At a Glance

  • Death of a Salesman takes place at Willy Loman's home in New York City. Development has boxed the small house in, making it feel cramped and confining. Willy often thinks of his brother's adventures in distant lands. This suggests that Willy wants to escape his life.
  • Willy puts pressure on himself to be a success. He measures a man's worth by his possessions and social status. He wants a big, ostentatious funeral, because he believes that will reflect how great a man he was. In the end, Willy Loman's funeral is small and disappointing, just like his life.
  • Material items such as tennis rackets and diamonds are symbols of wealth. Willy is jealous of his brother Ben's success in the diamond mining industry, and he feels like a failure because he can't provide for his family as well as Ben could. Ultimately, the diamonds are symbols of Willy's desire for and failure to achieve a better life.


(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

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.

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Loman home

Loman home. Modest house in Brooklyn, New York. Despite the play’s fixed location, playwright Arthur Miller makes it clear that Willy’s alienation and loss of meaning are afflictions of any modern American city. The introductory stage directions he wrote for act 1 state that the “small fragile-seeming home” is surrounded on all sides by “towering, angular shapes,” which have sprung up around it. Throughout the play, the audience is visually aware of a gap between past and present: The house which once stood on a pleasant street of similar homes is now dwarfed by “a solid vault of apartment houses.” Like Willy himself, the house has been made insignificant by progress.

Jo Mielziner, who designed the play’s original stage setting, framed the house so that it was “wholly, or, in some places, partially transparent.” Miller’s stage directions explain that whenever action occurs in the present, “actors observe the imaginary wall-lines, entering the house only through its door at the left.” By contrast, “in the scenes of the past these boundaries are broken, and characters enter or leave a room by stepping ‘through’ a wall onto the forestage.” The stage setting thus represents the two halves of Willy’s life: the realistic present, in which his breakdown is unfolding, and the dreamlike past, where most of his problems originated. “An air of the dream clings to the place,” Miller writes, “a dream rising out of reality.” Examples of the nature of these two halves pervade the play, concluding in the short “Requiem” in which Willy is buried. All those who hold onto their past, Miller implies—and all the Lomans are guilty of doing this—will have trouble adapting to the present.


*Brooklyn. New York City borough in which the Lomans live. Willy’s failed career, his splintering family, and the materialism that has overtaken his life are also real problems audiences can recognize in the city that has arisen around his house. The play’s setting perfectly grounds its themes: No trees or grass grow in Brooklyn, only “the hard towers of apartment buildings.” Throughout the play, Miller contrasts this harsh urban environment with the country—such as Willy’s New England sales territory, his memories of his rural childhood, and his son Biff’s wanderings in the American West.

Willy clearly lacks the tools for success in this modern urban world. Values on which he grew up—represented by his brother Ben and salesman Dave Singleman—are those that came out of a nineteenth century world in which frontiers were still open and the American Dream was a reality. The modern world has been transformed into a consumer culture (represented by products such as cars and refrigerators that Willy complains about), leaving little room for men like Willy. The success myth Willy has followed his whole life is dead. In the end, his son Happy takes up his false dreams, but Biff frees himself from this urban tragedy. The city, the play shows, holds little promise for those who cannot understand themselves and the world they inhabit.


*Boston. Massachusetts city to which Biff rushes in a flashback scene late in the play to get Willy’s help so he can finish high school. When Biff discovers his father with a woman, his idealized image of his parent collapses, and his nomadic life begins. The scene could take place in almost any city; however, the Boston hotel room effectively represents both the life of the salesman on the road, and the location for his son’s loss of innocence.

Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

When World War II ended in 1945, the United States embarked upon an unprecedented period of economic prosperity, driven by the increase in...

(The entire section is 726 words.)

Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

Death of a Salesman is a drama set in 1949, in New York City and Boston. The action of the play takes place largely inside the Loman...

(The entire section is 443 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

1949: Post-World War II economic growth combined with advertisements promising the American Dream created widespread optimism among...

(The entire section is 203 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Research the economic growth America experienced during the post-World War II years. What do you feel led people like Willy Loman to...

(The entire section is 136 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

King Lear, a play by William Shakespeare written in approximately 1605 is a classic tragedy which also concerns generational discord,...

(The entire section is 181 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Bloom, Harold, ed. Arthur Miller: Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.

Carson, Neil. Arthur...

(The entire section is 273 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Bloom, Harold, ed. Willy Loman. New York: Chelsea House, 1991. A collection of sixteen focused extracts from books and articles, with ten complete essays providing an excellent selection of criticism focusing on Willy as a literary character. Includes a provocative introduction by Bloom in which he discusses Willy as a tragic hero.

Bloom, Harold. Modern Critical Interpretations: Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.” New York: Chelsea House, 1988.

Dukore, Bernard F. “Death of a Salesman” and “The Crucible.” Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press International, 1989. An excellent introduction for beginning students. Analyzes the text from both literary and theatrical points of view and examines selected productions of the play to demonstrate the rich embodiment of literary ideas.

Koon, Helene Wickham, ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of “Death of a Salesman.” Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1983. An anthology of ten essays that provide a wide variety of critical approaches to the play. A standard source.

Miller, Arthur. Timebends: A Life. New York: Grove Press, 1987.

Miller, Arthur. “Salesman” in Beijing. New York: Viking Press, 1984. Miller’s fascinating and highly readable diary account of the famous production he directed of Death of a Salesman in Beijing, China, in 1983, where the universality of the play became most evident. Includes photographs by his wife, Inge Morath.

Murphy, Brenda. Miller: “Death of a Salesman.” Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Nelson, Benjamin. Arthur Miller: Portrait of a Playwright. New York: David McKay, 1970.

Roudané, Matthew C., ed. Conversations with Arthur Miller. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1987. Transcriptions of thirty-nine interviews with Miller between 1947 and 1986. Notable for personal insights into Miller and the productions of his plays. The interviews persistently return to questions concerning Death of a Salesman and Miller’s theories on tragedy.