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Death of a Salesman: Conflict & Climax

Death of a Salesman: Conflict & Climax
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  • 0:04 Two Ways to Look at Conflict
  • 1:20 Building Small Conflicts
  • 3:07 Where Is the Climax?
  • 3:40 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ginna Wilkerson

Virginia has a Master's degree in Curriculum and Development and a Ph.D. in English

Arthur Miller's classic play ''Death of a Salesman'' is filled with minor conflicts that build to a climax in Willy Loman's death. This lesson will explore these conflicts and the growing tension throughout the plot of this famous drama about failure and despair.

Two Ways to Look at Conflict

Conflict in Arthur Miller's play Death of a Salesman can be viewed in two ways. Students are usually told to look for the main conflict, which drives the plot in a work of fiction. For this play, that conflict might be the one between Willy Loman and his son Biff. In fact, Willy's wife Linda says at the very beginning of the drama that the two have never gotten along. Biff and his brother Happy are both at home during the course of the play, and contribute to Willy's growing sense of despair. Biff has been working on a farm out west and likes that life of freedom. Willy wants Biff to be a success in business, even though he himself has never been more than average in his work.

If we look at this man vs. man conflict between Willy and Biff, we might define the climax of this conflict as the final confrontation that takes place in the family home, right after the ill-fated restaurant dinner. Happy brings his mother flowers, which doesn't have the desired reaction. Then, when Willy comes in, all the differences in views that plague this family burst into open warfare. Biff determines to leave the house for good and try to find his own life in his own way. Sometimes, dramatic action doesn't lead to a definite climactic moment. As in Miller's play, we might define this type of subtle climax as anti-climactic.

Building Small Conflicts

Another way to see conflict in this play is to think of Willy Loman as both protagonist and antagonist. In reality, Willy is his own worst enemy. He holds so tightly to his dreams of success that he's become confused and delusional. His belief that he was once a success, and could be again if someone would just give him a break, conflicts with his inner sense of total failure as a husband and provider. When Willy goes to see Charley in his office after getting fired by his boss, Charley wants to give him work to help him out. But Willy's pride will not let him accept the help. All Willy has ever really wanted is recognition that he is respected and well-liked. What goes on in Willy's own head is largely responsible for his downfall.

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