Flashbacks in Death of a Salesman

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Celeste Bright

Celeste has taught college English for four years and holds a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature.

This lesson will define the term 'flashback' and discuss the types, structure, and purpose of flashbacks in Arthur Miller's 'Death of a Salesman.' Finally, it will examine the significance of four major examples of flashbacks in the play.

Flashbacks vs. Internal Dialogues

You've probably seen countless movies involving flashbacks, or scenes from a character's past that are spliced into the present plot. Flashbacks reveal the motives behind a character's thoughts or actions. Forrest Gump is a memorable example of this. Flashbacks are also used in literature and drama. Arthur Miller uses them in Death of a Salesman to illuminate Willy Loman's search for wrong turns taken in his family's personal and financial history.

Miller's use of flashbacks is highly complex. Instead of linear, clearly defined movements between the past and present, Miller's flashbacks move through layers of time that sometimes intersect, sometimes parallel each other. We sometimes see Willy recalling a past conversation with one person while simultaneously talking to another person in the present. At other times, the entire stage action takes place in a conventional flashback. Additionally, Willy sometimes has a dual past-and-present conversation inside of a flashback. These techniques contribute to a fluid sense of time in Miller's play. Christopher W. E. Bigsby writes in his introduction to Death of a Salesman that these phenomena are not flashbacks at all, but constructions. Willy remembers things the way he wants or needs to remember them.

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  • 0:03 Flashbacks vs.…
  • 1:19 Flashback Structure…
  • 1:46 Flashbacks About Biff & Woman
  • 3:10 Flashbacks About Ben
  • 3:49 Flashbacks About Charley
  • 4:34 Lesson Summary
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Flashback Structure and Purpose

All of Willy's flashbacks seem to take place sometime during Biff's high school career. The flashbacks culminate in seventeen-year-old Biff's discovery of Willy's affair with The Woman, but may not necessarily occur in chronological order up to that point. Willy believes that Biff blames his failure as an adult on this traumatic incident. His memories, then, search through Biff's teenage years for the truth about what might have been, what went wrong, and who is to blame.

Flashbacks About Biff & Woman

Although Happy appears in many of Willy's flashbacks, Biff figures in them more prominently. He is Willy's first son and the one marked for stardom. Willy also hopes Biff will marry and raise a family in the house he will likely inherit. In these reminiscences, we learn that Biff is captain of his high school's football team, talented at baseball, and popular with girls. However, we also learn that he 'borrows' a football from the locker room and that he's in danger of flunking math and failing to graduate. Later, though, we see Willy encouraging his sons to steal sand from the apartment construction site to repair the front stoop of the house. Willy shouts at Biff about the math class, but also tells his sons that school doesn't count for much. It is unclear whether Biff or his father are to blame for Biff's career failure, unwillingness to get married, and theft of an expensive fountain pen.

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