Study Guide

Death of a Salesman

by Arthur Miller

Death of a Salesman Summary

Overview

Death of a Salesman

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.

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.

Death of a Salesman Summary (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Death of a Salesman, widely regarded as Arthur Miller’s best and most important play, chronicles the downfall and suicide of Willy Loman, a ceaselessly struggling New England salesman driven by dreams of success far greater than he can achieve. Almost a classical tragedy in its form, Death of a Salesman has provoked much controversy due to the unheroic nature of its protagonist. Although the play, like its Greek forebears, conveys a sense of the inevitability of fate, Willy himself possesses no greatness in either achievement or status. Willy’s sheer commonness, rather, gives the play its power. In Death of a Salesman, Miller shows that tragedy comes not only to the great but also to the small.

On its most fundamental level, Death of a Salesman depicts the disintegration of Willy’s personality as he desperately searches for the moment in his memory when his world began to unravel. The play’s action is driven primarily by Willy’s volcanic relationship with grown son Biff, who is every inch the failure that his father is. Willy’s grandiose dreams of happiness and material success conflict with the reality of his failures as a salesman, as a husband to his wife Linda, and as a father to his two boys, Biff and Happy. The alternation between present action and presentations of Willy’s delusional “memories” forms the play’s thematic center. Willy’s memory is populated by figures who idealize success, most notably his brother Ben, who became rich, Dave Singleman, a fabulously successful and well-liked salesman, and the woman in Boston with whom Willy has had an affair. Countering those empty fantasies are the realities of Howard, Willy’s unsympathetic boss; Charley, Willy’s best friend and neighbor (who gives Willy the money he needs to pay his bills), Charley’s successful son Bernard, and of course Biff, who refuses to accept Willy’s delusions. “We never told the truth for ten minutes in this house!” Biff says at one point. Willy cannot accept the piercing truth of Biff’s description: “You were never anything but a hard-working drummer who landed in the ash can like all the rest of them!” Rather, Willy commits suicide by crashing his car. The play’s final tragic irony comes out in the play’s last scene: Although Willy strove all his life to be well-liked and remembered, his funeral is attended only by his close family and friends. Neither he nor they are finally free, but only alone.

Death of a Salesman Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Very late one night, having that morning set out on a sales trip to Portland, Maine, Willy Loman returns to his Brooklyn home because he repeatedly drove his car off the side of the road. Now sixty-three years old, Willy has worked as a traveling salesman for the Wagner Company for more than thirty years. Of late, his sales have declined because his old customers are dying or retiring. The company takes away his salary to make him work on straight commission. His wife, Linda, comforts Willy when he returns and encourages him to ask Howard Wagner for a position in the New York office, where he will not have to travel and can once again earn a guaranteed salary.

Upstairs in their old bedroom, Willy’s sons, Biff and Happy, reminisce about their happier times as adolescents and talk about how disappointing their lives are. At thirty-four years of age, Biff has held many different kinds of jobs since leaving high school, and he feels that he is not progressing toward anything. He was a high school football star but did not win a college scholarship because he failed a mathematics course and refused to make up the credits to graduate at summer school. Biff has just returned home from working on a farm in Texas, and that morning Willy already begins criticizing him about his failure to make money and to find a prestigious profession. Biff’s younger brother, Happy, remains in New York City, working in a low-level sales position and spending most of his time seducing women. As they talk, Biff and Happy decide they can be successful and much happier if they go into business together.

While Biff and Happy talk upstairs, Willy sits in the kitchen and talks loudly to himself, reliving moments from his past: Biff preparing for an important football game, Biff and Happy cleaning the family car, Willy’s own joy in working with his hands on projects around the house, and his afternoons in a hotel room with a woman on one of his sales trips to Boston. Eventually, Willy’s neighbor, Charley, comes over from next door. As Charley and Willy talk and play cards, Willy imagines that he is talking to his older brother, Ben, who once invited Willy to join him in Alaska to make his fortune. After Charley returns home, Willy moves outside, still caught up in his imagined conversation. Linda comes back downstairs and tells Biff and Happy of her fear that Willy is planning to kill himself; she had discovered a piece of rubber hose connected to a gas pipe in the basement. When Willy comes back into the house, the conversation turns to the dreams Willy has of Biff becoming a successful salesman and an entrepreneur. At Willy’s urging, the family agrees that the next morning Biff should see Bill Oliver, one of his former bosses, and ask for a loan to start a sporting goods business.

The next morning, Willy goes to his own boss, Wagner, to ask for a position in the New York office. Instead of getting a new position, however, he is fired from his job. Willy leaves Wagner’s office and goes to Charley’s office to ask for a loan to pay his bills. There he encounters Charley’s son, Bernard, a boyhood friend of Biff and Happy and now a successful lawyer arguing cases in front of the Supreme Court. Willy asks how Bernard managed to succeed when Biff and Happy failed, but Bernard asks why Biff, after flunking mathematics, never went to summer school so as to graduate from high school.

Happy goes to a local restaurant to arrange a dinner to celebrate Biff’s successful meeting with Mr. Oliver, but when Biff arrives he reports that Mr. Oliver did not remember him and that, in his anger, Biff impulsively stole Mr. Oliver’s fountain pen. When, however, he hears his father’s news that he was fired, Biff lies about his meeting with Mr. Oliver and, to console his father, describes it as a success. Happy arranges for two women to join them at the restaurant. When Willy goes to the washroom, Biff and Happy leave the restaurant with the two women and abandon their father. In the washroom, Willy has a flashback and remembers the time, right after Biff flunked his mathematics course, when Biff came to Boston on a surprise visit and caught Willy with another woman in his hotel room. It was this discovery that kept Biff from going to summer school and from graduating from high school.

After leaving the restaurant, Willy decides on the way home that the best way he can provide for his wife and sons is to commit suicide, so that the life insurance settlement of twenty thousand dollars would come to them after his death. Happy and Biff return home from their dates with the two women and are greeted by Linda’s reprimand for abandoning Willy at the restaurant. Biff responds angrily, accusing Willy and Happy of not facing the reality of their ordinary lives. He claims that he finally understands himself and will go back to farming and working with his hands, outdoors, where he is genuinely happy. This emotional confrontation ends with Biff crying on his father’s shoulder. Moved by his son’s display of affection, Willy leaves the house and drives the car to his death. In the play’s last scene, in the cemetery after Willy’s funeral, Linda talks to Willy over his grave and reflects on the irony that he killed himself just as they finished paying for their house.

Death of a Salesman Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

More effectively than any other American drama, Death of a Salesman probes the nature of the American Dream and its promise of success. America was established as a new Eden, a place where one could transform the wilderness into a paradise of riches. The American myth created the pioneer hero who moved with ease to greener pastures. One side of Willy Loman is firmly grounded in this myth.

Willy’s father was a traveling man who got rich peddling gadgets in South Dakota and then headed for Alaska. Willy’s brother Ben is a true adventurer who walks into the jungles of Africa at seventeen and comes out rich. Ben, who is constantly on the move, shunning civilization and its laws, is the self-reliant hero of the American myth who conquers the wilderness and makes his fortune. As a salesman, Willy also sees himself as an adventurer who opens up new territories in New England—once the original frontier.

The play focuses on a longing for the lost Eden. Willy admires the scenery on his trips to New England. He longs to smell the lilacs and wisteria that once grew in his suburban idyll, now overshadowed by dingy apartment buildings. He wants to build a house in the country where he can raise chickens and grow things. In the end, this American Adam is reduced to the tragic figure of a down-and-out salesman planting lettuce in a barren garden in the dead of night as he deteriorates mentally and contemplates suicide.

The theme of the Edenic garden coincides with the theme of the outdoorsman and the Western myth of open spaces. Willy is not only a gardener who, like Henry David Thoreau, wants to remain close to nature; he is also a man who can chop down branches, build porches, and remodel ceilings. His sons long to leave cramped offices and go swimming. Biff wants to go west to raise horses or to be a carpenter.

Willy holds onto two other American myths. The myth of “having it made” is embodied in Dave Singleman, who at eighty-four can sit back and make sales from his hotel room. Dave is the popular hero whose funeral attracts throngs of his loyal customers. Dave projects the image of the man who has “made it” in the system and who can make money effortlessly. The second American myth to which Willy subscribes is the “get rich quick” scheme. Like Ben, he hopes to find diamonds. He encourages his sons to establish a million-dollar sporting goods business with no capital and little experience.

Willy has based his notion of success on popularity and appearances, but Willy himself does not make a good appearance. Both he and his sons are out of place in a competitive world. The business world is changing; old promises are worthless. When Willy is no longer productive, he is fired. In the end, he “sells” his life for a twenty-thousand-dollar insurance policy in order to stake his son’s fortune. His death becomes merely another “get rich quick” scheme. Charley and Bernard, Willy’s neighbors, prove that success can be achieved, but for Willy Loman, who has absorbed too many American Dreams, the system inevitably becomes destructive.

In 1949, Death of a Salesman won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize. The play ran for 742 performances. In 1966, a television production played to seventeen million people. In 1975, it was successfully produced at the Circle in the Square theater with George C. Scott in the lead, and in 1984, it played Broadway again with Dustin Hoffman in the lead. In 1985, Hoffman was featured in another television production of the play. Death of a Salesman has been produced around the world. In his book “Salesman” in Beijing (1984), Miller documents an unprecedented Chinese production. The play still appears in most college anthologies and continues to be taught as an American classic.

Death of a Salesman Summary

Act I
Death of a Salesman opens with Willy Loman returning to his New York home during the night. Hearing him...

(The entire section is 1135 words.)

Death of a Salesman Summary and Analysis

Act I, Part 1: Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
Willy Loman: Linda’s husband, Biff and Happy’s father; the “salesman” of the play’s title

Linda: wife of Willy, mother of Biff and Happy

Biff: elder son of Willy and Linda

Happy: younger son of Willy and Linda, often simply called Hap

Summary
Part 1 covers the author’s pre-play description of the set, as well as the opening action until Linda says, “Be careful on the stairs, dear!”

Even before the characters appear on stage, the audience sees the set design. Miller’s description of the set is important as it establishes the tone of the play. The set shows both the inside and outside of Willy Loman’s humble house...

(The entire section is 1104 words.)

Act I, Part 2: Summary and Analysis

New Character:
Bernard: meek, younger acquaintance of Biff and Happy who helps Biff study math

Summary
Part 2 covers the action up to Willy’s line, “Good work, Biff.”

After Willy has wandered into the living room, where although unseen, he can occasionally be heard talking to himself, the scene shifts to Biff and Happy, talking to each other in their childhood bedroom. Biff is now 34, two years older than Hap. Hap tells Biff he is worried about their father’s absent-mindedness, but the conversation quickly turns to reminiscences about the brothers’ youthful sexual prowess with women. Biff moves their discussion back to the subject of their father, prompting Hap to reveal...

(The entire section is 1134 words.)

Act I, Part 3: Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
Charley: neighbor of the Lomans, called Uncle Charley by Biff and Happy, even though he is not their actual uncle; father of Bernard

Ben: Willy’s older brother (Biff and Happy’s uncle); made his fortune in African diamonds as a very young man

The Woman: the woman with whom Willy has an extramarital affair during his sales trips to Boston

Summary
Part 3 covers the action up to Willy’s line “...I was right! I was right! I was right!”

As the previous section ends, we remain in the flashback. Willy and Linda are alone, discussing the outcome of Willy’s sales trip and whether there is enough money to pay the bills. Willy exaggerates his...

(The entire section is 1512 words.)

Act I, Part 4: Summary and Analysis

Summary
Part 4 covers the action up to the end of Act I.

The flashback involving Ben has ended, leaving Willy alone when Linda comes looking for him. In a dreamy state, still thinking of Ben, Willy has headed out of the house to take a short walk despite the late hour. Woken up by Willy’s loud, imagined conversation with Ben moments ago, Biff and Happy now come downstairs to talk with their mother about Willy. Surprised by the severity of Willy’s hallucinations, Biff asks why his mother had not told him of Willy’s condition. Linda responds that Willy’s disturbed state stems partly from Biff’s failure to write Willy, to reconcile their differences, and to settle into a career.

When Biff...

(The entire section is 1327 words.)

Act II, Part 1: Summary and Analysis

New Character:
Howard Wagner: Willy’s boss

Summary
Part I covers the action from the beginning of Act II until Howard Wagner says to Willy, “Pull yourself together, kid, there’s people outside.”

The act opens with bright, cheerful music as Linda sees Willy off to work. Both of them are in high spirits, feeling confident that Biff will receive the loan from Bill Oliver today. Linda tells Willy that Biff’s “whole attitude seemed to be hopeful” when he left the house earlier in the morning. “He’s heading for a change,” replies Willy, who then remarks that he may buy some seeds tonight to plant a garden in the backyard.

Rather than starting on a sales...

(The entire section is 1555 words.)

Act II, Part 2: Summary and Analysis

Summary
Part 2 covers the action up to when Willy says “Put up your hands!” to Charley.

The previous section ends with Howard leaving his office. Willy remains and the lights change. Ben’s music begins to play, and Willy begins talking to him as he enters from the right carrying a suitcase and an umbrella. Ben tells Willy he has finished his business trip to Alaska and must soon board a boat to return to Africa. From this information the audience realizes that after getting fired Willy has begun daydreaming again and that a flashback has begun. Even though Ben is in a rush, Willy needs to talk to him: “Ben, nothing’s working out. I don’t know what to do.” Ben offers Willy a job supervising his...

(The entire section is 939 words.)

Act II, Part 3: Summary and Analysis

New Character:
Jenny: Charley’s secretary

Summary
Part 3 covers the action up to when Willy says, “Charley, you’re the only friend I got. Isn’t that a remarkable thing?”

The flashback in which Willy challenges Charley to fight has ended, but Willy is still heard talking loudly offstage. The lights come up on a new scene: Bernard, now an adult, and Jenny, Charley’s secretary, in Charley’s office. After being fired, Willy has come to Charley’s office – as he does every week, Jenny tells Bernard. Jenny has work to do and asks Bernard to deal with Willy, who is obviously very disoriented, talking to himself as if he were in the flashback of Part 2. As Willy enters, he...

(The entire section is 1204 words.)

Act II, Part 4: Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
Stanley: a young waiter at the restaurant where Biff, Happy, and Willy meet

Miss Forsythe: a woman whom Biff and Happy meet in the restaurant. (In the text she is referred to as simply “Girl” before her name is given.)

Letta: Miss Forsythe’s friend, who eventually joins her, Biff, and Happy at the restaurant

Summary
Part 4 covers the action up to when Stanley calls to Hap, “Mr. Loman! Mr. Loman!”

The scene has changed to a restaurant. Hap finds a table with the help of Stanley, a waiter who knows Hap and treats him very well. Bending the truth, Hap tells Stanley that Biff is an important cattle man out West; Hap orders champagne,...

(The entire section is 1578 words.)

Act II, Part 5: Summary and Analysis

Summary
Part 5 covers the action up to when Linda says, “He’s planting the garden!”

After Biff, Hap, and the two women leave the restaurant, Willy’s daydream involving the Boston woman becomes a full-fledged flashback. The Woman is in a black slip and Willy is buttoning his shirt. We hear raw, sexy music as The Woman teases Willy, telling him to stop dressing in the middle of the night. The audience must suspect that The Woman is Willy’s mistress, with whom he just finished making love in this hotel room. When Willy says he’s lonely, The Woman – a secretary at a company that Willy sells to – tries to cheer and console him by telling him that from now on she will send him right through to see...

(The entire section is 1519 words.)

Act II, Part 6: Summary and Analysis

Summary
Part 6 covers the action up to the end of Act II.

After Biff leaves the house with Linda, we see Willy alone on stage. Blue light covers the stage, indicating night time. With a flashlight, a hoe, and several packets of seeds, Willy begins to plant his garden. Ben appears and listens to Willy describe his “proposition,” one that would leave $20,000 to Linda, who Willy says has suffered. (Today, that $20,000 would be equivalent to roughly $250,000.) The “proposition” implied is Willy’s suicide, which would leave Linda the large amount of insurance money. Ben warns Willy that the insurance company might not pay if Willy’s death were a suicide, but Willy remains confident that Linda would...

(The entire section is 1849 words.)

Requiem: Summary and Analysis

Summary
The play’s action flows smoothly from Willy’s crash to his funeral. In the “Requiem” scene, we see Linda, Biff, Hap, Charley, and Bernard gathered at Willy’s grave. Hap, very angry, contends that Willy had no right to kill himself, especially when Hap and Biff would have helped him through his difficulties. Linda, kneeling in front of the grave, wonders why no one has attended Willy’s funeral: “But where are all the people he knew? Maybe they blame him.” Charley comforts her, telling her no one should blame Willy for being who he was – a salesman. A salesman, Charley maintains, is someone who dreams: “He’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they...

(The entire section is 1460 words.)