Use of the Flashback as a Narrative Technique in 'Death of a Salesman'

In Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller uses the flashback as a dramatic technique to present past events during current events, or to provide background for the current narration. By giving material that occurred prior to the present event, the writer provides the reader with insight into a character's motivation and or background to a conflict. Following the trend of expressionism Arthur Miller’s in his “Death of a Salesman” depicts imaginary sequences and portrays for the audience the inner workings of the character’s mind and his emotions. Here he uses flashback to relate Willy Loman’s memories of the past. The play is largely a representation of what takes place in his mind during the last two days of his life. In fact, Willy’s reminiscences and imaginary sequences allow us to understand what happened in the past, and why things are how they are now in the present day.

Act 1, 1st flashback

The first flashback happens at a time when the reality is completely opposite. Every scene in this flashback is very ironical. Here we see his hope to be a successful business father (“ someday I’ll have my own business, and I’ll never have to leave home any more”), or tower like hope from his son( congratulate you on your initiative!) all turned into asses at present moment, as the Lomans are still wondering and trying to get the expected position in the society. Though Happy pretends that he is a would be merchandise manager, actually he is “one of the two assistants to the assistant”, whereas Bif is still planning to settle in business by getting a favour from Bill Oliver.

For Willy it is also very frustrating as his children idealize him. Everything that Willy says or does is perfect, and he is an authority figure within the scene. His dream about America as a land of opportunity ends in smokes. He thinks that Americans are the “finest people” and it is a land of beautiful town and cities. He promises to take the boys with him on business trips during the summer. He imagines a grand entrance with Biff and Happy carrying his sample cases into the stores. But the present situation shows that leaving in America is not a very fine experience, rather they fell like leaving in a box and it is filled with such people as Herbert or Bill Oliver.

The contrast between Biff and Bernard is also very clear in this flashback. To Willy, Bernard is a book worm, won’t get well in the business world as he is not well liked and he also make fun of him(B). To him only appearance works in the business world and he always try to judge Biff’s mistake from this point of view which results in a fatal way.

In the restaurant scene, learning that Biff stole Oliver’s pen temporarily brings Willy out of the past. Willy feels responsible for Biff’s actions, and he immediately moves back into the past to find justification for the theft. Biff states, “I didn’t exactly steal it [the pen]!” but it is impossible for Willy or the audience to believe this based on his previous record that includes stealing the football, as well as the building materials. Willy is partially to blame for Biff’s actions simply because he sanctioned his behavior every time before by not making Biff face the consequences. Therefore, because Willy taught Biff that he did not have to follow rules in high school, his behavior in the present is a reflection of his previous conditioning. As a result, Willy bears the primary responsibility for Biff’s present failure.

In Bernard’s case too, contrast is quite explicit, as he has become one of the country’s top lawyers. In previous scene, Willy had always predicted that Biff would surpass the “anemic” Bernard, due to strength and the fact that he was “well-liked.” This is yet another example of the failure of Willy’s predictions. Not only is Bernard more prosperous than Biff, but Willy is forced to borrow money from Bernard’s father, a man that he has always envied.

Act 1, 2nd flashback

The flashback also has an extra tension because they occur simultaneously with events in the present which works like a double exposure. For example, what we see in the 2nd flashback while Willy is playing card game with Charlie. Here we see how the flashback appear gradually, usurping the present bit by bit whereas he is actually taking to the remembered Ben and the real Charlie simultaneously. When Charlie finally realizes that Willy is absent-minded, he makes an exit. Here we see again Willy’s too much obsession of the past over present.

In this flashback we also see his fa├žade personality and his tendency to deny reality. Though he is not satisfied with his earnings, he reinvents his success by exaggerating his sales to Linda. It is only when Linda confronts him with the numbers that he is forced to admit his true commission.
Then we find his another journey into the dream world where he is engaged with Ben. It demonstrates Willy’s dependence upon his memories and the insecurity that prompts him to rearrange events and facts in an attempt to create order or success. Willy is insecure, and he traces his own insecurity to the absence of his father. Having been denied approval from his father, Willy is driven by a need to gain approval and recognition from everyone. This accounts for his “temporary” view of himself. Willy cannot be content with his life, job, or his marriage because he is continually evaluating himself based upon the success of others. As a result, Willy has created a cycle of eager acceptance and rejection of himself. So long as Willy is received favorably, he is momentarily content; however, these moments occur rarely within the play.
This flashback reminds us Willy’s so longed desire to be a successful business man. To him, Ben is a “great man”, an incarnate of success , an idle whom his sons should take as a role model. On the otherhand, his advise to Biff indicate Willy’s failure to follow the ‘jungle rule’ , i e, the very mechanism behind American consumer society.

So ,this flashback reveals his own inability to accept the truth about himself and the reality of the world he lives in. He knows that people criticize him because of his demeanor, and he realizes that people are no longer receptive to him. The fact that Willy acknowledges these things demonstrates that he knows the reality of the situation; however, his immediate contradictions prove his inability to accept the way things are. He denies his own failure as a salesman, along with his inability to be “well-liked,” because they are too painful. It is much easier for him to invent a reality in which he is successful, thereby creating order in a disordered existence.

Act 2, 1st flashback

The occurrence of 1st flashback in Act 2 makes it particularly effective for the placement of this Scene. Here Willy attempts to deal with what has happened with Howard and escape from it at the same time by reverting back to Ben.It seems that he is asking for advice from Ben. As he has always been successful, so he is the natural choice for advice. Willy wants Ben to analyze the current situation and tell him what to do. Instead, Ben offers Willy a job in Alaska—the same offer he made when he actually visited in the past—but Willy can no longer separate the past from the present; they are blending together.

The fact that Willy turns down the offer is very poignant in light of what happened in Scene 2. In the past, Willy refused Ben’s offer because he was determined to be a successful salesman, just like Dave Singleman. Now that he has been fired, he is overwhelmed by his feelings: regret, for not accepting Ben’s offer and moving to Alaska; shame, for losing his job; and despair, for having devoted his life to a company that could discard him so easily.

In this way, the audience can clearly see which events on stage are taking place in reality, and which are taking place inside of Willy’s mind. Miller originally titled the play The Inside of His Head, which illustrates that he intended to show the audience what happens in a man’s mind when his dreams are never realized, and when he lives in a world based on illusion. Miller’s method of flashing back and forth between the past and the present, and between the imaginary and the realistic, allows the audience to witness how a lifetime of disappointment, delusion, and failure have led to the current situation, and shows facets of each character that would not have been revealed if only the present-day occurrences had been portrayed. Because of the way the play is constructed, the audience can see what the characters have become and what experiences, thoughts, and emotions led them to their present state.