Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller
This play was written in 1949 and is one of the most famous American plays of all time. Miller wanted to explore the American way of life, the condition of dreaming and losing, and always working. Miller based the main character, Willy, on his own wacky Uncle Manny, who was a salesman. Arthur Miller wrote other plays, too, and was also married to Marilyn Monroe. "Death of a Salesman" is timeless for its portrayal of rejection and failure, hope and family, and the questions it presents about the nature of success.
Willy Loman: He is the main dude in the story. He is 61 years old and is a salesman in New England. Throughout the play, Willy is losing it. He keeps having flashbacks of his past when his sons were younger and his brother was alive. His job sucks and his life is going down the tubes. He is obsessed with success.
Linda Loman: Willy’s wife. She supports him and married him because she though he was gonna be a big shot one day. She’s a loving wife and defends him.
Biff Loman: Willy and Linda’s son. In the story he is 34. Willy keeps flashing back to when Biff was in high school. During high school, Biff was an awesome football player and on track to be a big star in life but he messed up and now just floats around life not accomplishing anything big. He is upset at his father because he caught him cheating on his wife.
Happy Loman: Happy is Biff’s younger brother. He is 32. Happy is a bit of a sleaze -- corrupt in his job, he also beds down with a lot of strange women. He’s a happy dude though (hence his name) and is good looking.
Ben: Willy’s older brother. He is dead. Willy keeps having flashbacks and talking with Ben’s ghost. Ben was a successful dude and Willy looked up to him.
Charley: Willy’s neighbor. He is a successful businessman and is not as gung-ho about success as Willy is. Charley is a cool dude, and is nice because he offers Willy a job.
Bernard: Charley’s son. He is a hotshot lawyer. He was Biff’s classmate. When he was younger he was a nerd.
Howard: Howard is Willy’s boss. He is much younger than Willy and ends up firing him in the end.
Willy Loman is a salesman in New England who works at the Wagner Company. He’s worked there for 34 years and thinks he’s a big hotshot salesman. The book talks about this other salesman named Dave Singleton who was a very good salesman because all he needed to do was make a couple of phone calls and he would make a lot of sales.
The story starts out with Willy coming home to his wife during one of his business trips. He comes home because he had trouble driving and was coasting off the road because he was daydreaming. She tells him to ask the boss for an office job, where he doesn’t have to travel. Their son Biff is visiting them. Willy has a flashback to when Biff was in high school. He thinks about when they were at Biff’s big football game. He also thinks about when Biff was almost flunking math. Then his last flashback is to when he cheated on his wife with some chick in a motel room.
Then the play returns to the present. Happy (Willy/Linda’s other son) comes downstairs. Then their neighbor, Charley, comes over. He offers Willy a job and Willy says no. All of a sudden, Willy has another flashback of his brother, Ben, who is now dead. Willy starts talking to him. Ben tells Willy he should move to Alaska, but Willy is happy at home. Willy then goes for a walk. While he’s away Linda and her sons talk about how depressed Willy is. His pay got docked by the company, and he isn’t selling anything… he feels really terrible about it. Then Willy comes home and Biff tries to cheer him up by telling him that he’s gonna open a sporting goods store. He tells his dad that he’ll get the startup money from an old friend, Bill Oliver. Willy is happy for his son.
The next day Willy goes to the main company office to ask for an office job in NY. His wife tells him to get a salary advance because they have a mortgage payment. Willy goes to see his boss, Howard. Howard is playing with some sound machine. Willy asks him for an office job and Howard says no. Then Willy is a little upset and disturbed by the rejection. He accidentally turns on the sound machine and doesn’t know how to turn it off. Then Howard comes in and fires Willy because he is a loser and is not selling anything in New England. Then Willy has a flashback to when Ben, Linda, and he were talking. He remembers again Ben offering him a job in Alaska but Linda telling him to say no.
Then Willy goes to his neighbor, Charley, for a loan. We find out that he’s been getting a $50 loan from Charley every week and telling Linda it is his salary. Willy sees Charley’s son, Bernard, who is a hotshot lawyer. He asks Bernard why he’s so rich and successful and his son Biff is a screw up. Bernard tells Willy that Biff failed math in high school and should have gone to summer school, but instead went to Boston to visit Willy for some mysterious reason. We see that something bad happened in Boston we just don’t know what. Charley gives him the loan and offers him a job again but Willy says no.
Then Willy goes to a restaurant to meet with his sons. Happy is there with some chick. Then Biff shows up and is pissed because Bill Oliver didn’t know who he was and didn’t give him the money. Then Biff is about to tell Willy the truth about why he messed up in high school and what happened when he went to see Willy in Boston. Willy doesn’t want to hear it so he runs to the bathroom. The boys see that he is flipping out and talking to voices in his head, so the boys leave. Then Willy flashbacks to the time when he was in Boston and Biff came up to see him and tell him that he failed math. But Biff caught his father sleeping with some broad and cheating on his wife. After that Biff kinda disliked his dad.
Back at home, Linda is pissed that her boys ditched Willy at the restaurant. Then Willy is outside gardening and talking to his dead brother. Willy is telling Ben about his plan to kill himself in a car accident and have his family collect the insurance money. Biff comes outside and tells his dad that he is leaving the house because he can’t live up to his dad’s expectations. Then they argue and Biff cries. Willy realizes that Biff loves him because he cries. Then everyone goes to sleep and Willy drives off and kills himself.
The end of the book talks about the funeral and has everyone talking about Willy. Basically they just discuss what a lonely guy he was and how he was depressed because he thought he was a big failure.
ACT BY ACT/SCENE BY SCENE
- Willy Loman is a traveling salesman with the Wagner Company .
The story starts off with him driving home in the middle of a business trip. His wife tells him he needs a rest, even though they just went on a vacation.
- Willy Tells Linda he couldn’t concentrate when he was driving, so he came home.
- Linda tells Willy she wants him to work an office job in NY, but he wants to stay in New England because he thinks he’s an important dude in New England.
- They talk about their sons. Willy then talks about his son Biff and how he is 34 but can’t hold a job.
- Linda and Willy talk about going out to the country for some fresh air and open space.
- This scene starts with the two sons in their bedroom.
- They talk about their father. Biff explains about why his dad talks about him all the time.
- Then Biff talks about how he can’t hold a job down and every spring he feels like moving to some new place.
- Happy talks about his life. He lives a good life and has a lot of women, cars, and money but he is still kinda lonely.
- They talk some more. Biff talks about how real men should be working outdoors and be married.
- Then he talks about an old acquaintance named Bill Oliver and he wonders if he remembers Biff.
- Biff stole some basketballs from Bill once.
- Happy tells him that Bill liked him so he’d probably remember him.
- Biff and Happy overhear Willy talk to himself.
- The scene starts with Willy talking to himself. He has a flashback to when he was younger.
- Then he has this flashback to when he came back from a trip once. His sons were cleaning his car and he brought them a punching bag.
- Then Biff told his dad he stole a football from school to play with and practice. Happy thought he’d be busted for it.
- Then Willy told his sons he would own a business and be a big rich hotshot. Then he told them he’d take them to see all of New England.
- This scene starts out with Willy still in the flashback.
Bernard (next door neighbor’s son) is a young boy in the flashback. He talks with Biff and tells him how they have to study math since Biff is flunking out.
- Willy doesn’t think Biff should study because he’s a good athlete and he’s gonna get scholarships.
- Willy talks with his sons about school. He tells them that grades don’t mean anything later in life. He tells them the only important thing is having personality and being handsome.
- Happy decides to lose weight.
- This scene starts still in a flashback.
- Linda comes in with the laundry. Biff takes it for her and takes it to the basement.
- Willy talks with Linda about how he’s a great salesman and how he sold a lot of crap on the road. Linda begins to calculate how much he made.
- She gives him her figure, but he tells her another amount. Then she tells them how much money they owe. He figures out that he owes more then he made.
- Willy starts whining because he thinks nobody likes him. Linda tells him that people like him.
- Then he starts whining because he says he is ugly. Linda tells him he’s a good-looking dude.
- A woman kinda appears to Willy (like a hallucination). She is dressing and laughing. She takes over his mind and he can’t concentrate. She says that Willy is a fun dude (we don’t know who this chick is, but she turns out to be the babe Willy had sex with on a road trip). His hallucination of her taunts him. The apparition is wearing stockings he bought for her.
- Willy tells Linda he gets very lonely when he travels.
- Still in the flashback here.
- Willy feels guilty because he had sex with some babe on the road.
- He sees Linda fixing her stockings.
- Biff comes downstairs. He asks Bernard for the answers.
- Then Linda yells at him for stealing the football. Willy yells at him for not studying school.
- Willy is hearing all these people screaming at each other along with his hallucination woman still laughing.
- Willy then changes his mind and says that Biff shouldn’t study because he’s an athlete.
- Then Willy’s flashback ends and he returns to the present time.
- Willy is talking to himself again. Happy comes downstairs to talk with him
- Happy tells his dad not to worry because he’s gonna give him retirement money.
- Willy starts to wonder why he didn’t go to Alaska with his older brother, Ben. If he had gone with Ben, Willy would been a bigshot.
Willy says he’s a bad driver. He talks about how he almost hit a kid on the road.
- Then Charley the next door neighbor comes over because he hears a noise. Willy doesn’t like Charley. He and Willy play cards. Happy goes to bed.
- They play cards and talk. Charley offers Willy a job but Willy says no.
Then they talk about Biff. Charley tells Willy to not worry about Biff.
Willy says he has to, because it’s one of the only things in his life.
- Then Willy hallucinates again and sees his dead brother Ben. Willy starts to go crazy. He talks to Charley and Ben. Charley is confused because Willy is talking to someone who isn’t there.
- Willy realizes what the hell he’s doing. He accuses Charley of cheating in cards and Charley leaves all pissed off.
- Then Willy talks to his dead brother (a hallucination/flashback).
- They talk about how Ben became successful. He says he was rich at 21 and made his money in the jungle with diamonds.
- Then they talk about their parents. Ben and Willy’s dad sold flutes.
Then the boys appear (when they were younger...remember this is a flashback).
- The boys talk with Ben. He wants to teach the kids about survival. He tells Biff to hit him.
- Biff tries to hit him and Ben trips him to the ground. His moral for Biff is to never fight fair.
- Willy then tells his boys to go steal some wood from site construction site. He wants to show off what "macho men" they are.
- Ben takes off. Willy asks him to stay. He tells Willy that his sons are "real men."
- Linda comes downstairs. Willy is still talking to the ghost of Ben.
- Then Willy goes for a walk because he’s upset. Biff is concerned about his dad because Willy is talking to the air and looks like a nut.
- Biff and his mom talk. She tells him that Willy always gets upset when Biff is around. She tells Biff that he must treat his dad nicely because he is an old man who needs respect.
- Then Linda tells him that Willy is having a bad time at work, his pay got cut and his life is a big pile of crap and he doesn’t need any extra hassle.
- Biff refuses and says that Willy is a fake. He doesn’t tell Linda why.
Linda tells Biff that Willy borrows $40 from Charley every week and tells her it is his salary.
- Then she tells Biff that she’s worried Willy is trying to kill himself. She found some pipes and stuff used for suicide (car exhaust in the garage method). Also, someone saw Willy try to drive off a bridge on purpose.
- Biff tells her they should get a job outdoors away from the city where people can’t control them and boss them around, like carpentry.
- Willy comes back from his walk.
- He has overheard Linda and the boys’ conversation. He says that any person working is better than a carpenter.
- Then he yells at Biff for badmouthing him.
- Happy tells Willy that Biff is going to see Bill Oliver to borrow money for his new sporting goods business. This makes Willy happy.
- Then Happy talks about a publicity stunt. They will form two teams with Happy and Biff being captains.
- Willy is pretty confident his boys are gonna kick ass in the business world.
- Willy gives Biff a little advice on the big meeting with Oliver. He tells him to wear a dark suit, not be funny, and to keep his trap shut.
- Willy tells Biff to ask for more money than he needs because he might get it. Linda tries to add something but Willy snaps at her.
- Biff gets mad at his dad for yelling at mom so Biff and Willy argue.
- Then Willy leaves. Biff starts thinking about how he’s gonna do a lot with $10,000.
- Linda and Willy go to bed.
- Linda tells Willy about the bad plumbing. Then Willy gets depressed because the plumbing sucks and everything around him is falling to pieces.
- Happy and Biff come into the bedroom. Willy gives Biff a few more tips about his big meeting.
- Willy tells Biff what a great guy he is.
- Biff goes downstairs and fixes the plumbing.
- Willy wakes up the next day. Biff has gone to see Bill Oliver.
Willy is happy because Biff left for the meeting. He buys some seeds to do some gardening.
- He’s so happy, he has decided that he’s gonna go down to his main company office and ask his boss for an office job.
- Willy gets ready to leave. Linda tells him about all the bills they have to pay. The car needs fixing and so does the fridge. She also tells him that after they pay one more mortgage payment, they own the house.
- She tells him to get an advance from his boss.
- Then Linda tells Willy that he has to meet Biff and Happy for dinner that night.
- Willy sees Linda fixing her stocking again and he asks her to quit doing it (it reminds him of his affair).
- Then Willy leaves. Biff calls and Linda tells him how happy Willy is. She asks him to be nice to his father when they meet for dinner.
- The next scene starts at Willy’s office. His boss (Howard) is listening to a tape of his family talking.
- Willy comes into his office. They talk about tape recorders and how cool they are.
- Then Willy pops the big question. He tells Howard how he had promised him an office job in NY. Howard says he doesn’t have any open jobs, and Willy begs him for one.
- Willy keeps begging him and tells Howard about this salesman named Dave singleton and how much of a kick-ass salesman he was. Howard tells Willy that he was nowhere near Dave singleton in terms of sales.
- Willy gets pissed because Howard rejects him. He takes off but accidentally turns on the tape recorder. He freaks out
- Howard comes in to turn it off. He fires Willy and tells him that he should get help from his sons. Willy splits.
- Willy has another flashback and talks to his dead brother, Ben, again. He asks Ben what the hell he should do.
- In his hallucination/flashback, Ben is taking off to Africa and doesn’t have time to talk. He offers Willy a job in Alaska. Linda (younger Linda, from flashback) tells Willy he’ll be a bigshot if he stays in New England.
- Back in the present, Willy is kicking himself because he didn’t go to Alaska to become a bigshot. Instead he stayed and was a big failure.
- This scene starts out still in the flashback. Charley’s son, Bernard, runs into Willy’s house.
- Everyone is getting ready to go to Biff’s big football game.
- Then Charley comes in. He jokes around and talks with Willy like the football game doesn’t mean anything (to Willy, this game is very important).
- Willy gets pissed at Charley. Willy almost fights him.
- This scene starts back in the present. Willy goes to Charley’s office.
Bernard is sitting in his dad’s office. Willy is in the lobby waiting and talking to himself.
- The secretary tells Bernard that Willy is waiting. Bernard comes out to see him. Willy sees that Bernard is a hotshot lawyer. Bernard is on his way out of town.
- Willy kinda lies and says Biff is in town doing some big business thing. Then Willy gets really jealous of Bernard’s success. He asks him how come he is such a hotshot, and his son Biff is such a mess-up.
- Bernard tells him that Biff’s life sucked after he flunked math and went to Boston to tell Willy. But Bernard doesn’t know what happened in Boston. Willy won’t tell him (remember, Biff caught daddy having sex with some woman).
- Bernard says that after Boston, he and Biff fought for a bit. Willy gets pissed at Bernard.
- Then Charley comes in. He tells Bernard to leave for his trip. Then Charley tells Willy that Bernard is going to argue some big case before the Supreme Court.
- Charley gives Willy $50 (remember the weekly loans). Willy asks him for $110 because he needs to pay off his insurance bill. Charley offers Willy a job but Willy says he has a job (he has too much pride).
Finally Willy breaks down and tells Charley he got fired. Charley tells him that not everyone can like you and people shouldn’t care what others think.
- Charley offers a job again but Willy turns it down because he doesn’t want to work for Charley.
- Willy gets the money from Charley and leaves. He tells Charley that he’s his only friend.
- The scene starts out in the restaurant where Happy, Biff, and Willy are gonna eat.
- Happy shows up. He orders food and starts hitting on some chick. Then Biff shows up. Happy tells the chick to get a friend and join them for dinner.
- He tells lies to the girl about him and Biff to impress her.
The chick leaves. Then Biff tells Happy that they need to talk because Biff had a bad day.
- He went to see Bill Oliver for the loan and Bill didn’t even recognize him. This makes Biff sad because he realizes his whole life is a sham. He though he was more important than he really is.
- Biff tells Happy he stole Bill’s pen. Then they talk about how he’s gonna tell his dad.
- Willy shows up at the restaurant.
- Biff starts to tell his dad the bad news. He wants to tell his dad the story straight up because Willy has a tendency to block out bad stuff and only hear what he wants to hear.
- Willy doesn’t want to hear the bad news because he’s pissed. He tells his sons that he got fired. Happy and Biff are shocked
- Then Willy talks about the meeting with Bill Oliver that Biff had. He kinda tells the story (even though he wasn’t there) like he’d want it to happen. Biff tries to tell him the truth, but Willy won’t listen.
- Biff keeps trying to tell Willy the real story.
- Then Willy starts to hear voices in his head. He hears the voice of Bernard as a young boy. Bernard is talking about studying math with Biff.
- He is listening to the voices, and then Willy shouts at Biff and yells at him for flunking math. Biff has no idea what the hell he is talking about.
- Biff keeps trying to tell the real story because he wants his dad to face up to the truth about their lives. Willy listens to the voices in his head.
- Willy hears the voice of young Bernard, then the voice of Linda.
- They’re both talking about Biff failing math.
- Biff tells Willy that he blew it with Bill Oliver. Willy tells him to go back the next day. Willy can’t get it through his thick skull that Bill doesn’t want to see Biff.
- Willy keeps hearing the voices and goes a little bonkers. He runs to the bathroom. Biff and Happy are confused and have no idea how they can get through to their dad.
- Then Happy’s chicks return. They all leave.
- The next scene starts with one of Willy’s flashbacks. He has a flashback to when he cheated on his wife.
- He is with this chick in a hotel room in Boston. Then they hear a knock on the door. Willy gets paranoid and shoves her into the bathroom.
Biff (young Biff, remember, this is a flashback) is at the door. He tells Willy he failed math in school. He tells him that he tried to cheat off Bernard and failed by 4 points. Biff then says the teacher hated him. He wants Willy to talk to the teacher.
- Then Biff starts to imitate the teacher and he and his dad laugh. Then the chick comes out of the bathroom. Biff realizes his dad is cheating on Linda. Biff is pissed.
- Willy tries to cover it up and lie about her, but Biff knows. Willy then tries to get her out of the room.
- She starts yelling at him to give her the stockings he said he’d buy for her. Biff is pissed because he thinks Willy is giving away his mom’s stocking to this strange slut.
- Biff gets really pissed and calls Willy a fake and a lying bastard.
- Then the flashback ends and we are in the present again. The waiter at the restaurant tells Willy his sons took off. Willy asks the waiter about where he could get seeds to plant for his garden.
- Biff and Happy come home. They bring flowers for their mom.
Linda is pissed because the boys treated Willy like crap. She wants them to respect their father.
- Happy tries to lie and says that the night was fun. Then Biff admits he’s a jerk and he treated his dad like crap.
- Then Biff sees that Willy is outside gardening. He goes outside to talk to him.
- This scene starts out in the garden. Willy is planting seeds.
- He is hallucinating again and talking to the ghost of Ben. He and Ben are talking about an insurance scam. Willy wants to kill himself in a car accident, then his family will get all the insurance money.
- They talk about if it will work. Willy is worried that the insurance company won’t pay the money.
- Willy wants to die because he wants everyone to come out to his funeral. He thinks that if there are a lot of people at the funeral, Biff might have respect for him and stop hating his guts.
- Biff goes outside. He tells his dad that he is leaving the house.
Biff wants his dad to admit that Biff is a failure...he wants him to face the truth
- Biff tells Willy that he wants to leave to "find himself" since he’s messed up.
- Willy doesn’t shake his hand. He has a fake idea of Biff’s life and how important his place in the world is. Biff gets really angry then breaks down and cries.
- Biff tells Willy he doesn’t hate him. They cry and hug. Biff goes upstairs.
- Willy goes inside. He is happy because Biff cried in front of him. He tells Linda and Happy.
- Willy always though Biff hated him and led a screwed up life just to make him sad. But now that he knows it isn’t true, he is happy.
- He has great pride in Biff now. Then everyone goes to bed except Willy.
- Willy has a hallucination of Ben again. They talk about the insurance scam again. Ben gives it the green light.
- Willy gets in his car and takes off to kill himself.
- Willy has a funeral. Not many people show up.
- Linda talks to Charley. She tells him that they have no more debt.
- Biff talks about how Willy had a strange dream of how life is. Charley disagrees. Everyone is sad.
- Linda talks to Willy at his grave. She talks about the mortgage payment and how they officially own the house even though he’s dead and the house seems empty now.
THINGS TO MAKE YOU LOOK SMART
- This book’s main theme is on the American dream. Willy had this dream to become a big hotshot. He wanted his kids to be successful. He was so obsessed that when his kids messed up, he didn’t want to hear about it.
- Willy is always concerned about what people think about him. It’s almost like he lives his life to please others. He lies to Charley about getting fired, he lies to his wife about his salary, and he doesn’t want to hear the truth about Biff’s big meeting. Part of this is probably self-denial.
- Willy’s thinking is messed up. He thought that when Biff was young, he was gonna be a hotshot someday. But when Biff turned out to be a major let-down in life, Willy thinks he’s doing it on purpose to make him angry. He never thinks for a second that maybe Biff just didn’t have the potential.
- All of this plays into Willy’s optimism and dreaming, and part of that is what makes America so great – anything is possible. But the realism of how to make your dreams happen is also a factor.
- Willy battles with himself over his views about schooling – on the one hand, he knows grades and studying do matter, but he so wants to believe that Biff can just slide by, that he gives into the dream of his son being a bigshot athlete and rejects the reality of his flunking math.
- Society kinda sets standards for everyone and how everyone should have a certain amount of money. If you are not one of those people, you are nothing.
- Willy leads a fake life. He never listens and only hears what he wants to hear. He is so determined for life to go his way that he flat out ignores bad news. Like when Biff tells him about getting denied for a loan, Willy refuses to hear how it went bad and instead tells Biff it went well.
- Willy’s whole existence is wrapped up in his view of success.
- Think about emptiness and responsibility in this play.
It seems that the only way Willy feels he can bring money, which is in his eyes, success, to his family is by removing himself from the picture.
Do you think it was a coindidence that Arthur Miller wrote these characters with the last name "Loman"?