In this lesson, we will have a look at some questions from Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. These questions are aimed at encouraging meaningful discussions about the play, and are arranged by topic.
Arthur Miller’s Pulitzer Prize winning play Death of a Salesman is considered one of the classic American plays of the 20th century. Premiering in 1949, it examines the American Dream, and how everyone has their own version of that ideal. It also employs some literary devices to emphasize its points, such as flashbacks to distinguish that ideal from reality. It is a complex and powerful play, and merits much discussion. So with that in mind, let us look at some discussion topics from the play.
Questions About Ambition
- Discuss Willy Loman’s home.
How does its physical existence over time make it a metaphor for what he wants to achieve?
- Consider all the major characters in Death of a Salesman. Do they all want the same thing? Do any of them achieve their goals?
- Willy Loman says that being well liked is a necessary component of success. Think about some of the successful people today, and discuss whether or not Willy’s philosophy has any credence.
- Do you think Arthur Miller chose the last name Loman for his main character, for a reason? Does it mean anything to you in the context of the play? Do you think his last name plays a role in Willy’s fate?
Questions About Success and Failure
- Think about the entire play. Do you consider Willy Loman a failure? At what point in the play did you make up your mind about Willy’s success or failure?
- Discuss Willy’s and Biff’s reasons why Biff fails in the business world. How are they different? Is one more valid than the other? Is either one valid at all?
Questions About Fears and Expectations
- Consider Willy’s abandonment as a child by his father, and how it affected him. How far does his fear of abandonment reach into the fabric of the play? Does that fear drive every aspect of Willy’s life in the play? How would Willy’s life have been different if he was not abandoned as a child?
- What role does Willy’s expectations for Happy and Biff play in their behavior? Can Happy’s womanizing and Biff’s thievery be explained, or excused, in that context?
Questions About Truth
- Biff insists that both he and Willy acknowledge, and accept, the truths about who they really are.
Discuss the point when the pursuit of an ideal turns into denial of the reality of circumstances. Should one stop his pursuit at that point, or continue to keep his dream alive, no matter the physical and psychological cost?
Questions About the American Dream
- What does Biff mean when he says of Willy, ”The man didn’t know who he was.”? What makes him say that? Do you agree, or disagree, with Biff’s estimation of his father?
- Arthur Miller is known to have critiqued aspects of the modern society in his plays. What is he criticizing in Death of a Salesman? Is his criticism exclusive to the American way of life, or can it be applied universally?
- At the end of Death of a Salesman, Linda Loman keeps repeating ”We’re free.” What does she mean by it? To what is she referring?
- Discuss the American Dream. When did that term become a part of everyday vocabulary? What does it mean to you now? How is that different than what it used to mean early in the 20th century, or even earlier? Is individual freedom more valuable than community’s overall well-being?
- Last but certainly not least, discuss Willy Loman.
Is he a tragic figure like those of Greek dramas? Do you feel any sympathy for him after reading Death of a Salesman? Or, is he solely to blame for his circumstances?