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Miller: Death of a Salesman

4. Act I – “The boys in?”

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In this module, we read through the next part of Act I, in which Willy and Linda chat about Biff, “whipped cheese” and the possibility of having a drive in the countryside (pp. 4-6). In particular, we focus on: (i) the theme of Biff and Happy’s (unsatisfactory) love lives, and the extent to which this reflects their (unsatisfactory) relationship with their parents; (ii) the theme of different smells (“The whole house smells of shaving lotion”, “What a fragrance in this room!”); (iii) Willy’s mention of the fact that it takes a long time to pay off the mortgage (“Work a lifetime to pay off a house. You finally own it, and there’s nobody to live in it”); (iv) the rift between Biff and his father, and the reasons for it; (v) the idea of life on a farm as a different kind of American Dream (cf. Lennie and George’s dream in Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’ to “live off the fatta the lan’”); (vi) the importance of “personal attractiveness” in a capitalist society, and the extent to which Willy remains (or ever was) “personally attractive”; (vii) Willy’s memories of how things used to be – Biff’s promise, his own promise; (viii) the hot, stifling atmosphere of (“Why don’t you open a window in here, for God’s sake?”); (ix) Willy’s dismay at having been “boxed in” by “windows and bricks”, his harkening back to a time when there was “lilac and wisteria… peonies … and the daffodils” in the garden; (x) the delicate balance between the present, the past, the profound (“Well, dear, life is a casting off”) and the everyday (“How can they whip cheese?”); and (xi) the mention of cars and car-crashes, and the extent to which they foreshadow events later in the play (Jesus, maybe he smashed up the car again!”).


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.

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APA style

McRae, J. (2021, January 22). Miller: Death of a Salesman - Act I – “The boys in?” [Video]. MASSOLIT.

MLA style

McRae, J. "Miller: Death of a Salesman – Act I – “The boys in?”." MASSOLIT, uploaded by MASSOLIT, 22 Jan 2021,

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