Study Guide

Death of a Salesman Themes

  • Visions of America

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    O beautiful for spacious skies? Yeah, not so much here. 

    While characters such as Willy, Linda, and Happy believe the U.S. to be a wellspring of easy opportunity and imminent success, the 1940s America of Death of a Salesman is crowded, competitive, and mundane—just like Walmart on Black Friday. This contrast sets up an important gap between reality and characters’ aspirations in the play. In the end, Willy’s belief that his self-worth is determined by material success destroys him. 

    Questions About Visions of America

    1. Does Death of a Salesman attack the American Dream? If so, how?
    2. Compare and contrast the depictions of the East Coast and the American West in Death of a Salesman. What do the different geographic regions represent to Willy? Ben? To Happy and Biff?

    Chew on This

    By directly linking his sense of self-worth to the achievement of the American Dream, Willy’s professional failure becomes personal failure and a crisis of identity.

    Biff’s struggle in Death of a Salesman is primarily one of separating his sense of self-worth from his professional life.

  • Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

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    Like Susan Boyle and Selena, Willy Loman is a dreamer of epic proportions. His dreams of material success and freedom dominate his thoughts to the point that he becomes completely unable to distinguish his wild hopes from rational realities in the present. Happy and Linda also are extremely optimistic, but at least they maintain their ability to distinguish hopes from reality. Biff struggles against the force of Willy’s dreams and expectations more than any other character, and we don't blame him. How'd you like to have a guy like Willy as a dad? Talk about unrealistic expectations.

    Questions About Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    1. Consider Charley’s assertion that dreaming is inherent to, and a necessary quality for, a salesman. Does this seem to hold true in the play?
    2. How does the extremity of Willy’s dreams contribute to his own downfall?
    3. Why does Happy defend his father’s radical aspirations and hopefulness?

    Chew on This

    Dreams function purely as a form of self-deception in Death of a Salesman.

  • Lies and Deceit

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    The Lomans are all extremely self-deceptive, and in their respective delusions and blindness to reality, they fuel and feed off of one another—kind of like praying mantises do after mating. Willy convinces himself that he is successful, well-liked, and that his sons are destined for greatness. Unable to cope with reality, he entirely abandons it through his vivid fantasies and ultimately through suicide. Linda and Happy similarly believe that the Lomans are about to make it big... any day now. Unlike the other members of his family, Biff grows to recognize that he and his family members consistently deceive themselves, and he fights to escape the vicious cycles of lies. It's gotta be tough being the black sheep. 

    Questions About Lies and Deceit

    1. What compels the Lomans to deceive themselves and one another?
    2. How does self-deception function as a coping mechanism for the Lomans?
    3. Compare and contrast instances of attempted deception between members of the Loman family with instances in which a Lomans try to deceive someone outside of the family (for example, Willy’s deception of Linda as opposed to his deception of Howard). How are the outcomes different?

    Chew on This

    Willy, Linda, and Happy use self-deception as a means to mentally escape the realities of their lives when they are unable do so physically, like Biff and Ben when they move out of New York.

  • Success

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    Throughout Death of a Salesman, Willy pursues concrete evidence of his worth and success. He is entranced by the very physical, tangible results of Ben’s diamond-mining efforts and strives to validate his own life by imagining similar material signifiers of success. Willy projects his own obsession with material achievement onto his sons, who struggle with a conflict between their intangible needs and the pressure to succeed materially. Let's just hope they have better luck than their parents at figuring it all out. 

    Questions About Success

    1. To what extent is tangible wealth essential to Willy? To Happy? Biff? Linda? Charley and Bernard?
    2. How is the possession of tangible wealth linked to the concept of freedom and escape in Death of a Salesman?

    Chew on This

    Willy’s obsession with obtaining concrete evidence of success distracts him from recognizing the important intangibles in his life, particularly the love of his family members.

  • Respect and Reputation

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    Reputation is one of Willy’s primary concerns. He thinks that all you need to succeed is to be attractive and well-liked. Ha!—if only it were so easy. He celebrates his son’s popularity in high school, asserting that it is vastly more important to be fawned over than to be honest or talented. This might be true if you're Kim Kardashian, but alas, the Loman family has nothing on the Kardashians. Much of the time, Willy considers himself a well-liked man. He aspires to be just like a salesman he knew whose death was mourned far and wide. Despite his fixation on reputation, Willy and his family members are neither well-known nor well-liked, and Willy’s funeral is sparsely attended. Harsh. 

    Questions About Respect and Reputation

    1. To what extent does being well liked matter in the business world of Death of a Salesman?
    2. Who, if anyone, is well-liked? Does any link seem to exist between being well-liked and behaving virtuously?
    3. Let’s talk about Dave Singleman, the well-known salesman, and his death. How is he mythologized? How does his death compare to Willy’s?
    4. How does Willy idealize his sons, and especially Biff? How does he idealize Ben?

    Chew on This

    Willy’s obsession with being well-liked hurts his reputation by detracting from his focus on working hard, living ethically, and behaving virtuously toward others.

    Willy mythologizes important figures in his life in order to validate his dreams. If others can achieve his hopes, so can he.

  • Appearances

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    The entire Loman family places heavy value on appearances and good looks. Many of Willy's fondest memories of Biff involve his son dwarfing others with his personal attractiveness. In addition, when Willy gives in to feelings of self-doubt, he worries that it's his appearance that's holding him back in business. Death of a Salesman may be making a larger statement by showing the Lomans' fixation on attractiveness over real substance—could the play be trying to get across the idea that all of America falls prey to the very same mistake? What do you think? Is America itself way too obsessed with image and appearance?

    Questions About Appearances

    1. What relationship, if any, does appearance have with success in Death of a Salesman?
    2. What might the Lomans’ fixation on appearance suggest about their abilities in other areas?
    3. Discuss the passage in which Willy attributes his business problems to his appearance. What makes him think this is the source of his problems?

    Chew on This

    Biff’s dedication to keeping up his appearance suggests his remaining desire to impress his father.

  • Pride

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    Pride in Death of a Salesman functions as a means of self-deception and as a coping mechanism. The Lomans, and particularly Willy, are extremely proud even though the basis for their pride is not at all founded in reality. Willy celebrates his own "astounding success" in business and the accomplishments of his sons while the Lomans struggle financially. He is too proud to accept a job from Charley, a man whom he considers to be his inferior, yet accepts loans that he's unable to repay. Throughout the play, we're shown that Willy and his family are incredibly proud people with nothing real to be proud of.

    Questions About Pride

    1. What are sources of pride for Willy? What might they suggest about him?
    2. Why does Willy refuse Charley’s job offer despite his financial need?
    3. Does Biff exhibit any of his father’s pride? If so, how?

    Chew on This

    Willy’s false pride in Death of a Salesman results from his need to bridge the gap between reality and his expectations.

  • Abandonment

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    Abandoned by his father and brother when he was extremely young, Willy is left materially and emotionally ungrounded. However much he fears abandonment himself, he made his son Biff feel emotionally abandoned when Biff discovered Willy's secret affair. Willy's powerful fear of abandonment drives him to form unrealistic expectations for and obsess over his sons. When Biff found out about Willy's affair, he did in fact abandon his father and pretty much disappeared for many years. Willy permanently abandons his son and family at the end of Death of a Salesman by committing suicide. Ironically, this final decision on Willy's part was a final attempt to connect and give something to his son.

    Questions About Abandonment

    1. What factors contribute to Willy’s fear of abandonment?
    2. Why is Linda so preoccupied with protecting Willy from abandonment?
    3. How does Willy’s fear of abandonment actually function to drive his sons further away from him? (Isn’t that ironic?)

    Chew on This

    Contrary to Willy assumptions, Biff does not emotionally abandon his father even after he discovers the affair.

  • Freedom and Confinement

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    The theme of freedom and confinement is closely tied to economic security in Death of a Salesman. Linda and Willy long to escape both the physical confinement of their home and the economic confinement of their limited income, home mortgage, and bills. They idolize faraway lands such as Alaska and Africa as places of literal and figurative escape. Similarly, Biff finds New York to utterly confine him and can only imagine happiness and freedom working with his hands in the wide open West. Ultimately, the play seems to paint America's incredibly competitive version of capitalism as something that traps its citizens. This depiction is pretty ironic since America is supposed to be "the land of the free"a place where if you work hard, you're free to make your dreams come true.

    Questions About Freedom and Confinement

    1. What’s up with Linda’s repetition of "we’re free" at the end of the play? Who is "we"? What are these mysterious "we" people free from? What light does this shed on the play as a whole?
    2. How do the physical limits of the Lomans’ home and neighborhood serve as a metaphor for the Lomans’ figurative confinement? What if you figure in the physical vastness of the American West, Africa, and all those other places that start with "A"?
    3. Does anyone achieve freedom or escape in Death of a Salesman? Who? How?

    Chew on This

    Willy perceives his suicide as a means of achieving freedom.

    While he knows suicide renders his own escape impossible, Willy hopes it will achieve freedom for his son Biff.

  • Betrayal

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    Death of a Salesman is full of betrayal. Willy betrays Linda’s love and Biff’s trust with his affair. As the chief betrayer himself, Willy is preoccupied by the fear of betrayal. His frequent accusations that Biff is spiteful reflect his understanding that Biff’s failure in business is a rejection of Willy’s own dreams of success, and that Biff’s inability to keep a job is related to Willy’s love affair. Even outside of his family, Willy feels that his boss is betraying him by firing him, but Howard says that there’s no room for feelings of betrayal in the business world.

    Questions About Betrayal

    1. Why does Willy perceive Biff’s failure in business as an act of betrayal? How does this differ from Biff’s own understanding of his difficulties in business?
    2. What does Willy’s response to seeing Linda mend her stockings say about his own betrayal and his fears of betrayal?

    Chew on This

    Happy's and Linda’s blindness to Willy’s betrayal distorts their perception of Biff’s relationship with his father. Because of their ignorance, they can never understand why Biff feels as he does.