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Death of a Salesman | Study Guide

Arthur Miller

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Death of a Salesman | Discussion Questions 21 - 30


In Act 2 of Death of a Salesman, what does Howard's response to Willy's request for a raise say about the American Dream?

Howard Wagner is the son of Willy's old boss, Frank Wagner. Willy has worked for the company for his entire life, and according to Willy, he has made some decent sales through the years. Yet Howard is unwilling to give Willy a New York–based job with a salary. Instead of listening to Willy's concerns, Howard fires Willy and admonishes him to get his life together. The lack of loyalty on Howard's part suggests another hollow aspect of the American Dream. The world of business is not designed to reward the hard-working, loyal employee. Rather, it is focused only on the future, as is demonstrated by Howard's distracted obsession with the new recording machine in his office.

In Act 2 of Death of a Salesman, what is the meaning of Willy's metaphor, "You can't eat the orange and throw the peel away ... !"?

Willy makes this statement to his boss, Howard Wagner, when Howard tells Willy that there is no place for him to work at the main office of the company. Willy appeals to his long history with the company, including the fact that he knew Howard as a baby and even helped to choose his name. Yet Howard is unwilling to reward Willy's hard work and loyalty. Willy compares Howard's treatment of him to someone's devouring a piece of fruit and discarding what they don't want. He suggests that Howard used what was valuable in Willy and is now ready to get rid of him because Willy is no longer useful. Willy ignores the reality of the comparison: people do eat oranges and throw away the peels.

In Act 2 of Death of a Salesman, why does Willy say the football game is the greatest day of Biff's life?

Willy looks forward to Biff's football game at Ebbet's Field with great anticipation. The game represents all Willy's hopes for Biff's success, and the day is tied up with Willy's hopes about Biff's future at the University of Virginia. It is ironic that in some ways the day does prove to be the best day of Biff's life because in the days immediately following the game, Biff fails math and soon discovers his father's affair. These events are the turning points in Biff's life and in the life of the family, as their trust in each other and their lives begin to unravel.

In Act 2 of Death of a Salesman, why is Biff's trip to Boston significant?

Biff visits his father in Boston for help in dealing with the teacher who failed Biff in math. At the hotel, Biff discovers that his father is with another woman. Biff, who has always idolized Willy, experiences a disappointment so great that it changes his life forever. Willy's betrayal pulls the foundation of what Biff knew to be true from beneath the young man. Not only does Biff now see his father as an imperfect man, he cannot find a solid ground for his own identity. Instead, he wavers back and forth between the ambition of the American Dream of his father and his desire to live life more authentically in the West. Bernard perceives the difference as soon as Biff returns from the trip, stating that it is obvious that Biff has "given up his life."

In Act 2 of Death of a Salesman, why does Bernard's silence about the Supreme Court shock Willy?

Bernard's silence about his accomplishment reveals a significant difference between Willy and Bernard. Willy's idea of success is wrapped up in the idea of having a good reputation and being well liked; success for him is dependent on social recognition. Willy feels compelled to brag about himself and his sons even though what he typically says isn't even true. On the other hand, Bernard does not have to brag about his accomplishments because "he's gonna do it." In fact, Bernard has more reason to brag than anyone, but his satisfaction comes from action, not recognition. Because Bernard's satisfaction is internal, his achievement of the American Dream retains a personal quality that Willy's definition of the dream lacks.

How is Biff's theft of the fountain pen in Act 2 of Death of a Salesman connected to other thefts in his past?

Biff confesses to his brother that he stole Bill Oliver's fountain pen after Oliver kept him waiting and did not give him the time of day. This is not the first time Biff has stolen—he took a ball in high school and has spent time in jail. In the past, Biff showed no regret for his thievery; he seemed to feel entitled to claim these symbolic possessions: the football and the expensive pen are both symbols of success and the American Dream. Biff looks to theft rather than hard work to achieve the American Dream because his hard work has not resulted in fulfillment of the dream. In this latest theft, however, he is ashamed of his action and worries about how to fix it, a sign that Biff's character is maturing over the course of the play, as he struggles to leave behind illusion and live in truth.

What is the effect of Miller's weaving together of the sons' solicitation of the women and Biff's discovery of Willy's affair in Act 2 of Death of a Salesman?

Happy's solicitation of the prostitutes at the restaurant bleeds into the scene between Willy and his lover in Boston. Both situations convey that the Loman men use women to boost their own egos. Happy measures his success by his female conquests, and Willy was flattered that The Woman chose him for an affair. By weaving these two incidents together, Miller conveys the similarities between Willy and his sons―all are deluded in their definitions of success. Here again, success is based on external and measurable conquests rather than the inner fulfillment that might be discovered through committed, loving relationships with girlfriends or wives.

In Death of a Salesman, in what way is Biff and Willy's final argument the climax?

Although Willy's suicide may be the most dramatic moment of the play, it is not the turning point. By the time Willy drives to his death, he has already changed the course of his—and his family's—life. Instead, the turning point comes when Willy and Biff have their last argument, in which Biff explains that he is going to leave the family for good. Biff is distraught and makes it clear through his tears that he loves his family even as he must break from its habit of living in an illusion to save himself. It is at this moment that Willy makes the decision to kill himself in order to provide financial security for his family.

In Act 2 of Death of a Salesman, why is Willy's realization significant: "Isn't that—isn't that remarkable? Biff—he likes me!"?

In the final scene between Willy and Biff, an exhausted and weeping Biff tells the family that he is going to leave them forever. In this moment, Willy recognizes that his son actually likes him—even loves him. Being liked has been one of the driving forces of Willy's life, so it is unexpected that recognizing Biff's love gives Willy the confidence to execute his plan to kill himself to get the insurance money. Biff's love gives Willy the motivation to love him back by getting Biff what Willy thinks he needs to "be magnificent!" The poignancy comes from the fact that in this last act of Willy's love, he is misguided. Biff does not want Willy's money; he wants to have a relationship with his father that is based on the truth of who each man is.

In the Requiem of Death of a Salesman, why are Linda's last words to Willy, "We're free," ironic?

For many Americans, a defining element of the American Dream is home ownership―the ability to own rather than rent is a symbol of financial success and stability. It is ironic that Willy dies disillusioned with the American Dream just as he achieves one crucial element of the dream. It is also ironic that the only way to fulfill this part of the dream for the Lomans is through death. Again, the audience witnesses the deadly consequences of a one-size-fits-all definition of the American Dream. Again and again, Miller seems to suggest that the fallibility of the American Dream lies not in the dreaming but in the misunderstanding that the dream must be one thing to all people.

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