Death of a Salesman Questions and Answers
Q.1. What is the significance of the way the Loman house is presented when the play begins?
Miller’s stage directions specifically require that the salesman’s house is overshadowed by tall apartment buildings “on all sides.” This symbolizes the way in which Willy and the relatively small life goals he has achieved have been overshadowed by change and development. Not only has he not kept pace with these, they have overwhelmed him. The buildings also symbolize the enormous obstacles an ordinary person must face.
Q.2. Why has Willy unexpectedly returned from his journey?
Willy is exhausted, dispirited, and on the verge of a breakdown He cannot seem to control his thoughts, or the car, which, he tells Linda, has come close to running off the road several times. He has come to the point where he cannot face the continual long drives associated with his type of sales work.
Q.3. What is Linda’s attitude to Willy’s return?
Linda is a loyal, devoted wife and she is very concerned about the husband she admires and deeply loves. She is tender, supportive and nurturing in her manner, coping with the terrible fear for him – that she harbors and taking care that Willy does not see it. She urges him to rest.
Q.4. In the first few minutes of the play, what indications are there that Willy has an affinity with the artistic and creative?
At the very beginning of the play, the sound of a flute is heard. This recurs from time to time during the play and represents the family connection to the life of the artisan who creates by using his hands. Later we learn that Willy’s father was expert in making flutes. Also in the first few minutes of the play, as Willy tells Linda of the driving experience that was frightening, he talks of the beauty of the scenery and there is a certain wistfulness, as if at a subliminal level he knows that this is what he truly prefers.
- Symbolism in Death of a Salesman
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Q.5. In what way is Linda realistic about life?
While Willy begins to rail against the ironic situation that as soon as a mortgage is paid off there is no one to live in the house, Linda comments that “life is a casting off.” This is wise and mature thinking. As a mother, she knows that one raises children in order, all too soon, to let them go out into the world and live their own lives. This is reality. The phrase “casting off” reminds us of the way insects (like cicadas emerging from the nymph stage) discard their shells and enter a new and dangerous existence. It makes us think, too, of a boat casting off from the jetty and moving into open water.
Q.6. In what sense is Willy ironic when he comments that it is obscene for Biff not to have found himself by the age of thirty-four?
As it becomes clear as the play develops, Willy has not understood his place in life. He has struggled to be someone that he is not and tries to become successful in a career for which he has always been unsuited. So far, Biff has traveled the same path.
Q.7. What erratic behavior of Willy’s indicates that he is disintegrating emotionally?
Willy is confused and contradicting himself. He claims that Biff is lazy, yet seconds later describes Biff as a hard worker. His conversation shifts from subject to subject, sometimes he breaks off a tirade about overpopulation to ask, suddenly “How they can whip cheese?”
Q.8. How does Biff respond to Happy’s question about his plans for the future?
Biff expresses his uncertainties. He knows that, for him, virtual slave work in a warehouse is not fulfilling. He shares his love of the outdoors, of working with his hands and his impatience with the competitiveness of working in the commercial world. He reveals that he has had a variety of jobs and is directionless but wants to change that. He also knows that he ought to grow up and take on adult responsibilities such as a wife and family.
Q.9. What does Biff suggest he and Happy do to change their lives?
Biff believes the two of them would be happier out West somewhere, running their own ranch. Happy has admitted that despite the girlfriends and the car and the nice apartment, he is lonely. Biff believes he has the solution. He believes that men with their physical attributes are best suited to outdoor life.
Q.10. What does this conversation with Biff reveal about Happy’s character?
Happy is revealed as being quite similar with his father in that he has grandiose ideas about his own ability, especially in relation to his rival, the merchandise manager whose job he covets. He makes claims that, ironically, show us that he is shallow and without any true philosophy of life. For example, he mentions “constantly lowering (his) ideals,” when in fact he has none, except those based on the acquisition of money and vindictiveness. It comes almost as a shock when he reveals that the girl he has just taken on a date is engaged to be married to someone else and he has no conscience about it.
Q.11. What is revealed about Willy during his hallucinatory return to the past?
Willy is shown to be a hearty sort of person who jokes with his boys and encourages them. As he describes the operation of removing a potentially dangerous branch from the elm tree, he is revealed as having good practical common sense and an ability with tools. He imparts good advice (“Never leave a job till you’re finished.”) and encourages his sons to be active in their sports. He does, however, virtually turn a blind eye to Biff’s theft of a football. Although he tells Biff to return the ball, this is only perfunctory, and carries no weight.
Q.12. As this scene (inside Willy’s head) continues, what false idea does Willy peddle to his sons?
Willy has formed the opinion that all doors open to people who are “liked.” What he does not say is even more telling in terms of his unfortunate attitude to life. First, he suggests to Biff that the coach has not punished him for stealing the football because he is liked. He goes on to say that he (Willy) will be more successful than Charley because he is more generally liked. In addition, he claims that Mayors of other towns have welcomed him because of their liking for him. Not once does he mention hard work, integrity, or the qualities of the products he is selling.
Q.13. What is revealed about teenage Biff’s popularity with girls?
According to Happy, there is “a crowd of girls” following Biff when he changes classes at school. He is quite the football hero. Biff’s popularity with girls would seem to stem from his looks, confidence and status as team captain. Later in the play, however, Linda reveals That Biff is “rough” with girls and that mothers are afraid of him. This could indicate that he is sexually aggressive, perhaps even violent.
Q.14. How do the Lomans react to Bernard’s news that Biff must study for his coming exams?
Neither Willy, Biff nor Happy takes Bernard’s warnings seriously; actually, they take the opportunity to mock the studious Bernard. After Bernard exits, the matter of being well liked arises again with Willy asserting that his boys’ popularity will put them way ahead of Bernard despite that young man’s academic success. Willy further asserts that “the man who makes an appearance in the business world …. is the man who gets ahead.”. This is further clear evidence that Willy cannot see the reality that is behind appearances. Linda, on the other hand, is in tears.
Q.15. Comment about Willy’s assertion that “I never in my life I told him anything but decent things.”
This comment reveals Willy’s hypocrisy. He had turned a blind eye to his boys’ theft of building materials which he himself used to construct the stoop. He glossed over Biff’s theft of the football. Now he wonders why Biff steals. Willy is either unwilling or unable to appreciate his responsibility for his son’s moral development.
Q.16. What is it that prevents Willy from accepting the offer of a job from Charley?
Willy is afflicted by pride and wishes to save face. It is worth noting that this is more of Willy’s hypocrisy. While he rejects a job with Charley out of pride, this pride seems missing when he accepts money regularly from Charley in order to buy the essentials of life.
Q.17. In the card game scene, what evidence of Willy’s unused abilities is presented?
First of all, Willy tries to offer Charley advice that will alleviate his digestive problems. This is evidence of Willy’s knowledge of nutrition and health. Willy goes on to talk about the ceiling he has put up in the living room. Such a task involves real skill and knowledge of building practice which is evidence for Willy’s practical talent.
Q.18. Explain the significance of Ben’s words, “I have many de enterprises, William, and I have never kept books.”
Ben’s assertion that he has many business enterprises but has never kept books (strict accounting) would suggest that his wealth has not been gained entirely honestly. His later words, “Never fight fair with a stranger.” support this idea. All through the play is a disturbing trend to dishonest behavior in the Loman family. Willy might be in many ways a victim of the system but he is also a participant in the dark side of capitalism, though at a low level.
Q.19. What does the audience learn about Linda from her great confrontation with her sons in Act 1?
Linda, who is quiet, supportive and loving, and who has been delighting in her sons’ presence at home, now must draw their attention to their father’s emotional and financial plight. It is clear that she is aware of Willy’s pathetic attempt to disguise the true state of his failed career. Though the audience might have seen Linda, to this point, as something of a passive character, this is clearly not the case. She is strong in her loyalty, love and defense of her husband and is extremely eloquent in his cause. She also reveals she knows exactly what Happy’s moral status is. She loves people, in full awareness of their faults.
Q.20. What is Happy’s attitude to the news that his father is contemplating suicide?
Happy is not at all in touch with his father’s problems. He is self-interested and enjoys life at a superficial level, as Linda points out to him when she calls him a “philandering bum.” He is not at all sympathetic, nor does it seem to horrify him, when Linda tells the boys about the rubber tubing near the heater. All Happy can say is, “That jerk.” The irony here is that Happy himself is the “jerk.”
Q.21. Comment on the “gay and bright” music that is heard at the beginning of Act 2.
For the characters, Act 2 opens on a high note as Biff prepares to see Bill Oliver and Willy prepares to see Howard Wagner about a change in his job status. The music at the beginning of Act 2 reflects this. It can be seen, however, as ironic, given that the day’s outcomes are anything but “bright and gay.”
Q.22. What important idea in the play is referenced by Linda’s words, ‘He could be- anything-in that suit”?
Covered very strongly in Death of a Salesman is the idea that appearance can belie reality. The reality of Biff is that of a young who is not psychologically grounded and who has a history of Baling. Dressed in his blue suit, however, Biff presents the appearance of the sort of wholesome young man who could be “anything,” Linda’s words having a positive connotation to her. The perceptive audience sees something else.
Q.23. In what way is the contrast between Willy’s dreams and reality expressed in his conversation with Linda?
Willy, ever the dreamer, talks to Linda about buying a place in the country–somewhere big enough to build guest houses to accommodate Biff and Happy and their future families. Linda, who has to attend to the financial facts, shows Willy the state of their finances and what is required. Clearly, there is a gulf between Willy’s overblown dreams and the week-to-week reality. They have not enough money to fund the constant repairs to worn out appliances, let alone the price of a large spread in some rural area.
Q.24. Why does Willy say “Im always in a race with the junkyard!”?
Willy is complaining that his refrigerator is always breaking down and the car he has just finished paying for is,” on its last legs.” Since he cannot afford to buy goods outright, he must pay on over several years. As the life of the product equals the term for the payments, he is never out of debt.
Q.25. What is Willy’s mood when he leaves for his interview with Howard Wagner?
Linda gives Willy the news that his boys want to take him for dinner to a good restaurant. This will be the culmination of a successful day in which their futures change for the better at last. Willy is energized by this news and leaves in great excitement, full of new resolution and saying “… now I’m gonna do it!”
Q.26. What reassuring new news does Linda give Biff when he phones her?
Linda tells Biff that, on checking, she has found the rubber hosing has been taken away from its place near the heater, Clearly, she takes this as an indication of the positive change in Willy’s outlook.
Q.27. In what picturesque way does Linda reinforce for Biff that his father needs support and nurturing?
Linda uses the opportunity of Biff’s phone call to reinforce the need for his sons to be kind and loving to Willy. She uses the metaphor “he’s only a little boat looking for a harbor” to emphasize his vulnerability and need.
Q.28. What is the importance of Howard Wagner’s new wire recorder?
Howard’s wire recorder is significant in more than one way. It is symbolic of the future and the world from which Willy has been progressively excluded. For example, Howard can easily work the machine while Willy cannot. Furthermore, Howard pays more attention to this technological innovation, a mere machine, than he does to his living, hurting employee. In this, Howard is akin to the machine with which he is besotted.
Q.29. In what way does the commercial world intrude into the wire recorder demonstration?
As Howard’s children speak into the wire recorder, his son says ‘It’s nine o’clock, Bulova watch time.” This reflects the intrusion of the commercial world into the world of the family and also shows the extent to which life is permeated by advertising.
Q.30. Comment on Willy’s “Dave Singleman” speech.
This fluent outpouring from Willy, ironically to a barely attentive Howard, is his core speech of the play. In it, he explains the inception of his dream and the role model he has had all his working life. There is pathos in Willy’s revelation, here, of the lifelong emphasis he has put on being liked. We are able to infer here, as in other sections of the play, that the desire to be liked is a weakness of character. The desperate need to be liked can result in compromise and corruption as it has done in the lives of the Lomans.
Q.31. Which personal qualities docs Happy reveal when Miss Forsythe enters the restaurant and he talks to her?
When he sees Miss Forsythe enter the restaurant, Happy immediately reveals himself as a sexual predator who sees women as their secondary sexual characteristics, not as individual people. He prefers to her as “strudel” and makes a crude comment about her breasts. When he approaches her, he lies about his occupation, then proceeds to engage the woman through rather transparent flattery. This behavior demonstrates the womanizing that Linda has earlier criticized and reveals his shallowness and selfishness.
Q.32. In what way is Willy’s life echoed in Biff’s account of his attempt to see Bill Oliver?
Biff, a true nonentity despite his blue suit, must wait for many hours in the hope of seeing Bill Oliver. This puts him at the bottom of the commercial “food chain” where the powerful are never kept waiting and the device of keeping someone waiting is used as intimidation. This echoes Willy’s life in which no progress has been made to the executive suite. Furthermore, Biff attempts the sort of behavior that had advantaged his father in the past–chatting up the secretary. Unfortunately for Biff, he is miserably unsuccessful.
Q.33. What insight does Biff experience in the few moments he does get to see Bill Oliver?
In the “one minute” Biff sees the reality of his life with the lies stripped away. Bill Oliver does not recognize him and walks away. In a flood of anger, probably at himself, Biff acknowledges the lie his life has been. He had never worked as a salesman for Bill Oliver, but as a shipping clerk, a position which would not give him much, if any, contact with the firm’s owner.
Q.34. How does Happy think Biff should handle telling Willy the e bad news when he arrives at the restaurant?
Happy suggests that Biff lie, telling his father something he knows the old man will want to hear. Like Willy himself, Happy wants to manufacture a world of pleasant make believe in which failures are never confronted and unpleasant truths are avoided. He favors keeping up appearances and cannot face reality. He encourages Biff to do the same.
Q.35. What is Willy’s reaction to Biff’s attempt to tell the day’s events truthfully?
At the first mention of Biff’s real employment in Bill Oliver’s company as a shipping clerk, Willy becomes angry. This is one slice of reality he does not want to hear at the moment. His anger tips him to the point where he immediately announces that he has been fired.
Q.36. What is the effect of Willy’s words, “The gist of it is that year haven’t got a story lest in my head.”?
It is ironic that Willy says he has no stories left to tell. In truth his mind is full of stories, not reality, not reflective thought, not self. knowledge, not the truth. What Willy is really saying is that he has run out of excuses. Unfortunately, he has no experience with reality and this is destroying him.
Q.37. What information about his meeting with Bill Oliver does Biff supply to Willy?
Biff provides very little information about his meeting with Bill Oliver. On each attempt, he is interrupted, either by Willy or Happy, both of whom make suggestions that Willy wishes to seize on as reality; for example, that Oliver put his arm around Biff, that Bill Oliver had been impressed with Biff twelve years ago and that Biff had told Oliver about Happy’s idea for business in Florida.
Q.38. How does Biff feel about lying to his father about the Bill Oliver interview?
Biff is no longer comfortable living in a bubble world created by lies and misrepresentations. He is anxious to tell the truth and each interruption makes him nervous and unsettled as well as angry. While he eventually falls in with Happy in the creation of a lie, Biff feels unhappy about it and his self-loathing is patent. However, as his father begins to disintegrate mentally, Biff becomes desperate to have Willy believe the lie.
Q.39. How is it that Biff has come to regard his father as a hypocrite?
As his mind breaks down, Willy recalls the crucial moment when Biff’s world fell apart. That happened when Biff traveled to Boston and discovered his father in a hotel room with a strange woman who obviously was a sexual partner for Willy. Up to that point, Biff had idolized his father. Seeing him betraying his mother was the tipping point for Biff whose life has gone downhill ever since.
Q.40. In what way is Happy’s betrayal of his father ironic?
When Happy tells the girls that Willy is not his father, it is to avoid embarrassment at the old man’s behavior. Interestingly, Happy has no knowledge of his father’s infidelity and has no reason to reject him on those grounds. Biff, on the other hand, who has known Willy’s shameful secret for years, does not, and will not abandon or disown his father. This is an irony.
Q.41. What is the significance of Happy’s gift of flowers?
Happy, with his shallow life and amoral behavior, obviously believes anything can be made good with some flowers, especially if the person offended is a woman. He believes the stink of his appalling behavior can be overcome with the perfume of roses. This cuts no ice with Linda who knows her son for what he is and rejects the flowers.
Q.42. How is the fact of Willy’s severe disintegration communicated to the audience?
That Willy’s breakdown is severe is demonstrated by his sortie into the garden to plant seeds in the middle of the night, by the content of his “conversation” with Ben and by the vehemence with which Linda defends him when the boys finally return home.”
Q.43. Why does Linda want to prevent the boys speaking to their father?
Linda is incandescent with fury at the way the boys abandoned their father in the restaurant and knows that whatever was said then has tipped him into a breakdown. Her husband is distraught, immensely vulnerable and bewildered. The last thing she wants is for this to be made worse by whatever these boys might have to say.
Q.44. In what way, according to Willy, does a man have to “add up to something” when he leaves this world?
It is interesting that Willy uses a quantifying, arithmetical metaphor when referring to his life and how he should leave it. He sees everything in dollar terms and the way he will “add up to something” is through the life insurance payment. For the audience, there is more meaning in what is omitted and therefore, by inference, more important. There is no mention of any accomplishment (or moral growth or responsibility) that cannot be seen in monetary terms.
Q.45. What is Willy’s final fantasy?
As he speaks to the illusory presence of his brother, Ben, Willy describes the funeral he will have. He imagines that people with come from several states to pay their last respects. He believes that this will impress his boys who will be “thunderstruck” that the old man they now seem to hold in scant regard has been, contrary to their ideas, beloved and respected from state-to-state. There is no substance to any of this.
Q.46. What cautions does Ben advise concerning Willy’s plan to commit suicide?
Ben cautions Willy against suicide on the grounds that he will be hated and deemed a coward if he goes ahead with his suicide plans. He makes reference, also, to the fact that the insurance company might not pay up, which would render the enterprise even more absurd.
Q.47. What is one function of the figure of Ben in his last manifestation inside Willy’s head?
In his last manifestation, Ben acts somewhat as a conscience, so that he forms a projection of some part of Willy’s afflicted psyche. He cautions Willy against suicide and this is significant advice. It indicates misgivings Willy himself is experiencing although he is not heeding this caution.
Q.48. Has Willy any idea of what it is that has caused his estrangement from Biff?
While Willy has remembered (in the restaurant scene) Biff’s discovery of his infidelity, he somehow has still not made the connection. In his mind, he reverts to the happiness of the boys’ childhood – the fun in the snow, the polishing of the car. Of course, given complex human psychology, it might also be the case that he cannot acknowledge it to himself.
Q.49. Account for Willy’s anger towards Biff.
Willy believes that Biff is throwing away the chance of starting a successful business career with money on loan from Bill Oliver. He refuses to accept the true situation as Biff has presented it and insists on his delusions that Bill Oliver holds Biff in high regard and will help him. Furthermore, Willy is taking it all personally, which could be a manifestation of the guilt he feels over Biff discovering the truth about his affair. He takes Biff’s reluctance to carry on any deception as an act of spite against himself and this makes him even angrier.
Q.50. According to Biff, what is at the core of Willy’s (and his own) problems?
In his honest confrontation with Willy, Biff acknowledges, and Willy to acknowledge, that he is ordinary (“a dime a dozen”) not a leader of men. Instead of accepting his true nature and building a life in accordance with that, Biff has chased the impossible, all-taught by Willy. Inappropriately, full of his own importance, thanks to Willy, Biff confesses that he has never been able to take orders, a very negative trait in an employee. All this stems from one unfortunate fact: Noone tells the truth.
Q.51. Why does Charlie reply with just a grunt to Happy’s angry attitude to his father’s suicide and claim that “We would’ve helped him.”?
Charlie responds simply with a grunt because he knows very well what Happy is like. This would be the audience’s reaction, too. Happy has made many exaggerated claims during the course of the play and he has also publicly disowned his father (at the restaurant). There is no reason to put any store on Happy’s utterances, nor even to discuss them; therefore Charley grunts.
Q.52 Account for Linda’s bewilderment at Willy’s suicide.
Unaware of Willy’s illogical attempt to provide Biff with an inheritance to use to start a business, Willy’s suicide is something Linda cannot understand. At last, the mortgage is paid off, there are only a few bills, and Willy no longer needs a big salary. She is overwhelmed by the apparent pointlessness of Willy’s death. Such can be the way a logical person might respond to material or actions that hold no logic at all.
Q.53. How is it again made evident that Willy Loman “had the wrong dreams”?
As Biff, Linda, Happy and Charley talk at Willy’s graveside, Biff recalls all the successful building and renovation projects his father undertook during his life and remarks that there is “more of him in the front stoop than in all the sales he ever made.” Linda and Charley agree that his great skill was manual work and that this made Willy happy. He did not, however, choose to work as a builder or carpenter, but as a salesman in a commercial world that has no regard for the workers who support it. He dreamed of success in an area to which he was unsuited, therefore he had all the wrong dreams.
Q.54. Is Biff correct in saying of Willy that “He never knew who he was.”?
There is merit in Biff’s assertion that his father did not truly know himself and did not recognize the gifts he possessed while chasing inappropriate goals and dreams. However, it is equally likely that Willy did not wish to accept who he was (which is different from lack of self knowledge), that he knew where his road should have taken him but stubbornly insisted on going the other way.
Q.55. Explain Happy’s refusal to go with Biff and make a life for themselves in the country.
Happy sees any change in his own selected direction as defeat. Unfortunately, he has a narrow, possibly pig-headed, vision. Biff is now open to other possibilities. Happy cannot see that what he is rejecting is an opportunity to get free of the constraints of the commercial world with its brutal competitiveness. He seems set to repeat Willy’s tragedy.
Q.56. Is Charley’s summation of Willy and his life as a salesman an accurate one?
In a memorably picturesque way, Charley demonstrates his complete understanding of the way it is for a salesman like Willy. Success is made for the salesman, not through the quality or desirability of the products he introduces and demonstrates, but by force of personality. The strong indication is that people buy from the salesman because they like him. When he comes to a situation where he no longer has charisma, sales fall and so does his career, but he knows the risks.
Q.57. Did Willy Loman die in vain?
It is very likely that Willy Loman did die in vain. His purpose for suicide was to endow his family with the life insurance payout. However, there is every indication that the money would not be paid. The insurance company has evidence that earlier accidents were deliberate, one having been witnessed by a woman who stated Willy deliberately drove through a bridge railing. With this sort of previous evidence making Willy’s fatal crash suspicious, it is unlikely that the family will see any money.
Q.58. What is wrong with Happy’s assertion that “the only dream you can have [is] to come out number one man.”?
Happy’s goal of being “number one man” is the ambition of the arrogant egoist and has little substance. Happy does not take into account the fact that there is more than one way to measure success. He does not speak of success derived from mastery in some field but seems interested in power for its own sake. Without any philosophy underpinning his goals, it is open to question that he will achieve them. He seems likely to live a life similar to his father’s.
Q.59. Why did Willy never find true happiness?
Willy never allowed himself to follow his passions and build his life and career around them. Instead, he allowed himself to be seduced by the superficial promises of a commercial world that was indifferent to his fate and did not value his efforts.
Q.60. Is Death of a Salesman an uncompromising indictment of “The American Dream”?
The American Dream, in which an individual can, through talent and by sheer effort, move from log cabin to White House, is partly fantasy and partly true. It is definitely possible for a man or woman to become self-actualized and also wealthy by: effort combined with innate gifts. It is also true that people with little talent and a lot of push can be hugely successful but usually in an empty way. The vast bulk of humanity, leading what Thoreau called lives “of quiet desperation, works hard and honestly without ever becoming rich and famous. Willy Loman failed partly because he did not develop and fully utilize his talents, and partly because he based his life on a series of dishonesty. This is not to condemn the American Dream per se, but to exercise caution.
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