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Miller: Death of a Salesman

8. Act I – “Ben was success incarnate”

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About this Lecture


In this module, we read through the next part of Act I, from the moment Happy comes down to ask why Willy has come back earlier than expected (“What brought you back tonight?”, p. 27) to Willy and Ben’s reminiscences about their father (“Father was a very great and very wild-hearted man”, p. 34). In particular, we focus on: (i) Willy’s memory of the time he almost went to Alaska with his brother, Ben (“Why didn’t I go to Alaska with my brother Ben that time!”); (ii) the character of Ben – is he feel or just a figment of Willy’s imagination? – and the contrast between his wealth and success and Willy’s mediocrity (“That man was success incarnate!”, p. 27); (iii) the character of Charley, Willy’s neighbour; (iv) the importance of the card game – as a locus of male bonding, as a means of bringing in someone from outside the family into the play, as a means of exploring whether success relies more on luck or skill, as an intertext with other contemporary American drama, e.g. ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ (the original title of which was ‘The Poker Night’); (vi) the them of masculinity, in particular different forms of masculinity in the ultra-capitalist society of post-war America; (vii) the contrast between Ben and Willy – Ben “stolid”, Willy “exhausted”; (viii) the fact that Ben is dead (“Couple of weeks ago we got a letter from [Ben’s] wife in Africa. He died”, p. 31); (ix) what “Alaska” and “Africa” – the two locations where Ben supposedly made his wealth – represent; and (x) the figure of Ben and Willy’s father (“Father was a very great and very wild-hearted man”, p. 34) and the importance, once again, of the flute and of flute music, and of the American Midwest more generally (“Ohio, and Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, and all the Western states”, p.34).


In this nineteen-part course, Professor John McRae (University of Nottingham) explores Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. We begin with a broad introduction to the historical, literary and cultural context, before going through the play scene-by-scene, providing close reading and detailed analysis, with commentary on character, plot, themes and motifs, language, symbolism, and more.

Note: Page numbers are based on the Penguin edition of the play (1998, ed. Christopher Bigsby). Students using a different version of the play may encounter slight differences in both text and page numbers.


John McRae is Special Professor of Language in Literature Studies and Teaching Associate in the School of English at Nottingham University, and holds Visiting Professorships in China, Malaysia, Spain and the USA. He is co-author of The Routledge History of Literature in English with Ron Carter, and also wrote The Language of Poetry, Literature with a Small 'l' and the first critical edition of Teleny by Oscar Wilde and others.

Cite this Lecture

APA style

McRae, J. (2021, January 22). Miller: Death of a Salesman - Act I – “Ben was success incarnate” [Video]. MASSOLIT.

MLA style

McRae, J. "Miller: Death of a Salesman – Act I – “Ben was success incarnate”." MASSOLIT, uploaded by MASSOLIT, 22 Jan 2021,