Death of a Salesman details the descent of the Loman family into devastation, focusing on the interactions between patriarch, Willy Loman, his wife, Linda, and their two sons, Biff and Happy. Throughout the events of the play, students follow these relationships to analyze how they have evolved over the past several years. Though the play takes place over the course of only a few days, it uses frequent references to the events of the past, allowing students to draw conclusions about their present-day effect on the characters.

Because Death of a Salesman is a play, several events occur simultaneously. Students should be aware of the intended staging of Death of a Salesman and pay particular attention to the stage directions, as well as the dialogue, as they reveal information that is vital to students' understanding of the text.

The play, which revolves around the idea of failure, depicts the story of the American Dream gone wrong. By defining society's concept of the "American Dream" and analyzing how it is portrayed in Death of a Salesman, students can discuss the reality of this dream, especially as it relates to the life of Willy Loman.


Key Facts:

  • Length: 139 pages
  • Publication Date: 1949
  • Lexile Measure: 1320
  • Recommended Grade Band: 11 – 12

After salesman Willy Loman comes home early from a business trip following a car accident, his wife suggests that he ask for an office job in the city. When he goes in to talk to his boss, though, he is fired instead. Willy becomes noticeably upset, as he had loyally worked for the company for several decades. His emotional state is only worsened by his arguments with his sons, Biff and Happy. Biff resents his father after learning of his affair with his receptionist several years beforehand, and both children frequently discuss their father's declining mental health, especially after their mother reveals that he has repeatedly attempted suicide.

Following an argument at a restaurant, Willy's family returns home to find him alone in the garden late at night. His family tries to make him see reason, but as they return inside, they hear him starting his car and driving off into the night. The final scene of the play takes place at Willy's funeral, after his suicide. His family reflects on whether Willy's situation was truly as hopeless as he believed.

Content Warning: This play discusses some sensitive issues, including suicide.

Objectives for Teaching Death of a Salesman

  • Discuss the idea of the American Dream and how it is represented in this play.
  • Analyze the relationships between fathers and sons within the play.
  • Identify ways in which the staging of the play is crucial to the understanding of the text.
  • Discuss the character of Willy Loman in terms of his qualifications as a tragic hero.
  • Describe how dishonesty affects the various characters and events of the play.

Key Elements and Techniques

  • Characterization
  • Dialogue
  • Flashback
  • Symbolism

Themes and Motifs

Dishonesty — The play explores the mental and social effects of dishonesty as the Lomans deceive themselves and each other.

Related Works:

The American Dream — In this play, the American Dream is illusive and ultimately unattainable, prompting the question of whether anyone can actually achieve it.

Related Works:

Family —  Though family is often the play's source of conflict, the play also stresses the importance of family.

Related Works:


  • Pulitzer Prize for Drama (1949)
  • New York Drama Critics' Circle Best Play (1949)
  • Tony Award for Best Play (1949)


Death of a Salesman has been adapted for film and television several times, most recently in 2000. However, the most critically-acclaimed adaptation is the original 1951 film, which was directed by László Benedek and received three Golden Globe Awards. It was digitally restored in 2013 and is available on DVD.

External Resources

Your students will love:

  • The dark depiction of the American Dream
  • The universality of Willy's struggle, even in the modern world
  • The relatable themes of growing up and choosing a direction in life.

Students may have problems with:

  • Separating reality from imagined events and flashbacks within the context of the play
  • Relying solely on dialogue and stage cues to interpret the events of the play

Available from Prestwick House:

Find more great resources for teaching Death of a Salesman in your classroom here.

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