Summary of the Play
Death of a Salesman is subtitled “Certain Private Conversations in Two Acts and a Requiem” and, accordingly, the acts are divided into conversations – in the present and from the past – that flow in and out of each other. The play encompasses an evening and the following day, but the action is interrupted by or mixed with flashbacks or memories of a period approximately 17 years earlier.
Act I opens in Willy Loman’s house in Brooklyn. Willy, a traveling salesman of 63, is exhausted after years of making his trips. (Even by the end of the play, we do not know what product he sells.) He has yet to reach a level of success that would allow him to stop traveling and afford the household bills that always seem to swallow his diminishing wages. We learn that Willy’s grown son, Biff, has returned to visit. And we come to know Willy’s character as he complains to his wife Linda about his disappointment in Biff’s failure to find a steady, serious job. Willy is tired, confused, and argumentative, a man who loves his son and has tried to infuse him with a salesman’s enthusiastic optimism and self-confidence.
In the rest of Act I, through various flashbacks that might also be Willy’s memories, we become familiar with the salesman’s philosophy of success that has guided Willy to his current less-than-successful state. Compared with his neighbor Charley and Charley’s son Bernard, Willy and his sons Biff and Hap are athletic, rather than studious; in Willy’s mind, a likable personality is more important for success than academic grades. Willy endorses Biff’s cheating at school; and, we learn, Willy himself cheated on his wife by having an extramarital affair with a woman in Boston. Linda informs Biff and Hap she has discovered that Willy has secretly started to contemplate suicide. The evening of Act I winds down as Biff and Hap attempt to cheer up Willy by promising to go into business together.
In Act II, which encompasses the day following the evening of Act I, Willy asks his boss for a new, non-traveling job. Instead of being rewarded for years of service, Willy is fired because he has not been able to sell enough. Bewildered, he asks his friend Charley for another of many loans and, while doing so, meets Bernard, now a successful lawyer. In the evening, Willy joins Biff and Hap at a restaurant and eventually tells them his bad news; unable to depress a father who wants good news at the end of a terrible day, Biff fails to tell Willy that he did not get the loan that would have made it possible for Hap and him to start a business together. The scene then changes to years earlier, when Biff comes to Boston just after flunking math, which has endangered his chances for college by preventing him from graduating high school. Biff there discovers Willy is having an affair.
In the present, when Biff and Hap return to the house, their mother reproaches them for abandoning Willy in the restaurant. Delusional, Willy is planting a garden in the dark and having an imaginary conversation with his elder brother Ben, who made a fortune in diamonds as a young man. Biff tries to explain the ungranted loan to Willy, as well as his decision to leave so as not to disappoint Willy ever again. Willy believes Biff has been unsuccessful out of spite for him, but when Biff begins to cry, Willy sees Biff’s love for him. Inspired by this realization, but obviously disoriented, Willy sneaks away that night and kills himself in a car accident, thinking his life insurance money will give Biff a new start and that a well-attended funeral will prove his own popularity. In a very short third act that Miller calls a “Requiem,” we see that almost no one has attended the funeral. Although Hap defends Willy’s “good dream,” Biff is subdued and Linda weeps as she asks Willy’s grave why he did such a thing.
Estimated Reading Time
The entire play is about 130 pages, but because of the spaces between characters’ lines it will read faster than a novel. An average student, reading about 25-30 pages an hour, will need 4-5 hours to read the play. If you do not have enough time to read it all at once, the best plan might be two sittings – Act I, then Act II and the short “Requiem” – of about two hours each. Arthur Miller did not divide his play into scenes within each act. Instead, the action is continuous, even when flashbacks occur. Therefore, for the purposes of this study guide, the acts have been divided into parts, each covering about 15 pages of the play.
Opening scene to Willy’s first daydream
The play begins on a Monday evening at the Loman family home in Brooklyn. After some light changes on stage and ambient flute music (the first instance of a motif connected to Willy Loman’s faint memory of his father, who was once a flute-maker and salesman), Willy, a sixty-three-year-old traveling salesman, returns home early from a trip, apparently exhausted. His wife, Linda, gets out of bed to greet him. She asks if he had an automobile accident, since he once drove off a bridge into a river. Irritated, he replies that nothing happened. Willy explains that he kept falling into a trance while driving—he reveals later that he almost hit a boy. Linda urges him to ask his employer, Howard Wagner, for a non-traveling job in New York City. Willy’s two adult sons, Biff and Happy, are visiting. Before he left that morning, Willy criticized Biff for working at manual labor on farms and horse ranches in the West. The argument that ensued was left unresolved. Willy says that his thirty-four-year-old son is a lazy bum. Shortly thereafter, he declares that Biff is anything but lazy. Willy’s habit of contradicting himself becomes quickly apparent in his conversation with Linda.
Willy’s loud rambling wakes his sons. They speculate that he had another accident. Linda returns to bed while Willy goes to the kitchen to get something to eat. Happy and Biff reminisce about the good old days when they were young. Although Happy, thirty-two, is younger than Biff, he is more confident and more successful. Biff seems worn, apprehensive, and confused. Happy is worried about Willy’s habit of talking to himself. Most of the time, Happy observes, Willy talks to the absent Biff about his disappointment in Biff’s unsteadiness. Biff hopped from job to job after high school and is concerned that he has “waste[d] his life.” He is disappointed in himself and in the disparity between his life and the notions of value and success with which Willy indoctrinated him as a boy. Happy has a steady job in New York, but the rat race does not satisfy him. He and Biff fantasize briefly about going out west together. However, Happy still longs to become an important executive. He sleeps with the girlfriends and fiancées of his superiors and often takes bribes in an attempt to climb the corporate ladder from his position as an assistant to the assistant buyer in a department store.
Biff plans to ask Bill Oliver, an old employer, for a loan to buy a ranch. He remembers that Oliver thought highly of him and offered to help him anytime. He wonders if Oliver still thinks that he stole a carton of basketballs while he was working at his store. Happy encourages his brother, commenting that Biff is “well liked”—a sure predictor of success in the Loman household. The boys are disgusted to hear Willy talking to himself downstairs. They try to go to sleep.
It is important to note that much of the play’s action takes place in Willy’s home. In the past, the Brooklyn neighborhood in which the Lomans live was nicely removed from the bustle of New York City. There was space within the neighborhood for expansion and for a garden. When Willy and Linda purchased it, it represented the ultimate expression of Willy’s hopes for the future. Now, however, the house is hemmed in by apartment buildings on all sides, and sunlight barely reaches their yard. Their abode has come to represent the reduction of Willy’s hopes, even though, ironically, his mortgage payments are almost complete. Just as the house is besieged by apartment buildings, Willy’s ego is besieged by doubts and mounting evidence that he will never experience the fame and fortune promised by the American Dream.
Willy’s reality profoundly conflicts with his hopes. Throughout his life, he has constructed elaborate fantasies to deny the mounting evidence of his failure to fulfill his desires and expectations. By the time the play opens, Willy suffers from crippling self-delusion. His consciousness is so fractured that he cannot even maintain a consistent fantasy. In one moment, he calls Biff a lazy bum. In the next, he says that Biff is anything but lazy. His later assessment of the family car is similarly contradictory—one moment he calls it a piece of trash, the next “the finest car ever built.” Labeling Biff a lazy bum allows Willy to deflect Linda’s criticism of his harangue against Biff’s lack of material success, ambition, and focus. Denying Biff’s laziness enables Willy to hold onto the hope that Biff will someday, in some capacity, fulfill his expectations of him. Willy changes his interpretation of reality according to his psychological needs at the moment. He is likewise able to reimagine decisive moments in his past in his later daydreams. Ironically, he asks Linda angrily why he is “always being contradicted,” when it is usually he who contradicts himself from moment to moment.
The opening pages of the play introduce the strangely affected and stilted tone of the dialogue, which transcends the 1950s idiom of nonspecific pet names (an ungendered “pal” or “kid” for adult and child alike) and dated metaphors, vocabulary, and slang. Some critics cite the driving, emphatic, repetitive diction (“Maybe it’s your glasses. You never went for your new glasses”; “I’m the New England man. I’m vital in New England”) and persistent vexed questioning (“Why do you get American when I like Swiss?” “How can they whip cheese?”) as a particularly Jewish-American idiom, but the stylization of the speech serves a much more immediate end than stereotype or bigotry. Miller intended the singsong melodies of his often miserable and conflicted characters to parallel the complex struggle of a family with a skewed version of the American Dream trying to support itself. The dialogue’s crooked, blunt lyricism of stuttering diction occasionally rises even to the level of the grotesque and inarticulate, as do the characters themselves. Miller himself claims in his autobiography that the characters in Death of a Salesman speak in a stylized manner “to lift the experience into emergency speech of an unabashedly open kind rather than to proceed by the crabbed dramatic hints and pretexts of the ‘natural.’ ”