Introduction to Literature, Spring 1999
Ray's Syllabus                              Kate's Syllabus
Death of a Salesman
Act One Act Two The Play as a whole

  Relevant Links 

Act One

1. The first stage direction is long and significant.  What does it tell us about a) the characters Willy and Linda, b) the central theme of the play (e.g. "the fragile-seeming house," apartment buildings, the "one-dimensional" roof, the colors, the flute, etc.)?

2. In the first dialogue between Linda and Willy, what do we find out about

3. In the ensuing dialogue between Biff and Happy, the two brothers are set in contrast in terms of their working experience, their desire and dream, and their relationship to their parents.   How are they similar to each other in terms of the ways they use to achieve their respective dream?

3. Willy and his sons in the past Act I shows how Willy goes back to his "glorious" past and then to a source of his failure and sense of guilt--that is, the way he teaches his kid, his unsuccessful business, and the affair he has with a woman.  So far you won't know why the three are interrelated, but pay attention to each: how and why Willy does each thing, and how he tries to justify himself.

5. Ben and their childhood: 6. Linda, Biff and Happy--and Willy: 7. The end of Act I shows that the father and the sons have their new plans.  Are they feasible ones?  Why do they think they can selling sporting goods?  How does Willy respond to the sons' plan?  What do you think about the way he tries to teach Biff (the business suit, no joke, no Gee, no modesty; personality wins the day)?   Do you think that he ever changes over these twenty years about his ways of treating Biff?

Act Two 

The end of Act One shows the two strands of plot--one about the past and one about the father and the sons' future plans--coming together, with the father and the sons trying to make up for the past conflict through working on their future plans.

A. the present conditions
1. The consumer society, installment and insurance -- At the beginning of this act, we see Linda and Willy talk about the household electric wares such as the fridge, which is similar to the one they had in the "past" of Act I.  What is ironic about Willy's complaints about the Hastings refrigerator and the installment plan?   And "to weather a twenty-five year mortgage" as an accomplishment?

2. Garden and fine tools --  Besides being pre-occupied with the past and trying to improve his job and relationship with Biff, another thing dominates Willy's thinking is his desire to have a garden and plant vegetables in "a little place out in the country" and then in his backyard.  Is the country, then, set as a contrast to the city in this play?  What does this reveal about Willy's personality?  Does planting help him keep his sense of identity in a big and alienating city?

B. efforts to carry out  the future plans
1. The future plans get denied in Act II.  How?  What causes Willy's and Biff's failures, their personality, or the competitive business world?

2. The business world -- When Willy talks to Howard, several things shows the real nature of this business world (which is a contrast to Willy's emphasis on adventurousness, personality and personal contacts).

3. Biff at Oliver's office --
4. Willy vs. Charley, Biff vs. Bernard -- At Charley's office, we get to see both Charley and Bernard quite successful, a contrast to Willy and Biff.  What make the two pairs of father and son different from each other?   Consider some of the comments Charley and Barnard make:
5.  Happy --
To follow up on the contrast that has been set in Act I, here we get to see more of Happy as a womanizer.  What gets to be revealed more is his attitudes toward his father. C. the past --About the past, there seems to be one event that both Biff and Willy are preoccupied with but stay away from; one event that is the major cause of the conflict between the father and the son.  (Clues: The way Biff puts it is, "Because I know he's a fake and he doesn't like anybody around who knows!"  Biff's response when Linda says "There was a woman," and Bernard's question of Willy.)  It is when both the father's and the son's future plans are denied that Willy is pushed gradually to the past as both an escape and the source of his sense of guilt.  His conversation with Howard marks his first return to the past in Act II.
1). How is the past revelation developed?  Pay close attention to the juxtaposition of the past and the present and their interrelationship.  How does Willy try to get away with his sense of failure twice in this Act when talking to Howard and then to Biff? 
Like in Act I, here he still looks for self-justification in Ben and then in the football game episode (the climax of happiness and success in the past).  Bernard's question, however, forces him to face the Boston hotel scene -- the beginning of his bad relationship with Biff and Biff's downfall.  Then the event finally emerges in Willy's mind when Biff reveals his present failure and after Biff and Happy left him at the bar.
2) After he is fired by Howard, the first hallucination is about his talk with Ben, and then we have the scene of the family's going to Ebbets Field to watch Biff play in a football game.  How do the two scenes function for Willy?  As an escape?  A self-justification?
3) In the bar, how does Willy refuse to listen to Biff's actual experience with Bill Oliver?  At the point when Biff said, "I can't talk to him," there is the intrusion of Bernard from the past ("Mrs. Loman, Mrs. Loman!").  How does Willy try to escape from both the present and the past?    (Clues: he says, "I'm not in my room!")  Ironically, as Willy goes to the restroom, he is confronted with the past he tries hard to forget.
4) How does Willy walk out of this emotional encounter with the past?  At the moment, he is actually left behind by his beloved sons, but he remembers to pay Stanley and then he goes off to buy and plant the seeds.  What do you think about this behavior?
3. The father and the sons and the reconcilation -- Why does Willy commit suicide at the end?  (Clues: the end of his conversation with Charley; with Ben, and his final argument and reconciliation with Biff 1106-1111).  What does "the jungle is dark but full of diamonds" mean?

The Requiem & the Play as a whole 
(Here a lot of Arthur Miller's interpretations are quoted, and you will find that MIller tries hard to persuade us that Willy Loman is a tragic hero.  However, you do not need to agree with the author.)

1. Is Willy Loman a tragic hero who acts and wins our esteem?  Or is he a victim?  A victim of his own character or of a system of ruthless competition?

 A. Personality --

B. The circumstances (1) -- Willy's family background C.   The circumstances (2) -- American Capitalist/Industrial society and the American Dream D. Ending -- For Arthur Miller, a tragic hero is one "who is ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure one thing--his
    sense of personal dignity" ("Arthur Miller, on Tragedy and the Common Man").  Why does Willy commit suicide at the end?  Does he, as a result, gain his personal dignity?
Consider the characters' comments on Willy: 2. Linda's roles: 3. Compare Biff and Happy. 4.  Expressionist techinques: Miller once said that "Any dramatic form is an artifice, a way of transforming a subjective feeling into something that can be comprehended through public symbols." (Introduction to Collected Plays from the Viking version p. 156)
Signs o/ temporal changes
  • Homes/houses [e.g. the first stage direction; the mortgage] 
  • Seeds/plants/trees

  • [e.g. Willy's first dialgue with Linda about their environment, Willy last attempt to buy seeds]
  • Walls/buildings
  • Air 
  • Working with tools/one's hands[e.g. Willy's argument with Charley towards the end of Act I: :A man who can't handle tools is not a man."  "hammer a nail"]
  • Roads -- [be on the road] 
    References to the country
  • Cars/boats/trains: [e.g. Willy's Red Chevvy; Willy compared to "alittle boat looking for a harbor" by Linda; Ben's taking the train.]
  • Watches/clocks & references to time
  • flute [Willy's father]
  • other kinds of music--e.g. jarring trumpet note, Willy's theme, Ben's theme

  • [the end of Act II; ]
  • light of green leaves
  • Linda's stockings

  • [e.g. towards the end of Act I, when the woman appears]
  • Things {Fridge, car] that are broken/falling apart
  • vacuum cleaner
  • wire recorder
  • References to growing up/becoming a man or adult
  • References to far away places [e.g. the West, Alaska, Africa] and gold, diamonds
  • References to building things [e.g. what Willy does to his house--as Biff describes it in the Requiem]
  • References to succeeding/failing
  • Seeing Biff as Adonis, Hercules
  • References to winning/losing

  • For your reference: Background 

      The Author
                                       Miller's Inspirations for Salesman

            "Death of a Salesman began as a short story that Arthur Miller  wrote at the age of seventeen while he was working for his father's company. . . . "

    "In his autobiography Timebends, . . .  Miller  based Willy Loman largely on his own uncle, Manny Newman. . . .

    Miller described Newman as a man who was 'a competitor at all  times, in all things, and at every, moment.'  Miller said that his uncle saw "my brother and I running neck and neck with his two   sons [Buddy and Abby] in some horse race [for success] that  never stopped in his mind." He also said that the Newman  household was one in which you 'dared not lose hope, and I  would later think of it as a perfection of America for that  reason...It was a house trembling with resolution and shouts of victories that had not yet taken place but surely would tomorrow.'   The Loman home was built on the foundation of this  household. (from Student Guide Written and Designed by David Biele)

    Relevant Links
    Fu Jen English Literature Databank; Internet-Assisted Course page¡@