Death of a Salesman is a modern tragedy depicting the last days in the life of Willy Loman. When the action occurs in the present, the drama is realistic, both psychologically and emotionally. When the action is set in the past, however, the drama becomes dreamlike. Thus, in the scenes in which Willy’s sons, Biff and Happy, are in high school, only Willy can see them. This flashback technique is also used to incorporate Willy’s older brother Ben, the man to whom Willy turns for advice when circumstances produce a level of stress beyond which Willy can no longer function.
The story of Death of a Salesman is complex not only because it combines past and present but also because it grows out of a lifetime of lies and denials. Willy, unable to maintain a strenuous life on the road as a traveling salesman, seeks a steady job in New York, only to be fired by his boss, Howard Wagner, the son of the man who initially hired Willy. With unpaid bills piling up, Willy is further burdened by the return of his thirty-four-year-old son Biff, who has returned from working as a ranch hand in Texas in the hopes of finding a white-collar job in New York.
Biff and his younger brother, Happy, move back into their parents’ house and lament both the loss of their innocence and their failure to realize their dreams. Only their boyhood friend Bernard, now an attorney, has achieved success. Consequently, both brothers blame their father for misdirecting them, although their bitterness is nevertheless fraught with admiration and love.
During a family quarrel, Linda reveals to her sons that Willy has been attempting suicide, both with the car in a series of staged accidents and with a rubber pipe fastened to a gas line in the basement. Biff resolves to reform his life for the sake of his father, and act 1 closes with the familiar denial of old wounds and Biff’s promise to make a business deal in New York.
In act 2, after Willy has been fired, he meets Biff and Happy at a restaurant, hoping to hear good news from Biff. Instead of the promised deal, Biff reveals that he stole the fountain pen of the man who interviewed him. Stunned, Willy retreats to the bathroom, where he relives a pivotal moment in both his and Biff’s life: the time that Biff caught him in a Boston hotel room with his mistress. Crushed by his father’s betrayal of his mother, Biff refused to take a course in summer school and failed to graduate, thus beginning the string of small disasters and petty thefts that have ruined his life.
Having abandoned Willy in the restaurant, the family members reunite at home, where they have a final, explosive confrontation. Biff accuses Willy of having blown him full of hot air, and Willy accuses Biff of ruining his life out of spite. Forever the peacemaker, Linda tries to quiet them and is shouted down, as is Happy. Biff throws the rubber pipe onto the table and demands to know if Willy thinks that his suicide will make a hero out of him. Willy breaks down, and he and Biff are reconciled, but, when the rest of the family trudges off to bed, Willy speeds off in his car to kill himself, hoping that the insurance money will provide Biff with the new start in life that he so desperately needs.