Notes on Death of a Salesman Themes

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Death of a Salesman Topic Tracking: Image

Act 1, Part 1

Image 1: Willy finds it impossible to understand how someone who was as popular and well liked (the two keys to success in life) as Biff was in high school, could have grown up to be such a failure. Willy always believed that Biff's popularity would naturally lead to great success in the business world. He would have a grand life. But that's not the way things have worked out for Biff, and Willy is baffled by it.

Act 1, Part 3

Image 2: Willy tells the boys that he met the mayor of Providence and had coffee with him. He brags about how well known and well liked he is throughout New England. He makes himself seem important to impress his sons, which many fathers probably do, but Willy seems to puff himself up so much and so often, that he starts to believe these things about himself. When he finally realizes that no one really knows or cares who he is, he is crushed - he is not the great man he painted himself to be.

Image 3: Willy believed that Bernard would never be successful, despite his good grades, because Bernard was not well liked. Willy taught his boys that if people liked them, they'd always be successful. The key to success was not hard work, but popularity. It's all about the image you create. Willy was clearly wrong about Bernard; he grew up to become a successful lawyer, arguing a case before the Supreme Court, while Willy's sons grew up to become unsuccessful bums.

Image 4: Willy's confidence begins to fail because he's not selling as well as he used to. He thinks people ignore him and laugh at him because he's fat. He claims that he's well liked in Hartford, but in the next instant, he doesn't believe that people take to him very well. He can't make up his mind who he is, because the image of himself he has created is now crumbling. He's no longer Willy the Well Liked Salesman, he's just become Willy the Walrus.

Act 1, Part 8

Image 5: Biff wasn't good at business because he didn't fit the business image -- he whistled in the elevator and didn't cover himself when he played hooky from work. Biff believes that he and Willy are the type of guys who should be working with their hands somewhere where it doesn't matter if they whistle or take a day off. Instead, Willy insists that both he and Biff will be successful as businessmen.

Image 6: Willy first assures Biff that he is still a great man in New England (which he's not) and that people don't think he's crazy (which they do). Then he gives Biff instructions on how to impress Bill Oliver. He tells him how to dress, not to talk too much, but to tell good stories. Be serious, but laugh. He hands out all these contradicting bits of advice, and then he emphasizes personality because he believes that's the key to success.

Act 2, Part 2

Image 7: While Willy is in Wagner's office, his image as the well liked, well known, successful salesman crumbles completely. In reality, he is a wilted, aging man who can't cut it anymore. He relies heavily on the relationship he had with Wagner's father, which may or may not have been as important as he claims, but Wagner can't find another job for Willy just out of sympathy. Willy cracks up right there in the office -- first yelling at Wagner, and then being scared by the recording machine. He is finally confronted with reality: whether or not he is well liked is of no consequence, because now he is out of a job.

Act 2, Part 3

Image 8: While Ben tries to tell Willy the secret of how to make a fortune, Willy ignores him and insists that personality and contacts are all you need to get rich. He staked his entire future on his belief that being well liked leads to success, and that's why his entire future was a flop. He looked at Dave Singleman as the role model to a profitable career in sales. He was no Dave Singleman, and as a result, he ended up a sad failure of a man.

Image 9: Bernard explains that Biff is unsuccessful because he never trained himself for anything. He was too busy being a big shot athlete in high school, and when he had the chance to graduate, he threw it away for some unknown reason. In saying all this, Bernard disputes Willy's belief that being well liked is enough to achieve success. Bernard, who was a good student in high school, is now more successful than Biff, the big shot in high school. Bernard's success proves that popularity doesn't last; something needs to be behind it.

Act 2, Part 4

Image 10: Charley tells Willy that many successful men aren't well liked, and yet still achieved success. He points out that all the connections with people, real or imagined, don't do any good unless you have a product to sell. Connections must be used for something, and are useless by themselves. This blows away Willy's belief that one needs only to be well liked to achieve success; it's too late for Willy to change his whole philosophy, and either way, he's still a failure by his own standards because no one seems to like him much anyway.

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