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Death of a Salesman. Arthur Miller

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death of a salesman

Death of a Salesman

Arthur Miller

Winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1949, Death of a Salesman has to this day remained a classic. The play’s intellectual appeal lies in Miller’s refusal to portray his characters as two-dimensional — his refusal to involve himself in a one-sided polemic attack on capitalism.

Even critics cannot agree as to whether Death of a Salesman is to be categorized as social criticism, a tragedy, or simply a psychological study. Of necessity, each person will have to draw his or her own individual conclusions. (www.pelister /literature)

opening setting theme
Opening – Setting + Theme
  • The curtain rises on Willy Loman’shouse in Brooklyn. The house, with its small backyard, looks fragile next to the tall apartment buildings that surround it. A soft flute melody is playing in the background. It is a Monday evening.
  • Home ownership is a central pillar of the American Dream. But Willy's house has been overwhelmed by the city, just as Willy is himself overwhelmed by the pressures on him.
returns tired to death foreshadow
Returns “tired to death” - foreshadow
  • Willy Loman returns home from a sales trip, carrying two suitcases of merchandise. He is exhausted, or as he puts it, "tired to the death." Linda Loman, who is in bed, comes out to see him. She wonders why he is home early.
  • The product Willy sells is never revealed, highlighting that what a salesman must really sell is himself. Willy's statement hints at the spiritually and materially unrewarding nature of his job.
false story on his return
False story on his return
  • Willy tries to avoid talking about the reason for his early return. When Linda presses him, he admits that he lost his concentration while driving and nearly drove off the road. He explains that he opened the windshield of his car to enjoy the scenery and warm air, and became too lost in his dreams to drive.
  • Opening the windshield signifies Willy’s connection to nature, which his city living, car-driving sales job interferes with. Willy's dreams, rather than motivating him, steer him off course.
willy s job am dr vs inheritence
Willy’s job – Am Dr. vsInheritence
  • Linda brings up what is clearly an old argument between them: she wants him to work in New York, closer to home. But Willy responds that he is a vital salesman in the New England area. He points out that he opened up this market to his company, though he adds that now the founder of the company is dead and his son, Howard Wagner, does not appreciate Willy’s history of service.
  • Willy's remarks about his importance as a salesman must be taken with a grain of salt: a salesman as successful as he claims to be would likely be better off than he is. Nevertheless, he has strived for success, only to be betrayed by hisformer'sboss's son, who inherited success.
biff disappoints w s contradictions
Biff disappoints / W’s contradictions
  • The conversation turns to Willy and Linda's grown sons, Happy and Biff, who are upstairs sleeping after a double date. Biff has been working as a farm laborer all over the West, and has returned home for a visit. Willy had fought with Biff a day earlier about the fact that Biff has been content with low-paying manual work for ten years. While criticizing Biff to Linda, he calls Biff a lazy bum and then contradicts himself, praising Biff as a hard worker.
  • Willy's contrasting statements on Biff’s work ethic show how his hopes for Biff have been dashed, but also his capacity for self-delusion. He can't accept that Biff has turned out to be something other than a great man of the world because he can't let go of his American Dream of huge success for himself and his sons.
h b accidents foreshadow
H / B – accidents (foreshadow)
  • Linda convinces Willy to go downstairs to the kitchen so that he won't wake the boys. Happy and Biff, who are already awake, wonder if Willy has had another car accident.
  • Willy's car accidents, at this stage of the play, seem to point to his increasing age and physical fragility. As the play progresses, they will come to mean more.
b f original a d
B / F – Original A D
  • The original American Dream involved proving and making a life for yourself by heading out into the wilds of nature, as Willy's father and older brother Ben did, and as Willy himself sometimes wishes he did. But Willy raised Biff to value financial success above all else, and so Biff wonders whether it is wrong to not make money.
character of h
Character of H
  • Happy has inherited Willy's dream of success in sales. Less favored than Biff by Willy when the boys were young, Happy now tries to emulate the examples of aggressive sexuality and dishonesty that Biff displayed as a boy.
biff pity try again oliver
Biff / pity / try again - Oliver
  • Biff aims to win his father's approval while staying true to himself. He tries to reconcile both sides of the American Dream: doing the outdoor work he loves and also profiting as a ranch owner. Happy thinks that being well liked guarantees success.
memory parenting delusion
“memory” / parenting / delusion
  • Throughout the play Willy gets lost in his memories. At first it seems these memories of better times provide him with solace. But it quickly becomes clear that the memories actually trace the seeds of his and his family's present troubles. Here, Willy clearly favors Biff over Happy, and also clearly instills in his sons the idea that being well-liked is more important than character. To make himself look successful, he lies to his son about his stature as a salesman on the road.
bernard contrast defn of success
Bernard – contrast / defn of “success”
  • In emphasizing "well liked" as the most desirable quality for success, Willy places a higher premium on outward projection than inner strength of character. He dismisses Bernard's hardworking attitude, and implies to his sons, through his disinterest in Biff's issues with math class and his talk of charisma, that they naturally deserve success, and that it will come easily to them.
linda w s delusion l s support
Linda / W’s delusion / L’s “support”
  • Willy's lie again shows his need to make himself look successful. Linda's excited response shows her willingness to believe in him despite his exaggerations. The endless payments on their possessions hint at how Willy and his family have become slaves to his dream of material comfort.
lies and linda s love
Lies and Linda’s love
  • L’s love is steadfast – she never changes / she doesn’t seem to care re: AM DR.
  • W doesn’t see L’s love
  • W (infrequently) admits he is vulnerable – short / funny-looking
  • He constantly “sells” himself to others with his lies / exaggerations
the woman and stockings
“the woman” and stockings
  • Woman appears in his memory
  • Woman’s “ghostly” laughter indicates that she haunts him
  • Woman’s love contrasts L’s – for Woman it is like a financial arrangement (gifts as payment)
  • L mending stockings reminds W that he has betrayed his adoring wife
willy s mixed values
Willy’s mixed values
  • W’s memories reveal the real values he has imbued in his sons
    • They are exceptional and therefore entitled
    • Hard work is not important
    • Harming others is not significant
  • W wants to believe – Biff has failed him ; not He has failed Biff
ben and the am dr
Ben and the AM DR
  • Idealized version of the AD
  • Adventurer, wilderness (frontier), rich
  • W has to settle for a lesser dream
intro to charley
Intro to Charley
  • Ceiling – Willy’s ability that is not put to use
  • Will refuses C’s offer of a job – to be self-sufficient (bizarre view, however since he takes $)
    • Can’t give up the “dream”
flutes and fathers
Flutes and fathers
  • Like his father, Willy is good with his hands
  • Salesman job creates “nothing” – you sell yourself
  • He is angry at Charley because he regrets and is insecure about his own choices / value
  • Ben is the ideal – strong, manly, wealthy
  • Willy was abandoned by his father and older brother – foreshadows his own choice/decision at end of the play
flutes and fathers1
Flutes and fathers …
  • Mixed up sense of what is important
    • He values charisma and luck over Charley’s and Bernard’s lifetime of hard work
  • Ben bullies Willy as Willy bullies Charley
  • Ben is cruel and W’s emulation of him is misplaced (“we hunt here too”)
  • Although Willy subscribes to Ben’s view / he misses the point that Ben’s success was luck (didn’t know geography)
  • W passes these traits on to his boys (not a good idea to praise dishonesty)
the natural world connection
The Natural World connection
  • Can’t see the stars anymore / foreshadows his death too – the only way out of the trap he has made for himself
  • W has sacrificed his connection to his brother (doesn’t go) to give everything to his sons
  • In contrast to Charley who gives his son a model of hard work and determination; W gives his son’s stuff and false dreams of easy money and success
some reality
Some reality
  • Linda reinforces W’s worth
  • Biff sees and resents Willy – he sees the difference between truth and reality / angry because he blames his father for giving him unrealistic expectations
  • “attention must be paid!” (he is not a hero …)
    • Dramatic tragedy can happen to a small man too
    • Willy’s dreams are big / honorable – so it IS tragic that he doesn’t achieve them
  • “sees” correctly – only one
  • Cares about love and family, not the AD
  • Doesn’t know she has been betrayed by her husband
biff willy
Biff / Willy
  • Biff begins to take W seriously because he understands that W is trying to kill himself
  • B believes that only he can prevent – by fulfilling his father’s dreams for him
  • Willy’s advice to Biff isn’t how to run a store; it is how to sell himself – not skill or work ethic
  • END of ACT I
arthur miller michigan quarterly review 1985
Arthur Miller, Michigan Quarterly Review, 1985
  • “The form of Death of a Salesman was an attempt, as much as anything else, to convey the bending of time. There are two or three sorts of time in that play. One is social time; one is psychic time, the way we remember things; and the third one is the sense of time created by the play and shared by the audience. …The play is taking place in the Greek unity of 24 hours; and yet it is dealing with material that goes back probably 25 years. And it almost goes forward through Ben, who is dead. So time was an obsession for me at the moment, and I wanted a way of presenting it so that it became the fiber of the play, rather than being something that somebody comments about. In fact, there is very little comment really in Salesman about time. I also wanted a form that could sustain itself the way we deal with crises, which is not to deal with them. After all, there is a lot of comedy in Salesman; people forget it because it is so dark by the end of the play. But if you stand behind the audience you hear a lot of laughter. It’s a deadly ironical laughter most of the time, but it is a species of comedy. The comedy is really a way for Willy and others to put off the evil day, which is the thing we all do. I wanted that to happen and not be something talked about.”
style structure and form
Style, Structure and Form


  • Realism was an artistic movement that began in 19th century France.
  • The realists sought to accurately portray everyday characters, situations, and dilemmas.
  • Realist drama was a careful observation of human characteristics and the language attempted to be as close as possible to natural conversation.
  • Contemporarycostuming and three–dimensional sets were used so as to create a ‘lifelike’ stage picture.
  • The plays were usually critiques of social problems.
  • Famous realist dramatists are: Henrik Ibsen, Anton Chekhov and George Bernard Shaw.
  • A reaction to Realism, the Expressionist movement began in the early 1900s.
  • Expressionist dramatists were concerned with presenting the inner psychological reality of a character, a subjective vision of the world as opposed to an objective representation as Realism wanted to do.
  • Theywere, as American Expressionist playwright Elmer Rice claimed, “... getting beneath reality, displaying more than reality, replacing reality with something more expressive.“
  • They threw out dramatic convention – plot, structure and characterization were abandoned, dialogue became poetic and lighting was used to create atmosphere.
  • Expressionism was successful mainly in Germany and Scandinavia, but American dramatists like Eugene O’Neill and Thornton Wilder were also influenced by Expressionism.

Give examples of how these two perspectives are portrayed – successful?