Willy Loman, a traveling salesman, returns home to Brooklyn early from a sales trip. At the age of 63, he has lost his salary and is working only on commission, and on this trip has failed to sell anything. His son Biff, who has been laboring on farms and ranches throughout the West for more than a decade, has recently arrived home to figure out a new direction for his life. Willy thinks Biff has not lived up to his potential. But as Biff reveals to his younger brother Happy—an assistant to the assistant buyer at a department store—he feels more fulfilled by outdoor work than by his earlier attempts to work in an office.
Alone in his kitchen, Willy remembers an earlier return from a business trip, when Biff and Happy were young boys and looked up to him as a hero. He contrasts himself and his sons with his next door neighbor Charley, a successful businessman, and Charley's son Bernard, a serious student. Charley and Bernard, in his view, lack the natural charisma that the Loman men possess, which Willy believes is the real determinant of success. But under the questioning of his wife Linda, Willy admits that his commission from the trip was so small that they will hardly be able to pay all their bills, and that he is full of self-doubt. Even as Linda reassures him, he hears the laughter of The Woman, his mistress in Boston.
Charley comes over to see if Willy is okay. While they are playing cards, Willy begins talking with the recently deceased figure of his brother Ben, who left home at the age of seventeen and made a diamond fortune in Africa and Alaska. Charley offers Willy a job but Willy refuses out of pride, even though he has been borrowing money from Charley every week to cover household expenses. Full of regrets, Willy compares himself to Ben and their equally adventurous, mysterious father, who abandoned them when they were young. He wanders into his back yard, trying to see the stars.
Linda discusses Willy's deteriorating mental state with the boys. She reveals that he has tried to commit suicide, both in a car crash and by inhaling gas through a rubber hose on the heater. Biff, chagrined, agrees to stay home and try to borrow money from his previous employer, Bill Oliver, in order to start a sporting goods business with Happy, which will please their father. Willy is thrilled about this idea, and gives Biff some conflicting, incoherent advice about how to ask for the loan.
The next morning, at Linda's urging, Willy goes to his boss Howard Wagner and asks for a job in the New York office, close to home. Though Willy has been with the company longer than Howard has been alive, Howard refuses Willy's request. Willy continues to beg Howard, with increasing urgency, until Howard suspends Willy from work. Willy, humiliated, goes to borrow money from Charley at his office. There he encounters Bernard, who is now a successful lawyer, while the greatest thing Willy's son Biff ever achieved was playing high school football.
Biff and Happy have made arrangements to meet Willy for dinner at Frank's Chop House. Before Willy arrives, Biff confesses to Happy that Oliver gave him the cold shoulder when he tried to ask for the loan, and he responded by stealing Oliver's pen. Happy advises him to lie to Willy in order to keep his hope alive. Willy sits down at the table and immediately confesses that he has been fired, so Biff had better give him some good news to bring home to Linda. Biff and Willy argue, as distressing memories from the past overwhelm Willy. Willy staggers to the washroom and recalls the end of Biff's high school career, when Biff failed a math course and went to Boston in order to tell his father. He found Willy in a hotel room with The Woman, and became so disillusioned about his former hero that he abandoned his dreams for college and following in Willy's footsteps. As Willy is lost in this reverie, Biff and Happy leave the restaurant with two call girls.
When Biff and Happy return home, Linda is furious at them for abandoning their father. Biff, ashamed of his behavior, finds Willy in the back yard. He is trying to plant seeds in the middle of the night, and conversing with the ghost of his brother Ben about a plan to leave his family with $20,000 in life insurance money. Biff announces that he is finally going to be true to himself, that neither he nor Willy will ever be great men, and that Willy should accept this and give up his distorted version of the American Dream. Biff is moved to tears at the end of this argument, which deepens Willy's resolve to kill himself out of love for his son and family. He drives away to his death.
Only his family, Charley, and Bernard attend Willy's funeral. Biff is adamant that Willy died for nothing, while Charley elegizes Willy as a salesman who, by necessity, had nothing to trade on but his dreams. Linda says goodbye to Willy, telling him that the house has been paid off—that they are finally free of their obligations—but now there will be nobody to live in it.
Krause, Adam. "Death of a Salesman Plot Summary." LitCharts. LitCharts LLC, 22 Jul 2013. Web. 10 Mar 2018.
Krause, Adam. "Death of a Salesman Plot Summary." LitCharts LLC, July 22, 2013. Retrieved March 10, 2018. http://www.litcharts.com/lit/death-of-a-salesman/summary.
Death of a Salesman Summary
SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller.
Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller is a play about a traveling salesman who rethinks life following a demotion. As the play opens, sixty-year-old Willy Loman, is losing himself in his memories. He thinks often about life as it used to be, when personality and connections were the keys to success. Willy’s brother, Ben, who benefited from a self-made fortune early in life, tried to tell Willy that the only things one can trust are those that one can touch. Willy did not believe him, and thought that his charisma and being well liked would lead to his success someday.
Willy has two sons—Biff and Hap. As they were growing up, he taught them as he believed: If you are well liked, success will come, and you will be important. His sons took these lessons to heart. The result is that, as adults, they are unsuccessful. Biff has trouble holding down a job and Hap is the assistant of an assistant, and thinks of himself as important as Willy often did. Upon realizing this, Willy is filled with regret and guilt. He believes that not only did he teach his sons the wrong goals in life, but also because of those lessons, they are not and will not become successful.
Because of these botched lessons, Willy and Biff’s relationship is strained. Willy, for whom integrity was never a goal, did not instill it in his sons. In contrast, he encouraged them to steal when it would benefit them, which contributes to Biff’s inability to hold down a job. The only time Biff is happy, or has any chance for success, is when he is not working in business, but rather as a farmhand. After arguing with his father, Biff decides it is best if he leaves home forever, knowing that he will never live up to his father’s expectations for him because he harbors no desire to do so.
After Biff’s decision to leave, Willy determines that he is going to prove to his son, his family, and the community that his life was worthwhile. In order to accomplish this, Willy decides he will take his own life. He plans for his life insurance to provide for his sons, and imagines a grand funeral. After Willy kills himself, the insurance company does not pay the claim because he took his own life. At the funeral, very few people show up—only Willy’s family and two neighbors.
One of the main themes of this play is the difference between reality and illusion. Willy lives life under the illusion that he is well liked and will be successful, unable to see until he is demoted the reality of his situation. Because of his inability to view life honestly and realistically, he sabotages his relationships with his sons. The idea of the American Dream is another main theme of Death of a Salesman. Willy’s version of the American Dream is different from Biff’s, for example, and the differences in their respective views of this dream negatively affect their relationship.
Arthur Miller’s play was well received, particularly in the United States and Germany. First performed in in 1949, this play has seen four Broadway revivals, as well as inclusion in a London celebration of Miller’s contributions to drama. Death of a Salesman has also enjoyed more than ten television and film productions worldwide. It has won twenty-five awards and received nominations for an additional seventeen awards since its debut in 1949.
Other notable works produced during Miller’s career as a playwright include, The Crucible, All My Sons, and A View from the Bridge. His works are often celebrated for presenting the average American. The Crucible was an allegorical play that takes place against the backdrop of the 1692 witchcraft trials in Salem, Massachusetts, representing the Red Scare that took place in Cold War America. In addition to writing plays, Miller was also an essayist. His works earned him several rewards, including the Pulitzer in 1949, Kennedy Center Honors in 1984, Praemium Imperiale in 2001, and the Jerusalem Prize in 2003. Miller lived from 1915 to 2005. His daughter, Rebecca Miller, is married to actor Daniel Day-Lewis, who starred in a film adaptation of Miller’s play The Crucible.
Death of a Salesman was originally titled The Inside of His Head, reflecting Willy Loman’s unwillingness to see himself as he really is. Loman is, professionally, a salesman, but he is a salesman in the larger sense that he sells himself his own illusion that he is well liked and that he imparted useful knowledge to his sons. This application of theme on a meta level is perhaps one of the key reasons that Death of a Salesman has enjoyed success and focus for over half a century.