Death of a Salesman

by Arthur Miller

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The questions, exercises, and assignments on these pages are designed to guide students' reading of the literary work and to provide suggestions for exploring the implications of the story through discussions, research, and writing. Most of the items can be handled individually, but small group and whole class discussions will enhance comprehension. The Response Journal should provide students with a means, first, for recording their ideas, feelings, and concerns, and then for reflecting these thoughts in their writing assignments and class discussions. These sheets may be duplicated, but teachers should select and modify items according to the needs and abilities of their students.


America has long been known as a land of opportunity. Out of that thinking comes the "American Dream," the idea that anyone can ultimately achieve success, even if he or she began with nothing. In Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, we follow Willy Loman as he reviews a life of desperate pursuit of a dream of success. In this classic drama, the playwright suggests to his audience both what is truthful and what is illusory in the American Dream and, hence, in the lives of millions of Americans. Unusual in its presentation of a common man as a tragic figure, the play received the Pulitzer Prize as well as the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award when it was produced and published in 1949. About the writing of the play, Miller says, "I wished to create a form which, in itself as a form, would literally be the process of Willy Loman's way of mind." To accomplish this, Miller uses the sense of time on stage in an unconventional way to illustrate that, for Willy Loman, ". . . the voice of the past is no longer distant but quite as loud as the voice of the present." Although he denies any direct intent to make a political statement about the capitalist way of life in the United States, Miller brings the American Dream onto the stage for evaluation.

  1. How is the American Dream characteristic of American ideals and philosophy? What are the differences between the materialistic and the idealistic values associated with the American Dream?
  2. What was happening economically and socially in the United States in 1949? Was it fairly easy or difficult to get a job? What was America's standing in the world?
  3. What is your definition of salesman? How is a salesman different from someone in another occupation? What attitudes do you think a salesman should have to be successful? What attitudes would hinder him?
  4. What effect do the expectations of parents have on the behavior of their children? In what ways might parental expectations be beneficial? In what ways might they be detrimental?
  5. As you read through the play, stop occasionally to record your thoughts, reactions, and concerns in a Response Journal. Your journal may be a notebook or individual sheets which you clip together and keep in a folder. Include statements about the characters – what you learn about them, how they affect you – and about the key issues and events in the play. Also, jot down questions you have about events and statements in the play that you do not understand. Your Response Journal will come in handy when you discuss the play in class, write a paper, or explore a related topic that interests you.

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