The Significance of a Line From Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman

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The Significance of a Line From Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman 
Neelum Raza, Junior

“Isn’t that remarkable.” This single, brief statement may appear to be a trite cliché, yet in Death of a Salesman this favorite exclamation of Willy Loman takes on a much broader meaning. In the early part of the play, however, when Willy makes this remark, the reason is not particularly remarkable, or, if so, only in Willy’s terms. Yet, during the course of the action the line develops into a comment on Willy’s prosaic and confused mind.

To start with, the remarkable aspect of the quote is that Willy Loman utters it when he is faced with an epiphany, a sudden realization. To demonstrate, this line takes on significance in the scene where Willy goes to borrow money from Charley. Willy always thought of Charley as the epitome of what Willie thought he detested. Yet, when Willy realizes that this man whom he had disparaged over the years was, indeed, his only friend, he says in utter amazement, “Isn’t that a remarkable thing.”

As with other utterances, the realization is not remarkable, except that Willy had never been able to see reality long enough to recognize Charley’s importance. This single line, then, demonstrates how Willy may finally begin to realize, too late, just how much he is liked. Another realization occurs between Willy and his son, Biff. After an emotional scene in which Biff breaks down on his father’s shoulder, trying to make him understand their lives, Willy responds by saying, “Isn’t that-isn’t that remarkable. Biff, he likes me.” This is suddenly a remarkable realization for Willy, who had believed that Biff was destroying his own life just to spite his him. Willy and Biff had just experienced two emotional scenes where Willy doubted Biff’s affections. The impact of the realization that Biff loves him has Willy confide this “new information” to his imagined brother Ben. Again, he uses the single, brief statement, “Isn’t that a remarkable thing.” Thus this simple statement leads Willie to do a remarkable thing for his family-he commits suicide.

To finalize, a line used early on as a cliché, during the course of the play becomes a commentary on the state of Willy Loman’s life and how far from reality he truly was. Yet, though Willy did find some events in his life “remarkable,” he could not realize that as a salesman and a father, he was a failure. Unfortunately, this lack of understanding leads to his death, a death he could not escape for he brought it on himself. Isn’t that remarkable?

Willy Loman: The central character in the play. He has been employed for 36 years by the Wagner firm as a traveling salesman. Now, at the age of 63, he has been removed from salary and placed on straight commission, a sign that he is no longer as valuable to the company as he once was. 

Linda Loman: Willy's wife. She is devoted to the welfare of her husband and has made many sacrifices in order to sustain him. She tries to support and encourage Willy. Despite her efforts, he grows increasingly depressed. 

Biff Loman: Willy's 34 year-old son, the elder of the two children. As a high school student, he was a star football player and showed great promise; however, he has spent the past 14 years doing various odd jobs around the company attempting to find meaning in life. 

Happy Loman: Willy's 32 year-old son, the younger of the two brothers. Happy lives in his own apartment and works for a department store. He feels rejected by his father, who always preferred Biff. 

Charley: A next-door neighbor and lifetime friend of the Lomans. When Willy is put on commission, Charley lends him money each month. He is more down-to-earth than Willy and more successful. 

Bernard: Charley's son. As a child, he was Biff's friend and has gone on to become a successful attorney. 

Jenny: Charley's secretary. 

Ben: Willy's dead brother. As a young man he left home and became very wealthy. He is the man Willy was never able to be. He appears in Willy's daydreams as the only man Willy ever met "who knew the answers." 

Howard Wagner: Willy's boss at the Wagner company and the son of the original owner. 

Miss Francis: A woman from Willy's past. 

Letta & Miss Forsythe: Two young women Happy picks up. 

Stanley: A young waiter at Frank's Chop House. 

One of the most famous people to portray Willy Loman was actor Dustin Hoffman, here seen in a 1981 version, which was televised on national TV.

Actors around the world have portrayed Salesman's various characters. Which characters do you think these actors (from a production in Taiwan) are portraying? Which scene from the play is being shown? 

These descriptions only scratch the surface of Miller's complex characters. To help you better understand the play, you might want to create your own, more detailed descriptions.

Death of a Salesman Plot Summary

As the play opens, Willy Loman, who has been a traveling salesman for 36 years, returns home after having just left for a sales trip to New England. He tells his wife Linda that he can no longer go on the road because he cannot keep his mind on driving. 

At the same time, his elder son Biff is visiting the Brooklyn home after being away for many years. Willy reminisces about Biff's potential, 14 years earlier, when he was playing high school football and being offered athletic scholarships by numerous university teams. 

When we meet Bill, he is discussing future job prospects with his younger brother Happy. Biff considers going to see Bill Oliver, a man for whom he had worked many years earlier, and asking him for a loan to get started in a sporting goods business. Biff and Happy tell Willy of this plan, and he gets very excited with the idea. He emphasizes that Oliver really liked Biff and we begin to see Willy's fixation with the idea that one only needs personal attractiveness to be successful in the business world. 

In fact, Willy decides that he too will see his boss the following day and ask for a New York position rather than a traveling job. The first day ends with the bright hope that Willy, Biff and Happy will achieve their goals for the following day. The three of them plan to meet for dinner after they have been to their respective meetings. 

Unfortunately, Willy is not successful in his meeting with Howard Wagner, his current boss and son of the deceased owner. In fact, Howard fires Willy because he believes the elder salesman is doing the firm harm. Willy is crestfallen and goes to see his old friend and neighbor, Charley. Charley loans Willy enough money to pay his life insurance premium. Charley offers Willy a job, but Willy cannot bring himself to accept it. While at Charley's office, Willy meets Bernard, Charley's son, who has become a very successful lawyer. Bernard wonder's why Biff lost his initiative 14 years ago. This angers Willy and causes him to reflect on the past. 

Biff and Happy meet in the restaurant for dinner. Biff explains that he has had some important realizations about himself. Apparently, Oliver kept him waiting all day and then could not remember who Biff was. 

Biff was so upset by this turn of events that he stole Oliver's fountain pen. This leads him to reconsider all of his previous jobs, most of which he lost because he stole from his employers. 

Willy arrives at the restaurant and tells Biff that he has been fired. When Biff begins to tell Willy that he stole Oliver's pen and has been a failure all his life, Willy refuses to listen and retreats to the wash room. Biff leaves the restaurant and asks Happy to make sure Willy is all right, but Happy rejects Willy and departs with two girls he has picked up. 

When Biff arrives home later in that evening, Linda is furious with him for deserting his father. Willy is in the backyard planting seeds and holding an imaginary conversation with his dead brother, Ben, who had been a very successful man.

Death of a Salesman's Structure

Death of a Salesman's structure is central to its reputation as a brilliantly conceived and executed work of drama. Miller structures the play in such a way that it plays with our concept of time through flashbacks and intricate staging. Miller has stated that the "ultimate matter with which the play will close is announced at the outset and is the matter of its every moment from the first." The plot is not laid out in chronological order, but rather in a bit-by-bit piecing together of events.

The play begins in the present as Willy is shown in the grips of a crisis. The source of this conflict is not totally shown to the audience, but Miller tells us what we need to understand through a series of flashbacks and daydreaming sequences. We soon discover that Willy's lack of self-worth derives from experiences related to his son Biff, to his waning career as a salesman and to his inability to make life wonderful for his wife Linda. It is the story of an aging man who considers himself a failure but is incapable of consciously admitting it. His debts prey on him like so many chains and daggers, and he reaches the point where everything seems to break down before it is "paid for."

Through a process of zigzagging that spans the past, present and future, Miller presents his central character in the midst of a crisis which he resolves at the play's end. The reality' of his problems is too much for him to bear, and he is constantly searching for a way out. The setting varies from Willy's house to Charley's office, from Ebbets Football Field to a hotel in Boston, and several other locations as well. The most important location, however, is the inner mind of Willy Loman - it is there we see much of the action unravel since the drama lies not so much in certain events but in Willy's perception and recollection of those events. 

The drama takes place in two acts without specified scene divisions. Miller has created two blocks of drama within one play, separated by an intermission. Since all the action leads to the resolution of the crisis, there is a constant pounding away of tension, conflict, emotion, and human passion. Each word spoken is necessary and carries layers of meaning which contribute to the work as a whole.

Death of a Salesman's Symbols & Imagery

Symbolism runs throughout Death of a Salesman. There are examples in almost every scene. One example that Miller uses often is the stockings which Linda darns and which Willy presents as a gift to Miss Francis. They can be seen as a symbol of Willy's career, his self-worth, and his 'product.' At home, his life is in crisis and the stockings are full of holes. Linda, the loving wife, attempts to mend their life in the same way that she mends holes in the stockings. Willy is enraged at this action and orders her to throw the stockings in the garbage. This action is symbolic of his desire to be free of problems at home and enjoy a life of success and harmony. When Biff discovers his father with Miss Francis, he is most angered by the fact that Willy has given her "Mama's stockings." Again, the garments represent a bond of integrity and happiness that has been violated. 

Willy's car plays a symbolic role as well. In this car, Willy, quite literally, is driving himself to death. We learn from Linda that Willy has staged several previous car accidents. These "accidents" were perhaps early attempts to commit suicide, but they were definitely attempts to draw attention to his condition. The car represents power, movement forward, acceleration and mobility - all of which are symbols in Willy's life of hopelessness, decay, and despair. It should therefore come as no surprise that Willy consider this vehicle as an instrument with which to kill himself. 

The fountain pen that Biff steals is symbolic of Biff's inadequacies. He has no need for the pen, nor is it meaningful in any conscious manner. Rather, it serves to highlight the absurdity of theft, the demeaning quality of taking from someone something which you do not need. Biff has lived a life based on Willy's values, but when he discovers that these values are not good for him, he abandons them in search of his own. The pen can therefore also be seen as the symbol of someone else's values, of someone else's possessions. Biff discards it in favor of integrity and belief in himself. He wishes to get rid of his life-long habit of taking from others (such as the football back in high school). He has spent time in prison, and this symbolically represents how he has spent much of his life imprisoned by his father's mentality. 

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At the end of the play, Willy purchases some seeds for his garden and begins to plant them late at night. He is close to suicide but realizes that he must leave something "real" behind for his sons. The planting of the seeds is symbolic of Willy's desire to grow big and tall; ironically, Biff is the one who will secure growth in life. Happy, in his determination to continue Willy's action can be seen as the weed in the Loman's garden.

In terms of imagery, one of the most important is that of "the woods are burning." Willy's brother ...

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