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.