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Death of a Salesman

by Arthur Miller

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Death of a Salesman Summary

Death of a Salesman is a 1949 play written by Arthur Miller about a failing salesman named Willy Loman. Here are some key plot points:

  • Willy expresses disappointment with his son Biff, who’s unable to find a job at the beginning of the play.
  • A series of flashbacks reveals Willy’s thoughts of suicide, which his sons dispel by promising to go into business together.
  • After Willy is fired from his job, and when Biff admits that he couldn’t get a loan to start his new business, Willy dies by suicide so that Biff can use the insurance money.
  • Despite Willy’s last wishes, his funeral is not well attended.

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Last Updated November 3, 2023.

First performed at the Morosco Theatre in early 1949, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is a haunting play that follows the final days of William “Willy” Loman. The epitome of a “dime a dozen” middle-class worker, Willy has spent his working years confident in his own greatness. He has mythologized his own life as that of a great man whose greatness has been suppressed by a lack of opportunity and the heedless disregard of his uniqueness by society. However, the play opens on a tired, broken man—after being employed by the same firm for thirty-four years, Willy has nothing to show for his decades as a traveling salesman.

Willy is past the age of retirement at sixty-three years old, and the Wagner Company has rescinded his salary, forcing him to once again work on commission. But unlike at the beginning of his career, Willy no longer has the energy, optimism, or connections to make a living wage.

With no savings, Willy and his wife, Linda, are struggling to keep up with their financial commitments, and it is later revealed that the couple’s more successful neighbor, Charley, has been lending the money that Willy misrepresents to Linda as his pay. Willy’s financial struggles are compounded by his turbulent relationship with his eldest son, Biff. Despite being just as convinced of Biff’s greatness as his own, Willy is dismayed by Biff’s inability to settle down and make something of himself.

Over the course of the play, Miller slowly reveals that Willy is more than tired and disheartened—he is suicidal and suffering from hallucinations about the pivotal moments and lost opportunities of his life. These hallucinations worsen with the arrival of Biff, who has once again quit his job and returned home to find direction in his life.

Biff is deeply concerned after finding out about his father’s current state of mind and multiple suicide attempts, but the protracted rift between Willy and his son continues to dominate their relationship. Linda sees Biff as the key to solving Willy’s problems and restoring his will to live.

At the end of his working life, and with Biff’s failure to live up to Willy’s expectations, Willy is suddenly confronted by the dissolution of his illusions of grandeur. Linda understands that these illusions are the foundation of Willy’s purpose and that if Biff is able to make something of himself, it will restore Willy’s faith in his self-mythologization.

Linda—along with Biff’s younger brother, Happy—encourages Biff to found his own company with Happy: a sporting goods store called the Loman Brothers. Captivated by the idea, Biff agrees to see his old boss Oliver and ask him to finance their idea. Willy becomes extremely excited by the idea, and a semblance of his own self returns as he gives Biff advice and organizes a dinner with Happy and Biff the next night to celebrate. It also gives Willy the confidence to ask his employer to be moved to an office position in New York.

However, when Biff asks for an appointment with Oliver, he is rebuffed by the secretary and waits six hours to catch Oliver coming out of his office, only to be dismayed by the realization that Oliver does not even remember him. This shatters Biff’s confidence once and for all, and he becomes completely disillusioned with Willy’s insistence on their family’s innate greatness.

Meanwhile, when Willy asks for a promotion, not only is his request rejected, but having made fewer and fewer sales over the past months, he is sacked on the spot. When Willy arrives at the restaurant, he is desperate for good...

(This entire section contains 1088 words.)

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news, and although Happy implores Biff to lie about having a future appointment with Oliver in order to keep their father hopeful, Biff insists on telling the truth.

Willy, however, refuses to understand what Biff is telling him. The conversation ends with a public argument and the sons abandoning their father, leaving the restaurant with two women to have a night on the town. Alone in the restaurant, Willy hallucinates about the event which forever marred his relationship with Biff and potentially ruined Biff’s future.

Through these flashbacks, the audience learns that when he flunked math, Biff traveled to Boston to seek out his father. He hoped Willy would be able to convince his math teacher to pass him and planned to enroll in summer school if that plan failed. But when Biff arrived at the hotel, Willy did not pick up the phone or answer Biff’s persistent knocking. This was because Willy was in the hotel room with his mistress, who is simply called “the Woman.”

Eventually, the Woman demanded that Willy open the door, and Biff discovered Willy’s unfaithfulness. This shattered Biff’s idealized concept of his father, which Willy himself had cultivated, and it is clear that Biff was repulsed by Willy’s behavior.

When Biff and Happy come home from their trysts, Linda is furious at their abandonment of Willy, but Biff is determined to have it out. He confronts Willy, trying to make him understand that his failure to become a successful businessman was not because of Willy’s affair but because he is simply “a dime a dozen.” It was actually Willy’s repeated assertions that Biff was a great man who would achieve great things that set him up for failure since he went into the workforce believing that entry-level positions were beneath him. At the climax of this argument, Biff breaks down crying at Willy’s feet, pleading with Willy to release him from the shackles of his inflated expectations.

After his final appeal, Biff leaves, and Willy, rather than being upset, is elated. The fact that Biff cried to him has eased decades of fear that Biff has hated him ever since uncovering his affair, and Willy is more certain than ever that Biff is going to be a great man. Although Linda is afraid to leave him alone after the argument, Willy maintains that he just needs a few minutes alone to settle himself before going to bed.

Happy and Linda leave, only for Willy to leave the house moments later and get into his car. The car speeds off, and the family’s desperate attempt to catch him morphs into a solemn funeral procession. Whether or not his death was intentional, Willy Loman is dead, and no one but his family and neighbors attend his funeral.

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