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Death of a Salesman | Study Guide

Arthur Miller

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Death of a Salesman | Discussion Questions 31 - 40


A requiem is a funeral mass in honor of the dead. Why does Arthur Miller use this word as the title of the final scene of Death of a Salesman?

The title of the final scene provides a contrast between the illusion of what Willy Loman hopes his salesman's death will be and the reality of what it is. Unlike the service of Dave Singleman, which was filled with work colleagues who came to honor the man and his work, Willy's service is attended by only his family and two neighbors, who, rather than honor him, wonder at the choices of his life and of his death. Linda wonders repeatedly, "Where are all the people he knew?" Miller may be suggesting that a false life leads to an empty or dishonorable death.

Although Linda Loman in Death of a Salesman appears at times more truthful than her family, in what ways is she also the victim of her own self-deception?

Linda is a loyal and faithful wife and mother. She understands Willy's weaknesses and accepts him, even urging her sons to show him more kindness. However, Linda is powerless to address the disillusionment of her family. She does nothing to prevent Willy's suicide by hiding the pipe when he is not home. And she risks Willy's suicide by leaving the pipe in place when he is home, seeming to prefer his death to his humiliation by the truth. She self-deceptively pretends that life will improve, displaying the same sort of false optimism that Willy and Happy display.

In Death of a Salesman, how are the natural and man-made worlds in conflict?

Willy clings to the hopes represented by the American Dream—a life of prosperity and recognition tied up with technological progress and the growth of the American city. At the same time, he longs for the life of the natural world, where he can plant a garden and help things flourish. He remembers fondly his own childhood spent traveling throughout the country. As the weight of his dreams crushes him, Willy turns more and more to thoughts of a garden, planting seeds, a symbol of that longing for a natural life, in the backyard in Act 2, Scene 5 of the play.

In Death of a Saleman, what do silk stockings, an essential part of a woman's wardrobe in the 1940s, symbolize?

In Act 1, Scene 4, Willy talks to The Woman with whom he is having an affair in Boston. She flirtatiously thanks him for the stockings he gives her, a luxurious gift. Almost immediately, the scene changes to Linda Loman mending her stockings, a sign of her thrift in light of the family's precarious financial situation. When Biff discovers the affair, he exclaims, "You―you gave her Mama's stockings!" Later in the play, Willy gets angry at Linda for mending her stockings in front of him. The stockings, an intimate and rare item during the Depression and World War II, are a representation of Willy's betrayal of Linda and the family. In addition, the stockings transform into a symbol of Willy's failure. He fails Linda by not being faithful and by lying to her for years about his job situation and finances. He fails Biff when the real Willy proves to be a man very different from the one Biff has grown up admiring. The fact that the stockings appear frequently emphasizes the fact that signs of Willy's failure crop up everywhere he looks, constantly badgering his fragile psyche with evidence of his shortcomings. Such seemingly innocent reminders of failure scattered throughout the setting help to account for Willy's deteriorating mental state and his eventual suicide.

What are several examples of betrayal and their significance in Death of a Salesman?

Betrayal seems to run in the Loman family; in many ways, Willy carries on a family tradition. When Willy is still quite young, his father betrays the family by abandoning it. Willy never sees his father again, despite his desire to find him when he is older. Willy's brother, Ben, also seems to value wealth over family when he abandons the family and goes to Africa to seek his individual fortune. Willy grows up to betray his wife and his sons by being unfaithful when he is traveling. Willy also betrays himself through self-delusion, blind faith in an American Dream he does not really value, and suicide. Happy is a betrayer, as well. He sleeps with women indiscriminately, including women who are engaged to his friends, and he clings foolishly to his father's false dream at the funeral.

What is the significance of music, the flute in particular, throughout Death of a Salesman?

The play begins and ends with music, and other melodies are interwoven throughout, often in scenes where Willy confuses the past and the present. Willy's father was a flute maker and traveling salesman. The flute represents this lost connection to Willy's father and to the natural world he represents. It is Willy's transformation of the natural life of his father's brand of salesmanship into a materialistic brand of salesmanship that dooms his character. Because Death of a Salesman is meant to be performed on a stage, the music also serves as an emotional connection point for the audience that triggers sadness, longing, hope, or despair as well as provides clues that the past is becoming the present, or vice versa.

How are the Loman brothers, Happy and Biff, similar and different in Death of a Salesman?

The two Loman brothers share a number of qualities, including a longing for success. Both have grown up in the shadow of their father's unfulfillable dreams in a home where the truth is never told. Yet the boys are quite different, as well. Happy seems "happy" to plug along in his own way, pretending that things are better than they are, enjoying shallow relationships with women, and in the end, refusing to acknowledge the truth about himself or his father. In the Requiem, Happy holds tight to his father's dream and pledges to live it out. Biff, on the other hand, faces a more intense inner struggle. He longs to make meaning out of his life. At times, he believes the best way to make this meaning is to succeed in business in the city. However, at other times, he yearns to be outside, out West, working where he does not have to address the pressures of his father's brand of ambition.

In what ways is Biff Loman the true hero of Death of a Salesman?

Although the play seems to revolve primarily around the events of Willy Loman's life, it is Biff Loman who comes to an authentic realization. In so doing, Biff demonstrates the potential for change, regarding his own frailty, his inability to reach his father's dreams, and his distaste for faking it in New York City. In Act 2, Scene 5, Biff decides he will leave the family for good in order to avoid causing further suffering and conflict. He is the one who is finally able to accept himself: "I'm just what I am, that's all," he says in one of his final statements to his father. In the Requiem, at his father's graveside, he reasserts what he has learned to his brother: "I know who I am, kid," he says, even as Happy is unable to recognize the futility of Willy's American Dream.

How does Arthur Miller use the suitcase and the traveling case as symbols in Death of a Salesman?

The suitcase and traveling case represent Willy's literal travels as a salesman as well as his leaving of his family and absence from home. The suitcase holds his personal belongings, and the traveling case holds his wares. On another level, however, the suitcase and traveling case represent Willy's ongoing pursuit of an unachievable American Dream. He is always on the go, always on the chase, never content to enjoy his home, his family, or a garden, for that matter. Ultimately, Willy is never relaxed, never at home, never at peace. He's always looking for the next opportunity—and he has to have his cases with him in order to follow where elusive opportunity leads.

What does Charley's presence in Death of a Salesman reveal about Willy?

Charley is Willy's only friend, which Willy acknowledges. Charley continually lends Willy money. Yet when Charley makes Willy an offer of employment, Willy declines it. This refusal reveals something about Willy's definition of success and his deep sense of pride. To Willy, success is competitive; it means being better at something than someone else. Willy wants to be the best-known and most-liked salesman. Charley's success is a painful reminder to Willy of his own failure. His sense of pride keeps him from accepting an offer that would make his life easier because this acceptance would mean an admission of defeat in becoming a successful, self-made man like his father or his brother, Ben.

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