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.
The Life and Work of Arthur Miller
Arthur Miller was born October 17, 1915, in New York City, to Isadore and Augusta Barnett Miller. He grew up with an older brother and a younger sister and received his earliest schooling in Harlem in the 1920s. His middle-class family fell upon difficult times when his father’s clothing business experienced devastating economic damage, forcing the family to move to Brooklyn shortly before the Depression.
At Abraham Lincoln High School in Brooklyn, Miller was more an athlete than a scholar; an average student, he did not read much literature, preferring instead boys’ adventure stories. Because his parents could not afford to send him to college when he graduated high school in 1932 (in the middle of the Depression), he worked at several jobs, including one at an auto parts warehouse and one as a radio singer. He saved enough money during this time to enter school at the University of Michigan, where he had applied earlier but was rejected.
In college, his growing interest in literature led him to write a number of successful plays as an undergraduate. For two of them, No Villain (1936) and Honors at Dawn (1937), he received the University of Michigan’s prestigious Hopwood Award. After graduating from Michigan, Miller married Mary Grace Slattery in 1940, worked briefly for the Federal Theatre Project (the Depression-era government agency that paid young writers for their work), and wrote short radio scripts.
In 1944, during World War II, Miller traveled to several army bases in the U.S. as a researcher for the 1945 film Story of G.I. Joe. Miller published his observations in Situation Normal, describing one soldier’s feelings after returning from war. The account reveals Miller’s distrust of the easy and blind patriotism that he thought characterized popular literature and film in America. Miller’s desire to question the motives behind conventional sentimentality toward war comes through in Death of a Salesman as well, where the American dream seems to lose its innocent veneer.
Miller’s most successful Broadway plays have been Death of a Salesman (1949), which won the Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, and The Crucible (1953). The Crucible – set during the seventeenth-century witch trials of Salem, Massachusetts – was a pointed criticism of the then-current “witch-hunt” that U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy led against American politicians and public figures thought to be associated with Communism. At that time (the 1950s), the U.S. was in the middle of the Cold War, an ideological battle with the Soviet Union. Historians have roundly condemned the frenzy with which McCarthy and others sought to attack, often with no foundation, Americans interested in communism, socialism, or significant socioeconomic change. Miller himself was called before the hearings of the House Committee on Un-American Activities and convicted of contempt of Congress when, stating he was not himself a Communist, he refused to name people he had met at a Communist writers meeting. The conviction was later overturned on a technicality.
Associated with politically left causes and organizations throughout his career, Miller did not always reflect his political concerns directly in his writings. Like Henrik Ibsen, the late nineteenth-century Norwegian playwright whom he admired, Miller tended toward realism in his style. Miller’s realism, though, was a social and psychological realism that took advantage of time-shifts, memories, and innovative set design to articulate characters’ complex relations to their social, economic, religious, familial, and gender roles. In addition to Death of a Salesman and The Crucible, Miller’s most notable plays included All My Sons (1947), An Enemy of the People (1950, adapted from Ibsen), A View from the Bridge (1956), After the Fall (1964), Incident at Vichy (1964), The Price (1968), The Creation of the World and Other Business (1972), The Archbishop’s Ceiling (1977), and The American Clock (1980). He also wrote Focus, a novel about anti-Semitism, a topic that greatly occupied Miller and that informed both Incident at Vichy and his television screenplay Playing for Time (1980). Miller’s autobiography, Timebends: A Life (1987), and The Theater Essays of Arthur Miller (1978) give insight into his life and his theories on drama. His works have enjoyed several new stage, film, and television productions over the years and are consistently produced by small theaters around the country.
Miller and his wife Mary Grace Slattery divorced in 1955, and in 1956, Miller married movie star Marilyn Monroe. Because of both Miller and Monroe’s fame at that time, the marriage received enormous publicity. The two celebrities divorced in 1961, and in 1962 Miller married photographer Ingeborg Morath, with whom he continues to live in Connecticut.
Miller tells the reader at the outset of the play that Death of a Salesman takes place “in the New York and Boston of today.” When the play opened, “today” meant 1949, a moment in American history when many people – riding an economy rescued from the Great Depression of the 1930s by the domestic industrial boom of World War II (1939-45) – found a more prosperous life within reach. In the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s, many pursued “the American dream” of hard work rewarded by middle-class signs of success such as a house, a car, a college education, and household appliances. The dream held the possibility for greater personal wealth, even while African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans,
Asian-Americans, Native Americans, and new immigrants struggled to gain the civil rights that would give them equal opportunity to chase that dream. Death of a Salesman has frequently been understood as a commentary on the American dream and whether (1) the dream’s economic prosperity is truly available to anyone who works diligently, and (2) the importance the dream places on material wealth invites selfishness and social injustice.
By 1949, World War II was over, Harry Truman was president of the United States, and the U.S. had not yet begun its involvement in the Korean War (1950-53). The Cold War with the Soviet Union brought a nuclear arms race as the U.S., a victor of World War II, asserted its role as not only a political and military world power but as an overwhelming international cultural force. American movies and manufactured goods were exported along with the American dream and American capitalism. By the end of the 1940s, Americans earned an average of 15 times the yearly wage of the rest of the world, a fact that reveals the overall wealth of the U.S., albeit a wealth that was extracted from but not shared with the working-class people in the U.S. and foreign countries. Despite the looming possibility of nuclear war and, for many, the often elusive “better life,” Americans’ optimism dominated public discourse with, as Miller’s play suggests, a buoyancy comparable to loyalty to one’s favorite sports team.
Although television had been invented before the end of the 1940s, it did not fully surpass radio in prominence and audience size until several years later. And while traveling salesmen are rare in the 1990s, they were common in the 1940s, selling items such as brushes and vacuum cleaners door-to-door. Social relations were also different from today. Linda Loman’s role as a loyal and often shy housewife and mother does not necessarily represent all women’s lives in the 1940s, nor does Miller necessarily approve of the role. However, her behavior does suggest the cultural notions, common in that period, of restrained, even timid, femininity; and, as the play bears out, masculinity of the time was overly identified with the virile figures of the athlete, businessman, and soldier.
Death of a Salesman opened on Broadway at the Morosco Theatre on February 10, 1949 and ran for more than two years, tallying 742 performances. Its initial success has been reinforced by several regional, repertory, and touring productions over the years. One of its most famous productions was in Beijing, China, during a time (1983) when the U.S. and China were staunch ideological opponents. The play’s most recent notable revival starred Dustin Hoffman as Willy Loman in 1984. While reading Death of a Salesman, the reader should remember that it is not a novel, but a play meant for the stage. As such, the play asks the audience to notice not just what is being said by characters, but what music, costumes, set design, and unheard actions contribute to the overall effect.
The general public has continually come out to see Death of a Salesman in significant numbers, drawn to the pathos of its central character, Willy Loman, whom audiences tend to regard as a symbol of the ordinary American. Although the play appears to pose as one of its central questions how much sympathy Willy deserves, Miller himself has endorsed the idea that the play is a tragedy in the true dramatic sense of the word – a tragedy of the common man, the “low man.” As this historical background sketch has shown, Death of a Salesman owes much to its historical moment; nevertheless, the idea of a tragedy of the common man imbues the play with a sense of timelessness – even if that quality might eventually be linked to a particularly American, post-World War II way of thinking.
Some critics and academics have not liked Death of a Salesman and dispute its status as a viable tragedy. They argue that Willy is not a compelling protagonist but merely a pitiful man, a loud-mouth and cheat. Compared with the other two most prominent mid-twentieth-century American playwrights – Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams – Miller’s plays in the tradition of socially and politically conscious realism usually do not achieve the formal, Expressionist innovation of his predecessor O’Neill or the poetic writing of his contemporary Williams. Nonetheless, Death of a Salesman possesses enough of both styles to have earned praise for its innovative stage orchestration of space and memory, as well as its several captivating speeches, at once earnest and self-deceiving.
Master List of Characters
Willy Loman – The “salesman” of the play’s title.
Linda Loman – Wife of Willy, mother of Biff and Happy.
Biff Loman – Elder son of Willy and Linda.
Happy Loman – Younger son of Willy and Linda, often simply called Hap.
Ben Loman – Willy’s older brother (Biff and Happy’s uncle). He made his fortune in African diamonds as a very young man.
Charley – Neighbor of the Lomans. He is called Uncle Charley by Biff and Happy, even though he is not their actual uncle.
Bernard – Charley’s son, who helps Biff with his homework and whom Willy, Biff, and Happy tease for being an unmanly bookworm.
Howard Wagner – Willy’s boss, who is younger than Willy. Howard’s father had been Willy’s boss until his death.
The Woman – The woman with whom Willy has an extramarital affair during his sales trips to Boston.
Miss Forsythe – A woman whom Biff and Happy meet in the restaurant. (She is referred to as simply “Girl” in the play before her name is given.)
Letta – Miss Forsythe’s friend. She eventually joins Miss Forsythe, Willy, Biff, and Happy at the restaurant.
Stanley – A young waiter at the restaurant where Biff, Happy, and Willy meet in Act II.
Jenny – Charley’s secretary.
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.