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Death of a Salesman | Study Guide

Arthur Miller

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Death of a Salesman | Discussion Questions 11 - 20


In Act 1 of Death of a Salesman, what is the effect of Willy talking to Ben in front of Charley?

The playwright introduces confusion into the scene as Willy speaks to Ben, who enters the scene but remains unseen by Charley. This confusion conveys Willy's puzzlement and loss of perspective when he mistakes Charley for Ben as he tries to reconcile the lost opportunities for success and wealth that Ben represents. The audience also learns that news of Ben's death has recently reached Willy, putting to an end any hopes Willy might have had of reconnecting with his family or of learning Ben's secret to success. Willy's grip on reality slips further from his grasp as the past slips further from reality.

In Act 1 of Death of a Salesman, what is the significance of the geographical locations cited: Alaska, Nebraska, South Dakota, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, and "all the Western states"?

Although the play is set in New York City, many distant and rural locations are referenced by the characters throughout the play. These distant lands symbolically represent a contrast to the confinement of the city and Willy's version of the American Dream. In Scene 5, these lands specifically represent Willy's childhood and his father, who as a traveling salesman abandoned the family long ago, as well as Willy's lost connection to his brother, Ben. As each location is named, the audience gains a clearer understanding of Willy's deep longing to make sense of the betrayals of his past and his life out West even as he betrays his own family and feels compelled to live out his own life in the city.

Why does Willy try to reconcile his father's and brother's ways of life with his own in Act 1 of Death of a Salesman?

Willy is torn between two versions of the American Dream: one of corporate success and one of self-reliance. Willy wants his sons to be well liked because he views reputation as the key to corporate success in modern America. Recall that successful businessman Dave Singleman's funeral was well attended. Yet in admiring this kind of success, Willy denies his natural impulse to be a self-reliant man of nature; recall his preoccupation with planting seeds. While he wants the material corporate success of the big city for himself and his sons, he also wants his sons to be the kind of men that his father and brother Ben would be proud of (and thus might not abandon)—men free to wrestle with the natural environment and find success by conquering distant lands. This disparity creates a sense of conflict within Willy as he asserts that he is raising his sons to be like his father and brother, "rugged, well liked, all-round." Yet he acknowledges weakly, "It's Brooklyn, I know, but we hunt too." Willy does not seem able to reconcile these two versions of the American Dream in himself or in his sons. The struggle suggests the ongoing difficulty Americans have with defining the dream, a necessary aspect of its pursuit, as it is difficult to attain something undefinable.

In Act 1 of Death of a Salesman, why is Biff's observation regarding Linda's hair important: "Your hair got so gray"?

Biff's observation regarding his mother's gray hair is significant for several reasons. First, Biff pays attention to his mother, something he hasn't really done in a long time: there have been three-month stretches in which Linda has not even had an address for Biff. Second, when he comments on his mother's hair, she tells him that it has been gray for a long time, but she has stopped dyeing it. Linda is aging, and, in this case, she has stopped trying to deny this fact. She is accepting reality. Biff, preferring the illusion to the reality, says to her, "Dye it again, will ya? I don't want my pal looking old." Here, he reiterates several of the themes of the play: the overvaluing of appearances and the preference for illusion over reality.

In Act 1 of Death of a Salesman, why is Linda and Biff's exchange over Willy's disrespect ironic?

Biff tells his mother that Willy "always wiped the floor with you," emphasizing Willy's disrespect of Linda. Biff harshly judges his father for this disrespect and defends his mother. Yet when Linda defends Willy, Biff turns on her angrily and says, "What the hell do you know about it?" In his own anger and frustration, Biff treats his mother with the same disrespect he has accused his father of showing toward her. This revelation illustrates the extent to which Biff has become a version of his father even though he struggles against it. As much as Biff does not want to become his father, there are elements of him that mirror his father.

In Act 1 of Death of a Salesman, why does Linda take away but then restore the rubber pipe?

Linda is torn between her desire to save Willy and her desire to protect him from the humiliation he will feel if his suicide plot is discovered. She knows that he might harm himself, and yet she cannot "insult him that way." On some level, Linda prefers Willy's death to giving up the illusion Willy has built of himself. It is absurd that Linda removes the pipe when Willy is away, and cannot use it anyway, but puts it back when Willy is home and potentially able to use it. In this way, Linda maintains her own brand of self-deception because she is unable to confront Willy with the truth and perhaps find a way to really help him.

In Act 1 of Death of a Salesman, why does Willy say to Biff, "Call out the name Willy Loman and see what happens!" during an argument?

Willy's referral to his reputation emphasizes his belief that one important element of the American Dream is a good reputation. However, there is a hollowness to such statements. Although Willy is desperate to be liked and to have the respect of his sons, earlier in the act, he admits, "They just pass me by. I'm not noticed." Later in the play, the hollowness of such statements is painfully clear when the name Willy Loman is called out in a death notice and no one responds but his family and two friends. This salesman is a casualty of the American Dream he so fervently serves.

What does Happy mean in Death of a Salesman when he says that a family business could make them a family again with the "old honor, and comradeship"?

Happy recognizes the rift in the family and refers back to a better time in their family life, when the boys were younger. However, this happier time Happy recalls has already proven to be an illusion. Even then, Willy was betraying his family and lying about his success, though Happy is unaware of this. The idea illustrates Happy's belief that the achievement of the American Dream―a successful family business―will make his family whole again. However, the falsity of Happy's memory undercuts the attainability of the American Dream. He is ignorant of the fact that the honor and comradeship in their lives fell apart when Willy betrayed the family by having an extramarital affair.

What is the mood at the beginning of Act 2 of Death of a Salesman?

After repeated arguments the night before, the morning dawns with a mood of optimism. The opening music is "gay and bright." Willy's first statement is one of appreciation toward Linda for the food, and he even smiles. Willy mentions that he wants to buy some seeds on his way home and proposes that they will someday be able to get a place out in the country where they can have a garden and some chickens. Willy associates one kind of happiness with the natural environment even though he has an unrelenting desire to make it big in the city. This conflict mirrors the difficulty of defining one American Dream that is true for all Americans. One of Willy's flaws may be that he never understands the necessity of a personal definition of this dream.

What is the significance of Willy's frustration regarding the car and refrigerator payments in Act 2 of Death of a Salesman?

Willy's frustration and anger regarding the ongoing costs of the car and the refrigerator are ironic because these items are the so-called rewards of his American Dream. Material success and possessions are part of the consumerism that Willy is caught up in, yet the possessions that he has acquired do not satisfy him. In fact, they create an ongoing cycle of frustration because they require repairs or replacement over time, suggesting that the dream must be achieved over and over again; there is no final fulfillment. This inability to finally attain the American Dream reinforces its quality of unattainability. Perhaps the dream is not real because it can never really be attained; the dream exists only in the striving to attain it.

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