Death of a Salesman (Penguin Classics Series)

Death of a Salesman (Penguin Classics Series)


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Death of a Salesman (Penguin Classics Series) by Arthur Miller

The Pulitzer Prize-winning tragedy of a salesman’s deferred American dream
Since it was first performed in 1949, Arthur Miller's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama about the tragic shortcomings of an American dreamer has been recognized as a milestone of the theater. Willy Loman, the protagonist of Death of a Salesman, has spent his life following the American way, living out his belief in salesmanship as a way to reinvent himself. But somehow the riches and respect he covets have eluded him. At age 63, he searches for the moment his life took a wrong turn, the moment of betrayal that undermined his relationship with his wife and destroyed his relationship with Biff, the son in whom he invested his faith. Willy lives in a fragile world of elaborate excuses and daydreams, conflating past and present in a desperate attempt to make sense of himself and of a world that once promised so much. This Penguin Classics edition features an introduction by Christopher W. E. Bigsby.

For more than seventy years, Penguin has been the leading publisher of classic literature in the English-speaking world. With more than 1,700 titles, Penguin Classics represents a global bookshelf of the best works throughout history and across genres and disciplines. Readers trust the series to provide authoritative texts enhanced by introductions and notes by distinguished scholars and contemporary authors, as well as up-to-date translations by award-winning translators.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780141180977
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/28/1998
Series: Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics Series
Pages: 144
Sales rank: 64,959
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.71(h) x 0.40(d)
Lexile: NP (what's this?)

About the Author

Arthur Miller (1915–2005) was born in New York City and studied at the University of Michigan. His plays include All My Sons (1947), Death of a Salesman (1949), The Crucible (1953), A View from the Bridge and A Memory of Two Mondays (1955), After the Fall (1963), Incident at Vichy (1964), The Price (1968), The Creation of the World and Other Business (1972) and The American Clock (1980). He also wrote two novels, Focus (1945), and The Misfits, which was filmed in 1960, and the text for In Russia (1969), Chinese Encounters (1979), and In the Country (1977), three books of photographs by his wife, Inge Morath. His later work included a memoir, Timebends (1987); the plays The Ride Down Mt. Morgan (1991), The Last Yankee (1993), Broken Glass (1994), and Mr. Peter's Connections (1999); Echoes Down the Corridor: Collected Essays, 1944–2000; and On Politics and the Art of Acting (2001). He twice won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, and in 1949 he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Miller was the recipient of the National Book Foundation’s 2001 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, the Prince of Asturias Award for Letters in 2002, and the Jerusalem Prize in 2003.

Christopher Bigsby is a professor of American Studies at the University of East Anglia. He edited the Penguin Classics editions of Miller's The CrucibleDeath of a Salesman, and All My Sons.

Read an Excerpt


Note to Teacher



Arthur Miller was born in New York City in 1915 and studied at the University of Michigan. His plays include All My Sons (1947), Death of a Salesman (1949), The Crucible (1953), A View from the Bridge and A Memory of Two Mondays (1955), After the Fall (1963), Incident at Vichy (1964), The Price (1968), The Creation of the World and Other Business (1972) and The American Clock. He has also written two novels, Focus (1945), and The Misfits, which was filmed in 1960, and the text for In Russia (1969), Chinese Encounters (1979), and In the Country (1977), three books of photographs by his wife, Inge Morath. More recent works include a memoir, Timebends (1987), and the plays The Ride Down Mt. Morgan (1991), The Last Yankee (1993), Broken Glass (1993), which won the Olivier Award for Best Play of the London Season, and Mr. Peter's Connections (1998). His latest book is On Politics and the Art of Acting. Miller was granted with the 2001 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. He has twice won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, and in 1949 he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.



Preparing to Read

  1. How is the American Dream characteristic of American ideals and philosophy? What are the differences between the materialistic and the idealistic values associated with the American Dream?

Understanding the Story

Act One

Writing Responses

Exploring Further

* included in the Viking Critical Library edition
** excerpted in the Viking Critical Library edition

What People are Saying About This

Arthur Miller

The suddenness of the '29 crash and the chaos that followed offered a pure instance of the impotence of individualist solutions to so vast a crisis. As a society we learned all over again that mass social organization does not neccessarily weaken moral fiber but may set the stage for great displays of heroism and self-sacrifice and endurance.

Reading Group Guide

Willy Loman, the central figure in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, occupies a position to which few characters in literature ascend. Willy serves as a point of reference in contexts outside of literature—invoked to describe anyone who is crushed by the immense forces of American capitalism. This habit suggests a certainty about the play's meaning that often forms around a widely acknowledged masterpiece despite its multitude of ambiguities. Death of a Salesman vividly portrays the destructive power of certain American tendencies, such as equating wealth with virtue and possessions with self-worth. But the extent of the play's ambition can quickly obscure the fact that it is also a story about one family and its individual members, culminating in the father's suicide.

What brings Willy Loman to this point cannot be reduced to the malignant influence of the society in which he lives, although an economic system determined by abstract principles rather than human needs is in part responsible for Willy's fate. As he says to Howard, his boss, "a man is not a piece of fruit!" (pp. 61-62), but to Howard and the world he represents, the bottom line always comes first. Willy's history with the Wagner Company and Howard's father cannot keep Howard from firing Willy. All Howard can say to Willy is "business is business" (p. 60). Believing that his family will benefit more from his life insurance policy than from his continuing to live, Willy seems to accept the implication underlying Howard's statement—that the value of a person can be quantified according to actual wealth or earning potential. As he says to Charley, "you end up worth more dead than alive" (p. 76).

To argue, however, that Willy kills himself primarily because he realizes the true nature of his world neglects the all-consuming power of his illusions, which retain their hold on him to the end. He is seduced by an American dream that is corrupted; he spends his life working to pay for a house, a car, and a refrigerator, without suspecting that it's a game he cannot win. Even though Willy finally seems to understand the absurdity of owning something only when it is no longer of any use to him, he maintains his belief in the worth and worthiness of being well liked, as if the game were about something more than numbers. But what makes Death of a Salesman more than an indictment of a system and gives Willy a truly tragic dimension is the intimation that Willy suffers not just from the inhumanity of free enterprise, but also from his inability to reconcile the hopes he had for his life with the one he has actually lived.

As Miller excavates the various layers of Willy's life, we become aware of the hollowness of his dreams and the extent to which his illusions protect him from being overwhelmed by guilt and regret. He constantly laments his decision not to go with his brother, Ben, to Alaska, where he believes he would have had the kind of life he longs for throughout the play—away from the confinement of the city, having a more direct relationship with the natural world, and being spiritually invigorated by the tangibility of his work's rewards. At the same time, he continues to profess his faith in the honor of his profession. Is Ben's life a credible alternative to the one Willy lives, or does Willy's memory give it the shape of another kind of American dream—the solitary man reaping the bounty of a vast virgin wilderness—that is in fact as devoid of reality as the one Willy buys into? Just as Willy refuses to acknowledge the consequences of his not going with Ben, so he refuses to accept the consequences of his affair with the woman in Boston. If Willy sees Biff as he truly is—as Biff himself finally does—Willy will have to admit to himself that Biff's discovery of the affair might have undermined the inflated self-image Willy encouraged in him. "I won't take the rap for this, you hear?" (p. 103), Willy says to Biff, even as Biff insists that he does not blame his father for his own failures. Willy's needless protest might suggest an unwillingness to accept responsibility for Biff's mistakes or for his own.

Perhaps it is the illusion of a continuous present—the essential condition of childhood—that Willy finally cannot live without. Unable to bear the disparity between his dreams and the life he has wrought through his decisions and actions, Willy lives almost entirely within his imagination, where disappointment and loss are impossible because nothing is irrevocable. When Willy reprimands Charley for not sharing his sense of gravity before Biff's championship high school football game, Charley asks, "Willy, when are you going to grow up?" (p. 68). This may be the deepest insight into Willy's character the play offers. But what kind of model of adulthood is Charley himself? When Willy points out that Charley never took an interest in his son, Bernard, Charley responds, "My salvation is that I never took any interest in anything" (p. 74). Without desire, there is no reason to fear disappointment. The play leaves us to wonder whether it is possible to inhabit a middle ground between Willy's inability to release his dreams and Charley's practiced detachment.

Lingering at the end of the play is the question of how much Willy's childishness is due to a culture that might be said to encourage it, and how much is due to his character and personal circumstances. As his wife, Linda, stands over his grave repeating, "We're free" (p. 112), her words become more enigmatic the more deeply we consider them. The family is free from financial stress, at least for now, thanks to Willy's insurance policy. But they are also free of Willy, and perhaps more aware of the harm he caused them. Broadly understood, Linda's proclamation prompts us to wonder about the nature of freedom. Is the kind of freedom Willy seems to long for possible, or is it necessarily at odds with the maintenance of a coherent society? Even in the freest society, old age is not as free as youth—this may be the more tragic fact to which Willy cannot reconcile himself.


Arthur Miller was born in 1915 in New York City. He held several jobs after high school, including a position as a clerk in an automobile parts warehouse, before he could afford to attend the University of Michigan, where he began writing plays. Returning to New York after graduation, Miller wrote a number of plays for radio. His first play produced on Broadway, The Man Who Had All the Luck (1944), closed after only a few performances but received the Theater Guild National Award. All My Sons premiered in 1947 and won several awards, among them the New York Drama Critics Circle Award.

With Death of a Salesman (1949), winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Miller entered the first rank of American dramatists. In response to McCarthyism and the practices of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), Miller wrote The Crucible (1953), depicting the Salem witch trials of 1692. Miller was later subpoenaed by HUAC and convicted of contempt of Congress when he refused to identify writers sympathetic to communism; the United States Court of Appeals overturned the conviction.

Miller is also the author of Focus (1945), a novel; The Misfits (1961), a screenplay for his second wife, Marilyn Monroe; andTimebends: A Life (1987), an autobiography. His books of reportage with photographs by Inge Morath, his third wife, includeIn Russia (1969) and Chinese Encounters (1979). Among Miller's other plays are A View from the Bridge (1955), After the Fall(1964), The Price (1968), The Ride Down Mount Morgan (1991), Broken Glass (1994), and Resurrection Blues (2002). Miller has won seven Tony Awards, an Olivier Award, an Obie Award, the John F. Kennedy Lifetime Achievement Award, the National Book Award 2001 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, and the Jerusalem Award.

  • Why does Willy kill himself?
  • What does Linda mean when, at the end of the play, she says repeatedly, "We're free"? (p. 112)
  • Why does Willy refuse Charley's numerous offers of a job?
  • Why is Willy's perception of Biff consistently inaccurate?
  • Why does Biff steal Bill Oliver's pen?
  • After Biff insists that he and Willy both acknowledge the truth about who they are, why does Willy then say of Biff, "he likes me!"? (p. 106)
  • What does Charley mean when he says, "No man only needs a little salary"? (p. 110)
  • Why does Happy insist that Willy "had a good dream"? (p. 111)
  • What does Willy mean when he says to Linda, "some people accomplish something"? (p. 5)
  • Why is it so important to Willy that he be well liked?
  • Why does Willy plant the garden after his dinner with Biff and Happy?
  • To what is Biff referring when he says to Willy, "will you let me out of it," while trying to tell Willy about his meeting with Bill Oliver? (p. 85)

  • At what point does the pursuit of dreams turn into a harmful denial of one's actual circumstances?
  • Can Willy be called a tragic figure in the same way that this term applies to various characters in Greek drama?
  • Do American ideals exalt the freedom of the individual at the expense of the welfare of the community?


Saul Bellow, Seize the Day (1956)
Tracing the calamitous events of a single day in the life of its central character, this novella explores the conflicts between the imperatives of free enterprise and the desire for an emotionally authentic life.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1925)
This classic novel is the consummate depiction of the American belief in the possibility of self-invention and its tragic potential.

David Mamet, Glengarry Glen Ross (1983)
Winner of a Pulitzer Prize, this intricately plotted play portrays the rabidly fierce competition among the salesmen at a real estate office.

Grace Paley, "The Floating Truth" (in The Little Disturbances of Man) (1959)
This story chronicles the humorous, disconcerting experience of an idealistic young woman trying to get her foot in the door of the business world.

Richard Yates, Revolutionary Road (1961)
Frank and April Wheeler, trapped in the deadness and banality of their suburban lives, concoct an absurdly optimistic plan of escape in this dark, insightful novel about American ideals and the disillusion they breed.

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Death of a Salesman (SparkNotes Literature Guide Series) 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 136 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I read this book for an AP English Summer Reading assignment and quite enjoyed it. It was a bit hard to follow at first but once you get started you start to understand more. It's a sad but interesting story. Warning: It's not for light readers there is depth to it so it requires a bit of thinking on the readers part.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I have seen some really bad reviews here. Some said that Death of a Salesman was the worst book ever. Now I can imagine that some may not think as highly as I do of the book, but it can never be considered the worst ever. Those people obviously do not understand the true meaning and messages of the book, the things that maake Death of a Salesman a timeless masterpiece. For you dumb shmucks out there, some thing the book was really about: communism; capitalism- in the cold and callous business world, personal connections and compassion and comprimised for profit and performace; trying to fulfill one's dreams with his children; escape from an undesirable life; sacrifice; -- just to name a few. So, before you rip on a book, or anything, make sure you fully understand it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Miller's play is an intimate study of the tragedy one family faces and their singular reaction to it. The characters are so rich in their depiction of disillusionment, and they vividly exemplify the intense desire for an easier life. I thoroughly enjoyed this play.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Death of a Saleman is an excellent play which everyone should read. I read it for my AP English and Composition class. There are many hidden facts and information which make the play more interesting and more complex then you may not see the first time you read it.
Been_There_Done_That More than 1 year ago
Valuable literary experience, but so profoundly depressing. Definitely not something to read while you're trying to enjoy a vacation. Don't read it until our current economic depression is over.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Though to many the play can seem dull and dreary, it cannot leave you untouched. It makes you internally search, wondering if you too are like Willy, reaching for something that will never be grasped. Willy was always searching for his own diamond, yet only in death could he find it. The play is simplistic at times, but one would have to take some serious thought in order to understand all of its aspects. You must mull over it for awhile and turn it over in your mind a few times before being able to truely understand and appreciate it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Miller's view on the American Dream symbolizes the culture of Willy Loman and how he reacts toward the different situations.
ForBrotherGrover More than 1 year ago
There are perhaps two plays you may be required to read by Arthur Miller in high school: The Crucible and Death of a Salesman. After having read Death of a Salesman, I can now say that I think Death of a Salesman comes out on top. It’s not just better than The Crucible, but is a play that every high school class should read and examine to fully honor this great classic. Arthur Miller tells the story of an old, dying salesman who is haunted by his unattainable dreams and his untold past. Not only is Willy Loman an interesting character, but all the characters are intriguing as they work together to create a story that we can delve into quickly. Perhaps what helps us to appreciate and connect with the characters is in large part thanks to Miller’s seamless transitions to scenes from the characters’ past. We see them interact at many different levels, and we see how their past decisions affect not only their future, but their self-concept as well. As I watched this characters interact, I became quickly attached to them and to the decisions that would eventually determine their ends. Each character carried with them an important lesson that we can learn, and apply in our own lives. The most important lesson I learned in this story is to chase our dreams, but not allow our dreams to make up for our present. I would recommend this book to anyone, it is full of great dialogue and it is an interesting read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
"Death of a Salesman" by Arthur Miller is an eye opening collision of idealism and the "American Dream" with the harsh realities of everyday life. This dramatic play gives Arthur's strong opinions on success in America. Miller's own family was successful in business and was very wealthy up until the Wall Street Crash of 1929, which left them nearly broke. This personal connection to the plot makes the emotional appeals to the audience very effective. Amidst the delusion of Willy's success as a businessman, Biff as a well-liked and respected worker, and Linda and Willy's marriage as being immaculate, the message that not everything is perfect contrasts quite sharply as we begin to discover what is wrong with Willy. When we get introduced to Willy and his family, everything appears to be very idealistic: a husband that has no problem providing for the family, two sons with a great amount of potential, and a caring wife. But as the blinds come off of the household, the vision of perfection becomes unraveled, and for the most part, what seems true proves to be the opposite. I found many of the feelings of chaos and uncertainty very relatable but also kind of terrifying. The suggestion that success can be but an illusion is a convicting one for someone who is about to go to college and begin to try succeeding in life. It is a powerful reminder that a multi-perceptive view of the world is so crucial, as Biff learns later in the play as he copes with all that has happened. Before reading this play, I had considered probably my whole life that success does not look the same to each person, but this play presented me with the possibility that failure could still be masked as success, which has made me more cautious (or knowingly daring) with the decisions I make in the future. Overall, the play was one I would love to see done onstage sometime, but also a very powerful script that will stay with me for awhile.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The book is excellent, but the Nook rendering is very disappointing. No matter what text size I select, the formatting  is off: 1-word lines abound, the indents are off, and the reading experience is considerably compromised.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Arthur Miller describes a families desperate attempt to cling to the American dream while simultaneously bringing the utopian fantasy life crashing down.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I had read this short play and I found myself amazed at how I actually liked the plotline. It is easy to connect with the main character. Overall a good read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I love arthur miller and love reading plays. Don't read if you're looking for something uplifting, though!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anyone that does not appreciate the story of the Loman family (its about the entire family, not just Willy), complain about how "boring" the story is, or fails to find any meaning in the story, is a stupid person. Plain and simple. Go read the Hunger Games or some ish. In short, everyone who rated Death of a Salesmen 1 Star was basically ranking their intelligence the same.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
How the frik are you posting from 2001
emma-bear_ More than 1 year ago
Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller is the story of an old and increasingly unsuccessful salesman named Willie. Willie grows crazier and crazier and has more and more flashbacks to different moments in his life that he realized could have changed his entire life, if he had done one thing different. When his two sons, Biff and Happy, come to visit for a while, he becomes more depressed after seeing how much of a failure Biff is, and how seeing that no matter how many different women Happy can get, he will never be able to get a wife, or impress his father the way that Biff used to. With an emotional ending that leaves you satisfied and impressed, Death of a Salesman was a very good play.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The book didnt really get my attention in the beginning, but i like that its a play
Anonymous More than 1 year ago