. Title .. .......The
complete title of the play is Death of a Salesman: Certain Private Conversations
in Two Acts and a Requiem. The first word of the title refers not only
to the death of the main character, Willy Loman, but also to the death
of his career and his hopes for a better life for himself and his family.
Requiem is the first word of a Latin funeral mass in Roman Catholic
ritual. The sentence in which the word occurs is Requiem aeternam dona
eis Domine, which means "Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord." Requiem
means rest. Requiem also refers to a song for the dead.
of a Salesman is a stage play in the form of a tragedy. It contains
two acts and a conclusion called a “Requiem.” Unlike the classic Greek
or Elizabethan tragedy, which focuses
on the downfall of a noble person (often a king or another person of high
social status), Death of a Salesman focuses on an ordinary person,
a common American salesman.The play won the Pulitzer Prize and a Tony award
after it debuted in New York City.
of Publication and Historical Background
of a Salesman was published in 1949. In that year, America was enjoying
an economic boom that initiated a significant trend: the absorption of
small businesses by large corporations that reduced the importance of the
individual worker and increased the importance of the company as a whole
and its bottom line. To an extent, Willy Loman must cope with this trend.
action takes place at Willy Loman’s house in the New York City area, as
well as other New York locales, and in a hotel room in Boston. Some of
the action takes place in flashbacks while Willy hallucinates.
persistent knock at the door of the hotel room unnerves Willy, and he orders
the woman into the bathroom to hide. The door opens and Biff presents himself,
informing his dad that he has traveled all the way to Boston to tell him
that he failed math with a 61 and his teacher won’t give him the extra
four points needed to pass and to graduate. He begs his father to talk
to the teacher.
on,” Willy says. “We’ll drive right back.”
says the teacher doesn’t like him because one day Biff imitated him in
class by speaking with a lisp and crossing his eyes. They both laugh raucously.
Unfortunately for Willy, the woman in the bathroom laughs too, and she
comes out. Biff, shocked, begins to weep. Willy says, “She’s nothing to
me, Biff. I was lonely, I was terribly lonely.”
disappointed in his father, Biff calls him a liar and a fake.
shifts back to the bar. When a waiter named Stanley calls out to Willy,
Willy awakens from his hallucination and comes out of the restroom assisted
by Stanley, who tells him that his sons have left with the two women. Willy
gives Stanley dollar, saying, “You’re a good boy.” Stanley refuses the
money, but Willy throws out more bills. .......“I
don’t need it any more,” he says. .......Willy
asks directions to a store that sells gardens seeds. After Stanley gives
directions to a hardware store, he stuffs the money in Willy’s coat pocket
after Willy turns around to leave. .......When
Biff and Hap arrive home, Hap gives his mother flowers and tells her he
and Biff were out with two girls. She angrily knocks the flowers to the
floor and says, “Don’t you care whether he [Willy] lives or dies?” .......She
then orders them out of the house. .......“I
don’t want you tormenting him any more,” she says. .......But
Biff insists on seeing his father, now in the back yard planting seeds.
After going out to the garden, Biff tells Willy he is leaving never to
return. They go inside and Biff asks to shake his father’s hand. Willy
refuses and says, “May you rot in hell if you leave this house!” They argue
violently. However, still holding out hopes for Biff, Willy says, “The
door of your life is wide open!” .......Biff
says, “Pop, I’m a dime a dozen, and so are you! . . . I am not a leader
of men, Willy, and neither are you.” Biff
breaks down and hugs his father, and Willy says, “Isn’t that remarkable?
Biff–he loves me!” Linda and Hap both assure Willy that his observation
is true. Everyone goes to bed except Willy, who tells Linda he will come
upstairs in two minutes. Moments later, there is the sound of a car starting
up and driving off. .......There
is a crash. Willy dies. .......At
the funeral, Hap says Willy “did not die in vain. He had a good dream.
It’s the only dream you can have–to come out number-one man.” Linda says,
“Willy, I can’t cry. It seems to me that you’re just on another trip .
. . . I made the last payment on the house today. And there’ll be nobody
home.” . Conflict
Loman, like so many other American men of the last century, is in conflict
with society, his family, and himself. In his struggle to compete in materialistic
America, he comes up short; society beats him down. In his effort to communicate
with his son Biff and mold him into a success, he fails. In a war with
his own inner self, he refuses to accept what he is–ordinary,
average, unremarkable. Ultimately, Willy's inner
and outer conflicts destroy him.
to Willy Loman's traffic accidents–possible
suicide attempts, his wife thinks–at the beginning
of the play foreshadow the ending and help to make it plausible.
climax occurs when Biff, who well knows his own and his father's
limitations, tells Willy,
“Pop, I’m a dime a dozen,
and so are you! . . . I am not a leader of men, Willy, and neither are
denouement, or conclusion, occurs when Willy drives off and crashes, apparently
committing suicide, and his wife says at his funeral, “Willy,
I can’t cry. It seems to me that you’re just on another trip . . . . I
made the last payment on the house today. And there’ll be nobody home.”
The Death of a Dream
play centers primarily on the inability of Willy Loman to fulfill his dream
of a more prosperous and rewarding life for himself and his family. Willy’s
failure as a breadwinner and father are due mostly to his own shortcomings,
but he is also a victim of the survival-of-the-fittest business philosophy
taking hold in America.
his career, Willy has been an average salesman at best. However, he has
always thought himself far above average. Consequently, he has always expected
more than he deserves. In addition, he has always expected Biff to become
a high achiever, as he was as a football player in high school.
Faulty Notion of Success
Loman believes the measure of a man is his ability to achieve material
success. In this respect, he lionizes his brother Ben, who became wealthy
by mining diamonds in Africa. Willy says, "The man knew what he wanted
and went out and got it! Walked into a jungle, and comes out, the age of
twenty-one, and he's rich!"
Pathological Desire for
Loman appears to have a pathological desire for public recognition and
the money and lifestyle that go with it. His abnormal desire to win esteem
and respect as a businessman so obsesses him that he loses his grip on
sanity and reality. The specific cause of his debility may be rooted in
attempts, at an early age, to keep up with his high-achieving brother,
Ben, and to adapt to an aggressive, fast-paced, materialistic society.
becomes desperate in his continuing effort to rise from mediocrity and
show the world that he is somebody. Though he is 63 and has little money,
he tells his wife, "Before it's all over we're gonna get a little place
out in the country, and I'll raise some vegetables, a couple of chickens."
Nurturing this dream, he later says to himself , "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." After buying seeds at a store, Willy begins
to plant them in his back yard in a final, desperate attempt to do something
that succeeds--or, if he does in fact commit suicide--to leave behind his
mark on the world.
words on the ancient Greek temple at Delphi advised, "Know thyself." But
Willy continually fails to recognize his limitations. He does not know
himself. Consequently, he constantly overreaches himself and thus constantly
fails. Biff, on the other hand, eventually realizes "what a ridiculous
lie" his and Willy's life have been. Happy lacks this insight. After Willy
dies, he says, "I'm gonna show you and everybody else that Willy Loman
did not die in vain. He had a good dream. It's the only dream you can have--to
come out number-one man. He fought it out here, and this is where I'm gonna
win it for him." His attitude suggests that he will walk the same road
as his father and end up a failure.
and Significance of Names
Ben: In Scottish and
Irish, this is a word meaning mountain peak. Willy looks upon Ben as the
summit of success.
Biff: This name is
also an English noun meaning to hit or strike. Biff verbally strikes back
of wealth, success, and--because of their hardness--the durability of a
reputation earned by skill and hard work.
Garden, Seeds: Willy
speaks of buying a home in the country. There, he says, he will grow vegetables.
Later, after his fortunes continue to decline, he buys seeds and begins
planting them in the back yard of his present home. A garden--whether in
the city or in the coutry--symbolizes Willy's desire to lead a productive
life. The vegetables will be visible evidence that he can do something
Happy: This name
may be an ironic commentary on the future of Willy's younger son: He appears
to be following in his father's footsteps and thus seems destined for unhappiness
Jungle: Ben entered
a jungle to mine diamonds. The jungle symbolizes the competitive, often-heartless
Loman: This surname
obviously represents the low social status of Willy and his family, as
well as the state of Willy's mental health.
Questions and Essay Topics
When Willy arrives home at the
beginning of the play, he complains that nothing
around him at his household seems to work–not the refrigerator, not the
car, not Biff. What irony do you see in Willy's observation?
What is the cause of the conflict
between Willy Loman and his son Biff?
so many Americans today overemphasize the importance of material success?
parents "push" their children to succeed, as Willy pushes Biff?
society promise more success than it offers?
you think Willy's wife wants out of her marriage and life in general?
the life of Arthur Miller. Then write an essay explaining how his own experiences
helped shape the subject matter of Death of a Salesman.
Miller's attitude toward the main character? Does his play ridicule Willy?
Is it sympathetic toward him? Or does Miller remain essentially neutral
a psychological profile of Willy Loman. Take into account the statements
he makes and the hallucinations he experiences. Support your observations
with research gleaned from reliable sources.