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Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller

Teacher Guide by Rebecca Ray

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Student Activities for Death of A Salesman Include:

Death of a Salesman is a play written and set during 1949. Arthur Miller used his play to represent a social drama and tragedy embodying the unattainable and elusive American Dream. His protagonist, Willy Loman, is a salesman whose disillusionment ends with his suicide.

By the end of this lesson your students will create amazing storyboards like the ones below!




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Quick Death of a Salesman Summary

Set in New York City, in 1949, the audience follows the Loman family through their psychological battle with the American Dream. Willy Loman, the protagonist, is a traveling salesman, his wife, Linda, is a stay at home mother, and his two sons, Happy and Biff, have grown up "yet to make something of themselves."

Early in the play, the two sons are home visiting, which causes Willy to reminisce about their childhood. Through a series of flashbacks, the audience learns that Biff, the younger of the two boys, was praised by Willy for being athletic and well-liked. Willy valued these attributes and believed they would help his boys go far. However, in reality, Happy is in the business world, going nowhere, and Biff, unable to hold down a steady job, works as a ranch hand out west.

In another daydream, Willy is talking with Linda and then drifts to hearing his mistress’s laughter. It becomes clear that, for some time, Willy was having an affair with an unidentified woman for whom he purchased silk stockings. Although he tells Linda that his sales have been going great, things are quite the opposite, and he will soon be in jeopardy of not paying his bills. In the flashback, Linda is seen mending her stockings; this makes Willy upset and prompts him to tell her to throw them away.

More flashbacks reveal that Willy has lived a life of regret, filled with envy. He focuses on his neighbor, Charlie, a wealthy business owner who worked hard and on his brother, Ben, who stumbled on a diamond mine in Africa and is now wealthy. Now after years at the same company, Willy has become tired and old, he asks his boss to be put in the New York office. Instead, he is fired. Later, his boys take him out to dinner. In the end, his delusions get the best of him, and he kills himself in a car crash to provide his family with the $20,000 in insurance money.

At his funeral, Happy vows to prove that his father's life was not in vain and continues in the business. Biff realizes that his father's life and focus were on the wrong dream, and he goes back to the ranch, determined to find happiness in his work. Linda ends the play saying, "we are free".


Essential Questions for Death of a Salesman

  1. Why are dreams important in life? What are your dreams or goals?
  2. Is there such thing as the American Dream or is it a myth?
  3. What is the most important attribute in life?

Death of A Salesman Lesson Plans, Student Activities and Graphic Organizers

Death of a Salesman Plot Diagram | Five Act Structure


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With Storyboard That, students can diagram a play’s five act structure to show the sequence of events. Not only is this a great way to teach the parts of plot, but it reinforces major actions from the play and helps students develop greater understanding for literary structures. For each cell, have students create a scene that follows the acts in order: Prologue, Conflict, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, and Denouement / Epilogue.



Example Death of a Salesman Five Act Structure

Act 1: Prologue

Set in New York City, in 1949, Willy, the protagonist, is a traveling salesman, his wife, Linda, is a stay at home mother, and his two sons, Happy and Biff, have grown up "yet to make something of themselves."


Act 2: Conflict

During many flashbacks the audience is introduced to Willy's early life. His dreams, disillusionment, infidelity, and disappointments with being mediocre. With his sons visiting and urging him to speak to his boss about his job, Willy gets up the nerve to ask for a transfer. Instead of being transferred to the New York office, he is fired.


Act 3: Climax

In an attempt help their father, Happy and Biff take Willy out to dinner. While at dinner, Willy becomes upset and leaves.


Act 4: Falling Action

Willy's delusions get the best of him, and he kills himself in a car crash to provide his family with the $20,000 of insurance money.


Act 5: Epilogue

At Willy’s funeral, Happy vows to prove that his father's life was not in vain and continues in the sales business. Biff realizes that his father's life and focus were on the wrong dream, and he goes back to the ranch, determined to find happiness in his work. Linda ends the play saying, "we are free".


Death of a Salesman - Five Act Structure

Example

(These instructions are completely customizable. After clicking "Copy Assignment", change the description of the assignment in your Dashboard.)


Student Instructions

Create a visual plot diagram of Death of a Salesman.


  1. Separate the play into the Prologue/Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, and Denouement.
  2. Create an image that represents an important moment or set of events for each of the acts.
  3. Write a description of each of the steps in the plot diagram.



Five Act Structure Template

Example

(Modify this basic rubric by clicking the link below. You can also create your own on Quick Rubric.)





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Death of a Salesman Themes, Symbols, and Motifs

Themes, symbols, and motifs come alive when you use a storyboard. In this activity, students will identify themes and symbols from the play, and support their choices with details from the text. In the classroom, students can track the themes Miller uses in the play to express the tragedy of Willy Lohman.


Themes, Motifs, and Imagery to Look For & Discuss

The American Dream

The American Dream is the idea that no matter a person's background, anyone can achieve their goals through hard work and determination. In Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman's dream is to be a great salesman. He also believed that it was better to be well liked and have charisma than it is to work hard. However, it is his son, Biff, who realized in the end that Willy's dream was wrong and vows to live his life without regret.


Infidelity

Although usually meaning “adultery”, this can also mean a breach of trust and general disloyalty. In the play, Willy feels betrayed by Biff because his son does not fulfill the ambitions that he has for him. However, it is Biff who catches his father with another woman, shifting the onus of betrayal. Willy's infidelity comes full circle when the audience sees him gift a pair of stockings to his mistress while his wife is forced to sew the holes in her stockings.


Exotic Places

To Willy, places like Alaska, the Jungle, and the Wild West represent the untapped potential and ambitions of a better life. His father found success in Alaska, and his brother Ben became rich in Africa, and he had high ambitions for Biff out west. For Willy, these exotic places were an escape from his hackneyed life in New York.


The Home

Throughout the play, many aspects of the home are mentioned. Owning your home and providing for your family are key components of the American Dream. For Willy it is a constant struggle; he can barely afford to keep his appliances. Even when he attempts to commit suicide by inhaling gas, he abandons the attempt after realizing his family needs it to heat the house, again showing his need to provide for the home.


Stockings

In the play, Willy purchases a pair of new stockings for his mistress, while his wife is forced to sew hers because they cannot afford a new pair. This symbol not only serves as a reminder of Willy's infidelity, but also his failure to provide as a good husband and father to his wife and sons.


Death of a Salesman - Symbols

Example

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Death of a Salesman Character Map Graphic Organizer

As students read, a storyboard can serves as a helpful character reference log. This log (also called a character map) allows students to recall relevant information and details about important characters. With character mapping, it’s easy for students to follow along and catch the subtleties which make reading more enjoyable!

You can click on this map and create a copy on your teacher account. Feel free to use it as is, or to edit it for the level of your class. Printing it as worksheets, for your students to complete while reading, is a fast and easy way to incorporate this character map into your classroom.

Character List

Willy Loman A traveling salesman from New York, though the audience never learns what it is that he sells. He is the major protagonist and tragic hero. His inability to obtain his ideal of the American Dream and to be successful leads to his death.
Linda Willy's wife is a stay at home mother who raised their two sons. She becomes worried about Willy as he gets older and seems to be losing his mind. She asks her now grown boys to come visit and talk to their father.
Happy Willy and Linda’s seemingly forgotten, or at least ignored, son. He follows in his father's footsteps, venturing into the business world. He is in his 30s and has not settled down yet. Instead, he is frequently seen with a call girl.
Biff The prodigal son that Willy had high ambitions for. Often in the play, Willy is seen interacting with Biff and instilling in him that it is more important to be well liked than industrious or smart. Biff moves away to work as a ranch hand in the west. He repents his ways after his father's death and vows to live a meaningful life.
Charley Charley is Willy's neighbor who was a smart businessman and became wealthy through hard work. His son, Bernard, is seen in flashbacks stressing about passing math and being studious; he later grew up to be a lawyer. When Willy is down and out, Charley offers him a job, but prideful Willy refuses.
Ben Ben is Willy's brother who, by happenstance, found riches in the jungle of Africa. Ben represents Willy's beliefs that it is luck and charm that make a man wealthy and not hard work.
Death of a Salesman - Character Map

Example

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Death of a Salesman Vocabulary Lesson Plan


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Another great way to engage your students is by creating a storyboard that uses words from the story in a vocabulary board. Many students struggle with the meaning of common terms; getting them to use them in context before reading is an excellent way to cultivate the vocabulary comprehension.


Example Vocabulary Words from Death of a Salesman

  • obstreperous
  • raucous
  • gist
  • anguish
  • enthrall
  • dormer
  • jovial
  • mercurial
  • insinuate
  • crestfallen
  • anemic
  • turbulent
  • laconic
  • saccharine
  • carte blanche
  • befuddled
  • idyllic
  • elegiac
  • implacable
  • seething

In the example below students were asked to create storyboards that use unfamiliar vocabulary from the play.

Death of a Salesman - Vocabulary

Example

(These instructions are completely customizable. After clicking "Copy Assignment", change the description of the assignment in your Dashboard.)


Student Instructions

Demonstrate your understanding of the vocabulary words in Death of a Salesman by creating visualizations.


  1. Choose three vocabulary words from the story and type them in the title boxes.
  2. Find the definition in a print or online dictionary.
  3. Write a sentence that uses the vocabulary word.
  4. Illustrate the meaning of the word in the cell using a combination of scenes, characters, and items.
    • Alternatively, use Photos for Class to show the meaning of the words with the search bar.
  5. Save and submit your storyboard.



Vocabulary Template Blank

Example

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Death of a Salesman Common Man Tragic Hero Activity


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Death of a Salesman is full of common literary elements that are important for students to explore. Because this is one of Miller's most famous tragedies, it is helpful for students to understand why it is categorized as a tragedy. Foremost, it centers around a tragic hero. However, Miller's protagonist is a new kind of tragic hero: “the common man”. This character differs from traditional tragic heroes, in Miller's essay, "Tragedy and the Common Man", he explains how this version differs from the classic Greek archetype.

After reading the play, ask students to read Miller’s essay on "Tragedy and the Common Man" and create a storyboard depicting Willy as a tragic hero.


Common Man/Tragic Hero

The common man is an apt subject for tragedy in its highest sense since the common man is easily relatable to the audience. In this play, Willy Loman is a middle-class salesman who wants to work hard and provide for his family.


AttributeMiller's ViewExample from Death of a Salesman
Hamartia
The Flaw in the Character
Miller believed it was the inherent unwillingness to remain passive in the face of what the character conceives to be a challenge to his dignity. Willy refuses to accept that success is built by hard work and determination.
Hubris
Excessive Pride
In Miller's view, the tragic hero is “a character who is ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure one thing - his sense of personal dignity.” Willy is too proud to take a job from his neighbor, but commits suicide to ensure his family has the financial stability that he couldn't provide.
Peripeteia
Reversal of Fortune
Miller believed that the hero could be displaced from fortune. Tragedy, then, “is the consequence of a man's total compulsion to evaluate himself justly”. Throughout the play Willy refers to others around him who are more successful as having luck or charisma. He talks about the regret he has over not going with his brother to Africa, which made him rich.
Anagnorisis
A Moment of Critical Discovery
For Miller, the destruction of the common man comes along with the protagonist’s realization that he is at odds with the world, and his environment cannot be altered to achieve his goals. After he is fired, Willy realizes he will never succeed in business, and that, despite his best efforts, his son's have not achieved the ambitions he held for them.
Nemesis
Fate that Cannot be Avoided
Miller says tragedy “posits a wrong or an evil in [the protagonist’s] environment.” Something is obstructing the protagonist from achieving his rightful place. What is done is done, what will be will be. Willy is too old to change and cannot change the past.
Catharsis
The Audience's Feeling of Pity or Fear After the Hero's Fall
In Miller's view, a modern audience can relate to the common man’s “ underlying fear of being displaced, the disaster inherent in being torn away from our chosen image of what and who we are in this world.” The audience is left with a feeling of pity for Lohman’s desperate suicide, and fear that they too may be living lives where their dreams will never be realized.
Death of a Salesman - Tragic Hero

Example

(These instructions are completely customizable. After clicking "Copy Assignment", change the description of the assignment in your Dashboard.)


Student Instructions

Create a storyboard that shows how Willy can be considered a tragic hero.


  1. Identify events of the play or characteristics of Willy that fit into Aristotelian attributes of a tragic hero.
  2. Illustrate examples for Hamartia, Hubris, Peripeteia, Anagnorisis, Nemesis, and Catharsis.
  3. Write a short description below each cell that specifically relates Willy as a tragic hero.
  4. Save and submit the assignment.



Tragic Hero Template Blank

Example

(Modify this basic rubric by clicking the link below. You can also create your own on Quick Rubric.)





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Other Lesson Plan Ideas

  1. Use storyboard that show precise causes and effects of events that happen in the play.
  2. Use a storyboard to depict one act or scene at a time.
  3. Add a presentation to any storyboard project.

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•   (English) Death of a Salesman   •   (Español) Muerte de un Vendedor   •   (Français) Mort D'un Vendeur   •   (Deutsch) Tod Eines Verkäufers   •   (Italiana) Morte di un Commesso   •   (Nederlands) Death of a Salesman   •   (Português) Morte de um Vendedor   •   (עברית) מותו של סוכן   •   (العَرَبِيَّة) وفاة بائع متجول   •   (हिन्दी) एक विक्रेता की मौत   •   (ру́сский язы́к) Смерть Коммивояжера   •   (Dansk) En Sælgers død   •   (Svenska) En Handelsresandes död   •   (Suomi) Kauppamatkustajan Kuolema   •   (Norsk) Death of a Salesman   •   (Türkçe) Bir Satıcının Ölümü   •   (Polski) Śmierć Sprzedającego   •   (Româna) Moartea Unui Comis-voiajor   •   (Ceština) Smrt Obchodního Cestujícího