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Irony in Death of a Salesman

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Instructor: Kerry Gray

Kerry has been a teacher and an administrator for more than twenty years. She has a Master of Education degree.

Idealization and the American Dream are at the core of Arthur Miller's 1949 play, but so is irony. Explore the use of irony in 'Death of a Salesman,' which comes in three forms: dramatic irony, verbal irony, and situational irony. Updated: 01/04/2022

The American Dream

Death of a Salesman, written in 1949 by Arthur Miller, is a Pulitzer Prize winning play about Willy Loman, a hard-working family man, whose reality does not match his expectations. It is a commentary on the American Dream as Willy nears the end of his career and begins to realize that he has missed the mark on success. Arthur Miller uses dramatic, situational, and verbal irony throughout the play to help the reader better understand the characters and the events of the play.

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  • 0:04 The American Dream
  • 0:33 Dramatic Irony
  • 1:16 Verbal Irony
  • 2:13 Situational Irony
  • 2:53 Lesson Summary
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Dramatic Irony

Dramatic irony occurs when the reader knows important information that a character isn't aware of yet, which causes that character to say or do things that are the opposite of what he or she should say or do. Willy ends up committing suicide after deciding that he is not living up to his dreams, but after his funeral, we find out that he has successfully paid off the mortgage on the house. His wife, Linda, talks to him out loud saying, ''I made the last payment on the house today. Today, dear. And there'll be nobody home.'' For many people, having a house paid for would be an indicator of success. Willy never sees the fruits of his labor because he kills himself before he has a chance to reap the benefits.

Verbal Irony

Willy Loman's public self is so different from his actual self that often what he says creates verbal irony. Verbal irony occurs when what the character says is in sharp contrast to the reality of the situation. Willy Loman views himself as a success, but the audience knows that his perspective is skewed. Loman offers his son advice, ''the man who makes an appearance in the business world, the man who creates personal interest, is the man who gets ahead. Be liked and you will never want.'' He further claims that his clients never make him wait because they like him and are excited to see him when just the opposite is true.

This juxtaposition between what is and what Willy says reveals a character unable to face the reality of his life. Verbal irony is used as a tool to describe Willy's character by comparing the way the world views him to the way he tries to present himself to his sons.

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