Death of a Salesman Summary

Death of a Salesman is a 1949 play written by Arthur Miller about a failing salesman named Willy Loman. 

  • 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 commits 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 on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 416

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.

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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.

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