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Death of a Salesman | Study Guide

Arthur Miller

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Professor Kristen Over of Northeastern Illinois University explains the themes in Arthur Miller's play Death of a Salesman.

Death of a Salesman | Themes


Death of a Salesman is probably best known for its theme of the futility and unattainability of the American Dream. Willy Loman builds his life on the premise that with hard work, charisma, and some good luck, he can achieve success and self-fulfillment. Over the course of the play, the dream unravels in a variety of ways.

American Dream and Disillusionment

A key component to the American Dream is the idea that financial prosperity is available to anyone who works for it. Willy learns the lie behind this proposition even as he watches other characters succeed financially: his brother Ben, his neighbor Charley, and Charley's son Bernard.

Throughout the play, Willy Loman's desire to be well liked and well respected drive him as much as his desire for financial success. He believes that the American Dream is a two-part idea: financial success and the recognition of that success by society. Willy mistakenly measures his value through the social respect or recognition of others, and he bestows this belief on his sons.

Illusion versus Reality

For Willy Loman, issues of illusion and reality are complicated, and the structure of the play makes these issues complicated for the audience as well, as Miller weaves flashbacks into the present reality of the play. Much of Willy's life of illusion is fueled by his need to manipulate the truth to his own advantage. For example, he spins the facts about his sales earnings, withholding information about his impoverished financial state from his family for the purpose of appearing successful.

One of the most significant illusions, which haunts Willy and ultimately his whole family, is Willy's fidelity to Linda. Instead of acknowledging the truth and accepting responsibility for his betrayal, Willy makes up a story to tell his son, which does not fool Biff. Willy's conflict with Biff comes to a climax when Biff finally names Willy for what he is—a phony.

In fact, the entire Loman family lives under a cloud of illusion and self-deception. They keep information from each other and never speak openly about the family's dysfunction, continuing to behave as if they are a happy family on the cusp of success. While Linda Loman knows the truth about her husband, his deteriorating mental state and suicide attempts, she continues to live a life devoted to Willy. Her self-deception requires that she turn a blind eye to the full effects of Willy's choices.

In contrast, Charley and his son Bernard, who are both financially successful and appear to be happy people, do not seem to suffer from the same kind of self-deception as the Lomans.


As young men, Willy and his brother, Ben, were abandoned by their father when he left the family, presumably for Alaska. This first betrayal in Willy's life is a betrayal of family values as it is a father's responsibility to stay with his family and help raise his sons. Subsequently, Ben, a surrogate father figure, betrayed Willy when Ben left Willy behind to travel to Africa, where Ben made his fortune and then died. Willy also feels betrayed by Ben in that Willy believes that Ben held some secret to success and wealth that he did not share with Willy. In both cases, Willy's father and his brother choose lives of adventure and wealth in place of building family connections.

These early betrayals lead to Willy's betrayal of his own family in various forms. As a traveling salesman, Willy frequently abandons his sons for road trips, leaving them fatherless for long periods of time. He betrays Linda in his affair with The Woman. In the end, Willy acts out the ultimate betrayal of his family when he abandons them through suicide.

Nature versus Man-Made Environment

Although Willy Loman feels driven to be a success as a salesman, he has another conflicting longing that appears throughout the play. He loves nature and the country life. In fact, traveling allows Willy to feel a sense of freedom and participation in the natural world, although he is just driving through it. When Willy is feeling at his worst, he wishes for fresh air, a garden, and the outdoor life. Yet his sense that real success comes from working in a man-made environment keeps him chained to his life in New York City and a job in which he cannot achieve personal or financial success.

Biff also loves nature and faces the same inner conflict as his father. He loves working on a farm in the West, but he has been so indoctrinated by his father's ideas about the American Dream and business success that he cannot embrace what he clearly enjoys. Unable to settle into a satisfying career, Biff moves back and forth between the freedom of the country and the confinement of the city, for a time subscribing to a dream of owning a sporting goods store with Happy.

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