Fantasy and Reality: Dramatic Rhythm in Death of a Salesman

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Author: Leah Hadomi
Editor: Janet Witalec
Date: 2004
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 8,249 words

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[(essay date June 1988) In the following essay, Hadomi provides a stylistic analysis of Death of a Salesman through the examination of "the ways in which the rhythmic organization of the play is managed in respect of three structural elements in the play: characterization, symbolic clusters, and the plot."]

The subtitle of Death of a Salesman, "Certain Private Conversations in Two Acts and a Requiem,"1 as well as the title originally considered by the playwright, The Inside of His Head, already point to the play's thematic essence and major formal characteristic. Thematically, Miller's drama deals with the tension between the private inner world of the protagonist and external reality. Its principal structural characteristic consists of the integration of dramatic realism and expressionism.2

The conflicting inner selves that make up Willy Loman's many-sided persona represent his experience of the outer world refracted through the distorting medium of his fantasies. As the action of the play progresses, the connections between Willy's inner world and external reality--which are tenuous enough to begin with--grow increasingly unstable and volatile until he is driven to kill himself, the ultimate act of self-deception in his struggle to impose his fantasies upon a reality that consistently thwarts his ambitions and will.

The shifts in Willy Loman's mind between his dreams and actuality, on the level of his personal existence, and between fantasy and realism on the level of dramatic presentation, are conveyed in structural terms by the patterns in which the play's formal elements unfold to establish the dramatic rhythm of the work. In the analysis of Miller's play that follows, I take my cue from the conceptions of dramatic rhythm as set out by Paul M. Levitt and Kathleen George.3 In my own consideration of the work, I shall examine the ways in which the rhythmic organization of the play is managed in respect of three structural elements in the play; characterization, symbolic clusters, and the plot.


Not only is Willy Loman the chief character of the play but it is primarily from his psychological perspective that the play's dramatic action derives its meaning. The actual events enacted in his presence become the trigger for Willy's recollections and fantasies which constitute the play's imaginary sequences. The significance of each of the play's episodes, as well as the structure of the plot as a whole, depends on the rhythmic alternations between actuality and the protagonist's mental responses to them. His ideal self-image and the reality of his actual behavior and circumstances are the poles of both his inner existence and his dramatic interactions with the other characters of the play. The personalities of each of the dramatis personae are connected specifically with a particular feature of Willy's inner self, with a particular stance he has adopted toward his environment, or with one of the values in which he has educated his sons. Thus the conduct of the play's other characters is in great measure both the effect of his illusory perception of external...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100052918