Death of a Salesman raises many issues, not only of artistic form but also of thematic content. Dramatically speaking, the play represents Arthur Miller’s desire to modernize the tragedy of Aristotle described in the Poetics. Aristotle held that tragedy portrayed the downfall of a king or noble, whose fall from grace was the result of a tragic flaw—generally held to be hubris, or an excessive amount of pride. Miller, on the other hand, believes that tragedy—or the individual’s desire to realize his or her destiny—is not solely the province of royalty. It also belongs to the common man—in this case the “low man,” as in Willy Loman.
Willy’s tragic flaw stems from the fact that he has misinterpreted the American Dream, the belief that one can rise from rags to riches. For Willy, the success of that dream hinges on appearance rather than on substance, on wearing a white collar rather than a blue one. It is this snobbery, combined with a lack of practical knowledge, that leads to his downfall.
Indeed, much of the lasting popularity of Death of a Salesman both in the world of the theater and in the canon of English literature, lies in its treatment of multiple themes. Too didactic or moralistic for some modern readers, who see the author as heavy-handed, the play nevertheless raises many pertinent questions regarding American culture. Many younger readers have even credited it with preventing them from making the same mistakes committed by the characters.
Chief among these themes is an indictment of the capitalist nature of the American Dream—the belief that through the pioneer virtues of hard work, perseverance, ingenuity, and fortitude, one might find happiness through wealth. Implicit within this dream, however, is the assumption that money leads to fulfillment, regardless of the type of work that one does in order to attain it. While Willy himself was never successful as a salesman, he remains confident that his son Biff will be able to make it big in business because of his good looks and his past glory as a high school football star. Willy makes the error of celebrating popularity over know-how, style over substance. He taught Biff that being “well-liked” would carry the day, thus ignoring the damaging truth that Biff’s habit of petty theft—whether it was lumber from a nearby construction site or a football from the locker room—would ultimately lead to the boy’s downfall.
The way in which this theme informs the play is also the key to its form, since Willy constantly relives the past through a series of flashbacks. These scenes present Biff and Happy as they appeared in high school, providing the audience with a glimpse into the happy past that shaped the unhappy present. Another theme thus emerges: that the decisions made in youth have a direct impact on one’s life in maturity. In addition, by seeing past events, the audience is forced to admit that Willy lives in a world of fantasy and denial, where he is unwilling to confront his own role in contributing to his son’s unhappiness.
Indeed, the linchpin of the play surrounds an event in Willy’s past, when Biff discovered his father committing an infidelity with another woman. Crushed by his newfound glimpse into the world of adults, the adolescent Biff learned that his larger-than-life father was all too human, that he was “flawed.” Thrust abruptly from the world of innocence into the world of experience, Biff sabotaged his own life by refusing to attend summer school, thus preventing him from making something of himself at the university. Instead, he took a series of menial jobs and wandered aimlessly, only to return home at the age of thirty-four, unsure of both his identity and his purpose.
The play returns, then, to its examination of the American Dream, asking such fundamental questions as “What is the nature of success, and how does one attain it?” For Willy, it means wearing a suit and tie and making a lot of money—in short, it means having pride, or hubris. Yet, when Biff confronts his father in the final scene, he has an epiphany, a sudden burst of knowledge: Biff realizes that success entails working at an enjoyable job, which for him means working on a farm, outdoors, with his shirt off. The life of business and the city is not for him, and he sees his happiness in day-to-day living rather than in the goals foisted on him by society or by his father. Happy, meanwhile, lacks the courage of honesty and remains caught in the rat race, still under the impression that wealth and status are the keys to fulfillment. In a sense, Death of a Salesman ends on an optimistic note, in that Biff discovers a new sense of himself, stripped of illusion, as he finally becomes a man with self-respect—one who paradoxically has found pride through humility.
Willy, however, remains imprisoned by a set of false ideals. Having devoted his life to a belief in the honor of a career as a salesman, he possessed too much snobbery to admit that his own destiny was in a simple career as a carpenter. Instead, he listened to his brother Ben, that figment of his imagination who told him that money was the true path to happiness. Out of options, Willy decides that suicide is his only exit, since Biff will then collect the insurance settlement and be able to launch a career in business.
Yet, although he remains misguided, Willy achieves the stature of a tragic hero. Fighting a world pitted against him, he fulfills his destiny and sacrifices himself for his son by paying a debt in blood. The futility of his life and dreams are revealed, however, when only his immediate family attends what Willy has imagined would be a magnificent funeral, thus exposing a legacy of only disappointment and death.
Nevertheless, the end is not entirely bleak: Through his father’s sacrifice Biff escapes a vicious circle of greed and self-delusion; he is freed. Accordingly, the audience experiences a catharsis—the cleansing or purgation associated with classical tragedy. The play’s final lesson, then, is that destiny lies in discovering one’s true identity, in following one’s bliss, and in being true to one’s inmost and honest self.
Below you will find four outstanding thesis statements for “Death of a Salesman” by Arthur Miller that can be used as essay starters or paper topics. All five incorporate at least one of the themes in “Death of a Salesman” and are broad enough so that it will be easy to find textual support, yet narrow enough to provide a focused clear thesis statement. These thesis statements offer a short summary of “Death of a Salesman” by Arthur Miller in terms of different elements that could be important in an essay. You are, of course, free to add your own analysis and understanding of the plot or themes to them for your essay. Using the essay topics below in conjunction with the list of important quotes from “Death of a Salesman” at the bottom of the page, you should have no trouble connecting with the text and writing an excellent essay.Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #1: The Role of Modernity in Death of a Salesman
In “Death of a Salesman” by Arthur Miller, the main character, Willy Loman is a man living on the cusp of modern America, in the late 1940’s. As more and more new appliances and cars are being manufactured, Willy Loman is constantly trying to obtain the best things for his family. As he slowly starts to lose his mind in this materialistic world, it becomes clear that the only thing he is really concerned about is keeping up with the people around him in terms of success and possessions. Throughout the play, he constantly mentions the fact that he is running out of money and can no longer pay for their new appliances, and he mournfully regrets not going to Africa with Ben, who struck it rich. In many cases then, modernity sets the stage for the . What kind of commentary is Arthur Miller making about the race for material goods and the cost that it has to our mental health? What instances in the book back this up?Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #2: Abandonment in Death of a Salesman
Death of a Salesman ‘s Willy Loman had a life that was full of abandonment from the start. In true , ith the desertion of his father at a young age, followed by Bill’s expedition to Africa, Willy has been left behind many times by the people he loves. As his fear of abandonment grows stronger, so does the grasp of control that he tries to maintain over the lives of his family. However, that control does not prevent Biff from abandoning his dreams at the discovery of his father, nor does it prevent Biff and Happy from deserting Willy at the restaurant after his outburst. In the final scene of “Death of a Salesman”, the audience learns of Willy’s own abandonment of his family, in the form of suicide. In what ways is Willy trying to rectify the situation in his life? Can his self-inflicted death really be considered abandonment?
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #3: The Madness in Death of a Salesman
As Willy Loman’s story unfolds throughout” Death of a Salesman” by Arthur Miller, it becomes progressively clearer that the salesman is losing his mind. It begins with the flashbacks to an earlier life, when Willy was happy insulting Charley and his son Bill. However, the flashbacks quickly turn into haunting scenes, where the sound of the woman’s laughter can set Willy off on a rampage very quickly. Eventually, his madness destroys him, as he is found out in the garden, plotting with an imaginary Ben the ways in which he can make twenty thousand dollars. His madness progresses from flashbacks to the sound of the woman’s laughter, to interaction with imaginary people, and throughout it all, his family is struggling to cope with the situation. What can be said for the ties of the family in this situation? Despite the fact that Willy was an adulterer, Linda stayed by his side as he lost his mind; what does that say about the power of love in the face of madness?
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #4: Death of a Salesman and Betrayal
Betrayal is a thread that ties together much of the plot in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Willy Loman feels personally betrayed by his son Biff’s inability to succeed in life, despite what Willy sees as loving encouragement. Biff Loman, however, feels betrayed by his father because of the affair that he discovered when he heard a woman laughing in the bathroom, which also echoes a betrayal of Willy’s marriage vows. Perhaps the biggest and most tragic betrayal of all lies in the loss of Willy’s job and subsequently, his mind. In what ways does betrayal affect the plot? How do each of the characters who experience this betrayal deal with its effects?
* For an analysis of the tragic elements in Death of a Salesman, compared with another tragedy or, check out . *
~ Be sure to check out thePaperStarter entry for “The Crucible”which is another play by Arthur Miller ~
This list of important quotations from “Death of a Salesman” by Arthur Miller will help you work with the essay topics and thesis statements above by allowing you to support your claims. All of the important quotes from “Death of a Salesman” listed here correspond, at least in some way, to the paper topics above and by themselves can give you great ideas for an essay by offering quotes and explanations about other themes, symbols, imagery, and motifs than those already mentioned and explained. Aside from the thesis statements for Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” above, these quotes alone can act as essay questions or study questions as they are all relevant to the text in an important way. All quotes contain page numbers or, in this case, scene and act numbers to help you find the quotes easily.
“When I was seventeen, I walked into the jungle. And by twenty-one, I walked out. And by God, I was rich!” (I.vii)
“When a deposit bottle is broken, you don’t get your nickel back.” (II.iv)
“After all the highways, and the trains, and the appointments, and the years, you end up worth more dead than alive.” (II.iv)
“We never told the truth for ten minutes in this house.” (II.vii)
“He had the wrong dreams. All, all wrong.” (II. Vii)
“I looked up and I saw they sky … and I realized what a ridiculous lie my whole life has been.” (II.vii)
“I don’t say he’s a great man. Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person.” (I.iix)
“I’ve got to get some seeds. I’ve got to get some seeds, right away. Nothing’s planted. I don’t have a thing in the ground.” (II.iii)