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Death of a Salesman. Further Analysis. Realism. Realism was an artistic movement that began in 19 th century in France Realists sought to accurately portray everyday characters, situations and dilemmas

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death of a salesman

Death of a Salesman

Further Analysis

  • Realism was an artistic movement that began in 19th century in France
  • 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
  • Contemporary costuming and 3D sets were used to make it “life-like”
  • Plays were usually critiques of social problems
  • A reaction to realism that began in 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
  • They threw out dramatic convention – plot, structure, and characterization. Dialogue became more poetic and lighting was used to create atmosphere
how does this apply to doas
How does this apply to DOAS?
  • Miller was interested in expressionism but didn’t want to abandon the conventions of realism
  • He used a dramatic form that combined the subjectivityof expressionism with the illusion of objectivity afforded by realism
  • He tries to bend time: social time, psychic time and the way we remember things and the sense of time created by the play and shared by the audience
  • It is taking place in 24 hours but is dealing with material that goes back 25 years. It also goes forward through Ben who is dead
  • Language used is entirely realistic. It is carefully constructed to follow the exact speech patterns of ordinary New Yorkers. It is very dense and fast with repetitions, hesitations and contradictions. The characters often use slang and cliches
staging music
Staging - Music

The use of music serves several functions:

  • Constantly reminds us that we are not watching a strictly naturalistic play
  • Adds to our understanding of the play as it reminds us of when this is “Ben’s music” which prepares us for the appearance of Ben out of the depths of Willy’s confused mind
  • It also highlights the emotional impact of the play and heightens the intensity of the snatches of apparently ordinary conversation
  • We find out Willy’s father used to make and sell flutes – connects with two aspects of his life:
  • The importance he places on working with his hands
  • Salesmanship
  • We hear music when Willy and Ben speak of their father and this suggests energy and confidence, opportunity and new life – none of which Willy has available himself
  • Flute music is the most common and symbolizes Willy’s longing for freedom, space and a connection with nature
  • It also suggests the past that Willy has idealized and the dream that has driven him throughout his life.
  • It is introduced when he thinks of happier times, when life seemed closer to the dream that he finds at that moment
  • However the past is not always the nostalgic haven evoked by the flute – other types of music suggest a past that can be vibrant and joyful, or painful and guilt ridden (The Woman)
theatre of realism
Theatre of Realism
  • An audience watches what happens on stage as if they were spying through the window of the family’s sitting room, privy to absolutely everything
  • It should be clear to the audience that Miller does not attempt to create an illusion of total reality. The top half of the Loman’s room is missing and there incomplete walls and no roof at all. The audience can also see the buildings around the house. With such a set, Miller is able to suggest that the barriers between the past and the present are very insubstantial
  • The use of a multiple set allows the playwright to use the cinematic technique of a flashback within the structures of live theatre where the laws of physical reality are in operation

And when I saw that, I realized that selling was the greatest career a man could want. ‘ Cause what could be more satisfying than to be able to go, at the age of eighty-four, into twenty or thirty different cities, and pick up a phone, and be remembered and loved and helped by so many different people?

Willy poses this question to Howard in Act II. He is discussing how he decided to become a salesman after meeting Dave Singleman, the mythic salesman who died the noble “death of a salesman” that Willy himself covets. His admiration of Singleman’s prolonged success illustrates his obsession with being well liked. He fathoms having people “remember” and “love” him as the ultimate satisfaction, because such warmth from business contacts would validate him in a way that his family’s love does not.

What he fails to see is the human side of Singleman, much as he fails to see his own human side. He envisions Singleman as a happy man but ignores the fact that Singlman was still working at age 84 and might likely have experienced the same financial difficulties and misery as Willy.


I saw the things that I love in this world. The work and the food and the time to sit and smoke. And I looked at the pen and I thought, what the hell am I grabbing this for? Why am I trying to become what I don’t want to be…when all I want is out there, waiting for me the minute I say I know who I am.

Biff’s explanation to his father during the climax of their final confrontation in Act II helps him articulate the revelation of his true identity, even though Willy cannot possibly understand. Biff is confident and somewhat comfortable with the knowledge that he is “a dime a dozen”, as this escape from his father’s delusions allows him to follow his instincts and align his life with his own dreams. Whereas Willy cannot comprehend any notion of individual identity outside of the confines of the material success and “well-liked”-ness promised by the American Dream, Biff realizes that he can be happy only outside these confines. Though his attempt to cure Willy’s delusions fails, Biff frees himself from Willy’s expectations for him. He sees the stupidity of stealing the pen and renounces the commercial word, content to enjoy the simple necessities of life.

a diamond is hard and rough to the touch
A diamond is hard and rough to the touch

Ben’s final mantra of “the jungle is dark, but full of diamonds” in Act II turns Willy’s suicide into a moral struggle and a matter of commerce. His final act, according to Ben, is not “like an appointment at all” but like “a diamond…rough and hard to the touch”. As opposed to the fruitless, emotionally ruinous meetings that Willy has had with Howard and Charley, his death, Ben suggests, will actually yield something concrete for Willy and his family. Willy latches onto this appealing idea, relieved to be able to finally prove himself a success in business. Additionally, he is certain that with the $20 000 from his life insurance policy, Biff will at last fulfill the expectations that he, Willy, has long held for him. The diamond stands as a tangible reminder of the material success that Willy’s salesman job could not offer him and the missed opportunity of material success with Ben. In selling himself for the metaphorical diamond of $20 000, Willy bears out his earlier assertion to Charley that “after all the highways, and the trains, and the appointments, and the years, you end up worth more dead than alive”.

nothing s planted i don t have a thing in the ground
Nothing’s planted. I don’t have a thing in the ground.

After the climax in Frank’s Chop House, in Act II, talking to Stanley suddenly fixates on buying seeds to plant a garden in his diminutive, dark backyard because he does not have “a thing in the ground”. The garden functions as a last-ditch substitute for Willy’s failed career and Biff’s dissipated ambition. Willy realizes, at least metaphorically, that he has no tangible proof of his life’s work. While he is planting the seeds and conversing with Ben, he worries that “a man can’t go out of the way he came in” that he has to “add up to something”. His preoccupation with material evidence of success belies his very profession, which necessitates the ability to sell one’s own, intangible image. The seeds symbolize Willy’s failure in other ways as well. The fact that Willy uses gardening as a metaphor for success and failure indicates that he subconsciously acknowledges that his chosen profession is a poor choice, given his natural inclinations. Though his figurative roots are in sales (Ben claims that their father was a successful salesman), Willy never blossomed into the Dave Singleman figure that he idolizes.

He’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine…a salesman is got to dream, boy.

Charley’s speech in the requiem about the nature of the salesman’s dreams eulogizes Willy as a victim of his difficult profession. His poetic assessment of sales defends Willy’s death, attributing to Willy’s work the sort of mythic quality that Willy himself always envisioned about it. Charley likens the salesman to a heroic, courageous sailor, “out there in the blue”, with nothing to guide him and powerful forces against which to contend. Charley also points out the great disparity between the enormity of the salesman’s task and the piddling tools with which he is equipped: Willy had only the insubstantial smile on his face and the shine of his shoe with which to sell himself. Failure faded Willy’s smile and smudged his shoe, which made it even more difficult to sell himself. Lacking confidence in his image and thus “finished” psychologically, Willy still had to go out and give it his best, because “a salesman is got to dream”. Charley’s sympathy reveals itself in this remark – he understands that Willy didn’t simply feel compelled to sell; rather, Willy failed even to recognize that he had any choice in life.

symbols the jungle woods
Symbols! – The Jungle/Woods
  • Woods or jungle are a symbol of life, especially the risks of life
  • Uncle Ben is not afraid to take risks – he literally walked into the jungle to achieve his dreams – he took control of his life
  • Willy is more fearful and is losing control of his life – he tells the boys “the woods are burning” when he loses his job
  • Then Ben tells Willy “the jungle is dark” but that he must walk into it – he is telling him he should take control by committing suicide
  • Also represents the 20th century free mark economy (American Dream ideal) that Miller often criticized
  • Diamonds are a symbol of success
  • Ben finds diamonds in the jungle and gives Willy a diamond watch fob – Willy has to pawn this to pay for a course for Bill – he is trying to pass “the success” on to Biff
  • He tries to do this again by committing suicide and leaving money to Biff; he must “fetch a diamond”
the garden seeds
The Garden/ SEEDS
  • Is a repeated motif that works as a symbol of Willy’s desire and need to create a good life for his family - success
  • Willy’s garden used to grow well before the apartment blocks were built, but now “the grass don’t grow anymore, you can’t raise a carrot in the backyard”.
  • Willy is trying to “grow” something for his family
  • At the end, he makes a futile attempt at planting seeds – but he never achieves success in life, and he also never plants his garden. He wants to leave a legacy but never does. TOO LITTLE TOO LATE
  • Represent his affair with The Woman
  • Linda is seen several times mending stockings while The Woman is given new stockings by Willy
  • Willy gives love to The Woman which he should be giving to his wife. He always feels guilty when he sees Linda mending stockings and orders her not to do it
  • They are a symbol of material wealth and Willy feels he cannot provide Linda with new stockings – she hides them instead of throwing them away – she understands that they cannot afford to be wasteful
  • Also the “phoniness” of Willy’s existence – he says he is doing all he can for his family but he gives Linda’s stockings to his mistress
falling down
  • The words fall, falling and down and the movements they suggest re-appear again and again and emphasize the fall of Willy and his family
  • Willy is described as “beaten down” and he “lies back, exhausted”. He also “falls” into bed with the woman
  • Biff is also going down – when he steals the pen from Oliver’s office he runs down 11 flights of stairs
  • Willy has fallen to his death and Linda lays flowers down at his grave
  • Biff and Happy both steal
    • Happy steals fiances and Biff steals a football, basketballs, lumber and cement, a suit, a fountain pen and other things not mentioned
  • Their stealing can be seen to represent the way their true identities have been stolen by lying and the pursuit of an unachievable dream
  • Willy doesn’t believe in working one’s way up the ladder of success; he thinks that since he’s a Loman, he should be automatically granted manager status. Biff following this example, hopes to “steal” his way to the top instead of working for it
  • Bernard’s reference to tennis ironically proves his success and the Loman’s failure since Oliver is suppose to give Biff and Happy a big deal in the sporting goods business
  • Bernard’s future doesn’t revolve around sports, he has access to tennis rackets while the Lomans don’t
themes reality and illusion
Themes! Reality and Illusion
  • Willy is a dreamer and dreams of success that it is not possible for him to achieve. He always exaggerates his success and is totally unrealistic about what Biff will be able to achieve too
  • Happy exaggerates how successful he is and Biff only realizes in Oliver’s office that he has been lying to himself for years
  • Biff is the only one who realizes how this blurring of reality has destroyed them all. He then tries to make Willy and the family face the truth which they have been avoiding
the american dream
The American Dream
  • Capitalist belief that if you work hard enough you can be a success in America – but this is based on money and power
  • In Willy’s mind, it is also linked to being “well-liked”.
  • Biff realizes that being true to yourself is a more important success
  • Willy buys status symbols on credit that he cannot afford to keep up on.
  • It is ironic that Willy’s funeral is on the day that the last mortgage payment is made
  • Each generation has a responsibility to the other that they cannot fulfill
  • Biff and Happy are shaped by Willy’s sins
    • Happy is destined to perpetuate Willy’s values and strive for material success
    • Biff has been destroyed totally by Willy’s betrayal of the family through his affair and the fact that Willy never discouraged him from stealing
    • Biff attempts to break the cycle of destruction in the family by trying to support Willy and Linda with his attempt with Oliver
nature and physical pursuits
Nature and Physical Pursuits
  • The alternative to the corruption of urban capitalism is physical or natural pursuits
  • Biff talks about working with horses or cattle
  • Happy knows he can ‘outbox, outrun and out-lift anybody in that store’
  • Willy was ‘a happy man with a batch of cement
  • The suggestion is that the true nature of all three of these men would be in physical pursuits and in a rural setting, however Willy’s dependence on the “DREAM” means they cannot follow their true calling
  • What is the turning point in Willy’s life? Is Willy the main character in this play or is Biff?
  • What does Biff discover about himself? How does this discovery affect his relationship with Willy?
  • Does Biff use Willy’s behavior as an excuse for his own waywardness?
  • Does Linda know about the woman in Boston? What makes you think she does or doesn’t?
  • Why does Miller let us know in the title that Willy’s death is coming? Why doesn’t he make it a surprise?
  • What harm does Willy’s death do? What good?
  • How is Willy’s killing himself for the insurance money symptomatic of the way he has lived? What legacy does Willy leave his family?