Death of a Salesman Study Guide

Death of a Salesman

Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller

Death of a Salesman is a play by Arthur Miller about Willy Loman, a traveling salesman, who returns home to find his unsuccessful sons, Biff and Happy in his home. Biff attempts to get a job but fails. After a heated argument and revealing that Biff once discovered an affair his father was having, they are reconciled. His father commits suicide by crashing his car so that Biff can collect life insurance to start a business. Biff does not go into business, though Happy does.

Reality and Illusion

Death of a Salesman uses flashbacks to present Willy’s memory during the reality. The illusion not only “suggests the past, but also presents the lost pastoral life.” Willy has dreamed of success his whole life and makes up lies about his and Biff’s success. The more he indulges in the illusion, the harder it is for him to face reality. Biffis the only one who realizes that the whole family lived in the lies and tries to face the truth.

The American Dream

The American Dream is the theme of the play, but everyone in the play has their own way to describe their American Dreams.

Willy Loman

Willy Loman dreams of being a successful salesman like Dave Singleman, somebody who has both wealth and freedom. Willy believes that the key to success is being well-liked, and his frequent flashbacks show that he measures happiness in terms of wealth and popularity. One analyst of the play writes:“Society tries to teach that if people are rich and well-liked, they will be happy. Because of this, Willy thought that money would make him happy. He never bothered to try to be happy with what he had …”. Willy also believes that to attain success, one must have a good personality. Accordingto another analyst, “He believes that salesmanship is based on ‘sterling traits of character’ and ‘a pleasing personality.’ But Willy does not have the requisite sterling traits of character; people simply do not like him as much as he thinks is necessary for success.”

Uncle Ben

Ben represents the ideal of American Dream. He thinks that the American Dream is to catch opportunity, to conquer nature, and to gain a fortune. He says“Why, boys, when I was seventeen I walked into the jungle, and when I was twenty-one I walked out. (He laughs.) And by God I was rich.” Ben symbolizes another kind of successful American Dreams for Willy.


After seeing his father’s real identity, Biff does not follow his father’s “dream” because he knows that, as two analysts put it, “Willy does see his future but in a blind way. Meaning that he can and cannot see at the same time, since his way of seeing or visualizing the future is completely wrong.” Biff has a dream to get outside, to farm, and work hard with his own hands, but his father prevents him from pursuing his dream. Biff realizes his father’s dream is “wrong” during his father's funeral.

Bernard and Charley

One thing that is apparent from the Death of a Salesman is the hard work and dedication of Charley and Bernard. Willy criticizes Charley and Bernard throughout the play, but it is not because he hates them. Rather, it's argued that he's jealous of the successes they've enjoyed, which is outside his standards. The models of business success provided in the play all argue against Willy’s "personality theory." One is Charley, Willy’s neighbor and apparently only friend. Charley has no time for Willy’s theories of business, but he provides for his family and is in a position to offer Willy a do-nothing job to keep him bringing home a salary. (Bloom 51)

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