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Death of a Salesman | Study Guide

Arthur Miller

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Death of a Salesman | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


Why is the description of the house important in the opening stage directions of Death of a Salesman?

The stage directions describe a "solid vault of apartment houses around the small, fragile-seeming home." The description of the Loman house as small and fragile is both literal and figurative. In the shadow of the great ambitions of the American Dream that are represented by the large buildings and the surrounding hustle and bustle of New York City, the Lomans are lost and fragile. They are unable to reach the same heights as those around them, and they are unable to accept their failure to achieve these standards. The blue light that showcases the house contrasts sharply with the orange light of the "angular" surrounding buildings, suggesting that household peace is threatened by the sharp, burning expansiveness of the American Dream.

In Act 1 of Death of a Salesman, why does Willy say, "There's more people! That's what's ruining this country!"?

Willy decries the growing population and goes on to say, "The competition is maddening!" This observation reveals Willy's ambition and the ongoing tension Willy feels between his desire to achieve the American Dream and his inability to do so. In part, he blames this inability on the number of people with whom he must compete to get ahead in the workplace. Ironically, Willy misunderstands an important part of the dream. It is competition in the marketplace that fuels the seeming attainability of the American Dream―anyone with skill and a willingness to work can be successful regardless of past circumstances. However, Willy views this competition as the source of his failure to achieve the dream.

In Act 1 of Death of a Salesman, how do Willy's interruptions affect Biff and Happy's first conversation?

Willy's comments in this scene show him bragging about his accomplishments and talking to Biff in the past. The playwright uses these occasional interruptions by Willy to build an overarching sense of confusion and uneasiness regarding Willy's grip on reality. The interruptions also reinforce Happy's recent observations regarding his father and introduce the newly arrived Biff to his father's deterioration. These interruptions also symbolically suggest the plot trajectory of the play. Everything on which the Lomans have built their fragile psyches and senses of social success is about to be interrupted by Willy's mental breakdown. It is as if Willy's mind rebels against the lies of his past and takes a stand in favor of family truth.

In Act 1 of Death of a Salesman, why is Biff's idea to get money to start a ranch significant?

As Biff and Happy talk in their bedroom about their disappointments, Biff shares with Happy an idea about asking his former employer, Bill Oliver, for investment money to start a ranch. The ranch is significant because its potential success would marry two conflicting parts of Biff's personality: his desire to succeed in the eyes of his father and his desire to live and work in the country: "I could do the work I like and still be something," Biff says. The ranch also reflects the theme of Nature versus Man-Made Environment―a theme that suggests a re-envisioning of the American Dream as simplistic natural living rather than complex material living.

In Act 1 of Death of a Salesman, how does Willy reveal his attitude toward women as he advises Biff about women?

Willy advises Biff to be careful with girls, not because Willy respects women, but because girls "always believe what you tell 'em." He explains that in the future, "there'll be plenty of girls for a boy like you." Yet Biff is now single and in his 30s at a time when people generally married in their 20s. This generalization regarding the connection between Biff's good looks and personality and his ability to get lots of girls reveals that Willy does not hold women in high esteem; in fact, he equates the ability to get women with success. Willy's attitude becomes more obvious at the end of this section when an unknown woman laughs in the background, foreshadowing Willy's affair and his betrayal of his family.

What does Biff's theft of a football in Act 1 of Death of a Salesman reveal about Willy's moral code?

Willy's initial disapproval of Biff's behavior quickly turns to admiration for his "initiative." On one level, Willy has a conventional sense of morality—he knows that stealing is wrong. However, he also lacks deep conviction regarding this belief because his desire for his son to get ahead and be someone is greater than his commitment to what is objectively right. Willy believes that he and his sons are exceptions to the rules that govern others and that they are somehow special: "If somebody else took that ball there'd be an uproar," he explains to his boys. This belief in exceptionality lies at the base of Willy's and Biff's lifetimes of self-deception. Note that Biff claims to have "borrowed" the ball, illustrating the early foundation of family lies and self-deception that plague the Lomans.

How does Willy contrast his sons with Bernard in Act 1 of Death of a Salesman?

Willy believes his sons are set up for success because they are outwardly handsome, strong, and admired in contrast to Bernard, who gets good grades but is not well liked. Willy values superficiality above substance. He says, "The man who makes an appearance ... is the man who gets ahead." In this contrast, Willy reveals one of the recurring themes of the play: a good reputation, part of the American Dream, is more valuable than the actual work one does. This belief is undercut later in the play when Bernard achieves success as a lawyer arguing before the Supreme Court while Biff grapples confusedly with his ambitions.

In Act 1 of Death of a Salesman, what is the effect the playwright creates with the stage directions regarding The Woman, "dimly seen, ... dressing"?

By softly illuminating the woman in the background as Willy speaks to his wife, Linda, the playwright highlights Willy's betrayal of his family. Linda speaks of how much Biff and Happy idolize their father, and Willy says that Linda is "the best there is." The image of The Woman emphasizes the falsity of this dialogue. Willy is not an admirable father and husband, but rather a lying cheat. This disparity between reality and illusion is at the heart of the Lomans' dysfunction. They choose to live in lies rather than the truth, and, as a result, the family rots from the inside out.

In Act 1 of Death of a Salesman, what does Willy's harsh treatment of Linda reveal about his own struggles?

Willy chides Linda for mending her stockings even though she has just reiterated her praise that he is "the handsomest man." He also gets angry at her when she agrees with Bernard's concerns about Biff's math grades. Willy's harshness with Linda comes, in part, from his sense of guilt. He knows that he has betrayed Linda even though she has been a faithful and loyal wife who believes in him. His harshness also reveals his inability to face the truth about Biff's failures, even as Linda tries to be realistic about her son. He makes exceptions for his son because "he's got spirit, personality," drawing another contrast between Biff and the alleged "worm," Bernard.

In Act 1 of Death of a Salesman, what is the impact of the first mention of Willy's brother, Ben?

The initial reference to Ben comes from Willy, who muses over why he did not travel with his brother to Alaska long ago. Willy praises Ben's genius and success: the man who "started with the clothes on his back and ended up with diamond mines!" This reference helps to clarify Willy's definition of success—someone who gains wealth based on his own initiative and pursuit of opportunity. While Willy, too, tries to follow this formula, success and Ben, who represents a lost connection to Willy's past, elude him. Willy also refers to Alaska, where Ben first traveled, which introduces the symbol of Distant Lands, or places that symbolize escape and independence.

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