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20090318 Miller Day 2

Page history last edited by Jae Sim 11 years, 6 months ago



          Arthur Miller harshly criticizes the myth of the American dream that dates back to the days of Benjamin Franklin in Death of a Salesman (1949). Based on the idea that hard work will lead to success and upward social mobility, the American dream has been a driving force in American society.  Movies such as It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) have positively depicted the American dream in a fairy-tale manner, in which the protagonist succeeds in the end due to his hard work, but Miller annihilates this view of the American dream with the story of Willy Loman and his family. 

          Willy Loman is depicted as a man desperately pursuing the American dream, but he is also a salesman of the American dream.  He himself is sold on this illusion and tries to sell the idea to his sons Biff and Happy but fails tragically. Willy’s ultimate flaw stems from his desperate longing to be well-liked by all, which he equates with achieving the American dream.  Biff’s rejection of Willy’s American dream reflects Willy’s inability as a salesman, which greatly contributes to his downfall as he realizes he is "worth more dead than alive."  Willy believes Biff has quit to spite him after witnessing the affair, and Willy commits suicide filled with spite to prove to both Biff and Linda that he was well-liked.  In the end, Biff and his neighbor Charley come to dichotomous conclusions about Willy. Biff was convinced that his father was confused about his identity and had the wrong dreams. On the other hand, Charley believed that Willy was misunderstood and was whole-heartedly chasing the American dream, as a salesman should. Ironically, Willy’s final wish is granted and ends up as the protagonist of this story by having the attention of an entire play focused on him.


Word Count: 300



"...when I met a salesman in the Parker House. His name was Dave Singleman. And he was eighty-four years old, and he'd drummed merchandise in thirty-one states.....And when I saw that, I realized that selling was the greatest career a man could want. 'Cause what could be more satisfying than to be able to go, at the age of eighty-four, into twenty or thirty different cities, and pick up the phone, and be remembered and loved and helped by so many different people?" -Willy (2362)


  • Willy's decision to become a salesman surfaces in this memory of old Dave Singleman. Willy is extremely attracted to this career and lifestyle because of his desires to be well-liked by everyone. In the end, Willy desperately wants people to come to his funeral to show to his family that he was in fact well-liked, as Dave Singleman was loved, but fails to see the irony in the Singleman's lifestyle and the way he exits the world in a lonely train.  Willy never sees the possibility that there might have been a lack of happiness in Singleman's life as a salesman because he is so blinded by his ambitions.


"There were a lot of nice days. When he'd come home from a trip; or on Sundays, making the stoop; finishing the cellar; putting on the new porch; when he built the extra bathroom; and put up the garage. You know something, Charley, there's more of him in that front stoop than in all the sales he ever made." - Biff (2391, lines 19-23)


  • This statement captures the essence of what Biff believes his father would have enjoyed more than being a salesman. Biff reminisces about his father being truly happy when he was building things with his own hands around the house, and asserts that Willy had the wrong dreams. Throughout the play, Biff constantly struggles with his own identity and future, and he finally comes to the conclusion that he wants to work outdoors with his hands instead of pursuing the elusive American dream. 


"Nobody dast blame this man. You don't understand: Willy was a salesman. And for a salesman, there is no rock bottom to the life. He don't put a bolt to a nut, he don't tell you the law or give you medicine. He's a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back--that's an earthquake. And then you get yourself a couple of spots on your hat, and you're finished. Nobody dast blame this man. A salesman is got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory." - Charley (2391, lines 29-36)


  • Charley is attempting to justify Willy's continuous pursuit of the American Dream as a salesman. According to Charley, it is not the fact that Willy does not know who he is but rather is misunderstood. Charley defends Willy's persistence to dream, as salesmen always need to be dreaming. Charley identifies that when the American dream did not pan out as Willy had imagined, Willy worked to explain why it had not worked out or to convince himself and others that it will work out sooner or later.


Key Terms:

Requiem- Catholic mass held for someone who has died. Music is specifically composed for these masses.

American Dream-  the common idea that freedom and liberty are inherent in the American identity, and that hard work is the key to success.  Has been a driving force in American society and culture since the Founding Fathers' use of the phrase "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."


Other Material

Clip from The Office, Season 2, Episode "Take Your Daughter To Work Day"


Lecture Slides

Day 1 


Day 2 

Comments (1)

Brian Croxall said

at 11:15 pm on Apr 16, 2009

You’ve done a good job with the notes for the second day of Death of a Salesman. You wisely decided to not try to cover what we talked about re: the play on the first day of class. Your summary and definitions are spot on.

Where you could improve just a bit would be in your selection of passages. There’s no doubt that the passages you picked are important, but they also replicate much of what you tell me in the summary. You could have used the passages to pull out something else from the text, then. Perhaps a quotation about Linda, showing how she is partly to blame for Willy’s downfall. Or a passage when Willy is asking Ben what the secret is. Given the constraints in length that I’ve put on you, you want to get as much coverage into these notes as possible as a way to prepare yourselves and your classmates for the exams.

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