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Death of a Salesman

Arthur Miller

Study Questions & Essay Topics

Key Facts

Quiz

Study Questions

1. How does Willy’s home function as a metaphor for his ambitions?

When Willy and Linda purchased their home, the neighborhood was quieter than they now find it. The house was surrounded by space and sunlight. Willy was a young man with ambitious hopes for the future, and his house represented a space in which he could expand his dreams. In the present, the house is hemmed in on all sides by apartment units. Willy is a much older man, and his chances of achieving his dreams are much slimmer. His home now represents the reduction of his hopes. There is less room to expand, and the sunlight does not even reach into his yard. In the past, the house was the site of hopeful departure and triumphant return. Willy would set out each week to make a load of money. When he returned, his worshipful sons greeted him, and he whispered into their eager ears his hopes to open his own business. Now, the house is the site of Willy’s frustrated ambitions. When the play opens, Willy returns to his home a defeated man, unable to complete his latest business trip, and with his argument with Biff left unresolved.

2. What role does the fear of abandonment play in Willy’s life?

Willy’s obsession with making his family conform to the ideals of the American Dream seems rooted in the childhood emotional trauma of his abandonment by his father. Since his father left him with nothing, Willy feels an acute need to put his sons—especially Biff—on the right path in life. He convinces himself that he is capable of doing so, which leads to his inflated sense of self-importance (as when he tells his young sons about how well known he is in New England). Willy’s ultimate belief in the deluded prospect of Biff’s imminent success causes him to trade in his own life to leave Biff $20,000. As an additional consequence of being abandoned, Willy knows little about his father and thus has to ask Ben to tell Biff and Happy about their grandfather.

Willy’s fear of abandonment is probably also responsible for his obsession with being well liked. Somewhat childlike, Willy craves approval and reacts to any perceived hint of dislike by either throwing a tantrum or retreating into self-pity. When Ben visits Willy’s home, Willy proudly shows his sons to Ben, practically begging for a word of approval. When Ben notes that he has to leave to catch his train, Willy begs him to stay a little longer. Even as an adult, Willy’s relationship to Ben is fraught with this fear of abandonment. Howard abandons Willy by firing him, and after Happy and Biff abandon him in the restaurant, Willy returns home like a dejected child. After these blows, the power of Willy’s fantasies to deny unpleasant facts about his reality abandons him as well.

3. Willy and Biff have different explanations for Biff’s failure to succeed in the business world. How are their explanations different?

Willy believes that Biff’s discovery of Willy’s adulterous affair contributed to Biff’s disillusionment with the American Dream that Willy cherishes so dearly. He remembers that Biff called him a “phony little fake.” Essentially, Willy interprets Biff’s words to mean that Biff thinks of him as a charlatan: Willy believes that his affair prevented him from selling Biff on the American Dream. On the other hand, Biff believes that he failed to succeed in business precisely because Willy sold him so successfully on the American Dream of easy success. By the time he took his first job, Biff was so convinced that success would inevitably fall into his lap that he was unwilling to work hard in order to advance to more important positions. Biff did not want to start at the bottom and deal with taking orders. He had faith in Willy’s prediction that he was naturally destined to move ahead, so he made no efforts to do so through hard work, and, as a result, he failed miserably.

Suggested Essay Topics

1. Willy recalls his sons’ teenage years as an idyllic past. What evidence can we find to show that the past is not as idyllic as Willy imagines it to be?

2. What evidence can we find to show that Willy may have chosen a profession that is at odds with his natural inclinations?

3. Why does Willy reject Charley’s job offer?

4. How does Willy’s interview with Howard reveal that Willy transfers his professional anxieties onto his relationship with his family and conflates the professional and personal realms of his life?

5. What evidence can we find to show that Willy misses the distinction between being loved and being well liked? What are the consequences of Willy’s failure to distinguish between the two?

6. How is Willy’s retreat into the past a form of escape from his unpleasant present reality? How does it function as a way for Willy to cope with the failure to realize his ambitions?

7. How does Willy’s desperate quest for the American Dream resemble a religious crusade?

More Help

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Simple Minded

by WhiteRaven007, October 09, 2012

I went on here to review for a test, and it was a complete waste of time. The interpretation of the play is no narrow minded my 10 year old brother could have figured it out.

2 Comments

25 out of 160 people found this helpful

Death of a Salesman

by rjkbasck, March 01, 2013

I saw the play; Sparknotes is an excellent recap of the play.

0 Comments

19 out of 25 people found this helpful

WOW

by manoymano, March 02, 2013

Id be better off just reading the book.

1 Comments

6 out of 24 people found this helpful

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