Death of a Salesman | Study Guide

Arthur Miller

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Act 1, Section 5

Professor Kristen Over of Northeastern Illinois University provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Act 1, Section 5 of Arthur Miller's play Death of a Salesman.

Death of a Salesman | Act 1, Section 5 | Summary



In an imagined scene from the past, Ben talks about his success to Willy.

As Charley and Willy continue to play cards, Ben Loman enters from the past. Willy asks him a number of questions about their past, including the fate of their father. Ben reveals that their father, a flute maker, took the family across the country before eventually abandoning them. Ben reveals his own tale of success in the diamond mines of Africa, where he became rich by the time he was 21.

Trying to impress Ben, Willy brags about his sons, who have been stealing, and asserts that he is raising them well. Ben reassures him that they are "outstanding, manly chaps!"


A confused, dreamlike effect emerges as the past and present overlap and conversations are hard to follow. The confusion mirrors the confusion in Willy's own mind as he struggles to keep track of reality. He can no longer remember what is real and what is imaginary, what is past and what is present.

The symbol of Distant Lands, in the form of Alaska and Africa, appears, representing Willy's lost chance for escape and freedom. Willy asks Ben the question that has plagued his life: "What's the answer? How did you do it?" Willy reflects on how his own life might have been different if he had followed his brother. Ben repeats his story of success several times in this section of the play, making clear just how much his success eclipses and haunts Willy's.

The flute, a symbol of Willy's father, plays. Willy, who lives in Brooklyn, continues to struggle with his identity, the son of a "wild-hearted man." lnsecurely, he defends himself and the way that he raises his sons, although he recognizes the clear difference between his sons' childhood and his own. It is clear that Willy is not grounded in enough of a sense of self to live his life with confidence, and he suffers from his father's betrayal of the family: "I still feel—kind of temporary about myself." Although he is nearing retirement age, Willy is still a wandering young man at heart.

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