Death of a Salesman : an extended introduction

Introduction: the structure of the play

In Miller’s mind, Death of a Salesman was not an abstract concept but the concrete image of an enormous head that would be on stage, opening up the play, so that spectators would be able to see inside. It was a very ambitious idea and the original title was The Inside of his Head.

In Death of a Salesman, the spectator is plunged into the main character’s head. There is no linear onward progression – it is a play with interruption and the striking characteristic of Death of a Salesman is its uninterrupted dramatic tension. Tragic density can be found from the beginning to the end.

Miller: ‘it is not a mounting line of tense, nor a gradually come of intensifying suspense but a block, a single chord presented as such at the outset, within which all the strains and melodies would already been contained’.

Hence, everything is in place at the beginning and the music takes a great deal of importance for it is used to set the mood. It is time now to make the difference between the different kinds of plots.

The external plot represents the succession of events perceived by Willy Loman (present – objective reality). The internal plot deals with Willy’s stream of consciousness -his memories and obsessions (subjective reality). The music points to the fact we move to the character’s present to his past.

I. The external plot

Death of a Salesman is made up of two acts without any scenes. The requiem is a burial scene. The play is about the last 24 hours of Willy Loman’s life; it starts in ‘media res’, i.e. in the middle of an action that has already begun.

Act I starts on Monday night and at the end of it, all characters go to bed.

Act II is about Tuesday’s events at 10am. The action is no more limited to the Lomans’ house -the two sons go the restaurant… At 6pm, they go out with two girls. Later, they found Willy sowing seeds. There is an argument, a show down between Biff and Willy. Then, a car is heard roaring in the night. The curtain falls.

The requiem recounts the day of the funeral, which is not precisely set in time. Let us say out of time. It does not conclude convincingly the play. It is rather open.

The play also has a subheading, which is ‘Certain Private Conversations in Two Acts and a Requiem’. We can deduce a tension between the private sphere (son/father – husband/wife) and the requiem for it is public, attended by lots of people.

Willy Loman is both a private character, nonetheless with a public dimension. Both public and private, he stands for the average American.

A. Act One: from fantasy to concrete decisions

Act I shows how the initial state of despair caused by Willy’s professional incompetence is replaced by decisions to change things: ‘everything will be allright’. Act I establishes :

  • Willy’s mental collapse [Exposition: p7-14]
  • Biff and Happy’s incapacity to face up the real [Complication: p14-21]
  • Linda’s last-ditch attempt to open her sons’ eyes [Crisis: p41-48] [Resolution: p48-54]

1. Willy’s mental collapse

Miller: ‘the ultimate matter with which the play will close is announced at the outset’. The play is set in motion when Willy comes back home late.

The first symptom we get is the fact Willy shifts between morbidity and optimism -p8: ‘I am tired to the death‘ and later ‘God dammit‘, full of energy. Such abrupt changes a mind point to a character who is cracking up.

Second symptom: Willy has a tendency to contradict himself -p11: ‘Biff is a lazy bum’ and later ‘such a hard worker. We cannot expect coherence from Willy.

Third symptom: Willy is in a state of mental hyperactivity. His mind is overacting and he cannot see things clearly. His mind has run out of control. He is confused and no longer able to make sense of reality. For instance, he takes the Studebaker for his old Chevvy.

The allusion to the need to change glasses may be seen as Willy’s incapacity to bring reality into focus.

2. Biff and Happy’s incapacity to cope with the real

Biff has returned home after a long absence and the night before he has had a quarrel with Willy – ‘did he apology this morning’ (p11). It is proleptic of the end of Act II.

There are close links between the events occurring in Act I and Act II. The argument probably occurred shortly after Biff got off the train: it is not represented on stage but only alluded to.

Biff and Happy are not able to face up the reality. They are constantly trying to divert their attention from real facts. The choice of the names indicates their reluctance to face reality.

Happy: a cliché like ‘happy-go-lucky’ (= avoid difficulty). Happy is only interested in leading a carefree life, earning just enough money, working in an office without any decisions to make. Happy represents the city man, the city dweller. He proves his powers as a womanizer and makes a point at seducing his bosses’ wives.

Biff: can be read in reverse (fib = lie). A fibber is a person who tells lies not to face the truth. He is a character who tends to deny reality because it is upsetting and disturbing.

None of them is ready to deal with Willy’s problems. Biff has chosen to escape the family to live on a ranch. He is a drifter, he went to Nebraska, Dakotas, Arizona, Texas (p16). He represents two American stereotypes: the man on the move and the man living close to Nature (escaping the modern world and cities). There is a refusal to assume responsibilities.

The point of the play lies in Biff’s attitude for he is always repeating he is not responsible: ‘just don’t lay it all at my feet’ (p45). The other point is the terrible secret shared between Biff and Willy. Biff does not want to come back on it: ‘it’s between me and him. That’s all I have to say‘ (p45). Both shirk their responsibilities. Biff’s role is more important than Happy’s.

3. Linda’s last-ditch attempt to open her sons’ eyes

The crisis from p41 to p48 is momentarily solved p48-54. Linda tells her sons and the audience that a moment of crisis has been reached: ‘a terrible thing is happening to him‘ (p44).

The function of Linda is to establish Willy’s significance as a human being. Willy Loman could be a type (low man) but he is a human being with private emotions and personal feelings. Linda permits a shift of perspective.

She contributes to creating a realistic dimension: she constantly reminds Willy of practical details of everyday life (unpaid bills, repair jobs, or equipment that need to be replaced). She is a warrant of objective reality.

In Death of a Salesman, a lot is seen through Willy’s consciousness. It is tempting to say that most of the play is a representation of Willy’s mind. Yet, Linda’s offers an exterior viewpoint; spectators are invited through Linda to see Willy from the outside.

Linda is a protagonist, an intermediary between the audience and the play. She soothes Willy, on whom she lavishes motherly care, and raises the alarm by calling the boys’ attention to their father’s suicide attempts. She has a passive role but she can evaluate the situation and prompts her sons to act.

At the end of Act I, Linda has succeeded in transforming the mood of the play from fantasy and obsession to resolution and determination:

  • Willy will talk to Howard
  • Biff is to pay a visit to Bill Oliver to get a new start in life.

B. Act Two: projects dashed by reality

Act II is action-packed. New places are introduced:

  • Howard Wagner’s office
  • Charley’s office
  • Frank’s Chop House

The theatrical technique is more sophisticated. A telephone conversation establishes another action and reports Biff’s visit to Bill Oliver. Miller created a higher sense of suspense by using a theatrical prop -the telephone- so that the audience can participate in the reported action.

It creates a sense of action: Miller uses alternatively theatrically represented scenes (Linda on the phone) and reported episodes (Biff’s visit to Oliver). The telephone creates dramatic tension. New characters are introduced:

  • Jenny: Charley’s secretary
  • Stanley: the waiter
  • Miss Forsythe and Letta: two broads

1. The staging of physical action

Act two shows the physical display of action. Emotions and feelings are translated into physical movements. This tone of action is set right from the beginning of Act II. Apathy is replaced by movement: ‘I’m gonna do it‘ says Willy (p57).

The point of Act II is to demonstrate that all this energy will prove to be wasted. It brings no tangible results. Willy only manages to get the ax: ‘I think you need a good long rest‘ says Howard (p65). Biff only manages to get into trouble, to get himself in a tight spot by stealing Oliver’s fountain pen. Linda herself cracks up.

2. Failures to communicate

A stock of theatrical devices in the play is used in the play. First, there are exchanges at cross purposes when two characters are talking of two different things (not on the same wavelength). Then dramatic irony, when spectators understand more than the character (the audience knows that Biff was not received by Bill Oliver but Willy does not (p.85)).

A two-level dialogue appears when Willy talks to Linda (present reality) and to Ben (imaginary): the communication is not immediate but hampered because reality and hallucination interfere with one another.

In Act II, a scene is symbolic of the (in)capacity to communicate: the scene in which Willy visits Howard, who is more interested in his recording machine than in talking.

The recording machine, which should help communication, creates an obstacle to communication, a barrier between Willy and Howard. It is emblematic of the difficulty to communicate.

3. Lies and delusions

In Act II, lying is an important topic and even becomes a necessity. For instance, Biff cannot tell Willy what happened at Bill Oliver’s. He understands that telling the truth might be lethal and kill his father for Willy has just been sacked, p.84: “there’s a big blaze going all around. I’ve been fired today”.

This image is hyperbolic: it is a traumatic experience for Willy. Biff cannot add disaster after disaster. He avoids speaking the truth to protect his father, not letting the cat out of the bag.

Later on, Biff finally says: “so I’m washed up with Oliver”. It is too much for Willy to hear: he is carried back into the past. When Biff says “I kept sending in my name”, what Willy hears is “Biff flunked maths”.

This scene of the past is less tragic than the present one. The past is a protective screen that allows Willy not to be confronted with the harshness of life.

4. The final showdown

The showdown has been prepared. When Willy called on Bernard, the latter made an allusion: after going to Boston, Biff has never been the same again. The audience understands that something important took place in Boston.

Some of Miller’s moral principles are explained. Miller believed that writing a play is to make a moral statement. The message could be that sooner or later facts must be faced or there comes a moment when one must assume full responsibility for the consequences of one’s deeds.

Biff is going to force his father to recognize a few things:

  • Willy is a coward: he intends to commit suicide with a rubber pipe. But Biff takes it off: “Allright phony! Then let’s lay it on the line.” (p.103)
  • Biff makes a painful revelation: “I stole a suit in Kansas City and I was in jail.” (p.104). All his father’s ambitions are ruined.
  • Willy is under the illusion he will make money and rise in society. What Biff pushes Willy to accept is that they are simple ordinary people: they are “a buck an hour”. There is no need to build castles in the air and to lie to oneself.

When Biff and Willy are about to fight, the dramatic tension turns into a high emotional pitch because emotion prevails: Biff bursts into tears and holds on to Willy. It is an important stage in the play when Willy becomes aware that his son has never stopped loving him. Willy is reinforced in his determination to pass on a legacy: his life insurance.

C. The Requiem

Is an important passage two. It is characterized by 2 ideas. First, it is subject to several interpretations because of equivocation. Lots of critics were disappointed by the requiem: it does not provide a final ending and leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Then, despite the tragedy, it seems that the characters have not changed in any significant way.

Happy still repeats the same rubbish: “to come out number one man”. He continues denying reality and even passes moral judgment “he had no right to do that”. Happy is the same as ever.

Biff has not changed his projects (go back West and run a ranch). He seems to have learned no lesson and he is committed to searching through movement and space what he could find in relationships.

Going West is a way of escaping reality and the changing world. He praises his father and his manual abilities: what he likes is not the fighting man but the figure of a settler who built his house.

Charley makes a lyrical speech, turning salesmanship into poetry. The survival of the salesman depends on his capacity to convince with his words. The potential buyer must dream. It is a positive image of Willy’s destiny.

Linda has the final word. Here again, ambiguity prevails. Linda truly loves Willy but her love has not permitted her to understand the man. Love is powerless: “I search and I search and I search , and I can’t understand it”.

She is too immersed in realism to see there was a spiritual dimension in Willy in climbing the social ladder. Not pure ambition but something highly respectable.

II. The internal plot (stream of consciousness)

If the external plot of Death of a Salesman may be subdivided into chronologically organized sequences: Act one (Monday evening and night); Act two (Tuesday), and the requiem a few days after (Willy’s burial), the same is not true of the internal plot: Willy’s stream of consciousness.

In “the inside of Willy’s head”, past and present are blurred. Memories constantly impinge on present situations and, conversely, the present is put at some distance by the flood of recollections.

The past/present dichotomy is replaced by a non-past; non-present, in which different temporal layers commingle and coalesce. This non-past/non-present is confined to Willy’s inner mind, to Willy’s subjective world.

A. “A mobile concurrency of past and present”

(Miller: from his introduction to his Collected Plays, p. 26)

Miller’s aim in Death of a Salesman is to erase any gap between a remembered past – that would be evoked through words (language) – and a present that would be performed on stage. In Death of a Salesman, both past and present are given theatrical representation. There is no clear-cut boundary between them.

Thanks to the expressionistic technique of scrim and curtain, the characters may exist in both the present and the past. For example, Biff and Happy are seen as teen-agers and adults successively.

There are no flashbacks in Death of a Salesman. Better than the erroneous term ‘flashback’, the phrase double exposure would be more appropriate. In Willy’s mind, past and present exist on the same level, Willy perceives himself both in the present and in the past – which is made up of various strata.

In a way, Willy is schizophrenic: overwork, worry, and repressed guilt have caused his mental collapse. In this state of a nervous breakdown, past and present are inextricably mingled, time is, as it were, exploded.

In Death of a Salesman, Willy is both the self-remembering I, looking back upon himself, and the remembered I itself, that is to say, the salesman as he used to be. Similarly, the same actors play their present and past selves, this is the case not only for Willy’s sons but also for Bernard, who has become a successful lawyer.

The dramatic units, notably time, have been abolished in the most radical sense, indeed the function of memory entails a multiplicity of temporal levels, a series of different locations (Boston; New York but also the Prairie through Willy’s father), and finally a loss of any fixed identity.

In a sense, the exploded house, with its transparent walls, its scrims, and curtains is an objective correlative (a concrete, practical, tangible image) for an exploding consciousness, in which spatial and temporal fragments get intertwined.

B. A survey of the episodes of the past

The past is deeply subjective. It is not uniform. It takes many different shapes.

1. Recollections

First, there are scenes that are fully immersed within the past (the boys simonizing the Chevy; the episode of the punching ball; the cellar full of boys; the contrast between Bernard the anemic and Biff an Adonis). Here is a survey of the main episodes that are plunged in the past (music; different lighting).

[21-29]: the united family and their neighbours

[30-31] the same family scene is taken up and prolonged – Bernard is used as a choric voice “If he doesn’t buckle down he’ll flunk math” (31)

[36-41] Ben’s first visit: some horseplay between Ben, Biff and Happy (38) “Never fight fair with a stranger, boy” (38)

[66-70] Ben’s second visit. He’s got a proposition for Willy. Willy turns it down. This second visit happens to be on the day of Ebbets Field Tournament.

[91-95] The climactic episode of the past: Biff finds out his father in a Boston hotel with his mistress: Miss Francis: a traumatic episode.

All these episodes are framed within the past.

2. Double exposure

The action unfolds simultaneously in the past and in the present, through Willy’s split consciousness. The effect is achieved through a montage dialogue.

[34-36] The card game scene in stichomythic dialogue. It prepares the shift into the past. As soon as Charley leaves, we enter the past: “through the wall line of the kitchen”.

Stichomythia: a form of repartee in drama: the words of the locutor and those of his interlocutor echo each other. One character takes up the words of his opponent, thus creating antithesis or parallel syntactic constructions:

WILLY: Naa, he had seven sons; There’s just one opportunity 1 had with that man…

BEN: I must make a train, William. There are several properties I’m looking at in Alaska.

WILLY: Sure, sure! If I’d gone with him to Alaska that time, everything would’ve been totally different.

CHARLEY: Go on, you’d froze to death up there.

WILLY: What ‘re you talking about?

BEN: Opportunity is tremendous in Alaska…

WILLY: Sure, tremendous.(35)

[86-91] the restaurant scene, and simultaneously, allusions to the day when the Regents results were disclosed – Bernard’s choric voice may be heard and little by little echoes from the Boston hotel become more and more perceptible.

[106-108] Willy is conversing with Ben and, at the same time, answering Linda’s repeated invitations to come to bed.

3. Hallucinations

Spectators do not lose sight of the present context but are made to understand that suddenly Willy has lapsed into a mental vision and therefore cut himself off from his immediate environment.

[64 bottom of the page] in Howard Wagner’s office, Willy stares at the empty seat and addresses Frank, who is, of course, absent, long dead and gone…

[99] In his garden, as Willy discusses with Ben’s ghost, spectators realize that the ghost is very much a figment of Willy’s distorted mind. In fact, it is Willy talking to himself.

4. Mnemonic mise-en-abime

From mnemonic (memory), hence a memory within a memory.

[29-31] The scene is set in the past, it stages Willy and Linda, when they were younger, from this first recollection emerges another recollection (a memory within a memory). In this second recollection, the Woman (Miss Francis) appears, first her voice can be heard.

Her laughter permits the shift from one level of the past to another. It seems that the mistress is laughing at the wife’s generous remark:

LINDA: To me you are [slight pause] The handsomest. (First temporal level)

From the darkness is heard the laughter of a woman …(Second temporal

The stocking is the metonymic object which brings together the two women in Willy’s life: Linda is darning her stockings while Miss Francis is offered brand new ones by Willy: “And thanks for the stockings. I love a lot of stockings.” (30); So, this memory within a memory contributes to increasing Willy’s sense of guilt.

C. Subjective characterization

Willy spends most of his time on stage, in a continuous flow of words. He engages in conversations with characters who, like his sons or Charley, belong to his real, immediate environment. But he also discusses with figures who surge up from the inner world of his consciousness: Miss Francis; his older Brother Ben or Frank Howard.

In this sense Death of a Salesman can be regarded as a “psychomachia”. Willy, like Everyman the mediaeval character, generates other personalities, which are mental creations, and represent fragmented aspects of himself.

These imaginary presences are like mirrors or doubles illustrating facets of Willy’s splintered personality.

Psychomachia: from psycho: mind and makhe (Greek): fight, so antagonistic forces that are fighting inside the protagonist’s mind.

1. The ideal types in the fantasy realm

Since everything is supposed to be strained through Willy’s consciousness, the play’s structure also depends upon the characters’ proximity to him.

The most distant the characters are, the most idealized they are. Thus Willy’s father is the absolute’ ego ideal. He is referred to twice in the play: during Ben’s first visitation (38) and briefly when Willy calls on Howard Wagner (63).

Willy’s father is a part-mythic, part allegorical figure that belongs to his very earliest, and vaguest childhood recollections: he is a fantasized image, a romanticized Father figure, or the paradigmatic embodiment of the heroic pioneer.

Ben represents an ideal figure that stands closer to reality. In Willy’s consciousness, Ben bridges the gap between the realm of fancy and the reality level. It is Ben’s qualities of toughness, unscrupulousness and implacability in the pursuit of gain, that Willy wishes for himself and wants his sons to emulate.

Dave Singleman represents success that is potentially within reach. Singleman offers the perfect illustration that being well-liked is the surest and shortest way towards success.

Now Death of a Salesman demonstrates that the high values incarnated by these various ideal figures do not find any close correspondences or parallels in Willy’s actual life.

All the characters who surround Willy in the present, fail to live up to the status of those idealized types.

2. Real characters falling short of Willy’s ego ideals

The dramatic structure of Death of a Salesman may be ascribed to the tension between Willy’s fantasizing episodes, which are peopled by mythic figures, and his having to come to terms with real, unexceptional characters.

Biff most closely resembles his grandfather, through his preference for leading the life of a drifter (adventurer) out West. He has a touch of the artist and dreamer in his temperament. Yet he also breaks his father’s absolute ego ideal by turning out to be a loser, a failure: “and every time I come back here I know that all I’ve done is to waste my life (17)

Happy could correspond to Ben but only in a debased way. He shares his uncle’s unscrupulousness and amorality but lacks his sense of purpose. So, again, he somehow belittles one of his father’s ideal types. Through his philandering (girl chasing) and nursing of injured pride, he also reminds his father of parts of himself, which he would much rather ignore.

Charley is Dave Singleman brought down to earth. Indeed he has none of the flamboyance and panache of the adventurous salesman. He is salesmanship domesticated. Charley is the perfect embodiment of the no-nonsense businessman.

It is all the more humiliating for Willy to depend financially on Charley, as Charley’s example of success is in contradiction with Willy’s romanticized vision of capitalism.


One of the weaknesses of Death of a Salesman could come from the fact that the Requiem violates the subjective approach that Miller adopted in the first two acts. The Requiem is flagrantly outside Willy’s mind.

This may be the reason why the consistency of vision that had been achieved through Willy’s consciousness is eventually lost. The irony of the play is that most of the action only goes on within the protagonist’s mind.

It is ironic because what is needed is not an imaginary action but a real one: decisions that might change the course of things.

By removing Willy from the play before the end, some of the tension that had been achieved through the “memory play” is lost.

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