Death of a Salesman: Free Study Guide / Summary / Analysis

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Major Theme

The falsity of the American Dream is the dominant theme of Arthur Miller's play. Willy Loman represents the primary target of this dream. Like most middle-class working men, he struggles to provide financial security for his family and dreams about making himself a huge financial success. After years of working as a traveling salesman, Willy Loman has only an old car, an empty house, and a defeated spirit. Miller chose the job of salesman carefully for his American Dreamer. A salesman does not make his/her own product, has not mastered a particular skill or a body of knowledge, and works on the empty substance of dreams and promises. Additionally, a salesman must sell his/her personality as much as his/her product. Willy Loman falsely believes he needs nothing more than to be well liked to make it big.

Minor Theme

The tragedy of the dysfunctional family, which helps to keep the American Dream alive, is a second important theme of Miller's play. Linda and Happy especially work very hard to keep the fantasy of the dream of success alive. In the dysfunctional Loman family, the wife is restricted to the role of housekeeping and bolstering her husband's sense of self-importance and purpose. A contradictory role given to her is that of the family's financial manager. In effect, Linda juggles the difficult realities of a working class family while making her husband believe that his income is better than adequate. Willy attempts to provide financial security and to guide his sons' future, neither of which he does very well. Unlike the myth of economic mobility in America, the vast majority of people in the working class stay in the working class generation after generation. However, the myth is what Willy Loman lives on. Unfortunately, his illusions do not fit his reality. Finally, the only solution to providing for his family is to kill himself so that they can collect on his life insurance.


The mood is uncomfortably false and depressing throughout the play. The audience is always aware of the family’s trying to keep the truth from one another. The failure of the American Dream is ever present and makes the audience question its own commitment to false dreams.

Arthur Miller - BIOGRAPHY

Arthur Miller was born in New York City on October 17, 1915. His father, Isadore Miller, was prosperous as a shop owner and a manufacturer of women’s coats; however, he lost his fortune in the stock market crash of 1929. The young Miller was forced to work a number of odd jobs to support himself, including being a farm hand. The years after the Depression were formative years for Miller, during which the formerly indifferent student began reading on his own and developing a strong social conscience and sense of justice. He eventually entered the University of Michigan, where he began writing plays and worked on the college newspaper. After graduating in 1938, he moved back to New York, where he continued writing, primarily dramas.

Arthur Miller-Death of a Salesman Free Study Guide/Notes/Summary
Arthur Miller

Arthur Miller’s plays met with great success. The Man Who Had All the Luck, produced in 1944, won a prize offered by New York City's Theatre Guild. His first major success, however, came in 1947 with All My Sons, which won a Drama Critics Circle Award and was made into a film the following year. Death of a Salesman, Miller's most famous work produced in 1949, won a Pulitzer Prize and was made into a film in 1952. Death of a Salesman casts a cold eye on the American Dream and the moral compromises necessary to achieve it. Its hero, the hapless salesman Willy Loman, is a man struggling to make sense of his place in a society that has chewed him up and is preparing to spit him out. The Crucible, a Tony Award winning play produced in 1953, is one of Miller’s finest works, which also shows the playwright’s strong social conscience. Set during the Salem witch trials at the end of the 17th century, it is written as a critique of the extremes and evils of McCarthyism. The play offers a vision of a society consumed by paranoia, in which the age-old problem of doing good in the face of evil becomes a matter of life and death.

Miller's political activities in the 1950’s led him to be called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1956. Like Proctor, the protagonist of The Crucible, he refused to testify against his friends and associates. He was convicted of contempt, but this ruling was later overturned on appeal. After the investigation, Miller continued to be politically active. In 1965, he was elected president of PEN, an international organization of writers dedicated toward world peace and free expression.

Miller has been married three times. He married Mary Grace Slattery in 1940. They had two children, Robert and Jane, before their divorce in 1955. Miller next married Marilyn Monroe in 1956. They were divorced in 1961, following the filming of The Misfits, for which he wrote the screenplay and in which she starred. In 1962 he married the photographer Inge Morath. They have one child, Rebecca Miller, who is an actress.

Miller's works are known for their strong commitment to social justice, their concern for the ordinary person, and their intricate explorations of the inner lives of their characters. Other plays by Miller include A View from the Bridge (1955), After the Fall (1964), Incident at Vichy (1964), The Price (1968), The American Clock (1980), and The Last Yankee (1993). He has also written several travel narratives and a novel. His autobiography, Timebends: A Life, was published in 1987.

Miller continued to be active in the arts and to receive accolades. He won a Kennedy Center award for lifetime achievement in the arts in 1984, and in 1993 he received the National Medal of the Arts from President Clinton. Broken Glass, published in 1994 and written for his late father, received the 1995 Oliver award.

On February 10, 2005, Miller died of congestive heart failure at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut at the age of 89. The date of his death happened to be the 56th anniversary of the Broadway opening of “Death of a Salesman”.


As a dramatist, Miller has more in common with Ibsen, Shaw, Chekov, and Brecht than with his fellow American playwrights, Eugene O'Neil or Thornton Wilder. With Ibsen, Shaw, and Chekov, Miller shares in common the philosophy that the fate of a person is social and that the stage should be considered as a medium more important for ideas than for mere entertainment. As a dramatist, Miller is a moralist, and his plays have a serious intellectual purpose.

The theater of twentieth century America took a long time to come of age. No American dramatist in the early 1900’s dared to experiment with subjects, ideas, or production techniques because theatre was regarded as business. Slowly, in response to the plays of European realistic dramatists, American theater began to change. The years between the end of World War I and the beginning of the Depression saw more frequent reflections of economic problems on the American stage. In 1922, Eugene O'Neill's Hairy Ape represented the psychological defeat of an uncouth proletarian struggling to adjust himself to a complex economic order which he could not understand. Maxwell Anderson's play What Price Glory (1924) dealt with the bitter realities of war and its aftermath.

After World War II, the theatre of social protest fell into disrepute. Senator McCarthy succeeded in suppressing critical dissent and created a climate hostile to the free expression of the artist. During this period, the American theater concentrated on light comedy and lush musicals. Arthur Miller, born in 1915, was a young adult at the time of the suppression of free thinking. He decided to fight McCarthyism and to work for the expression of free ideas in the theatre. He also decided to write plays of social protest. In Death of a Salesman (1949), Miller criticizes the falsity of the American Dream and the emphasis placed on financial success in the United States.

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