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Death of a Salesman
By Arthur Miller (1915-2005)
A Study Guide
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Title
Type of Work
Year of Publication
Historical Background
Settings
Characters
Plot Summary
Conflict
Foreshadowing
Climax and Denouement
Themes
Symbols and Names
Study Questions
Essay Topics
Biography of Miller
Complete Text
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings... 2003
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Title
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.......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.

Type of Work

.......Death 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.

Year of Publication and Historical Background

.......Death 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.

Settings

.......The 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.

Characters

Protagonist: Willy Loman
Antagonist: In a broad sense, competitive America society, represented in part by Howard Wagner; in a narrow sense, Willy's combative son Biff 
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Willy Loman: An aging salesman haunted by a feeling that his life has been a failure. He hallucinates about past events. These hallucinations center on his dreams for a better tomorrow; on the future of his son, Biff, a star football player; and on a woman with whom he had an affair while on a sales trip. During his hallucinations, he sometimes talks to himself. 
Linda: Willy’s loyal wife. She accepts her role as a devoted and subservient housewife.
Biff Willy’s older son, who has trouble holding a job and getting along with his father. After he returns home from the West, his presence and his failure to get a job exasperate Willy. 
Hap: Willy’s younger son, who has a steady job but is afraid to take risks to better himself
Charley: Successful businessman who lives next door to Willy. Willy envies him because he is a constant reminder of what Willy is not. Willy snidely says Charley “is liked, but not well liked.” Nevertheless, Charley lends Willy money and even offers him a job.
Bernard: Charley’s son. He is intelligent, hard-working, and successful–everything Biff Loman is not.
Ben: Willy’s deceased older brother, who appears only in Willy’s hallucinations. He struck it rich at an early age in South African diamond mines. He symbolizes the success that has eluded Willy. 
Howard Wagner: The son of Willy's former boss, Frank Wagner, whom Willy admired. Howard, who is now Willy’s boss, represents a new breed of business executive, interested more in advancing technology than people. He fires Willy because of his inability to perform satisfactorily.
Stanley: A waiter at a bar/restaurant where Willy meets his sons. 
The Woman: An employee of a Boston company who has an affair with Willy. She is one of the subjects of his hallucinations.
Miss Forsythe and Letta:  Attractive young women whom Hap and Biff meet in the bar/restaurant
Jenny Charley's secretary
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Plot Summary
By Michael J. Cummings... 2003
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 .......Traveling salesman Willy Loman arrives home later than expected one evening after a car trip through New England. When his wife, Linda, greets him, he tells her that he was delayed because his car kept swerving and he had to drive slowly. Linda is deeply concerned, for he has been in a series of accidents lately. She thinks the accidents are suicide attempts, symptoms of a terrible realization that begins to gnaw at him: failure as a husband, a father, a human being.
.......Loman, 63, no longer receives a salary from his company, only commission. He lives in a shabby house on which he still owes money. Bills for appliance repairs are piling up. He frequently borrows money from his neighbor Charley, a successful businessman, even though he doesn’t like Charley and sometimes ridicules him. Willy’s son Biff is a 34-year-old ne’er-do-well who has recently returned home from the West after failing to make his mark. His other son, Hap, 32, has a steady job, his own apartment, and a way with women. But he lacks the push and derring-do to rise above mediocrity. Nevertheless, Hap has big ideas for business ventures that he and his brother can look into now that they are together again.
.......In high school, Biff was a star football player–the pride of the Loman household–earning an athletic scholarship to the University of Virginia. But he lost it after failing a high-school math test.
.......Tired and irritable after his motor trip, Willy complains to Linda about repair bills and about Biff. Nothing seems to work, he says, slamming a fist on the kitchen table–not the refrigerator, not the car, not Biff. But although Willy ridicules Biff one moment, calling him a lazy bum, he praises him the next, saying he has what it takes to succeed in the business world. 
.......Meanwhile upstairs, Hap–pleased that Biff has returned home–reminisces with his brother about their high-school days and proposes plans for business ventures. Biff, who has worked many jobs and says he once herded cattle, announces he may try to get a job selling sporting goods for Bill Oliver, for whom he worked years before in a local store.
.......Downstairs again, Willy begins hallucinating. He sees himself in the back yard of the Loman house, years ago, with his sons. Willy laughs when Biff tells him that he stole a football from a locker room. It was all good fun; it was what spirited young men do. The future is as bright as the sun that shines down on them as they play catch and Willy tells Biff that he will be a successful businessman someday, more successful than their neighbor, Charley, who owns his own business and enjoys respect even though, as Willy says, he is “liked, but not well liked.” Willy boasts about his own success: On the road selling his products, he says, everybody recognizes and esteems him; he has even met the mayor of Providence, Rhode Island. 
.......During the hallucination, Charley’s son, Bernard, comes by and reminds Willy that Biff should be studying for his math test. Passing it will assure his entry into the University of Virginia on a scholarship. Willy dismisses Bernard as a pest; Willy’s son, a star athlete, cannot be bothered with such trivialities as math. Being able to throw a football–being able to meet the mayor of Providence–those are the things that count. Like his father, Willy says, Bernard is “liked, but not well liked.”
.......Willy also hallucinates from time to time throughout the play about his late older brother Ben, who made a fortune in African diamond mines. Ben is the man Willy has always wanted to be. 
.......Willy returns to reality momentarily, bemoaning his present state of affairs, and Linda–ever a supporting pillar–comforts him, saying people esteem him and his sons respect him. He then slips back into an illusion, seeing himself in a Boston hotel room with a woman with whom he is having an affair. (These lapses enable playwright Miller to reveal not only Willy’s disturbed state of mind but also the secrets of his past.) He also sees Bernard again, who warns Willy that Biff is breaking the law by driving without a license and that he is jeopardizing his future by not studying for his math test. The woman in the hotel room then speaks to Willy, and he again returns to reality and shouts at Linda, this time defending Biff. 
.......When they hear their father ranting, Biff and Hap go downstairs. Willy and Biff argue, make up, then argue some more. Linda does her best to pacify them. Every time she interrupts the conversation to promote an armistice, Willy scolds her. Eventually, everyone makes peace and goes to bed.
.......Willy’s problems continue to worsen. After Linda pleads with him to ask his boss, Howard Wagner, to station him in New York so he no longer has to go on tiring road trips, Willy broaches the idea to Wagner, saying that he’s too old to travel anymore and that he’s willing to accept a modest salary. Wagner not only refuses to grant the request, but he also fires Willy. 
.......Meanwhile, Biff, who has agreed to ask Bill Oliver for a job, fails even to get an interview with Oliver. In a bar where Biff, Hap, and Willy are to have dinner, Biff first lies to his father about his latest failure, then admits he did not see Bill Oliver. They argue. To pacify Willy, Biff says he has an appointment with Oliver the next day. 
.......Biff and Hap then leave with women they met before Willy arrived–Miss Forsythe and Letta. Willy goes to the restroom and hallucinates again about the woman in the hotel room. Here is the scene he relives: 

.......A 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.
.......“You’re on,” Willy says. “We’ll drive right back.”
.......Biff 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.”
.......Deeply disappointed in his father, Biff calls him a liar and a fake. 
The scene 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.”
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Conflict

.......Willy 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 isordinary, average, unremarkable. Ultimately, Willy's inner and outer conflicts destroy him.
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Foreshadowing

.......References to Willy Loman's traffic accidentspossible suicide attempts, his wife thinksat the beginning of the play foreshadow the ending and help to make it plausible. 
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Climax

.......The 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 you.” 

Denouement

.......The 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.”

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Themes

The Death of a Dream

.......The 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.

Unrealistic Expectations

.......Throughout 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

.......Willy 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 Recognition

.......Willy 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. 

Desperation

.......Willy 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.

Know Thyself

.......The 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. 

Symbols 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 at Willy.
Diamonds: Symbol 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 right.
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 business world. 
Loman: This surname obviously represents the low social status of Willy and his family, as well as the state of Willy's mental health. 
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Study 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?
  • Why do so many Americans today overemphasize the importance of material success?
  • Should parents "push" their children to succeed, as Willy pushes Biff?
  • Does American society promise more success than it offers?
  • What do you think Willy's wife wants out of her marriage and life in general?
  • Research the life of Arthur Miller. Then write an essay explaining how his own experiences helped shape the subject matter of Death of a Salesman.
  • What is Miller's attitude toward the main character? Does his play ridicule Willy? Is it sympathetic toward him? Or does Miller remain essentially neutral and objective?
  • Write 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.
  • What is a hallucination? What causes them?
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