Study Guide- Death of a Salesman
Basic plot: Death of a Salesman follows Willy Loman through the last day of his life,
before he commits suicide. Willy confronts his past in hallucinatory experiences,
desperately trying to understand why his quest for the American dream has gone awry.
Central to the play is the relationship between Willy and his family, especially his son
Biff, whom Willy regards as a personal failure.
Setting: Willy Loman’s house and yard and various places he visits in New York and
Willy Loman – Sixty-year-old salesman and protagonist of the play.
Linda Loman – Willy’s wife, “foundation and support.” She is in her late fifties.
Biff Loman – Willy’s and Linda’s eldest son. Is probably in late twenties to early thirties.
Is unestablished and is a kleptomaniac.
Happy Loman – Willy’s and Linda’s younger son, probably in mid to late twenties. Is
comfortable financially but is a philanderer who accepts bribes.
Charley – Willy’s and Linda’s neighbor. He has always been dismissive of Willy’s
foolish ambitions, but he is kind to Willy and offers him a job.
Bernard – Charley’s son, a nerdy, intelligent, hardworking man who used to idolize Biff
and who is now a successful lawyer.
Howard – Willy’s boss. Cares more about the bottom line than human connection.
Uncle Ben – Appears only as a hallucination of Willy’s. Has already died, but in life
became rich in Africa.
Major themes and ideas:
It is futile to chase a dream based only on appearances and materialism.
The plight of the common man should be observed.
Humans must struggle to take what they perceive to be their rightful place in society.
The American dream is a sort of indoctrination passed on from fathers to sons.
Prompts: (see http://homepage.mac.com/mseffie/AP/APOpenQuestions.html for full
1970, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1975 also, 1978, 1984, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1990,
1991, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2004 Form B, 2005, 2007, 2007 Form
B, 2008, 2008 Form B
1970. Choose a character from a novel or play of recognized literary merit and write an essay in
which you (a) briefly describe the standards of the fictional society in which the character exists
and (b) show how the character is affected by and responds to those standards. In your essay do
not merely summarize the plot.
1972. In retrospect, the reader often discovers that the first chapter of a novel or the opening
scene of a drama introduces some of the major themes of the work. Write an essay about the
opening scene of a drama or the first chapter of a novel in which you explain how it functions in
1973. An effective literary work does not merely stop or cease; it concludes. In the view of some
critics, a work that does not provide the pleasure of significant closure has terminated with an
artistic fault. A satisfactory ending is not, however, always conclusive in every sense; significant
closure may require the reader to abide with or adjust to ambiguity and uncertainty. In an essay,
discuss the ending of a novel or play of acknowledged literary merit. Explain precisely how and
why the ending appropriately or inappropriately concludes the work. Do not merely summarize
1975. Although literary critics have tended to praise the unique in literary characterizations, many
authors have employed the stereotyped character successfully. Select one work of acknowledged
literary merit and in a well-written essay, show how the conventional or stereotyped character or
characters function to achieve the author's purpose.
1975 Also. Unlike the novelist, the writer of a play does not use his own voice and only rarely
uses a narrator's voice to guide the audience's responses to character and action. Select a play you
have read and write an essay in which you explain the techniques the playwright uses to guide his
audience's responses to the central characters and the action. You might consider the effect on the
audience of things like setting, the use of comparable and contrasting characters, and the
characters' responses to each other. Support your argument with specific references to the play.
Do not give a plot summary.
1978. Choose an implausible or strikingly unrealistic incident or character in a work of fiction or
drama of recognized literary merit. Write an essay that explains how the incident or character is
related to the more realistic of plausible elements in the rest of the work. Avoid plot summary.
1984. Select a line or so of poetry, or a moment or scene in a novel, epic poem, or play that you
find especially memorable. Write an essay in which you identify the line or the passage, explain
its relationship to the work in which it is found, and analyze the reasons for its effectiveness.
1985. A critic has said that one important measure of a superior work of literature is its ability to
produce in the reader a healthy confusion of pleasure and disquietude. Select a literary work that
produces this "healthy confusion." Write an essay in which you explain the sources of the
"pleasure and disquietude" experienced by the readers of the work.
1986. Some works of literature use the element of time in a distinct way. The chronological
sequence of events may be altered, or time may be suspended or accelerated. Choose a novel, an
epic, or a play of recognized literary merit and show how the author's manipulation of time
contributes to the effectiveness of the work as a whole. Do not merely summarize the plot.
1987. Some novels and plays seem to advocate changes in social or political attitudes or in
traditions. Choose such a novel or play and note briefly the particular attitudes or traditions that
the author apparently wishes to modify. Then analyze the techniques the author uses to influence
the reader's or audience's views. Avoid plot summary.
1988. Choose a distinguished novel or play in which some of the most significant events are
mental or psychological; for example, awakenings, discoveries, changes in consciousness. In a
well-organized essay, describe how the author manages to give these internal events the sense of
excitement, suspense, and climax usually associated with external action. Do not merely
summarize the plot.
1989. In questioning the value of literary realism, Flannery O'Connor has written, "I am
interested in making a good case for distortion because I am coming to believe that it is the only
way to make people see." Write an essay in which you "make a good case for distortion," as
distinct from literary realism. Analyze how important elements of the work you choose are
"distorted" and explain how these distortions contribute to the effectiveness of the work. Avoid
1990. Choose a novel or play that depicts a conflict between a parent (or a parental figure) and a
son or daughter. Write an essay in which you analyze the sources of the conflict and explain how
the conflict contributes to the meaning of the work. Avoid plot summary.
1991. Many plays and novels use contrasting places (for example, two countries, two cities or
towns, two houses, or the land and the sea) to represent opposed forces or ideas that are central to
the meaning of the work. Choose a novel or play that contrasts two such places. Write an essay
explaining how the places differ, what each place represents, and how their contrast contributes to
the meaning of the work.
1997. Novels and plays often include scenes of weddings, funerals, parties, and other social
occasions. Such scenes may reveal the values of the characters and the society in which they live.
Select a novel or play that includes such a scene and, in a focused essay, discuss the contribution
the scene makes to the meaning of the work as a whole. You may choose a work from the list
below or another novel or play of literary merit.
1998. In his essay "Walking," Henry David Thoreau offers the following assessment of literature:
In literature it is only the wild that attracts us. Dullness is but another name for tameness. It is the
uncivilized free and wild thinking in Hamlet and The Iliad, in all scriptures and mythologies, not
learned in schools, that delights us.
From the works that you have studied in school, choose a novel, play, or epic poem that you may
initially have thought was conventional and tame but that you now value for its "uncivilized free
and wild thinking." Write an essay in which you explain what constitutes its "uncivilized free and
wild thinking" and how that thinking is central to the value of the work as a whole. Support your
ideas with specific references to the work you choose.
1999. The eighteenth-century British novelist Laurence Sterne wrote, "No body, but he who has
felt it, can conceive what a plaguing thing it is to have a man's mind torn asunder by two projects
of equal strength, both obstinately pulling in a contrary direction at the same time."
From a novel or play choose a character (not necessarily the protagonist) whose mind is pulled in
conflicting directions by two compelling desires, ambitions, obligations, or influences. Then, in a
well-organized essay, identify each of the two conflicting forces and explain how this conflict
with one character illuminates the meaning of the work as a whole. You may use one of the
novels or plays listed below or another novel or work of similar literary quality.
2001. One definition of madness is "mental delusion or the eccentric behavior arising from it."
But Emily Dickinson wrote
Much madness is divinest Sense-
To a discerning Eye-
Novelists and playwrights have often seen madness with a "discerning Eye." Select a novel or
play in which a character's apparent madness or irrational behavior plays an important role. Then
write a well-organized essay in which you explain what this delusion or eccentric behavior
consists of and how it might be judged reasonable. Explain the significance of the "madness" to
the work as a whole. Do not merely summarize the plot.
2002. Morally ambiguous characters -- characters whose behavior discourages readers from
identifying them as purely evil or purely good -- are at the heart of many works of literature.
Choose a novel or play in which a morally ambiguous character plays a pivotal role. Then write
an essay in which you explain how the character can be viewed as morally ambiguous and why
his or her moral ambiguity is significant to the work as a whole. Avoid mere plot summary.
2003. According to critic Northrop Frye, "Tragic heroes are so much the highest points in their
human landscape that they seem the inevitable conductors of the power about them, great trees
more likely to be struck by lightning than a clump of grass. Conductors may of course be
instruments as well as victims of the divisive lightning." Select a novel or play in which a tragic
figure functions as an instrument of the suffering of others. Then write an essay in which you
explain how the suffering brought upon others by that figure contributes to the tragic vision of the
work as a whole.
2004. Critic Roland Barthes has said, "Literature is the question minus the answer." Choose a
novel, or play, and, considering Barthes' observation, write an essay in which you analyze a
central question the work raises and the extent to which it offers answers. Explain how the
author's treatment of this question affects your understanding of the work as a whole. Avoid mere
2004, Form B. The most important themes in literature are sometimes developed in scenes in
which a death or deaths take place. Choose a novel or play and write a well-organized essay in
which you show how a specific death scene helps to illuminate the meaning of the work as a
whole. Avoid mere plot summary.
2005. In Kate Chopin's The Awakening (1899), protagonist Edna Pontellier is said to possess
"That outward existence which conforms, the inward life that questions." In a novel or play that
you have studied, identify a character who outwardly conforms while questioning inwardly. Then
write an essay in which you analyze how this tension between outward conformity and inward
questioning contributes to the meaning of the work. Avoid mere plot summary.
2007. In many works of literature, past events can affect, positively or negatively, the present
activities, attitudes, or values of a character. Choose a novel or play in which a character must
contend with some aspect of the past, either personal or societal. Then write an essay in which
you show how the character's relationship to the past contributes to the meaning of the work as a
2007, Form B. Works of literature often depict acts of betrayal. Friends and even family may
betray a protagonist; main characters may likewise be guilty of treachery or may betray their own
values. Select a novel or play that includes such acts of betrayal. Then, in a well-written essay,
analyze the nature of the betrayal and show how it contributes to the meaning of the work as a
2008. In a literary work, a minor character, often known as a foil, possesses traits that emphasize,
by contrast or comparison, the distinctive characteristics and qualities of the main character. For
example, the ideas or behavior of a minor character might be used to highlight the weaknesses or
strengths of the main character. Choose a novel or play in which a minor character serves as a foil
for the main character. Then write an essay in which you analyze how the relation between the
minor character and the major character illuminates the meaning of the work.
2008, Form B. In some works of literature. Childhood and adolescence are portrayed as times
graced by innocence and a sense of wonder; in other works, they are depicted as times of
tribulation and terror. Focusing on a single novel or play, explain how its representation of
childhood or adolescence shapes the meaning of the work as a whole.
1. What do you learn about Willy from the first stage direction?
From the directions about his immediate appearance, we learn that Willy is
“past sixty years of age, dressed quietly” and that “his exhaustion is apparent.”
From the description of Linda, we learn that Willy’s recent behavior has been
unusual, and that he has a bad temper, “massive dreams and little cruelties.”
These revelations and descriptions help solidify our impression of Willy gleaned
from his actions and lines later in the play.
2. What instances of stealing are in the play? Why do Biff and Happy steal? Where
did they learn about stealing? How is stealing related to salesmanship?
Biff steals a football, a pen, and a suit. Happy “steals” women from other
men. Both steal material from a nearby construction site for an apartment
For Biff, who fits the technical definition of a kleptomaniac, stealing has
become habitual, and is a way for him to obtain material goods he feels he needs
in order to attain the American dream Willy always told him he should want.
Happy’s stealing is also rooted in this dream, but he has different reasons for
wanting the dream than Biff: he has always envied Biff for the way Willy favors
him, and thus tries to emulate how Biff was in high school. Both Biff and Happy
want to live up to Willy’s expectations, to earn his love.
Biff and Happy learn about stealing from Willy, who encouraged them to steal
material from the construction site and made light of Biff’s theft of the football.
Salesmanship is a profession some would consider to be closely related to
stealing, but that is not the significance of stealing in Miller’s play. Rather, the
significance lies in the fact that the dream of material success is ingrained in the
salesman, just as that dream often lies behind theft.
3. In Act 1 Willy claims that “I never in my life told him [Biff] anything but decent
things.” Is this assertion true? What does it show you about Willy?
Not exactly: Willy’s advice to Biff and Happy is that they can become
prosperous based solely on being well liked, which is clearly false.
Willy does, at times, have doubts about the way he raised Biff and Happy, but
his often contradictory claims serve to fulfill his psychological needs at any one
point in the play; he would like to believe that he brought Biff and Happy up well,
and so he says that he does, even as he questions this very assertion at other points
in the play.
Act 2 and Requiem
4. What does Willy’s difficulty with machines—especially his car, the refrigerator,
and Howard’s tape recorder—suggest about him? To what extent are these
Willy is a common man struggling to keep pace with the realities of the
modern world, which are symbolically realized in Miller’s play as machines.
Together, these machines are almost completely symbolic—their only real
function is to physically represent Willy’s difficulties with modern, materialistic
5. When Willy sees Bernard in Charley’s office, he asks, “What—what’s the
secret?” What secret is he asking about? Does such a secret exist?
Willy means, of course, the secret to success—Bernard has become very
successful, while neither Willy nor Biff (nor even really Happy, for that matter)
has found success.
It is unclear whether such a secret exists, at least for Willy and his sons.
Bernard’s success comes from hard work, and it may not really be the kind of
success Willy desires: Willy does not simply want material success or to be well
liked, he wants to be materially successful because he is well liked. Miller proves
the futility of such a dream through the events of the play, but it is also doubtful
whether Willy and his sons, “low men,” could really become successful in the
way Bernard is solely through hard work: as Biff emphasizes, they all love
working with their hands, and Bernard is exceptional in that he is (apparently)
very intelligent. There is a moral aspect to the failure of Willy and his sons, but
there is a practical aspect as well.
6. In Act 2 Willy buys seeds and tries to plant a garden at night. Why is Willy so
disturbed that “nothing’s planted” and “I don’t have a thing in the ground”?
What do this garden and having “things in the ground” mean to Willy?
Willy’s desperation at his inability to plant anything in his garden mirrors his
anxiety about leaving an inheritance to Biff and Happy and instilling in them
values he considers essential for success. The garden is symbolic of this both to
him and to the audience.
7. In Act 2, speech 867, Biff claims that “we never told the truth for ten minutes in
this house!” What does he mean? To what extent is he right?
Biff means that the Loman family has never truly acknowledged the facts of
its situation. He is right: Willy insists on the greatness of his boys, while they are
really just common men, as Biff recognizes. Happy constantly lies to his father
and mother—he would rather things run smoothly than deal with reality. Linda
and Biff accept Willy’s false dreams to a certain extent, although much of this has
to do with their wish to calm Willy’s reeling mind.
8. Linda’s last line in the play—“We’re free . . . we’re free”—seems to refer to the
house mortgage. In what other ways, however, might you take it?
Linda is more generally referring to material security, which is one aspect of
the American dream. She fails to realize that Willy’s dream is not the same as
hers—he desires material success and recognition, while she desires material
1. How does Miller use lighting, the set, blocking, and music to differentiate between
action in the present and “memory” action?
Miller uses the sound of a flute to indicate that the past is coming back to
Willy, as well as bright light. The set also changes to reflect a shift in time, with
leaves appearing to indicate springtime.
2. The stage directions are full of information that cannot be played. In describing
Happy, for example, Miller notes that “sexuality is like a color on him.” What is
the function of such stage directions?
The stage directions help with characterization and give insight into the
actions of characters. Such knowledge is helpful for actors and actresses trying to
more fully understand the characters they are playing, so that they may be able to
give more accurate performances.
3. How is Willy’s suicide foreshadowed throughout the play? To what extent does
this foreshadowing create tension?
The very fact that Willy has already tried to kill himself foreshadows his
eventual suicide. Additionally, Willy’s line that “a man is worth more dead than
alive” strongly foreshadows his suicide.
This foreshadowing adds to the tension of the play by suggesting the urgency
of Willy’s conflict.
4. Which characters are “real” and which are “hallucinations” that spring from
Willy’s memory? What are the major differences between these two groups?
Willy’s family, Charley, Bernard, Howard, and various minor characters are
real. However, Willy’s family, Charley, and Bernard are also hallucinations
during certain parts of the play, along with the Woman and Uncle Ben. The
difference between the two groups is simply that the hallucinations are from the
past and the real characters come from the present.
5. Which characters are symbolic and what do they symbolize?
Howard symbolizes the inhumanity of the business world, Bernard can be
taken as a symbol of hard work, and Uncle Ben is a symbol of material success.
Linda is nearly symbolic in her embodiment of domestic support and felicity, but
she is also representative of those who yearn for financial security. Happy
approaches a symbol even more fully than Linda, almost completely representing
the perversion of the American dream, but his ties with his father make him
somewhat more complex. Willy is not quite symbolic, but he is a modern
everyman of sorts, as is, to a lesser degree, Biff.
6. Describe the character of Willy Loman. What are his good qualities? In what
ways does he have heroic stature? What are his bad qualities? To what extent is
his “fall” the result of his flaws, and to what extent is it caused by circumstances
beyond his control?
Willy is optimistic and hard-working, and cares very much about his family.
He is heroic in that he struggles mightily to attain his dream, and sacrifices
himself for his family.
Willy is, however, mercurial, self-deluding, self-contradictory, too accepting
of his sons’ faults, too dismissive of Linda, and prone to adultery. Additionally,
his dream of material success based on popularity is unattainable.
Willy’s decline and suicide result from both the inhuman nature of the
business world and his perverted interpretation of the American dream. His choice
of profession, the way he raises his sons, and his quest to be well liked all result
from his particular brand of the American dream. At the same time, Miller
suggests that Willy’s conception of the American dream is similar to that of many
others, and that it is the result of his own upbringing. The dream is a sort of
indoctrination that Willy, stuck in the profession of a salesman, must cling to in
order to survive. Ironically, it is also this dream, along with the harsh realities of
the business world, that leads to Willy’s downfall.
7. How is the relationship between Charley and Bernard different from the one
between Willy and his sons? Why is this difference important?
Charley, by his own admission, never takes much interest in Bernard—which
also means that he never preaches falsehoods to Bernard. Conversely, Willy’s
whole sense of self is wrapped up in how well his sons do and what they think of
him. He sermonizes on the virtues of being well liked but ignores the values of
hard work and honesty.
The importance of the difference between the way Charley brings up Bernard
and the way Willy brings up Biff and Happy is the emphasis that difference puts
on Willy’s conception of the American dream and on Willy’s approach to
business and life in general. As a salesman, Willy’s real product is himself, and he
tries to sell his dreams and even his love to his boys, unlike Charley.
8. Discuss Linda’s character and role. In what ways is she supportive of Willy? In
what ways does she encourage his deceptions and self-delusions?
Linda grounds the family, seeing through many of their self-deceptions. She
has some of the same dreams as Willy, but her real concern is financial security
and Willy’s well-being.
Linda defends Willy against his sons, and reassures him that he is doing well
and is on the right track. As Willy says, she is his “foundation and support.”
Although she has his best interests at heart—she sees his decline, and wishes to
calm him—she does not truly recognize the futility of Willy’s dreams, and so is
unable to challenge it. In fact, in reassuring Willy of his worth, she implicitly
affirms, at least in his eyes, the validity of his dream.
9. What sort of person is Happy? What has he inherited from Willy? How is he a
debasement of Willy? To what degree is he successful or happy?
Happy is self-centered, a philanderer who readily accepts bribes. Like Willy,
he seeks material success, and he insists he wants to settle down with someone
like his mother. He represents the extreme version of the part of Willy that seeks
the American dream. He is not truly happy; he confesses to despising the way he
acts. He lives somewhat comfortably, but his comfort is based on dishonesty.
10. Willy claims that success in business is based not on “what you do” but on “who
you know and the smile on your face! It’s contacts . . . a man can end up with
diamonds on the basis of being well liked.” How does the play support or reject
The play clearly rejects Willy’s assertion. Biff, who is well liked, does not end
up successful: he does not work hard enough and he steals. Willy, who does work
hard and is (it seems likely) upbeat around customers, is never materially
11. Most of Willy’s memories—Ben’s visit, Boston, the football game—are from 1928.
Why does Willy’s memory return to 1928? Why is the contrast between 1928 and
the present significant for Willy and for the play as a whole?
1928 was the last time when Willy was truly happy, when it seemed to him
that his dream might become a reality. Willy tries to figure out how the dream
went wrong, which is part of why he is haunted by the past. The contrast between
1928 and the present helps explain Willy’s situation and provides commentary on
the quality and feasibility of his dream.