Death of a Salesman: Dramatic features

Death of a Salesman

Dramatic impact in ‘Death of a Salesman’

and two sample paragraphs

(Dramatic impact directs the audience’s response)

I imagine that this page will be of most use to teachers or very independent learners!  It is the direct result of my teaching notes and it has not been amended … so although it is a bit better than an aide memoire, my examples and pointers are brief and not comprehensive.



How Miller builds suspense (i.e. the audience wonders what will happen and how events will transpire)

a    delays in discovering events: Acts 1 and 2 have a two-day ‘frame’.

b    Shifting between present and past

i           Simultaneous past and present

ii          use of memories

iii         use of flashbacks

iv         blurring between memory and imagined memory

v          imagined conversation with dead man


How tension and conflict is developed between characters. 

a    unsaid items

b    dramatic irony

c    anger

d    surprise

e    annoyance etc

f     monologue

g  dialogue

i   questions & commands

ii  sentence length

iii  use of interruptions

iv  hesitation


Character’s own words reveal their natures and beliefs e.g.:Linda’s naivete for buying the washing machine that had the biggest advertisement.

a    Hesitation and stuttering

b    Patent untruths e.g.: what Willy has sold

c    Repetition (see ‘repetition’ below)

d    Willy talking to himself and talking to someone who is not there.

e    Contradiction


 Use of a character to e.g.:

a    voice an opinion on another.

b    show admiration

c    show disappointment

d    repeating someone else’s words (there’s always a reason for doing this – also see ‘repetition’ below)


The various different purposes of repetition appear in:

a    words

b    images (motifs)

c    ideas (motifs)

d    revisiting moments

e    recurring references



a    past and present

b    between characters e.g. Biff and Happy

c    between character responses

d    juxtapositioning of different elements

e    treatment of Biff and Happy,

f    Willys’ treatment of Linda and the woman

g   Willy’s optimism and feelings of hopelessness


Irony e.g.:

a    Willy tries to teach his sons to succeed in a way that ensures that they will fail.

b    Willy’s claim to success in business – this becomes dramatic irony as the audience realises the truth when Linda and his sons do not.

c    Charlie is ‘not well-liked’ but he is both successful and generous

d    Willy thinks it important to be well-liked but he says ‘people don’t seem to take to me’ (22)

e     Aims to stay at home yet plays begins, at a later date, with him returning exhausted.


The actions of a character and other stage directions often reveal inner feelings e.g.:

a    action and gesture e.g. put an arm round someone

b    movement

c    feelings

d    Use of sounds

i.      music

ii.     flute

iii     laughter


e    Set (and the significance of its symbolism) e.g. Use of set e.g.

i        moving through wall line show breakdown of Willy’s sense of reality.

ii      position on stage

iii     leaves falling


 Scene setting:

a    the set (see next above ‘e’) Being alone on stage

b    Flash back

c    Memories are actually relived

d    Gradual revealing of the truth

e    Raising the tension e.g. what caused the rift?  Sudden or gradual increase/release

f    Framing of a scene e.g. Blurring of reality, blending of past with present.  Willy alone in the kitchen before the scene in the past.



a    irony

b    dramatic irony

c    satire

d    hyperbole


Use and symbolic significance of props

a    e.g. The polished car represents pride, admiration, devotion et

b      the hose piping

c    seeds

d    ball

e   stockings


Tragedy – audience is moved to pity and terror

a    success (or apparent success) of protagonist

b    protagonist has fatal flaw

c    fatal flaw causes fall

d    realisation of flaw

e    one might also consider the failure of aspects of The American Dream



TWO SAMPLE PARAGRAPHS to show how analysis of dramatic features develops the main points:

In the flashback [setting of scene], Willy reveals [own words] that his dream is to have his own business and never ‘have to leave home any more’.  This dramatic irony creates empathy from the audience, as we first see Willy at the start of the play arriving home from a trip, that is years later [play’s structure].  This brings to life one of the themes of the play as Willy never managed to achieve his dream of having his own business.  Miller explores the irony that the American Dream is not simply achieved through being a dedicated and loyal worker, as was commonly believed [key point of the paragraph], at the time of writing [period context] in the 1940s.

Willy claims [own words], however, that his job has its rewards in being well-liked [theme].  He is shown to boast hyperbolically to his sons that the cops in New England protect his car ‘like their own.’  He however [contrast, irony] admits [awareness of flaw] that ‘people don’t seem to take to me’ when he is talking privately [dialogue] to Linda and although she dismisses this with a short, ‘Oh, don’t be foolish.’ [embedded quote], we soon see her action of darning stockings, which is a symbol of straightened circumstances, to be a clear indication that his personal doubts are accurate and that he is a failure.  The audience gradually becomes aware of the nature of his fatal flaw before Willy does himself, thus raising the suspense in the unfolding tragedy [main point].


In all passage based questions,  you  must aim to cover what you consider to be the main areas, which are relevant to the question.  You can go through the scene in order but do not simply start with the first phrase and stop when your time is up!  Make links with other parts of the play – to develop the significance of your response but keep your focus on the extract itself.

  • Embed your quotes into the sentences whenever possible – this will keep them short and help fluency e.g. Willy exaggerates his popularity to the extent that he even claims that the police protect his car ‘like their own’.
  • Always address the dramatic devices as an integral part of your analysis of a play.  These are used to delve into the feelings of the characters, to develop the themes and to direct audience response.

You might also like to see my other pages on ‘Death of a Salesman’:

Death of a Salesman: Ben

Death of a Salesman: Articles

Death of a Salesman: Revision Essay Questions

Death of a Salesman: Dramatic Features

Death of a Salesman: Sample Essay

Death of a Salesman: Worksheet 1

Death of a Salesman: Worksheet 2

Death of a Salesman: Worksheet 3

Death of a Salesman: Miller’s view


3 thoughts on “Death of a Salesman: Dramatic features

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