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Death of a Salesman | Study Guide

Arthur Miller

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Death of a Salesman | Discussion Questions 41 - 50


How does Death of a Salesman serve as Arthur Miller's criticism of post–World War II America?

Many critics argue that Miller's depiction of Willy's failure is a direct criticism of the unrealistic hopes and aspirations of people in the years that came after World War II. When World War II ended, the efficiencies of the war machine fueled new technology and advances in the American way of life. Soldiers came home, and the "baby boom" began. After the devastation of war, hopes and expectations were high. In this context, Miller sets his play. Yet instead of enjoying the progress represented in new cars and washing machines, the Lomans face the expense of repairs and financial instability as Willy and then his sons try to "make it" in the rat race.

In what ways is Willy Loman a tragic hero with a fatal flaw in Death of a Salesman?

Willy Loman may be considered a tragic hero or an antihero because he brings about his own downfall as a result of an internal flaw. Willy does not crash his car and meet his fate because of something external: he is not hit by another driver or struck by a bolt of lightning. Instead, Willy's own drive to achieve external success and recognition and his inability to face the truth about himself and his situation lead to his final decision to take his own life. Willy is a victim of his own inner illusions as they become crowded by exterior reality, just as his fragile house is crowded by the towering apartment buildings.

In Death of a Salesman, why does Miller choose not to reveal what Willy sells?

In withholding the details of Willy's work, Miller makes Willy a type of everyman character―a character who allows audience members to substitute themselves in the character's role because there is nothing truly defining or special about the character. The everyman character is ordinary. Willy's character remains static in that he never achieves self-realization, but his omnipresence within the play forces the audience's attention on his role within the plot and his effect on other characters. Willy's fate is connected to the American Dream, success, and ambition rather than to the particulars of a given industry. Hence, the character and the themes become universal.

What is Willy Loman's dream in Death of a Salesman, and why does he fail to achieve it?

Willy's dream is to be a successful salesman. He defines this success as having two parts. First, he will be financially successful, able to provide his family with all the amenities of the modern world. Second, he will be well known and well liked. He will be able to walk into any location and be recognized and admired. Willy believes that the key to achieving this success is to make connections in his travels. However, Willy fails to achieve this version of the American Dream because he betrays his true nature in his pursuit of it. He is a man who loves nature and who enjoys working with his hands outdoors. In denying this part of himself in pursuit of a dream defined by society, Willy is destroyed, both mentally and physically.

In what ways does Arthur Miller foreshadow Willy Loman's death in Death of a Salesman?

In addition to the title, Miller sets the stage for Willy's death in Act 1 when Linda Loman appeals to her sons to be kinder and more interested in their father. She explains that Willy is trying to kill himself by smashing his car. She also tells the boys that she has found a small piece of rubber pipe in the basement that Willy may have used to try to asphyxiate himself. Miller continues the foreshadowing when Charley gives Willy money and tells him to pay his insurance. Willy responds that "you end up worth more dead than alive." Finally, Willy discusses the "twenty-thousand-dollar proposition" with his brother, Ben, who reminds him not to make a fool of himself but doesn't dismiss the idea altogether because that much money is "something one can feel with the hand, it is there." Taken together, these details pave the way to Willy's eventual suicide.

In Death of a Salesman, what role does Ben play in Willy's life?

Ben goes to Africa as a young man and makes it rich in the diamond mines. He appears throughout the play and serves as a painful reminder to Willy of the success Willy is unable to achieve. He also represents Willy's lost sense of connection with his past, including his father who abandoned the family when Willy was young. At the end of the play, Ben discusses with Willy the final plan to commit suicide for the insurance money, and Willy leaves with Ben to embark on this final journey to the unknown, a decision that rectifies the regret mentioned several times earlier, when Willy thinks he should have joined Ben in Alaska or Africa.

How does Happy treat women throughout Death of a Salesman, and why?

In Act 1, even before the audience meets Happy for the first time, the stage directions state that "sexuality is like a visible color on him." Within the brothers' first conversation, it is clear that Happy does not respect women. Instead, he uses them to meet a deep need that he cannot fill in other ways. On one level, he knows that his relationships with women are often wrong or meaningless, and yet he continues to conduct relationships on this shallow level. He admits to sleeping with the fiancée of the vice president of the store. In the scene at Frank's Chop House, he attracts the attention of two prostitutes. Happy consumes women as a measure of his success in achieving the American Dream.

How is Willy's death similar to and different from the death of Dave Singleman in Death of a Salesman?

The traveling salesman Dave Singleman is one inspiration for Willy's career as a salesman. Singleman, as a mentor, is also a transformation of Willy's father―a salesman who tames the concrete jungle rather than a salesman who enjoys the fruits of the natural American landscape. Singleman comes to represent in his life and in his death all of Willy's misguided aspirations. As Willy puts it, "he died the death of a salesman, in his green velvet slippers," on a train while on a sales trip. However, because Singleman is presented only through Willy's viewpoint, the audience is never sure of the accuracy of Willy's report. Nonetheless, Willy's death is quite the opposite, revealing the emptiness of the American Dream he embraced throughout his life. In the end, Willy dies alone, without wealth, and without anyone to praise his accomplishments.

At the funeral, Biff says, Willy "had the wrong dreams ... never knew who he was." Does Willy, as he fears, fail as Biff and Happy's father?

Willy's success as a father is mixed. On the one hand, Willy condemns Happy to a life much like his own. Happy clings foolishly to his father's dream: "It's the only dream you can have―to come out number-one man." On the other hand, Willy's life serves as an negative example for Biff―an example of how not to live one's life. At the funeral, Biff achieves a degree of success in that he asserts his intention to live truthfully and authentically, according to his own dream, while at the same time he chooses not to condemn or blame his father for his shortcomings. By stating that Willy "had the wrong dreams ... never knew who he was," Biff gives his father a final gift, and a final recognition of his flawed humanity, by stating the simple, honest truth of the man.

How do Biff's goals at the beginning of the play compare or contrast with the reality of his situation at the end of the play?

At the beginning of the play, Biff wants to be successful in his father's eyes, while at the same time, he wants to succeed on his own terms on a ranch in the West. This conflict between the traditional American Dream of life and materialism in the city versus the nontraditional American Dream of a simple life lived in nature torments Biff and makes repairing his relationship with his father a challenge. In the end, Biff gets some relief and some clarity. While the relationship between Biff and Willy is not necessarily repaired, the two achieve one important moment of connection when Biff cries during their final fight and Willy is moved by Biff's love for him. When Biff asserts his decision to follow his own version of the American Dream rather than his father's version, he is cheated of his father's final approval by death. Yet Biff may find a version of this approval in living the life his father desired but did not dare to live.

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