Study Guide

Death of a Salesman Freedom and Confinement

By Arthur Miller

Freedom and Confinement

Act One
Willy Loman

WILLY: There’s more people! That’s what’s ruining this country! The competition is maddening! Smell the stink from that apartment house! And the one on the other side… (Act 1)

Willy feels trapped and confined even in his own home. He feels stifled by the fact that there are so many people right on top of him.

WILLY: I got an awful scare. Nearly hit a kid in Yonkers. God! Why didn’t I go to Alaska with my brother Ben that time! Ben! That man was a genius, that man was success incarnate! What a mistake! He begged me to go. (Act 1)

Willy feels trapped in his life of financial struggle in New York and longs for escape. He assumes that escape from the city will also mean escape from his current failures at work.


BEN: At that age I had a very faulty view of geography, William. I discovered after a few days that I was heading due south, so instead of Alaska I ended up in Africa.

LINDA: Africa!

WILLY: The Gold Coast!

BEN: Principally diamond mines.

LINDA: Diamond mines!

BEN: Yes, my dear. But I’ve only a few minutes—

WILLY: No! Boys! Boys! [Young Biff and Happy appear] Listen to this. This is your Uncle Ben, a great man! Tell my boys, Ben! (Act 1)

Willy's and Linda's fascination with far-off lands is closely linked with their desire for escape and financial security. To Willy especially, Ben's exploits represent a lifestyle that is totally free, yet totally successful.

Biff Loman

BIFF [with enthusiasm]: Listen, why don’t you come out West with me?

HAPPY: You and I, heh?

BIFF: Sure, maybe we could buy a ranch. Raise cattle, use our muscles. Men built like we are should be working out in the open. (Act 1)

Happy and Biff fantasize about escape from the city and their lives in the business world. The world of manual labor is a welcome change to the rat race of city life. In the big scheme of things, though, is the life of the working class really any more free?

Linda Loman

LINDA: We should’ve bought the land next door.

WILLY: The street is lined with cars. There’s not a breath of fresh air in the neighborhood. The grass don’t grow anymore, you can’t raise a carrot in the backyard. They should’ve had a law against apartment houses. Remember those two beautiful elm trees out there? When I and Biff hung the swing between them?

LINDA: Yeah, like being a million miles from the city. (Act 1)

Linda and Willy's reflections reveal their craving for escape from their urban neighborhood. They long for the days when the neighborhood was more green. Throughout the play, urbanization and commercialism are linked to ideas of confinement.

Act Two

BEN: Now, look here, William. I’ve bought timberland in Alaska and I need a man to look after things for me.

WILLY: God, timberland! Me and my boys in those grand outdoors! (Act 2)

With the mere mention of timberland, Willy is lost in fantasies of freedom in the great outdoors, suggesting his desperation for escape. He sees life in the wilderness as a chance to really be his own man; however, he's too attached to the ways of city life to go through with such a dream.

BEN: You’ve got a new continent at your doorstep, William. Get out of these cities, they’re full of talk and time payments and courts of law. Screw on your fists and you can fight for a fortune up there.

WILLY: Yes, yes! Linda, Linda! (Act 2)

The American West is depicted as free of confinements and thus ripe with opportunity and prosperity. How realistic is this depiction? Is this reality, or just another dream?

Linda Loman

LINDA [buttoning up his jacket as he unbuttons it]: All told, about two hundred dollars would carry us, dear. But that includes the last payment on the mortgage. After this payment, Willy, the house belongs to us.

WILLY: It’s twenty-five years!

LINDA: Biff was nine years old when we bought it.

WILLY: Well, that’s a great thing. To weather a twenty-five year mortgage is—

LINDA: It’s an accomplishment. (Act 2)

Willy and Linda celebrate their proximity to financial security as a kind of freedom and escape. In many ways, they feel chained by financial concerns and debt.

LINDA [laughing]: That’d be wonderful. But not enough sun gets back there. Nothing’ll grow anymore.

WILLY: You wait, kid, before its all over we’re gonna get a little place out in the country, and I’ll raise some vegetables, a couple of chickens.

LINDA: You’ll do it yet, dear.

[Willy walks out of his jacket. Linda follows him.]

WILLY: And they’ll get married, and come for a weekend. I’d build a little guest house. 'Cause I got so many fine tools, all I’d need would be a little lumber and some peace of mind. (Act 2)

Willy and Linda perceive escape from their urban neighborhood as freedom. The entire play seems to be infused with a longing for a simpler lifestyle. What do you think: is the life of a farmer in the country more free than the life of a salesman in the city?

Biff Loman

WILLY [suddenly conscious of Biff, turns and looks up at him, then begins pocking up the packages of seeds in confusion]: Where the hell is that seed? [indignantly] You can’t see nothing out here! They boxed in the whole goddamn neighborhood!

BIFF: There are people all around here. Don’t you realize that?

WILLY: I’m busy. Don’t bother me. (Act 2)

Willy's frustration at feeling trapped in his own home only shortly before his suicide reflects his profound desire for freedom and escape. Does his suicide provide that escape, or is it just the biggest trap of all?

Linda Loman

LINDA: Forgive me, dear. I can’t cry. I don’t know what it is, but I can’t cry. I don’t understand it. Why did you ever do that? Help me, Willy, I can’t cry. It seems to me that you’re just on another trip. I keep expecting you. Willy, dear, I can’t cry. Why did you do it? I search and search and I search and I can’t understand it, Willy. I made the last payment on the house today. Today, dear. And they’ll be nobody home. [A sob rises in her throat] We’re free and clear. [Sobbing more fully, released] We’re free. [Biff comes slowly toward her] We’re free… We’re free… (Requiem)

Linda's refrain of "we're free" after her comments about mortgage payments implies the linkage of freedom with economic security in Death of a Salesman. The play seems to be making a larger comment on the American system of capitalism. Are we as Americans trapped by our longing for financial gain? Does our focus on material things keep us from truly being free?

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