Death of a Salesman

This article refers to Death of a Salesman (play) written by Arthur Miller. It focuses specifically on the relationship between the text and the context Whose Reality?.


Year 12s, today we’re discussing Death of a Salesman which is a play by Arthur Miller in relation to Whose Reality. If you haven’t watched our video on Whose Reality yet it might be helpful to watch that first before coming back to this one.

There are four possible texts you could be studying for Whose Reality?, this is one of them. Make sure you’re not watching videos for texts that you’re not studying.

Alright, onto Death of a Salesman. This text engages extensively with the ideas of ‘Whose Reality?’, particularly in relation to illusions and the implications of holding on to a warped view of reality.


Miller’s stage directions are extremely detailed, often giving information that is not just used to tell the story to the audience but also information that the actor could use in their depiction of a character. Miller often uses vivid and descriptive metaphors to give an insight into how a character views the world. In the play, often the way a character speaks indicates their emotional state. For example: repetition and exclamation are common features of Miller’s dialogue writing when characters are distressed. The play does not have a narrator and while Willy is undeniably the central character he is not always not always on stage and we sometimes hear from other characters without Willy present.

Illusion vs reality

More importantly though, let’s look at the big ideas of Whose Reality which emerge from Death of a Salesman. Perhaps the most obvious link to the context are the illusions that are created and challenged throughout the play. Willy’s life, and furthermore, the play, are centred around the illusions he generates to cope with reality. The explanation of why he generates these illusions emerges through the comments of Happy and Linda. For example, in defence of why their father holds on to these illusions while Charley remains grounded in reality, Happy says to Biff “Charley never had to cope with what he’s got to.” Another is Linda’s defence of Willy’s inclination to talk to himself: “And what goes through a man’s mind, driving seven hundred miles home without having earned a cent? Why shouldn’t he talk to himself? Why?”

The common threads between these two statements are important factors in Willy’s creation and maintenance of illusions; he is trying to cope with the difficult reality of letting his family down and not being the salesman he planned, and his family (with the exception of Biff) defends his use of illusions. This suggests that illusions are being used as a coping mechanism for Willy- a factor that is also seen in his fixation on the past, missed opportunities and brushes of success. This is seen in not only his dialogue and memories but in the stage directions as well:

…a bedroom furnished only with a brass bedstead and a straight chair. On a shelf over the bed a silver athletic trophy stands.

This direction is significant because it shows that the Lomans are poor through the sparsely furnished room and that the focus is on the trophy, representing Biff’s former success.

Furthermore, Willy’s family empower his use of illusions throughout much of the play. Linda reassures Willy about his driving with several suggestions of alternative factors that could cause his erratic steering: “maybe it was the coffee” and “maybe it’s your glasses.” Take for example this conversation between Linda and Willy where the stage directions show her ability to restrain herself from reacting to and chastising his lies:

Linda. No! Wait a minute, I’ve got a pencil (She pulls pencil and paper out of her apron pocket.) That makes your commission…Two hundred- my God! Two hundred and twelve dollars!

Willy. Well, I didn’t figure it yet, but…

Linda. How much did you do?

Willy. Well, I- I did- about a hundred and eighty gross in Providence. Well, no- it came to- roughly two hundred gross on the whole trip.

Linda. (without hesitation). Two hundred gross. That’s… (She figures.)

In this way, the many illusions throughout the play are shown as Willy’s way of making the world a place where he is successful and well liked; that he is the way he describes himself to his sons:

America is full of beautiful towns and fine upstanding people. And they know me, boys, they know me up and down New England.

Finally, consider the consequences of Willy’s illusions. The ultimate consequences of his divergence from reality not only affect him, but the lives of each of his family members.

Subjectivity vs objectivity

Let’s talk about another idea that the play incorporates: subjectivity versus objectivity. Willy’s illusions are such a significant force in his life that they cause him to see the world differently from other people. In turn, this causes conflict, in particular between Willy and Charley and Willy and Biff with neither party succeeding in convincing the other of their own view of reality. This can be seen clearly in the scenes where Willy continually insists on a “fact” that is clearly false:

Willy. (banging his hand on the desk). I averaged a hundred and seventy dollars a week in the year of 1928!

Controlling reality

Alright, one more big idea that intersects with both of those we’ve talked about so far: the way in which one person can control reality for others. Willy’s illusions impact not only his own life and view of reality, but the lives of those around him. In particular, Linda is so absorbed in supporting Willy that she excuses his “massive dreams and little cruelties” for the sake of keeping peace.

His illusions affect his family in many ways. They generate their own illusions in order to cope with reality, and see the creation of these alternative realities as an acceptable way to live:

Bernard. (wiping his glasses). Just because he printed University of Virginia on his sneakers doesn’t mean they’ve got to graduate him, Uncle Willy!

Willy. (angrily). What’re you talking about? With scholarships and three universities they’re gonna flunk him?

Another strong example of this is Biff’s realisation that he has used the same sort of illusions as Willy in relation to his professional life:

Biff. How the hell did I ever get the idea I was a salesman there? I even believed myself that I’d been a salesman for him! …I realised what a ridiculous lie my whole life has been! We’ve been talking in a dream for fifteen years.

Further, the breakdown of Biff’s illusion of his mother and father’s happy marriage (after finding his father and “the woman” in the hotel room) devastates his relationship with Willy and his sense of self. The entire course of his life is changed by this illusion; he does not attend summer school to make up his maths credit and attend University.

In this way, Willy’s distorted reality puts strain on the Loman family and influences each of its members in different ways. Despite his often apparent disconnect from those around him, one scene in particular reveals Willy’s awareness of the potential for him to influence his children:

Because sometimes I’m afraid that I’m not teaching them the right kind of –Ben, how should I teach them?