Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is often described as the first great American Tragedy and is an excellent choice for analysis on the AP English Literature Free Response Question. This play was published in 1949 and is a social commentary on life after World War II. To put this play into the context of postwar America, Miller portrays a capitalist society so focused on material goods that there is no room for self-expression or understanding of who one is. Death of a Salesman is a critique of the American Dream, its illusionary nature, and what trying to achieve it means for ordinary people’s lives.
Arthur Miller was born in 1915 in New York City. He wrote several well-known and award-winning plays, such as All My Sons, The Crucible and Broken Glass. Death of a Salesman’s main character Willy Loman was inspired by Arthur Miller’s uncle Manny Newman, who Miller had a contentious relationship with and was also a salesman. Death of a Salesman, arguably Miller’s most famous work, takes place during twenty-four hours and chronicles the conflicts within the Loman family.
To a modern audience this play may seem tame in its indictment of American values, but at the time of its publication, it was quite radical. Miller used a European theory existentialism, someone who emphasizes the individual as a free agent to determine their development through acts of free will. Existentialism was centered in European philosophy going back to the 19th century, and in post-World War II many American artists resonated with this philosophy in the face of America’s rising emphasis on materialism and capitalism.
Death of a Salesman serves almost like a time capsule; it uniquely reflects the trials and tribulations facing the fabric of the American family post World War II. At the same time, it is a timeless drama that can be easily transferred into modern times. This play deals with ordinary people who an audience can easily identify themselves in. The core themes of denial, abandonment and betrayal and even the elusive American Dream are still relevant to a modern audience. Miller’s ability to write a play so of its time and, yet; so timeless make Death of a Salesman a wise choice for your AP English Literature Free Response Question.
Death of a Salesman AP English Lit Essay Themes
The American Dream
The most prevalent theme in Death of a Salesman. Arthur Miller’s entire play centers around the feasibility of the American Dream in a capitalist society. Willy believes that if you are “well liked” in business, you will acquire the material possessions the American Dream promises. He sees his brother Ben achieve the American Dream by traveling to Alaska and Africa and stumble into a diamond mind. Willy holds Ben up as the ideal example of a man is good looking, well liked, and manly achieving the American Dream. Indeed Ben’s achievements profoundly influence Willy’s ideas of what success within the framework of the American Dream mean, and he spends the rest of his life trying and failing to achieve it. Willy and his sons are constantly trying to reach these standards of financial success and failing. Ultimately this failure is not the true tragedy of the play. Willy’s tragedy is that he fails to enjoy the real joys that life has to offer him, as the love of his wife and children.
Willy sacrifices his life so that his family can achieve the financial security that he felt the American Dream demanded, which leaves the audience to believe that the American Dream. Sacrificing himself for this materialism makes Willy the perfect symbol of the corrupting nature of the capitalist driven American Dream. In Death of a Salesman, the audience is left with the impression that in the confines of the American Dream an individual is defined solely by their financial worth.
A defining theme for our main character Willy, who can chronicle his life by the times he’s been abandoned. Their father left Willy and his brother Ben at the age of three. In doing this, their father left them with no financial or historical legacy, creating Willy’s feeling of isolation in this world. This abandonment is later followed by Ben abandoning Willy to pursue his dreams in Alaska. It is after these two major events that Willy loses himself in his twisted version of the American Dream. As a result of his earlier abandonment, the audience can infer a fear of future adornment. Willy wants his family to conform to his version of the American Dream. Willy attempts to raise perfect sons but fails due to his inability to understand and face reality in his blind pursuit of the American Dream.
Biff in Willy’s eyes exemplifies promise, and Biff believes in his father’s version of the American Dream until he discovers his father’s infidelity. Willy’s final abandonment occurs from the people he’s been trying to protect the entire play, his sons. After Biff finally reveals that his business proposition is a failure and Willy deteriorates, his children abandon him in the washroom. Ironically Willy’s last action which he considers a sacrifice is also an act of abandonment, perhaps perpetuating the cycle his father started or that the American Dream demands.
A theme that plays out on several different levels in Death of a Salesman. A father and son who each feel betrayed by the other. Willy feels betrayed by Biff due to his unwillingness to follow through on successfully pursuing sales as a career. Biff’s failure is a major blow to Willy because sales to him are directly linked to his pursuit of the American Dream, which Willy believes in above all else. Willy’s inability to sell Biff on following in his footsteps weakens his self-esteem. Biff is betrayed by the illusion that Willy presents to his family, which he realizes when he finds out that Willy is having an affair.
Willy has set an unattainable standard and expectations upon his sons and living with what reality has to offer becomes tough for Biff. Willy’s family is also betrayed by the American Dream, which promised them the perfect life. Ultimately the pursuit of the elusive Dream leads to Willy’s suicide and tearing the illusion of their perfect family apart.
A theme played out through every member of the Loman family. Willy lives in a world of denial. He cannot admit that he is a mediocre salesman because it goes to the core of his belief in the American Dream. Willy lives in the past, distorting his reality, he can hardly distinguish between past recollections and the present. Willy’s sons learn denial directly from their father’s behavior, each distorts and manipulates the truth to try fit Willy’s mold of the American Dream. It isn’t until the end of the play that Biff admits that he, like his father, is a “phony”. Out of the entire Loman family, Linda is the only one who recognizes the denial, but instead of confronting it she goes along with Willy’s fantasies to maintain his fragile mental state. All denial stems from Willy: his sons learn it, and his wife enables it.
How to use Death of a Salesman for the 2014 AP English Literature Free Response Questions
In this Free Response Question, you are asked to explore the act of sacrifice. In your, English Literature Essay analyze how a characters act of sacrifice illustrates their values and how that gives deeper meaning to the overall play.
It has often been said that what we value can be determined only by what we sacrifice. Consider how this statement applies to a character from a novel or play. Select a character that has deliberately sacrificed, surrendered, or forfeited something in a way that highlights that character’s values. Then write a well-organized essay in which you analyze how the particular sacrifice illuminates the character’s values and provides a deeper understanding of the meaning of the work as a whole.
Willy Loman’s ultimate sacrifice in Death of a Salesman underscores his true values in life: achieving success through the American Dream at all costs. Willy Loman commits suicide, sacrificing his life for the financial security of his family that will come with his life insurance. Willy sacrifices the most precious thing he could, his life. This sacrifice illustrates that Willy values are achieving the American Dream above his life. When he realizes that the American Dream is unattainable for him, Willy finds a way to make it a reality for his family. The American Dream that Miller depicts is one predicated on materialism, which is reinforced when Willy chooses to give his family these material comforts instead of a father.
Willy Loman has been abandoned multiple times in his life. First by his father, who left when he was three, then by his brother who left for Alaska and a life of prosperity. These initial abandonments shape Willy’s view of the American Dream. Toward the end of the play, Willy is abandoned a third time by his sons in the Chop House. This action propels him into despair; he sees no way out for his family except sacrificing his life. Ironically this decision leaves his children abandoned and without a father, just like him.
Through Willy’s sacrifice, Miller is ultimately asking the audience to consider what this sacrifice truly is for? Is it a heroic action of a tortured man to better his family or the selfish action of a deluded man who must achieve his ultimate goal even in death? Miller doesn’t provide an answer, but Willy’s sacrifice serves to underscore the corrupting nature of capitalism and the American Dream on the fabric of the American family.
How to use Death of a Salesman for the 2007 AP English Literature Free Response Questions
In this Free Response Question, you are asked to explore the act betrayal. In your English Literature Essay, you will need to analyze the nature of betrayal and what it shows about the greater meaning of Death of a Salesman.
Works of literature often depict acts of betrayal. Friends and even family may betray a protagonist; main characters may likewise be guilty of treachery or may betray their own values. Select a novel or play that includes such acts of betrayal. Then, in a well-written essay, analyze the nature of the betrayal and show how it contributes to the meaning of the work as a whole.
Several characters commit acts of betrayal in Death of a Salesman. Willy feels betrayed by his son Biff, whom he sees so much promise in but who cannot succeed in business. Willy betrays his marriage vows to his wife, Linda. There is so much denial and manipulation in the Loman family, that betrayal must naturally follow.
Biff is betrayed by his father when he learns that Willy has been having an affair. Willy believes that it is the affair itself that is the betrayal that Biff begrudges him for. Biff is understandably upset with his father’s infidelity, but what upsets him is the false reality Willy has created. Biff has wholeheartedly bought into Willy’s idea of the American Dream his entire life, but when he discovers the infidelity, that whole reality is called into question. His values, his path in life, all of his previous decisions are now taken out of the fantasy world that Willy has created.
Biff feels that he is ill-equipped to survive in reality, as he has been brought up to be an unsuccessful phony just as his father. Willy’s real betrayal is creating a false world and allowing Biff to believe he could be truly successful if he just followed in his father’s footsteps. This betrayal underscores Arthur Miller’s message that pursuing the materialism and the American Dream at the expense of the individual will lead to suffering.
With this guide and an in-depth knowledge of Death of a Salesman, you can have great success on the AP English Literature Exam. There are many resources out there to help you practice for the AP English Literature Exam, such as How to Study for the AP English Literature Exam. For an in-depth breakdown into Free Response questions, you should check out The Ultimate Guide to 2016 AP English Literature FRQs. You can take practice online exams at Albert’s AP English Literature Free Response Questions page.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.