Celeste has taught college English for four years and holds a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature.
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.
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.
Now, let's look at his flashbacks of The Woman. In his recollected conversations with The Woman, Willy clings to the notion that The Woman 'picked (him),' not the other way around. In his memory of being discovered with her by Biff, three things show Willy's desire, in hindsight, to prevent it or undo it. First, he hesitates to answer the door. Then he tells The Woman to hide in the bathroom. When Biff sees her, Willy kicks her out immediately, without even giving her time to dress. His subconscious emphasis on these factors may or may not alleviate some of his guilt.
Flashbacks About Ben
Throughout the play, Willy mentally converses with his older brother Ben. Because he grew rich in the diamond mines of Africa's Gold Coast as a teenager, and because he once offered Willy a job in Alaska, Willy looks up to Ben as the embodiment of adventure and opportunities. He views him as an almost legendary example of success compared with his own seeming failure. Willy asks Ben to tell stories about their early family life and tells his sons to heed Ben's words. He also asks his brother for advice regarding parenting and amassing wealth. However, Ben has little to offer apart from tales of glory and always seems to be on his way somewhere else.
Flashbacks About Charley
Willy despises his neighbor Charley as much as he looks up to Ben. He hates to admit that someone he feels is less intelligent and less spirited than himself enjoys more financial success. Charley lends him money every week and offers him a job on multiple occasions; Willy accepts the loans but not the job. In his flashbacks, Willy places petty emphasis on Charley's small failings, such as not keeping a diet that prevents heartburn or not knowing how to put in a new ceiling. He mocks Charley's son Bernard as well, by extension, for not being athletic or popular like his own sons. These memories seem to argue that, as much as the Loman family's life has gone awry, it would be a greater shame for Willy to humble himself before Charley.
In this lesson, we defined the term flashback and learned that flashbacks can reveal the motives behind a character's thoughts or actions. We talked about the types, structure, and purpose of flashbacks in Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller and how these contribute to a fluid sense of time. Finally, we explored the significance of four major examples of flashbacks in the play.
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