In this paper I’m going to focus on the themes, and also do an analysis of the main characters in the book. I’m going to focus on the theme of the concept of illusion and reality and the nature of the characters and their impact and contribution to the play.
The main theme in Death of a Salesman is illusion versus reality.
Willy has lived his entire life in a world of illusions. These
illusions include Willy’s belief that being well-liked is the key to
success, as well as the literal illusions that Willy has of his past.
Originally, Biff shared Willy’s illusions of success and greatness,
but by the end of the play he has become completely disillusioned.
Once Biff comes to fully understand his place in life, he says to
Willy, I’m a dime a dozen, and so are you. Willy, however, has lived
too long in his dreams and cannot understand what Biff is trying to
say. If Willy had to face reality, he would then be forced to examine
the affair he had in Boston, his philosophy, and all of his illusions.
Instead, he prefers to live in the past. And now Biff, who is trying
to confront the truth about himself, finds that he is completely
unable to commuicate with his father.
Another theme of Death of a Salesman is the old order of agrarian
pride and nobility versus the new order of industrialization. In the
beginning of the play, Willy foreshadows this theme by criticizing the
changes brought about by industrialization. The street is lined with
cars. There’s not a breath of fresh air in the neighborhood. It is
this conflict between the old and new orders that brings about Willy’s
downfall. Willy’s father, a pioneer inventor, represents the
traditional values and way of life that Willy was brought up on. So
does Dave Singleman, the eigthy-four year old salesman that inspired
Willy to go into the sales industry. Howard, the young boss of Willy’s
company, represents the impersonal and ruthless nature of capitalistic
enterprise. When Willy goes in to ask Howard if he can be transferred
to a job in New York, Howard refuses to help him even though Willy has
been working for the company for several decades and was good friends
with his father. When Willy asks why he cannot be reassigned, Howard
replies, ?it’s a business, kid, and everybody’s gotta pull his own
weight, thus demonstrating Howard’s cold indifference to Willy’s
The main conflict in Death of a Salesman deals with the confusion
and frustration of Willy Lowman. These feelings are caused by his
inability to face the realities of modern society. Willy’s most
prominent delusion is that success is dependant upon being well-liked
and having personal attractiveness. Willy builds his entire life
around this idea and teaches it to his children. When Willy was young,
he had met a man named Dave Singleman who was so well-liked that he
was able to make a living simply by staying in his hotel room and
telephoning buyers. When Dave Singleman died, buyers and salesmen from
all over the country came to his funeral. This is what Willy has been
trying to emulate his entire life.
Willy’s need to feel well-liked is so strong that he often makes
up lies about his popularity and success. At times, Willy even
believes these lies himself. At one point in the play, Willy tells his
family of how well-liked he is in all of his towns and how vital he is
to New England. Later, however, he tells Linda that no one remembers
him and that the people laugh at him behind his back. As this
demonstrates, Willy’s need to feel well-liked also causes him to
become intensely paranoid. When his son, Biff, for example, is trying
to explain why he cannot become successful, Willy believes that Biff
is just trying to spite him. Unfortunately, Willy never realizes that
his values are flawed. As Biff points out at the end of the play, he
had the wrong dreams.
In many ways Biff is similar to his father. In the beginning of
the play we see that Biff shares many of the same ideas as Willy.
He values being well-liked above everything else and sees little value
in being smart or honest. One of Biff’s main flaws is his tendency to
steal. Early in the play we learn that he has stolen a football from
the school locker. When Willy finds out about this, instead of
disciplining Biff, he says that the coach will probably congratulate
him on his initiative. We also learn that Biff once stole a box of
basketballs from Bill Oliver. This foreshadows the scene in which Biff
steals Bill Oliver’s fountain pen after trying to get a loan for his
sporting goods business.
The climactic scene in Biff’s life comes when he finds a woman in
Willy’s hotel room. This causes Biff to realize that Willy is a fake.
Biff’s tragedy is that he has accepted Willy’s values all his life,
and now that he finds out they are false, he has no values of his own
to rely upon. Thus, Biff becomes lost and must set out to find his own
Once Biff begins to develop his own beliefs, his opinions about
his father change. Instead of viewing his father as a fake, Biff
comes to realize that his father had some good qualities, but was
simply misguided by inadequate values.
Happy is the younger of the two Lowman brothers and thus is often
overshadowed by Biff. Because of this, Happy is constantly trying to
get attention from Willy. In one of the flashbacks Happy continually
says, I’m losing weight, you notice, Pop? This is an attempt by
Happy to get recognition from Willy. When in the present, Happy tries
to get recognition by announcing that he is getting married. In both
instances, however, Happy’s remarks are dismissed as unimportant. Thus
it is no surprise when Happy leaves Willy alone in the restaurant. It
is merely in retaliation for his own rejection.
Another characteristic of Happy is his refusal to recognize
reality. When Biff, Happy, and Willy are in the restaurant, Happy
tries to prevent Willy from learning that Biff did not get the loan.
While Biff is trying to explain that he never actually worked as a
salesman for Oliver, Happy is continually reassuring Willy that the
interview went well. Another example occurs at the end of the play
when Happy insists that Willy did not die in vain. He had a good