Death of a Salesman
Death of a Salesman
Death of a Salesman
Revision notes: key themes and characterisation
These notes will give you an overview of the key
moments in the play.
They are not exhaustive and you will have to plan your
essays carefully and may want to refer back to the play
to find a different example or quotation
These quotations are not fully analysed and you will
have to think about the techniques the author uses,
including his use of stage directions, to explain them
Willy is a failure in the terms set by the American Dream, which are that
America is a land of opportunity and that with hard work and determination,
anyone can “make it”.
“Making it” is usually defined as material success: most commonly making a
good profit by setting up your own business, allowing you to live “a good life”.
The 1950s ideal of a good life was a nice house, modern conveniences such as
cars, fridges, washing machines, and importantly, family. A happy marriage
and polite, academically successful children.
Willy’s inability to accept that he has not achieved success in these terms is at
the root of his mental torture…swinging between self-knowledge and delusion,
unable to tell the past from the present.
It is this fundamental self-delusion that lies at the heart of his conflict with
his son, Biff, who becomes determined to reject his father’s values and visions
as he sees them as the root of falsehood and unhappiness
Characterisation of Willy:
Willy is introduced as an agitated and conflicted character,
switching between vulnerable and aggressively unpredictable
“But it’s so beautiful up there, Linda, the trees are so thick, and
the sun is warm…And then all of a sudden I’m off the road!”
“The street is lined with cars. There’s not a breath of fresh air in
the neighbourhood. The grass don’t grow anymore, you can’t raise
a carrot in the backyard.
Despite having worked his whole life to create a “good life”, it is
clear that he feels trapped and suffocated by his life: his home, his
work and perhaps his family, as he clearly resents his son Biff’s
Why a “salesman”?
The contrast between the rat race of corporate “selling” and a more traditional
connection with the land and nature is presented as a source of Willy’s unhappiness.
There is nothing valuable or necessary about his job, and this reinforces the emptiness of
the American Dream.
Willy is aware of this deficiency as we see though his conversation with his dead brother,
Ben, who did successfully achieve the American dream of success. In the flashback where
Willy has rejected Ben’s offer to go to Alaska, he tries to assure himself that he still has a
strong connection to nature in his suburban home
“oh sure, there’s snakes and rabbits and – that’s why I moved out here. Why, Biff, can
fell any one of those trees in no time!”
He clearly admires Ben’s spirit of adventure and ambition and dearly wishes for his sons
to have these qualities
“That’s just the spirit I want to imbue them with! To walk into a jungle! I was right! I was
right! I was right!
A salesman is the epitome of American capitalism: a system
based on creating desires and needs through advertising. It
is never entirely clear what Willy sells.
Willy is portrayed as a victim of the false promise of the
American dream, where consumerism is often equated with
success and happiness. He is trapped a cycle by his home
and possessions and has to work into his old age to
We see this clearly when he comes home with his paycheck
and Linda adds up all the money they owe, revealing that
Willy is never able to earn enough
Willy’s false dreams:
Key quotations: To use these in your essay you will
have to provide context and analysis
There were clearly happier times, where Willy was able
to believe in future success, and his young sons
respected and admired him:
“And when I bring you fellas up, there’ll be open
sesame for all of us, ‘ cause one thing, boys: I have
friends. I can park my car in any street in New England
and the cops protect it like their own.”
Dreams for Biff
A major source of Willy’s disappointment is the failure of
Biff to live up to his potential. The amount of pride he took
in Biff’s achievements blinded him to the danger of
indulging his son. He laughs off Biff’s increasingly serious
“Bernard can get the best marks in school, y’understand, but
when he gets out in the business world, y’understand, you
are going to be five times ahead of him. That’s why I thank
Almighty God you’re both built like Adonises.”
Willy is full of hope when Biff and Happy tell them of their
plan to set up a business, and thoroughly deludes himself
and everyone else that this plan will work.
Willy has moments of self-realisation, where he knows
he is losing the qualities of charm and popularity so
essential for a salesman.
“I’m fat. I’m very – foolish to look at, Linda. ..But they
do laugh at me. I know that.
Despite this, he refuses to accept Charley’s offer of a
job. Filled with hope in Biff’s business plan, he decides
to confront his employer.
In this scene, he explains his vision of success, revealing how false
and limited his dreams are as he describes Dave Singleman:
“ … - when he died, hundreds of salesmen and buyers were at his
funeral…in those days there was personality in it , Howard. There
was respect, and comradeship and gratitude in it.”
Despite continually lowering his salary request, Willy is fired by
Howard, as he is no longer useful:
“I put thirty-four years into this firm, Howard, and now I can’t pay
my insurance! You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away –
a man is not a piece of fruit!”
This experience does not serve to teach Willy anything,
and only drives him into another reverie, where he tells
Ben his dreams of being the successful salesman and
his hopes for Biff.
“It’s who you know and the smile on your face! It’s
contacts, Ben, contacts!...a man can end with
diamonds here on the basis of being liked! And that’s
why when you get out on that field today it’s
important. Because thousands of people will be rooting
for you and loving you.”
A vulnerable and mentally fragile Willy is then confronted
with Bernard, who has become a very successful lawyer. This
underscores the irony of Willy’s earlier mocking of a young
Bernard and his confidence in Biff’s popularity and sporting
“(small and alone) “What’s the secret?”
It is clear through his conversation that Biff’s life changed
when he learned of his father’s affair, and Willy finds this
truth too much to cope with:
“Willy looks up at him as at an intruder…What you trying to
do, blame it on me? If a boy lays down, is that my fault?”
The restaurant scene is the turning point of the play,
where Willy is no longer able to project a successful
image of himself. He is confronted with reality when
Biff fails to get a business loan, and this leads to his
“I’m not interested in stories about the past or any crap
of that kind because the woods are burning boys, you
understand? There’s a big blaze going on all around. I
was fired today.”
Turning point continued…
His inability to accept Biff’s failure leads to a flashback
of the Boston scene, showing that Willy is in some
level aware of his own guilt and responsibility for Biff’s
Biff’s attempt to tell the truth leads to agony and
torment for Willy:
“You – you gave here Mama’s stockings! (His tears break
through and he rises to go.)…Don’t touch me, you –
liar!...You fake! You phoney little fake! You fake!”
Turning point continued
Willy is left utterly abandoned and very vulnerable when he
emerges from the flashback to the Boston scene to realise
that his sons have left without him.
He has nothing, as far as he can see, at this point. All his
dreams – of work and family successes are destroyed.
His fragile mental state is revealed through his plan to
commit suicide and his fear of leaving nothing to show for
“Oh, I’d better hurry. I’ve got to get some seeds…I’ve got to
get some seeds, right away. Nothing’s planted. I don’t have a
thing in the ground.”
Conflict with Biff
At the end of the restaurant scene, we see Willy make his suicide plan as he
“talks” to Ben. He clearly wants to compensate for his failures as a father to
“Oh Ben, how do we get back to all the great times? Used to be so full of light,
and comradeship, the sleigh-riding in winter, and the ruddiness on his
cheeks…..Why, why can’t I give him something nice and not have him hate
Ironically, Biff does love his father and is full of compassion– not for Willy’s
lies, but for his efforts and determination to try to make a good life for his
“Miss Forsythe, you’ve just seen a prince walk by. A fine, troubled prince. A
hard working, unappreciated prince. A pal, you understand? A good
companion. Always for his boys.”
Happy, on the other hand, simply disowns his father.
The conflict scene
Linda is furious when Biff and Happy arrive home. She is
fully aware of Willy’s fragility, despite his bluster, and knows
how much the dinner with his sons meant to him.
“Get out of here, both of you, and don’t come back! I don’t
want you tormenting him anymore.”
The contrast between Biff and Happy is clear: Biff accepting
responsibility and resolving to finally be honest with his
father, whereas Happy shrugs off his behaviour.
“Now you hit it on the nose! …The scum of the earth, and
you’re looking at him!”
Despite Linda’s protestations, Biff insists on speaking
to Willy. We see him, utterly broken and tortured,
resolving to commit suicide in a tragic effort to save the
only remnant of his dream: a well attended funeral, to
prove that he was popular.
“Ben, that funeral will be massive! They’ll come from
Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire!... – I
am known, Ben, and he’ll see it with his eyes once and
for all. He’ll see what I am Ben!”
Biff tells his father that he will leave and live his own life, on
his own terms. Willy refuses to accept that Biff cannot live
on his, Willy’s terms, and thinks that Biff is just trying to
“I want you to know, on the train, in the mountains, in the
valleys, that wherever you go, that you cut down your life for
Biff tells his father a number of truths about himself:
“the man don’t know who we are! The man is gonna know!
We never told the truth for ten minutes in this house!
He tells his father that he knows about the pipe in the cellar
He tells Happy that he is just like Willy, full of lies and self- delusion
They all lied to themselves about Biff’s role in Bill Oliver’s company,
elevating his status
He admits that he was in jail, that he stole in high school, and that
the problem for the whole family is that they think they are more than
they are. They aspire to the American Dream, and end up with lies
“I saw the things that I love in this world. The work and the food and
the time to sit and smoke. ….what am I doing in an office, making a
contemptuous, begging fool of myself, when all I want is out there,
waiting for me the minute I say I know who I am!”
Biff tells his father that neither of them are anything special, and
that it is a failure to accept this that creates Willy’s unhappiness.
This enrages Willy, as he is unable to let go of his false view of
happiness and success.
“I am not a dime a dozen! I am Willy Loman, and you are Biff
Ironically, it is this conflict scene that brings Willy the most
happiness, as he realises that Biff does, indeed, love him. However,
this only strengthens his conviction that he must die in order to
give Biff a chance in life.
“Oh Biff! He cried! Cried to me. (He is now choking with his love,
and now cries out his promise.) That boy – that boy is going to be
The ending and requiem
Willy, in the midst of his delusion and hallucinations, where Ben
acts as his inner voice, does indeed commit suicide. Ben’s voices
the idea that the only gift he can now leave Biff is the insurance
money from his death.
“Not like an appointment at all. A diamond is rough and hard to
Willy is unable to abandon his hopes and dreams for Biff, perhaps
to ease his guilt, perhaps because he knows it is too late for him to
be successful himself. This is in spite of everything Biff has tried to
“Imagine! When the mail comes, he’ll be ahead of Bernard again!”
The requiem shows how the other characters react to Willy’s
death and displays their attitudes to the false dreams that
Willy held so steadfastly.
Linda and Happy are in contrast with Biff, as they are
unable to make sense of Willy’s death, and Happy resolves
to make him proud, to achieve what Willy himself was
Biff, on the other hand, has achieved self-knowledge and
acceptance and sees the danger of living a false, aspirational
“He had the wrong dreams. Wrong. All wrong.”