Death of a Salesman

Death of a Salesman Essay Questions

  1. 1

    Does Willy Loman die a martyr? How do Linda's and his sons' interpretations of his death differ?


    A strong answer will note that Willy has a noble conception of his suicide - he kills himself because he truly believes that the insurance money will allow his sons to achieve their destined greatness. But Miller does not give the audience the easy satisfaction of seeing Willy's plan come to fruition. It is highly doubtful that the Lomans would actually receive any insurance money at all. He has a record of suicide attempts, and it would be near impossible to convince the insurance company that his death was an accident.

    The crux of an essay should be that Willy thinks he is martyring himself, but his martyrdom is in vain.

  2. 2

    Death of a Salesman is one of the foundational texts describing the American dream. How does Miller's play differ from the more traditional Horatio Alger model? Is Miller overwhelmingly cynical on the topic?


    Strong answers will contrast Miller's pessimistic and cynical take on the concept of the American dream with its glorified Horatio Alger representations. Traditionally, the American dream means that any person can work his way up from the bottom of the ladder to the top. Miller's work isn't so much a direct subversion of that dream as it is an exploration of the way in which the existence of the American dream can ruin a person's expectations.

  3. 3

    Discuss the motif of women's stockings in Death of a Salesman? What are Willy and Biff's attitudes toward them? How do Linda and the woman with whom Willy is having an affair regard them?


    To the women, stockings serve as a symbol of what Willy can provide and as a measure of his success. To Willy, they are a symbol of his guilt over the affair. To Biff, they are a symbol of Willy's fakeness and his betrayal of Linda. Each time the stockings appear, they serve each of these three purposes for every character present.

  4. 4

    Describe the significance of names in this play. How do Happy and Biff's names contrast with or support their characters? Interpret the name "Loman."


    Happy - a boy's name. As his name implies, Happy is someone who should be content - he has a job, an apartment, and a never-ending stream of women - but he remains deeply unhappy.

    Ben - Willy's brother is named after the biblical figure Benjamin, which means "one who is blessed." The biblical Benjamin far outstripped his brothers in all areas, rousing their jealousy.

    Loman - Willy is a low-man. No great hero, he is already so low on the ladder that he has hardly anywhere to fall.

  5. 5

    What is the role of modernity in Death of a Salesman? Have cars and gas heaters fundamentally changed the American dream? How does Miller view these innovations?


    The answer should note that Willy is a man left behind by progress. His is a profession that only functions in a small niche of time - he is reliant on the automobile and the highway system, but can't survive the advent of more sophisticated sales methods than the door-to-door. He is startled and confused by Howard's gadgets, and longs for an outdoors life that involves creating things with his hands.

  6. 6

    Discuss the gender relationships in this play. Are there any positive models for a harmonious relationship? Does Miller find this concept plausible?


    There are only two women of significance in the play, Linda and The Woman, who does not even merit a name. Happy nicely exposits the dichotomy between the two types of women in the world, as represented by his idealized mother and by The Woman and Miss Forsythe. The attitude towards women that Willy modeled for his sons was that women exist to be conquered - and once they've been had, they are no longer worthy of respect.

  7. 7

    Analyze the role of seeds in Act II's final segment. What do they stand for?


    Willy begins to obsess over seeds as he realizes that he has nothing to pass on to his sons. He hasn't created anything real, nothing physical that you can touch with your hand. But seeds are an investment in the future, something that is both tangible and grows with time, and that is what he wants to pass on to his sons.

  8. 8

    Discuss examples of ways in which Willy Loman's suicide is foreshadowed in the first act of the play.


    Be sure to note that the question isn't really whether Willy is going to die, but how. The discussion of Willy as suicidal is quite on the nose in the first act, but what is left ambiguous at that point is the how and the why. We are given both the rubber hose and the car as possible modes of suicide, and general despair and desperation as motivations, but the ultimate motivation of insurance money does not become an issue until the end of the play.

  9. 9

    Compare Death of a Salesman to A Streetcar Named Desire. How do Willy Loman and Blanche Dubois each represent a fundamental element of the American drive towards progress and success?


    Willy and Blanche are both victims of modernity. Willy cannot compete against the young men in the modern business world. And Blanche cannot adapt to the coarseness of life in the new South. Rather than adjusting, both characters descend deeper into their idea of the idealized past, until they lose hold on reality altogether.

  10. 10

    Compare Death of a Salesman and The Great Gatsby. How do Willy Loman and Jay Gatsby suffer a similar fate?

    Answer: Although they lived very different lives - Willy, objectively a failure, and Gatsby, objectively a success - Willy and Gatsby had similar downfalls. Both were caught up in the illusion of the American dream, fervently believing that they could and should reach for the stars. But after a lifetime of having relied on personality to get by, the men found themselves terribly alone, even in death.