Last Updated on January 11, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1144
The first act of Death of a Salesman opens with Miller’s vivid description of the play’s setting in post-war Brooklyn. Willy Loman’s two-story home is surrounded on all sides by “towering, angular” skyscrapers, which make the house appear “small [and] fragile-seeming” by juxtaposition. There are four rooms visible to the audience: the kitchen, in which most of the action of the play takes place; the living-room; the boys’ room, in which Biff and Happy are currently staying; and the master bedroom, which Willy and Linda occupy. There is also an adjoining grass apron that protrudes from the main set, which represents both the Lomans’ backyard and the liminal space between past and present where the majority of Willy’s hallucinations take place.
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The action of the play begins with Willy’s entrance. A salesman for over thirty years, Willy was supposed to be driving to Boston but has aborted the trip to return home. Linda is awoken and immediately becomes concerned that Willy has been involved in a car accident. Willy insists that there wasn’t an accident; rather, he came home due to sheer exhaustion, even though he has recently returned from a vacation in Florida. Linda insists that Willy, already over the age of retirement, is too old to continue making his living on the road. She suggests that Willy inquire about an office job in New York with the firm he works for, and Willy agrees to talk to the head of the company the next day.
The conversation shifts to an argument Willy had that morning with his eldest son, Biff, who has returned home after losing his job as a farmhand in Texas. Willy criticized the fact that, at thirty-four, Biff has never made more than thirty-five dollars a week and seems unable to settle into a steady career. It is clear that father and son have a complicated relationship, with Willy shifting wildly from condemnation of Biff’s work ethic to effusive praise of his “personal attractiveness” and hardworking nature. It is revealed that while Biff is currently struggling to find his place in the world, he thrived in high school. This is shown through the “silver athletic trophy” displayed in the living room and through Willy’s recollections of Biff’s popularity and masculinity. At Linda’s request, Willy agrees to make up with Biff in the morning.
Stirred by memories of Biff simonizing his old Chevy, Willy begins to talk to himself, and the stage focus shifts to the boys’ room. Biff and Happy have been listening to their parents’ conversation, and Happy informs Biff that Willy has been talking to himself more and more. Happy speculates that Biff’s inability to settle is troubling Willy and contributing to his mental instability. Biff reflects on the intolerable mundanity of working life, the individual competitiveness of corporate life, and the pointlessness of “[suffering] fifty weeks of the year for the sake of a two-week vacation, when all you really desire is to be outdoors, with your shirt off.” However, moving from white-collar work in New York to blue-collar work out West hasn’t soothed Biff’s restlessness. He is still weighed down by Willy’s expectation that he make something of himself and knows that there is no way to build a future working as a farmhand. Happy shares that while he has everything he initially wanted—a steady job, an apartment, a car, and the company of plenty of women—he is still desperately lonely and unfulfilled.
Commiserating with each other, Biff and Happy dream of starting their own business, the Loman Brothers, and Biff remembers that one of his former employers promised to stake him in any future endeavors. The boys talk about their aspirations for the future until Willy’s mumbling becomes audible once more. A change in music and lighting signals a shift into the past as the stage action focuses on Willy’s hallucination. In his vision, Willy has just returned from one of his working trips with a punching bag for Biff and Happy. Biff discloses to Willy that he has “borrowed” a football from school, and Willy laughs off the theft as showing “initiative.” Their neighbors’ son, Bernard, appears and asks Biff to study, warning Willy that their math teacher has threatened to flunk Biff despite the fact that Biff has football scholarships to three universities. Willy dismisses Bernard’s worries and tells the boys to help Linda with the washing.
While narrating his trip to Providence, Willy greatly exaggerates his social status and sales in order to impress his sons. He only reveals the real sums when Linda presses him for her accounts, and he confesses that “people don’t seem to take to me.” Far from being singled out by the mayor of Providence, Willy is laughed at by his colleagues behind his back and plagued by the fear that he will “never sell anything again and . . . won’t make a living for you, or a business, a business for the boys.” Willy’s grievances are interrupted by a woman who engages in a flirtatious exchange with Willy. The woman disappears, and the action returns to the original conversation, where Linda is concerned about Biff’s womanizing, stealing, and lack of studying. Willy explodes at her for criticizing Biff, and Linda leaves in tears.
The play returns to the present as Happy comes down to calm his father. Willy reveals that the real reason he didn’t make it to Boston is that he almost ran over a child. Their neighbor Charley comes in to investigate the disturbance and offers to play a game of casino with Willy. However, during the game, Willy begins to hallucinate about his older brother Ben and gives nonsensical answers to Charley’s inquiries. Frustrated, Charley leaves, and Willy’s hallucination again takes over the stage. Willy introduces Ben to his wife and children and begs Ben to tell him about their absent father. Ben emphasizes that their father was very successful, and although Willy is desperate for his brother’s approval, Ben remains evasive and always on the brink of leaving.
Linda comes down from the bedroom and the illusion is broken, bringing Willy back to the present. He goes for a walk, and Biff and Happy come downstairs. Linda remonstrates with Happy for neglecting Willy and Biff for arguing with him. She reveals that Willy has lost his salary and is working on commission—and that he has become suicidal. The boys are horrified and resolve to look after his father. When Willy returns from his walk, Biff tells him that he will visit his old boss tomorrow to ask for funding so that he can establish his own business with Happy. Willy is elated by the prospect and reiterates his resolve to ask for an office job.