Death of a Salesman

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Death of a Salesman Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Arthur Miller
Arthur Miller was born into a middle-class Jewish family in Manhattan. In the stock crash of 1929, his father's clothing business failed and the family moved to more affordable housing in Brooklyn. Miller was unintellectual as a boy, but decided to become a writer and attended the University of Michigan to study journalism. There, he received awards for his playwriting. After college, he worked for the government's Federal Theater Project, which was soon closed for fear of possible Communist infiltration. He married his college sweetheart, Mary Slattery, in 1940, with whom he had two children. His first play, The Man Who Had All the Luck opened in 1944, but Miller had his first real success with All My Sons (1947). He wrote Death of a Salesman in 1948, which won a Tony Award as well as the Pulitzer Prize, and made him a star. In 1952, Miller wrote The Crucible, a play about the 1692 Salem witch trials that functioned as an allegory for the purges among entertainers and media figures by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Miller testified before this committee, but refused to implicate any of his friends as Communists, which resulted in his blacklisting. In 1956 he married the film actress Marilyn Monroe. They were divorced in 1961. His third wife was the photographer Inge Morath. Miller continued to write until his death in 2005.
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Historical Context of Death of a Salesman
During the postwar boom of 1948, most Americans were optimistic about a renewed version of the American Dream: striking it rich in some commercial venture, then moving to a house with a yard in a peaceful suburban neighborhood where they could raise children and commute to work in their new automobile. The difference between this and the nineteenth-century version of the same dream, in which a family or a single adventurer went into America's wilderness frontier and tried to make their fortune from the land itself, reflected the country's economic shift from agriculture to urban industry, and then from manufacturing into service and sales. Charley sums up this process at the end of the play when he says about Willy Loman, "He don't put a bolt to a nut… he's a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine."
Other Books Related to Death of a Salesman
A Raisin in the Sun, a play written by Lorraine Hansberry and produced in 1959, looks at the American Dream through an African-American lens as the Younger family tries to deal with the insurance money they will receive through their grandfather's death. Walter Lee Younger, the patriarch who dreams of owning a liquor store, bears comparison to Willy Loman in his desire to see both himself and his children rise in the world.
Key Facts about Death of a Salesman
  • Full Title: Death of a Salesman
  • When Written: 1948
  • Where Written: Roxbury, Connecticut
  • When Published: The Broadway premiere was February 10, 1949. The play was published in 1949 by Viking Press.
  • Literary Period: Social Realism
  • Genre: Dramatic stage play
  • Setting: New York and Boston in 1948.
  • Climax: Biff's speech to Willy at the end of Act Two.
  • Antagonist: Howard Wagner; the American Dream that allows Willy and his sons to delude themselves.
Extra Credit for Death of a Salesman

Death of a Simpson: Beleaguered, overweight family man Willy Loman has been the genesis not only of live-action domestic sitcoms like All in the Family and Married with Children, but animated satires like The Family Guy and The Simpsons, both of which have made knowing reference to Death of a Salesman in various episodes.

Salesman in Beijing: In 1983, the People's Art Theatre in Beijing wanted to put on a Chinese-language production of Death of a Salesman. Arthur Miller flew to Beijing and spent six weeks directing the cast, though he only spoke two words of Chinese. He documented his experiences in the book Salesman in Beijing, published in 1984 with photographs by his wife, Inge Morath.