Willy Loman, an aging traveling salesman, struggles to come to terms with his “failures,” reconnect with his sons, and let go of the ideal of the "American Dream."
Below are some reading passages that we have hand picked to supplement this book. Be sure to read the passage summaries and our suggestions for instructional use.
Three years after the economic recession, the article "American Dream Faces Harsh New Reality" reports on the American Dream and dwindling faith in it.
Have students read this text before beginning the play as contemporary insight into the American Dream. Pair “American Dream Faces Harsh New Reality” with Death of a Salesman and ask students to discuss the development of the concept of the American Dream — how does this ideal impact American lives and values today?
According to a recent study published in Psychological Science, spending money on experiences rather than materials can indeed bring people joy.
Introduce this text after students have read the first discussion between Biff and Happy in Act I, in order to provide students with a psychological insight into what it means to be happy. Pair “You Can Buy Happiness If It’s an Experience” with Death of a Salesman and ask students to use Singh’s findings and conclusions to discuss the conversation between Biff and Happy — would any characters in the play, like Biff, agree with Singh’s article?
This interview from NPR's All Things Considered, hosted by Audie Cornish, discusses a recent study's findings that children who demonstrate more 'pro-social' skills – those who share more and who are better listeners – are more likely to have jobs and stay out of trouble as young adults.
Introduce this text during Act I, following Willy’s first flashback to his conversation with high school-aged Biff and Bernard, in order to provide sociological insight into the notions of popularity and success. Pair “Nice Kids Finish First: Study Finds Social Skills Can Predict Future Success” with Death of a Salesman and ask students to discuss the importance of social skills and popularity when it comes to success — why do both Willy and Biff “fail” to succeed despite being “well-liked”?
In "Miss Brill," a woman's day in the park has unexpected emotional consequences.
Introduce this text after finishing Act I of the play in order to help students identify thematic connections regarding human dignity, especially in regards to middle-aged or elderly people. Pair “Miss Brill” with Death of a Salesman and ask students to consider what message both texts seem to emphasize regarding the importance of human life and dignity. How does Linda’s declaration of “attention must be paid” during her fight with Biff and Happy contribute to this message?
G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936) was an English critic, philosopher and writer. Chesterton often wrote parables, which are stories that illustrate lessons in morality. In this opinion piece, Chesterton uses humor to mock books that aim to teach a person how to become wealthy and successful.
Have students read this text as philosophical insight into the notion of success, particularly with Ben’s appearance in Act II following Willy’s conversation with Howard. Pair “The Fallacy of Success” with Death of a Salesman and ask students to discuss what it means to be successful and if the character Ben accurately represents this definition — is there any reason Ben is more “successful” than Willy, or was this more of a result of luck than character?
John Keats (1795-1821) was an English Romantic poet whose reputation grew after his death. This poem, though written in 1818, was first published posthumously in 1848. In it, a speaker shares desires for the future as well as fears.
Introduce this poem in Act II, following Willy’s breakdown in Frank’s Chop House, in order for students to track thematic connections on mortality and legacy through a comparative study of texts. Pair “When I Have Fears that I May Cease to Be” with Death of a Salesman and ask students to compare how the speaker and Willy deal with confronting their own mortalities — why is “planting seeds” so important to Willy?
In this excerpt from Poetics, Aristotle offers a definition of tragedy, as well as several examples and non-examples of the genre.
Introduce this text after finishing the final scene of the play in order to help students analyze genre, drama, and literary form. Pair “On Tragedy” with Death of a Salesman and ask students to discuss how the play, which is often considered a great modern American tragedy, fits Aristotle’s outline of what a tragedy should be — Is Willy Loman the typical tragic hero?
This article looks at how Hollywood films since the 1900s have depicted life in America and how they have helped manufacture the American Dream.
Have students read this text after finishing the play as cultural background and philosophical insight into the American Dream. Pair “Hollywood Dreams of Wealth, Youth, and Beauty” with Death of a Salesman and ask students to evaluate the significance of the American Dream in popular American culture and media — how does the article’s depiction of the American Dream compare to Willy’s delusions?
In "Capitalism Will Eat Democracy — Unless We Speak Up," Yanis Varoufakis discusses the state of democracy today and how it relates to the political sphere and the economic sphere.
Introduce this text after students have finished reading the play in order to provide them with contemporary political insight into capitalism. Pair “Capitalism Will Eat Democracy — Unless We Speak Up” with Death of a Salesman and ask students to discuss the relationship between capitalism and American democracy, and how this relationship creates or influences the concept of American success.