Death of a Salesman

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Ever since it was first performed in 1949, Death of a Salesman has been recognized as a milestone of the American theater. In the person of Willy Loman, the aging, failing salesman who makes his living riding on a smile and a shoeshine, Arthur Miller redefined the tragic hero as a man whose dreams are at once insupportably vast and dangerously insubstantial. He has given us a figure whose name has become a symbol for a kind of majestic grandiosity--and a play that compresses epic extremems of humor and anguish, promise and loss, between the four walls of an American living room. "By common consent, this is one of the finest dramas in the whole range of the American theater." --Brooks Atkinson, The New York Times "So simple, central, and terrible that the run of playwrights would neither care nor dare to attempt it." -- Time
Curriculet Details
31 Questions
53 Annotations
3 Quizzes

This free digital curriculum for high school students contains interactive videos exploring emerging theme and motif, as well as annotations describing the elements of a tragic hero, the American Dream, and the use of flashbacks throughout the drama. Students will explore the themes of betrayal, deception, and denial. The Common Core aligned questions, answers and quizzes in this free online unit will increase student engagement in the book while supporting reading comprehension.

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One of the main themes in Death of a Salesman is the American Dream. This is the impetus that propels Willy Loman to continue to work; he wants to be a success and become something to provide for his family, not just economically, but to build a dream for his sons to chase as well. 
Miller's Willy Loman is inspired by his Uncle Newman who was a salesman and chased the American dream. Miller notes that it was his uncle's ability to fill his house with hope that is the true inspiration for Loman's character.  
Miller captures the essence of a traveling salesman beautifully in this line. No one ever considers that a salesman, like an actor or artist, is always selling themselves first. If you don't trust your salesman, then you aren't buying the product. This can result in a ego boost or a fall from grace. Read more information about the origins and evolution of the traveling salesman in the link below.  (This annotation contains a link)
The play is set over the course of twenty four hours, but to achieve a greater sense of time lapse, Miller uses flashbacks from Loman's life that help the reader understand his attempts and failures at success both professionally and personally. 
To Miller, "the past is holy." This is because in the present we are forced to acknowledge and accept the past; accept our mistakes and take responsibility for our present. This can be very difficult for some people, and many people tend to rewrite the past in order to help them accept times when they faltered or to justify behaviors or misdeeds. 
Throughout the play the theme of betrayal is portrayed. Initially, it is presented literally: Willy's father abandons he and his brother and then Willy's brother Ben abandon's Willy. Willy inherits this trait from his father and betrays his sons by having an extramarital affair. The final betrayal is figurative: Willy's betrayal of his dreams. He is never able to obtain his dreams, no matter how arduously he chases them. It is as if Willy betrays himself.  
Understanding the structure of the play is key to understanding the overall themes, motifs, and symbols conveyed in the drama. Though the play takes place over a twenty four hour period, Loman's day is filled with memories of various points in his life. The play opens with a flashback to Willy's childhood. When seeing the stage version it is also important to note the use of music denote shifts in time.  
In terms of structure, the setting is important in the play because it is a metaphor for the effects that have taken place in Willy's life. The passage of time has not been kind to Willy and this is reflected in the dying vegetation as well the austere decor of his home.  
When viewed on stage, the drama is propelled by the emotions of the characters not necessarily their physical movements. As a result, some productions prefer to keep all the actors on stage throughout the performance and maintain a "kinetic energy." 
Throughout the play Miller juxtaposes the past and the present to create an environment where "hope and disappointment coexist." This results in many paradoxical emotional moments for the characters.  
The author of the introduction contends Willy Loman is "plainly flawed, but what flaw is more subtle than he supposes." In order to be a tragic hero, one must have a characteristic, a flaw, that will ultimately cause his demise. For Oedipus, it was his pride and hubris. What is Willy Loman's tragic flaw? 
Linda is the antithesis and a foil of Willy Loman. She is not the antagonist because she is not Willy's opposition, but she is strong when Willy is weak, she is firmly based in reality when Willy is lost in fantasy, and she is able to accept truths about herself, her sons, and her husband and move forward whereas Willy cannot.  
According to Miller, there are several interpretations of the text. Most interpretations identify basic conflicts at the crux of the drama: man versus society (Willy versus societal changes), man versus himself (Willy versus himself, his dreams), and man versus man (Willy versus his son Biff). 
The author of the introduction contends that though a major theme in the play is the American Dream, the drama is not an attack on the American Dream. Rather, Willy's struggle with the American Dream forces the reader to explore and examine the things American's value. In this regard, Miller is able to explore capitalism, ambition, charity, and diligence. 


The setting and stage direction denote a shift in time and space. When the characters are in the present, they enter through the appropriate entrances, and when they are acting in a flashback or dream sequence, "boundaries are broken" and characters enter scenes at will. Music is also an indicator of a flashback or shift in time.  
When Linda suggests that Wiily ask to be transferred to the New York sales area, Willy contends that he is the "New England man. I'm vital in New England." When she pushes further, he shifts blame to his boss, Howard who "don't appreciate" Willy. Willy does not acknowledge that he isn't the New York salesman because he isn't a great seller. This demonstrates Willy's  
When Willy is angry he calls his son Biff a "lazy bum," but once calmer he states, "There's one thing about Biff - he's not lazy." Throughout the play Willy contradicts himself. This helps to convey the internal struggles and external conflicts Willy is contending with. Willy's contradictions help the reader to understand Willy's pride as a source of his denial to help him continue to pursue his dreams. As you read note additional examples of his contradictions and how they exemplify his pride and support his denials.  
The dialogue between Biff and Happy reveals  
Biff and Happy inherited Willy's tendency to reminisce about the past and to use the past to gauge their present happiness. All three men also have an inclination to rewrite their collective history and only remember the details they wish to remember. This denial of reality is an impediment to all of the men.  
Both Biff and Happy are discontent because they dream of something better. This conveys the emerging theme of the American Dream. For the Loman men, the American Dream is based in superficial attributes: affability, tangible items, and the perception of success. In literature, the "American Dream" is a common dream and its pursuit can lead to a character's downfall. View the video below to help you understand emerging theme.  (This annotation contains a video)
Based on the highlighted passage, Happy can be best characterized as  
In this drama, the stage direction is as important as the dialogue because the stage direction indicates a flashback in the plot. In Death of a Salesman, flashbacks are indicated by the stage direction and through the use of music. For more information on flashback, view the video below.  (This annotation contains a video)
Rather than admonishing Biff for stealing the ball, Willy justifies his crime by implying that Biff's talent excuses him from blame. It is this type of reasoning and logic that will be problematic for Willy's sons in the future. Based on this exchange, identify two qualities that Willy values and instills in his sons? Use textual evidence to support your response. 
Charley is Willy's neighbor and his foil. A foil is a device used by writers to draw attention to a character's flaws, strengths or weaknesses by contrasting him to another character. The two characters are not antagonists because they are not necessarily opposing forces, but they are opposites in many ways. How are Charley and Willy contrasted? 
Bernard's character represents everything that Biff is not: Bernard is smart and realistic. This angers and annoys Willy to some degree, because he does not value things like Bernard's intelligence or logic. This is why Willy is so angered at Bernard for saying, "Just because [Biff] printed University of Virginia on his sneakers doesn't mean they've got to graduate him, Uncle Willy!" 
Willy's dialogue with Linda varies greatly from the conversation he has with his sons. When speaking to his wife Willy has lost some of his bravado, and there is frankness between them. What two details about Willy's life can you infer about his dialogue with Linda?  
Willy has very little self-confidence. This contradicts how he presents himself to his sons. Willy's real problem is not his lack of self-confidence, but his belief that he can overcome the obstacles he faces by being better looking. Willy's value of the aesthetic versus the intelligence and logic is an example of the Extrinsic versus Intrinsic values emerging theme in the text. 
The highlighted portion of dialogue serves as a _____________ between Willy's conversation with Linda and his flashback to his affair with another woman.  
The exchange between Willy, Bernard, and Linda reveals that there is a problem with Biff. He steals, lies, and cheats. He is disrespectful to women. His teacher believes he is "stuck up." What is the cause for Biff's poor values, morals, and behavior?  
Quiz #1 
Charley's job offer to Willy indicates that  
Willy can't comprehend why Biff is going back to Texas and not settling down, finding a steady job, and starting a family or chasing the "American Dream" like Willy has. In a way, this is betrayal to Willy. Biff's pursuit of different choices than Willy made is as if Biff doesn't value the choices and the life Willy has made.  
Willy's tone as he speaks of his brother is a mixture of sadness and ______________.  
The dialogue between Willy, Charley, and Ben is difficult to read because it is actually two separate conversations. First, is the conversation between Willy and Charley over a card game and the second, is with Willy and Ben about family life and job opportunities. 
The dialogue with Ben provides the reader with exposition. Though his brother and his father both left when Willy was young, Willy believes both men went away to become successful and has spent his entire life trying to live up to his perception of their successes. In reality, both men abandoned him; this is a form of betrayal and develops this theme. The video clip below is of this flashback.  (This annotation contains a video)
When Ben fights Biff, he wins because he trips Biff. He then advises Biff to "Never fight fair with a stranger, boy." What lesson does this convey to Biff?  
The exchanges between Willy and his brother Ben are different than Willy's flashbacks to other points in his life because there is no one to verify the dialogues took place. As a reader, you need to be suspect of the validity of the exchange and question whether or not they are imagined entirely. In this case, Linda's acknowledgement that the watch fob existed is evidence that Ben did visit once.  
Linda is the constancy to Biff's unpredictable nature. This is illustrated when she says, "You've got to get it into your head now that one day you'll knock on this door and there'll be strange people here." The dynamic between Linda and Biff is an example of which literary device? 
Linda compares the "ungrateful bastards" who took away Willy's salary and put him back on straight commission to his sons. According to Linda, both his bosses and Willy's sons were happy to associate with him as long as he was making money. But the similarity does not stop there: both his bosses and his sons don't understand what it is like when you aren't known anymore. Willy has become antiquated by sheer age; none of his contacts that once made him a success are alive or working anymore.  
One could claim that Linda is using guilt as a means of keeping the boys at home and trying to save their father. Which excerpt from the text supports that claim?   
Biff tells Willy that he is going to see Bill Oliver in the morning to see if he can secure a loan for a new business venture. The promise of a new start for Biff fills Willy with hope and happiness because Willy believes that Biff is finally settling down and chasing the American Dream. This develops the theme of the American Dream.  
Willy's advice to Biff is ironic because  
The highlighted passage is another example of Willy's contradictions that are rooted in pride and denial. Willy's pride prevents him from accepting the reality of the situation he or his sons are in. He does not acknowledge failure or lies or deception. To do so will be admitting failure. This flaw can be considered Willy's tragic flaw because it will lead to his downfall.  
There is a song by Bruce Springsteen titled "Glory Days." It is about the best days of a person's life and how people tend to hold onto those memories and appreciate them much more when they are looking back nostalgically. The video below is a rendition of the song performed on the graduation episode of Glee.  (This annotation contains a video)


Linda describes Biff in his suit as "handsome" and remarks that "he could be a - anything in that suit!" This observation illustrates the theme of  
Willy's musings about the future illustrate the American Dream theme. Willy believes that he will retire, his sons will settle down and have families, and that he and his wife are going to settle out in the country. The seeds he wishes to plant symbolize an element of this dream; they are the fruits of his labor. Conversely, Willy's laments are the curse of the American dream. He works so he can own a home and a car, but he must continue to work because he can't afford to maintain the dream.  
Willy is in his mid-sixties, he lost his salary at his sales job, he is just making ends meet with his bills, and he is going to ask his boss to take him off the road, give him a stationary position, and advance him a salary. He is overly confident for a man in his situation. He believes he will succeed because of his  
Once again Willy comments to Linda about the vegetable garden and that maybe "beets would grow out there." Linda laughs and reminds him that he has "tried so many times." This exchange illustrates the theme of the American Dream because Willy is constantly trying to cultivate something in his backyard just as he is trying to cultivate something out of his life. In both instances, his failure is more prominent than his success.  
The author uses ______________ to convey the contrast of Willy and Howard's lives.  
One of Willy's dreams was to go to Alaska and strike it rich. The fantasy of going to Alaska, like the idea of going to Africa is a motif in the play. Which themes does the Alaskan and African motifs illustrate? (This annotation contains a video)
As Willy speaks to Howard, he reflects on the changes he witnessed over the course of his career acknowledging that "today, it's all cut and dried, and there's no chance for bringing friendship to bear- or personality." Finally he declares, "They don't know me anymore." This statement conveys Willy's conflict with  
What word does Howard use repeatedly that indicates his lack of respect of for Willy?  
Quiz #2 
The stage direction indicates music playing - "Ben's music." This indicates to the reader the next scene is a flashback / a dream / a fantasy / All of the answers are correct. 
Howard's reluctance and refusal to work with Willy is a form of betrayal. Below is a clip of this scene from starring Brian Dennehy as Willy Loman. He won the Tony Award for his performance in Death of a Salesman. (This annotation contains a video)
Even though he has nothing to offer the world, Willy believes that Biff will be a success because of who he knows and "on the basis of being liked." This reiterates the theme of extrinsic value.  
The mood of the flashback changes from excited to pitiful as a result of Charley's practicality. Which statement represents Charley's realistic outlook? 
Based on the dialogue between Willy and Bernard, you can infer that Bernard is a successful attorney with a wife and family. When you think back to Act I and Willy's flashbacks, how has the dynamic between Biff and Bernard changed? 
Who does Willy hold accountable for Biff's failure of his math class during his senior year?  
Bernard is confused why Biff never attended summer school and believes that it was a turning point for Biff. Willy agrees that it was the point where Biff lost his motivation. Based on Bernard's memory, what event is really the cause for Biff's failure to succeed? 
Willy is surprised that Bernard doesn't boast about his successes. Charley explains that "he don't have to - he's gonna do it." This is in direct contrast to Willy and his sons who boast, embellish, and blatantly lie about their attempts to succeed and achieve the "American Dream." 
Willy refuses the job offer from Charley and denies that he was fired. It is Willy's denial and refusal to accept the truth about his life (and by extension his sons' lives) that will lead to his downfall. In this way he is like a tragic hero. View the slideshare below for a complete definition of a tragic hero. A prime example of a tragic hero is Oedipus from Oedipus the King. How are Willy Loman and Oedipus similar? Did they both suffer from hubris? Denial?  (This annotation has embedded rich content)
As Happy converses with Stanley the waiter, which character does he resemble? 
Happy is meeting Biff and Willy at the restaurant for a celebratory meal. As Biff enters, it is evident that something is amiss. Rather than ceasing his attempt to pick up the woman at the next table, Happy continues his lascivious behavior and ignores his brother's cues that something is wrong.  
What does Biff realize about his past when he attempts to meet with Bill Oliver? 
Happy's relies on lies in order to keep the fantasy of their lives alive. This tendency exemplifies the theme of the American dream because all three men will do anything in their power to create the dream, even if they never succeed and simply pretend to succeed they are satisfied. Unfortunately, this is not what the American dream is; in fact, it is the opposite of the American dream. Happy's actions illustrate the theme of betrayal and deception. 
In the highlighted passage, what is Willy asking Biff to do? What theme is conveyed through this request? 
In this exchange between Willy and Biff, Biff does not even need to speak because Willy is supplying all the details of the "meeting" Biff had with Bill Oliver. Remember that Willy doesn't want to hear or know the truth if it harms the vision or expectation he imagines.  
The dialogue in this scene is a mix of a flashback and present day. The author does this in order to create a ____________ mood at the dinner table.  
Willy feels betrayed by Biff because Biff is not following Willy's advice and his path. Biff is not trying to succeed in the ways his father measured success: find steady work, be well-liked, get married, own a home... 
Willy Loman is a classic tragic hero because though he is not nobility in the classic sense, his son's consider him "a fine, troubled prince. A hard-working, unappreciated prince."  
Biff leaves visibly upset, and Happy insists that the girls come with him and find Biff. This is example of Happy's  
Young Biff exemplifies all of the negative qualities about Willy. The qualities of a lack of pragmatic planning and preparation for the future, an emphasis on the extrinsic, and a denial of responsibility will ultimately ruin his career because he doesn't value the traits that would help him to succeed.  
Why does Biff tell Willy that his math teacher "wouldn't listen to [Willy]"?  
Linda is enraged with her sons. They treated their father horribly and she states, "There's no stranger you'd do that to." Biff and Happy are so self-involved that they do not realize or care about the impact of their actions on their father.  
As Willy attempts to plant the garden in the dark, he is having a conversation with his brother Ben, but Ben is not there. To the outside world, Willy looks insane. But as you read the dialogue, you realize that Willy is plagued by guilt, loneliness, and denial. He feels guilty for not providing a better life for his wife and betraying her trust, his failures in life alienate him from most successful people, and his musings about a "proposition" imply that he still believes that there was a missed opportunity to be a success. But Willy Loman is not meant to be a success. As a tragic hero, he is meant to have a reversal of fortune and to fail. Using textual evidence to support your claims, define Willy Loman as a tragic hero. Identify his tragic flaw, his reversal of fortune and ultimate failure, and his punishment.  
Willy believes that suicide will be justified by the money gained from his insurance and the amount of people who will attend his funeral. Through his death he will achieve his dreams. This is an example of  
Willy believes that Biff "cut down your life for spite." Do you believe that Willy is right to any degree? Did Biff purposely become the antithesis of everything Willy valued and wanted for him because of Willy's affair? Or is it possible that Biff was never destined to be great, and it was Willy's denial that led them all to believe Biff could be something? Use textual evidence to support your answer. 
Biff's realization that he is rebelling against the urban lifestyle and chasing a dream is a the climax in the text because it forces all of the Lomans to examine their relationships with one another and themselves. Below is a clip of this scene from the film version starring Dustin Hoffman as Willy Loman.  (This annotation contains a video)
It is ironic that in the moment when Biff realizes that he must literally end his relationship with his father in order to save him, Biff successfully conveys to Willy for the first time since he was a teenager that he loves him. In that same moment, Willy's dream is reignited rather than extinguished. 
In his delusion, Willy tells Ben, "when the mail comes he'll be ahead of Bernard again!" This implies that part of Willy's motivation for committing suicide is  
Willy has successfully taken his own life.  


Charley's response to Happy's claim that "There was no necessity for [Willy's suicide]. We would've helped him" indicates that  
Linda and Biff's comments illustrate two sides of the same argument. Linda cannot understand how Willy could commit suicide when he was so close to achieving his dream, and Biff cannot understand why Willy never admitted what his real dreams were and not chasing a manufactured idea of happiness.  
Have Biff and Happy changed over the course of the play? Which one of Willy's son's is most like him and why? Be sure to use textual evidence to support your answers.  
When Linda tells Willy that they are "free," she literally means they are free from debt, but she figuratively means they are free from his dreams, his lies, his denial of the truth. They are free to live life as they deem fit, not as they are expected to live.  
Quiz #3