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.
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.