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Critical Notes On Death Of A Salesman English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1191 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Miller’s style is characterized by both the structure of the play – the playwright’s manipulation of time and space, the setting and the language. The play is structured into a series of episodes alternating between present time and past time through Willy’s reveries and daydreams. The play becomes a process, documentation and charting of Willy’s mind. Miller achieves this through the use of the stream of consciousness technique. Willy’s tired and deteriorated mind relives many of the episodes of the past, episodes which have shaped his present. It is these episodes that readers are allowed to see vividly as Willy does in his waking moments. Miller classifies these episodes as ‘…only a mobile concurrence of past and present’. Not only do these episodes function as part of the plot, but they also symbolize the slow and progressive breakdown in the man. The past episodes are linked to the present episodes which precede them; the dialogue of the past is intricately interwoven in the present. What information they present provides insight into Willy’s current state.

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The structure of the plot is unified by time, place and characters. The rhythm of present events/actions/episodes is constantly interrupted by a series of flashbacks that occur in Willy’s mind as dreams or illusions. There is, however, some chronological structure to the present, and the flashbacks, it should be noted, are used to further expound, reflect, comment on and explain some event/action in the present. Though sometimes difficult to follow, there is a noticeable distinction between past and present and therefore between dreams and reality. Willy, however, has difficulty making that distinction and it is seen where this failure throws him out of balance.

Miller combined realistic characters and social commentary while also writing modern tragedy. Miller pursued the Ibsenian tradition of social drama and enriched it with some touches of expressionism and symbolism by conveying parts of the story through the main character’s memories. Death of a Salesman, though realistic, is mostly conveyed expressionistically through Willy Loman’s mind and memory. As Willy becomes more and more absorbed by incidents from his past, the action progressively takes place in his mind. The play becomes a collage of memories with rapid, surreal shifts in setting and time. Its expressionistic setting is ideally suited to the dialogue, which though recognizably colloquial, is eloquent and lyrical.

Expressionism, the skill with which Miller blends nature imagery with the play’s realism is what gives Death of a Salesman its special place in the history of modern drama. Imagery from trees is taken one step further in the introduction of a leafy pattern that surrounds the stage. Every time Willy remembers the past, the stage directions call for this green cover. It lends to the reverie a dreamy quality. Expressionism aims to present subjective feelings and emotions in their most compelling form. The artist is not concerned with reality as it appears but with its inner nature and with the emotions aroused by the subject. To achieve this end the subject is frequently distorted or altered in order to stress a felt experience. Miller achieves this result with a clever combination of an innovative set, music and lighting.

Music plays a vital role in embellishing the play with atmosphere. The play opens with Willy’s music (the flute) playing in the background. All memories of early days are accompanied by flute music that relate to Willy’s pioneer father, the flute maker. It reflects the happier days and a life that Willy should have had. Different music accompanies various different scenes and range from ‘a high, rollicking tune’ to ‘gay and bright’ to ‘raw, sensuous music’. The music also rises in intensity to an ‘unbearable scream’ till it crashes with a ‘frenzy’ and falls to a ‘soft pulsation of a single cello string’ that develops into a ‘dead march’.

Light and colour are artistically used to inform or enhance the various moods of the play. When the curtain rises in Act One, ‘Only the blue light of the sky falls upon the house’ and the surrounding area is shown in an ‘angry orange.’ The contrast of the two kinds of tones symbolizes the conflict of the individual in society as presented by the play. A dimming of lights heralds Willy’s reveries into the past and the stage is drenched with green leaves. The moonlight that Willy admires through his window at the end of this scene is gone by the end of Act Two when he tries to read instructions on the seed packets with the help of a flashlight. The light is going out of Willy’s life too and despair looms above him as he sees all doors closing in his face.

The play is Miller’s representation of the death of the American Dream. The contradictions which are found in Willy are also the contradictions within the American Dream; his failures mark the elusiveness and non-existence of the dream. The play has the indelible mark of the Depression on it. Though not an obvious theme, capitalism is among the issues presented by Miller. He uses rather basic symbolism and language in the analysis of this concept. He deconstructs the myth of America as the nation of equal opportunity and streets paved with gold where any man can achieve success, wealth, happiness, and even fame. The play is representational and Willy Loman, the ‘everyman’, becomes a basis on which readers can judge themselves.

Because of the simplicity of the language, and the portrayal and treatment of the subject matter, the play never delves into the realm of melodrama. The language:

Echoes the pain and woes of the working class.

Characters speak in a true-to-life way.

Feelings, values and thoughts are all reflected in the language

The language is effective in presenting points of emotional intensity, stress, turmoil, disaster, agitation. In an attempt to make his play not just about another fictional character, Miller merges ordinary and poetic speech with such poignancy and realism that one cannot help but admire his genius. Undoubtedly, the language of Death of a Salesman, is power, intensity and boldness go beyond mere theatrics to present an enthralling portrayal of the hopes, fears, ambitions and failures of the middles class American.

Miller’s Techniques

Miller employs the use of various techniques to present the plot and story, highlight themes and portray characters. These techniques are:


Seeds/Willy’s garden; the rubber house; the stockings; Howard’s tape recorder.


Nature versus City/Jungle; Dreams, reveries and recollections.


Dramatic irony; satire; sarcasm; foreshadowing; allusion; imagery.


Ethical/moral; emotional; physical; social.


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