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

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Although the plot of the play is basically unified by time, place, and characters, there is one striking exception. The present setting of the play takes place in a single day in 1942, in and around the Loman household in New York. There are only three main characters - Willy, Biff, and Happy. There are even few minor characters, such as Linda, Charley, Bernard, Oliver, and Ben. As a result, it would seem that the play was structured in an extremely tight fashion. However, the entire chronological progression of the play is repeatedly interrupted by a series of flashbacks that occur in Willy’s mind as dreams or illusions. The flashbacks go as far into the past as 1928 and reach to places outside of New York, including a hotel room in Boston. Sometimes, the flashbacks make the play difficult to follow, for it is hard to distinguish the past from the present on stage. Miller uses several techniques to make the plot easier to follow.

The setting is used to help show the movement past and present. On stage, the Loman house is really only a part of a house with the audience being able to see through the walls. When the action of the play is in the present, the characters observe all the doors and walls. When the action shifts to the past, the characters ignore the walls and walk right through them. The structure of the play, therefore, emphasizes the difference between illusion and reality. But Willy Loman's problem is that he is incapable distinguishing between illusion and reality; as a result, he sometimes brings his illusions over into the present, especially as he calls upon his dead brother Ben to help him.

The play begins with flute music, which develops a sad, melancholic mood. Traditionally, the flute is used to suggest a dreamy existence, and in this play, the flute music conveys Willy’s illusions. As the play progresses, the flute takes on added meaning. It is revealed that Willy's father had made his own flutes and had become a traveling salesman to offer the flutes throughout the Midwest. The play actually begins at a moment when Willy feels trapped by all the events of his past and present life. The scenes of the past are shown on the stage to inform the reader how they have affected Willy's present life.

The plot of the play is fairly simplistic. In the opening scenes of the first act, the play is set and the main characters are introduced. It becomes evident early in the plot development that Willy Loman is the protagonist and his problem is being able to separate illusion from reality. Most of the time he lives in a dream world in which he believes that both he and his sons are successful. The rising action of the play, presented in both the present and through flashbacks, reveals the extent of Willy’s problems; he refuses to accept his life as it is and believes that both Happy and Biff are capable of wonderful things in life, even though Biff has been unable to hold down a job and Happy lives for the moment without much thought or planning. The climax occurs when Biff forces the truth about himself and Willy on his father. It is more than Willy can handle; as a result, he goes about planning his own suicide in the falling action. In the conclusion or denouement, Miller reveals that virtually no one outside of family attends Willy’s funeral, proving the futility of the life of the man who felt that being popular and well liked was all important. It is a tragic ending to a tragic play, where the world of illusions totally overcomes the protagonist.

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