
Turning Point
  • The restaurant scene is the turning point of the play, where Willy is no longer able to project a successful image of himself. He is confronted with reality when Biff fails to get a business loan, and this leads to his mental collapse.
  • “I’m not interested in stories about the past or any crap of that kind because the woods are burning boys, you understand? There’s a big blaze going on all around. I was fired today.”
turning point continued
Turning point continued…
  • His inability to accept Biff’s failure leads to a flashback of the Boston scene, showing that Willy is in some level aware of his own guilt and responsibility for Biff’s fate.
  • Biff’s attempt to tell the truth leads to agony and torment for Willy:
  • “You – you gave here Mama’s stockings! (His tears break through and he rises to go.)…Don’t touch me, you – liar!...You fake! You phoney little fake! You fake!”
turning point continued1
Turning point continued
  • Willy is left utterly abandoned and very vulnerable when he emerges from the flashback to the Boston scene to realise that his sons have left without him.
  • He has nothing, as far as he can see, at this point. All his dreams – of work and family successes are destroyed.
  • His fragile mental state is revealed through his plan to commit suicide and his fear of leaving nothing to show for his life.
  • “Oh, I’d better hurry. I’ve got to get some seeds…I’ve got to get some seeds, right away. Nothing’s planted. I don’t have a thing in the ground.”
conflict with biff
Conflict with Biff
  • At the end of the restaurant scene, we see Willy make his suicide plan as he “talks” to Ben. He clearly wants to compensate for his failures as a father to Biff.
  • “Oh Ben, how do we get back to all the great times? Used to be so full of light, and comradeship, the sleigh-riding in winter, and the ruddiness on his cheeks…..Why, why can’t I give him something nice and not have him hate me?”
  • Ironically, Biff does love his father and is full of compassion– not for Willy’s lies, but for his efforts and determination to try to make a good life for his family.
  • “Miss Forsythe, you’ve just seen a prince walk by. A fine, troubled prince. A hard working, unappreciated prince. A pal, you understand? A good companion. Always for his boys.”
  • Happy, on the other hand, simply disowns his father.
the conflict scene
The conflict scene
  • Linda is furious when Biff and Happy arrive home. She is fully aware of Willy’s fragility, despite his bluster, and knows how much the dinner with his sons meant to him.
  • “Get out of here, both of you, and don’t come back! I don’t want you tormenting him anymore.”
  • The contrast between Biff and Happy is clear: Biff accepting responsibility and resolving to finally be honest with his father, whereas Happy shrugs off his behaviour.
  • “Now you hit it on the nose! …The scum of the earth, and you’re looking at him!”

Despite Linda’s protestations, Biff insists on speaking to Willy. We see him, utterly broken and tortured, resolving to commit suicide in a tragic effort to save the only remnant of his dream: a well attended funeral, to prove that he was popular.

  • “Ben, that funeral will be massive! They’ll come from Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire!... – I am known, Ben, and he’ll see it with his eyes once and for all. He’ll see what I am Ben!”

Biff tells his father that he will leave and live his own life, on his own terms. Willy refuses to accept that Biff cannot live on his, Willy’s terms, and thinks that Biff is just trying to punish him.

  • “I want you to know, on the train, in the mountains, in the valleys, that wherever you go, that you cut down your life for spite!”
  • Biff tells his father a number of truths about himself:
  • “the man don’t know who we are! The man is gonna know! We never told the truth for ten minutes in this house!
  • He tells his father that he knows about the pipe in the cellar
  • He tells Happy that he is just like Willy, full of lies and self- delusion
  • They all lied to themselves about Biff’s role in Bill Oliver’s company, elevating his status
  • He admits that he was in jail, that he stole in high school, and that the problem for the whole family is that they think they are more than they are. They aspire to the American Dream, and end up with lies and unhappiness.
  • “I saw the things that I love in this world. The work and the food and the time to sit and smoke. ….what am I doing in an office, making a contemptuous, begging fool of myself, when all I want is out there, waiting for me the minute I say I know who I am!”

Biff tells his father that neither of them are anything special, and that it is a failure to accept this that creates Willy’s unhappiness. This enrages Willy, as he is unable to let go of his false view of happiness and success.

  • “I am not a dime a dozen! I am Willy Loman, and you are Biff Loman!”
  • Ironically, it is this conflict scene that brings Willy the most happiness, as he realises that Biff does, indeed, love him. However, this only strengthens his conviction that he must die in order to give Biff a chance in life.
  • “Oh Biff! He cried! Cried to me. (He is now choking with his love, and now cries out his promise.) That boy – that boy is going to be magnificent!”
the ending and requiem
The ending and requiem
  • Willy, in the midst of his delusion and hallucinations, where Ben acts as his inner voice, does indeed commit suicide. Ben’s voices the idea that the only gift he can now leave Biff is the insurance money from his death.
  • “Not like an appointment at all. A diamond is rough and hard to the touch.”
  • Willy is unable to abandon his hopes and dreams for Biff, perhaps to ease his guilt, perhaps because he knows it is too late for him to be successful himself. This is in spite of everything Biff has tried to tell him.
  • “Imagine! When the mail comes, he’ll be ahead of Bernard again!”
  • The requiem shows how the other characters react to Willy’s death and displays their attitudes to the false dreams that Willy held so steadfastly.
  • Linda and Happy are in contrast with Biff, as they are unable to make sense of Willy’s death, and Happy resolves to make him proud, to achieve what Willy himself was unable to.
  • Biff, on the other hand, has achieved self-knowledge and acceptance and sees the danger of living a false, aspirational life.
  • “He had the wrong dreams. Wrong. All wrong.”