Summary of the Play
Death of a Salesman is subtitled “Certain Private Conversations in Two Acts and a Requiem” and, accordingly, the acts are divided into conversations – in the present and from the past – that flow in and out of each other. The play encompasses an evening and the following day, but the action is interrupted by or mixed with flashbacks or memories of a period approximately 17 years earlier.
Act I opens in Willy Loman’s house in Brooklyn. Willy, a traveling salesman of 63, is exhausted after years of making his trips. (Even by the end of the play, we do not know what product he sells.) He has yet to reach a level of success that would allow him to stop traveling and afford the household bills that always seem to swallow his diminishing wages. We learn that Willy’s grown son, Biff, has returned to visit. And we come to know Willy’s character as he complains to his wife Linda about his disappointment in Biff’s failure to find a steady, serious job. Willy is tired, confused, and argumentative, a man who loves his son and has tried to infuse him with a salesman’s enthusiastic optimism and self-confidence.
In the rest of Act I, through various flashbacks that might also be Willy’s memories, we become familiar with the salesman’s philosophy of success that has guided Willy to his current less-than-successful state. Compared with his neighbor Charley and Charley’s son Bernard, Willy and his sons Biff and Hap are athletic, rather than studious; in Willy’s mind, a likable personality is more important for success than academic grades. Willy endorses Biff’s cheating at school; and, we learn, Willy himself cheated on his wife by having an extramarital affair with a woman in Boston. Linda informs Biff and Hap she has discovered that Willy has secretly started to contemplate suicide. The evening of Act I winds down as Biff and Hap attempt to cheer up Willy by promising to go into business together.
In Act II, which encompasses the day following the evening of Act I, Willy asks his boss for a new, non-traveling job. Instead of being rewarded for years of service, Willy is fired because he has not been able to sell enough. Bewildered, he asks his friend Charley for another of many loans and, while doing so, meets Bernard, now a successful lawyer. In the evening, Willy joins Biff and Hap at a restaurant and eventually tells them his bad news; unable to depress a father who wants good news at the end of a terrible day, Biff fails to tell Willy that he did not get the loan that would have made it possible for Hap and him to start a business together. The scene then changes to years earlier, when Biff comes to Boston just after flunking math, which has endangered his chances for college by preventing him from graduating high school. Biff there discovers Willy is having an affair.
In the present, when Biff and Hap return to the house, their mother reproaches them for abandoning Willy in the restaurant. Delusional, Willy is planting a garden in the dark and having an imaginary conversation with his elder brother Ben, who made a fortune in diamonds as a young man. Biff tries to explain the ungranted loan to Willy, as well as his decision to leave so as not to disappoint Willy ever again. Willy believes Biff has been unsuccessful out of spite for him, but when Biff begins to cry, Willy sees Biff’s love for him. Inspired by this realization, but obviously disoriented, Willy sneaks away that night and kills himself in a car accident, thinking his life insurance money will give Biff a new start and that a well-attended funeral will prove his own popularity. In a very short third act that Miller calls a “Requiem,” we see that almost no one has attended the funeral. Although Hap defends Willy’s “good dream,” Biff is subdued and Linda weeps as she asks Willy’s grave why he did such a thing.
Estimated Reading Time
The entire play is about 130 pages, but because of the spaces between characters’ lines it will read faster than a novel. An average student, reading about 25-30 pages an hour, will need 4-5 hours to read the play. If you do not have enough time to read it all at once, the best plan might be two sittings – Act I, then Act II and the short “Requiem” – of about two hours each. Arthur Miller did not divide his play into scenes within each act. Instead, the action is continuous, even when flashbacks occur. Therefore, for the purposes of this study guide, the acts have been divided into parts, each covering about 15 pages of the play.
Does Willy Loman die a martyr? How do Linda's and his sons' interpretations of his death differ?
A strong answer will note that Willy has a noble conception of his suicide - he kills himself because he truly believes that the insurance money will allow his sons to achieve their destined greatness. But Miller does not give the audience the easy satisfaction of seeing Willy's plan come to fruition. It is highly doubtful that the Lomans would actually receive any insurance money at all. He has a record of suicide attempts, and it would be near impossible to convince the insurance company that his death was an accident.
The crux of an essay should be that Willy thinks he is martyring himself, but his martyrdom is in vain.
Death of a Salesman is one of the foundational texts describing the American dream. How does Miller's play differ from the more traditional Horatio Alger model? Is Miller overwhelmingly cynical on the topic?
Strong answers will contrast Miller's pessimistic and cynical take on the concept of the American dream with its glorified Horatio Alger representations. Traditionally, the American dream means that any person can work his way up from the bottom of the ladder to the top. Miller's work isn't so much a direct subversion of that dream as it is an exploration of the way in which the existence of the American dream can ruin a person's expectations.
Discuss the motif of women's stockings in Death of a Salesman? What are Willy and Biff's attitudes toward them? How do Linda and the woman with whom Willy is having an affair regard them?
To the women, stockings serve as a symbol of what Willy can provide and as a measure of his success. To Willy, they are a symbol of his guilt over the affair. To Biff, they are a symbol of Willy's fakeness and his betrayal of Linda. Each time the stockings appear, they serve each of these three purposes for every character present.
Describe the significance of names in this play. How do Happy and Biff's names contrast with or support their characters? Interpret the name "Loman."
Happy - a boy's name. As his name implies, Happy is someone who should be content - he has a job, an apartment, and a never-ending stream of women - but he remains deeply unhappy.
Ben - Willy's brother is named after the biblical figure Benjamin, which means "one who is blessed." The biblical Benjamin far outstripped his brothers in all areas, rousing their jealousy.
Loman - Willy is a low-man. No great hero, he is already so low on the ladder that he has hardly anywhere to fall.
What is the role of modernity in Death of a Salesman? Have cars and gas heaters fundamentally changed the American dream? How does Miller view these innovations?
The answer should note that Willy is a man left behind by progress. His is a profession that only functions in a small niche of time - he is reliant on the automobile and the highway system, but can't survive the advent of more sophisticated sales methods than the door-to-door. He is startled and confused by Howard's gadgets, and longs for an outdoors life that involves creating things with his hands.
Discuss the gender relationships in this play. Are there any positive models for a harmonious relationship? Does Miller find this concept plausible?
There are only two women of significance in the play, Linda and The Woman, who does not even merit a name. Happy nicely exposits the dichotomy between the two types of women in the world, as represented by his idealized mother and by The Woman and Miss Forsythe. The attitude towards women that Willy modeled for his sons was that women exist to be conquered - and once they've been had, they are no longer worthy of respect.
Analyze the role of seeds in Act II's final segment. What do they stand for?
Willy begins to obsess over seeds as he realizes that he has nothing to pass on to his sons. He hasn't created anything real, nothing physical that you can touch with your hand. But seeds are an investment in the future, something that is both tangible and grows with time, and that is what he wants to pass on to his sons.
Discuss examples of ways in which Willy Loman's suicide is foreshadowed in the first act of the play.
Be sure to note that the question isn't really whether Willy is going to die, but how. The discussion of Willy as suicidal is quite on the nose in the first act, but what is left ambiguous at that point is the how and the why. We are given both the rubber hose and the car as possible modes of suicide, and general despair and desperation as motivations, but the ultimate motivation of insurance money does not become an issue until the end of the play.
Compare Death of a Salesman to A Streetcar Named Desire. How do Willy Loman and Blanche Dubois each represent a fundamental element of the American drive towards progress and success?
Willy and Blanche are both victims of modernity. Willy cannot compete against the young men in the modern business world. And Blanche cannot adapt to the coarseness of life in the new South. Rather than adjusting, both characters descend deeper into their idea of the idealized past, until they lose hold on reality altogether.
Compare Death of a Salesman and The Great Gatsby. How do Willy Loman and Jay Gatsby suffer a similar fate?
Answer: Although they lived very different lives - Willy, objectively a failure, and Gatsby, objectively a success - Willy and Gatsby had similar downfalls. Both were caught up in the illusion of the American dream, fervently believing that they could and should reach for the stars. But after a lifetime of having relied on personality to get by, the men found themselves terribly alone, even in death.