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"Death of a Salesman" by Arthur Miller

“Death of a Salesman” is a 1949 play written by American playwright Arthur Miller. The play’s protagonist, Willy Loman, is a travelling salesman who never achieved the success that he wished in his life. The action in the play is driven by Willy’s relationship with his family, particularly his sons, who Willy wants to become businessmen like him.

Willy’s entire life is based upon artificiality, appearance, and self-deception. Willy’s inability to deal with reality causes him to suffer from hallucinations. Ultimately, Willy’s desire to help his sons culminates in his tragic death. Miller’s play is a critique of the American Dream, and particularly the way that it has been corrupted by materialism and consumerism.

Historical Context

American Dream

The American Dream is a central idea within American society. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century, the United States built itself up from being a new country to being one of the leading industrial powers in the world. The American Dream is based on the idea that anyone can achieve wealth and success, regardless of their class or status. The idea of upward mobility (moving upwards in society) was extremely important, and many immigrants moved to the United States to give their children a better life than they had.

After the Second World War, the United States became the richest country in the world, and a consumer revolution began to take place. New goods and products soon became desirable, and Americans began to measure their success by what they owned. This quickly became linked with the American Dream. Where once it had involved owning a home and a small piece of land, it now required owning a car, or a refrigerator, or a television. Increasingly, people began to spend money on credit (small loans), and put themselves at the risk of debt. For people like Miller, this new version of the American Dream was flawed.

Arthur Miller’s own parents were Polish-Jewish immigrants to New York. Miller’s father owned a successful clothing store, and Miller initially grew up wealthy. Miller’s family seemed to be perfect examples of the American Dream. However, the Wall Street Crash of 1929 (which was partially caused by credit and overspending) caused the Millers to lose their money. When Arthur Miller was young, he had a number of menial jobs, before eventually finding fame as a playwright. Despite his success, Miller’s plays usually talk about the American Dream, and the fact that class and society in America is sometimes not as upwardly mobile as it may seem.

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Plot Summary

Act I

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The play opens to the protagonist, Willy Loman returning from a business trip that has been cancelled. After talking the matter over with his wife, Linda, Willy decides to speak to his boss, and ask to work closer to home. As well as Willy's dissatisfaction with his work, his son, Biff has returned home to visit. This opens up old issues about Biff's lack of achievements. When Willy begins muttering to himself, Biff and his brother, Happy begin to talk about their childhood and discuss the possibility of buying a ranch (farm) out in the West of the country. Meanwhile, Willy begins a series of complex daydreams.

In the daydream, Biff and Happy are younger, and they are washing Willy's car. Willy talks about his hopes for the future, including opening a business more successful than that of his neighbour, Charley. Charley's son Bernard encourages Biff to study for a Maths test, which leads Willy to tell Biff that while Charley is intelligent, Biff is popular, which is more important, particularly in the world of sales. Willy tells his wife that his business trip was extremely successful, although admits later that this was not the case. He worries openly about affording payments on the car and other luxuries, all of which have been bought on credit.

Willy then has a daydream within a daydream, and begins fantasising about 'The Woman', a lady he once had an affair with. After flirting with her briefly, this daydream abruptly ends, and he is back in the original hallucination with Linda. After shouting at Linda and Bernard in his dream, he snaps out and back to reality, where he is consoled by the adult Happy. Although Willy is no longer daydreaming, he begins to mutter to Happy about missing an opportunity to go to Alaska with his brother, who later became rich.

After Happy goes to bed, Willy and Charley play cards. Charley offers Willy a job, although Willy turns him down. During the game, Willy hallucinates that his brother Ben has entered the room, and begins to talk with him. Charley sees Willy talking to himself and begins to question Willy's sanity. Willy shouts at Charley, who quickly leaves the house. Willy's daydream continues and he hallucinates Ben meeting the younger Linda. Charley and Bernard also enter the daydream to tell Willy that Happy and Biff are stealing wood. Willy continues to talk to Ben.

Outside of the daydream, Linda finds Willy muttering to himself outside. Biff and Happy witness their father's madness, although Linda warns the boys against judging him too harshly. Linda mentions that Willy has attempted suicide, and Biff states that Willy is a fake. Happy, defending his father, criticises Biff's failures in the business world. After Willy joins in the attack on Biff, Happy suggests that the two sons start a business together, and identifies Biff's old boss, Bill as a potential source of a loan. After peace seems to settle within the house, the characters all go to bed, and Act I ends on this scene.

Act II

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Act II continues with the sense of peace that Act I finished with. Willy is eating breakfast, although he quickly becomes angry at the cost of the items in the kitchen, showing he is stressed about money. Linda passes on a message from Biff and Happy that they will take him out to dinner in the evening, and Willy reiterates his plan to ask his boss for a locally (New York-based) job. Biff and Linda speak on the phone, and Linda asks him to be nice to Willy at dinner.

Willy goes to ask his boss Howard, for a job change, but Howard only seems interested in playing a voice recording of his wife and children that he has made. When Willy eventually gets through to Howard, he rejects his request for a local job, and instead is told to take some time off because Howard is worried about his health. After Howard leaves, Willy again begins to daydream - talking to Ben and a younger Linda. The two represent different propositions: Ben wants Willy to move to Alaska, but Linda says that Willy must stay and look after his children. Willy states that Biff has great prospects because he is popular.

Willy continues to daydream about Biff, imagining that he is about to play a big American football game, talking to Charley and Bernard about the match. Willy is eventually snapped out of his daydream by the real-life Bernard. Willy tells Bernard that Biff is about to conduct a big business deal. However, when Bernard mentions that he is going to Washington D.C. to fight a case (Bernard is a lawyer), Willy seems to show vulnerability and asks Bernard why Biff has never made a success of his life. Bernard pinpoints an incident that took place in Boston that changed Biff's outlook on life. Willy clearly knows what Bernard is talking about and becomes defensive, although doesn't reveal what the event was.

Charley arrives, and Willy asks him for money. Willy implies that this is a regular occurrence. Willy asks Charley for more money, and Charley once again offers Willy a job. After Willy refuses but admits he was fired, Charley begins to criticise Willy for needing always to be popular. Willy is clearly upset by this and leaves.

Willy meets Biff and Happy at the restaurant. Happy has been flirting with a girl waiting for Biff to arrive, and Biff tells Happy that he failed to get the loan from Bill. Willy announces that he was fired, and so Happy tries to pacify Willy by hinting that they got the loan. Biff eventually has had enough and yells at Willy for never listening. This prompts Willy into another daydream. Bernard is telling Linda that Biff has failed his Maths class. At this point, in the real conversation, Willy criticises Biff for failing Maths. Willy then daydreams that he is in a hotel, and shouts that he is not in the hotel room. Biff attempts to calm Willy by suggesting that they may get the loan after all. Willy and Biff begin to argue, and when Willy hears The Woman laugh, he hits Biff. Biff helps Willy to the toilets to calm him down. When Biff returns to the table he finds Happy flirting and laughing with two girls. Biff and Happy argue, and Biff storms out. Happy leaves with the two girls, leaving Willy in the restaurant.

Willy then has a flashback to the hotel room in Boston. Willy and The Woman are in the room when there is a knock at the door. Willy hides The Woman in the bathroom when Biff comes in. Biff tells Willy that he failed his Maths class. While Willy tries to usher Biff outside, Biff does an impression of his Maths teacher that makes The Woman laugh. Biff realises what has gone on, and shouts at Willy. Willy is then snapped out of his flashback in the restaurant, where he is helped up.

Back at the house, Happy and Linda argue about leaving Willy in the restaurant. Biff goes looking for Willy, and finds him planting seeds in the garden. Willy is talking to the hallucination of Ben about a $20,000 'proposition'. Biff helps Willy into the house, although they begin arguing. After Happy joins in, Biff eventually begins to cry, which calms Willy down. After the boys go to bed, Willy begins talking to 'Ben' about the $20,000 sum, which is revealed to be insurance money. When Linda shouts for Willy, there is no response, and Linda and the boys hear Willy's car race away.

The play finishes with Willy's funeral, which is a depressing affair. There are hardly any attendees, and all of the characters have a different interpretation of Willy's death. Biff says that Willy should have kept his dreams in check. Charley says that Willy was a victim of the American dream, and sales in general. The boys talk about the future, although Happy says that he wants to stay in memory of his father. The play ends with Linda crying, and saying, "We're free", over and over.

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Key Themes

American Dream

The American Dream

‘Death of a Salesman’ is ultimately a testament to the dangers of the American Dream. Traditionally, the American Dream meant that anybody could achieve success through hard work and dedication. However, Willy places such pressure on himself that the American Dream becomes a nightmare, and forces him into further trouble. Willy wants to give off the impression that he is successful, and ironically, this makes him less successful. His spending is beyond his income, pushing him further into debt. He also refuses the job with Charley, even though that would have provided him with some financial security.

Miller wrote ‘Death of a Salesman’ not necessarily as a critique of the American Dream, but of the way that it had become distorted in the late 1940s. Miller felt that rather than emphasising hard work, it had become too materialistic, and put too much pressure on individuals to flaunt wealth instead of achieving genuine success. Throughout the play, Miller leaves ambiguous what Willy is actually selling. It is unclear, therefore, whether Willy is actually a salesman of the American Dream. Certainly, Willy invests much effort in being ‘well liked’ and ‘attractive’, and ‘selling’ himself as being a success. However, it is this that leads to his tenuous grip on reality, and ultimately his death.

Failure

Willy is a man who is crushed by his failures. The biggest tragedy in the life of Willy Loman is that he is responsible not only for his own failures, but also those of his sons. The revelation about Biff in the hotel room make it clear that Willy is racked with guilt for his actions. Willy’s one chance at making a success of his life is to ensure that his children are successful. In contrast to Biff and Happy, Charley’s son Bernard has made a successful career as a lawyer. This is despite Willy’s dismissal of Bernard as someone who is not popular. We are shown flashbacks of Willy encouraging poor behaviour in Biff, as well as ignoring Happy.

Willy’s ultimate problem is that he sees success (and therefore failure) only in comparison to others. Therefore, he can never enjoy what he has while others have more. He also views his personality in terms of others, focusing on areas where he considers himself to have an advantage. Therefore, while Bernard is a studious and hard working young man, Willy criticises him for not being popular. Willy eventually realises that the best thing he can do for his sons is die, and this is the ultimate tragedy of Willy’s life.

Nostalgia

Willy is nostalgic for the optimism of his younger days, when he was a young man, or when his sons were younger. One of Willy’s biggest senses of sadness is that he never fulfilled his promise. Miller uses the device of flashbacks and hallucinations to emphasise Willy’s longing for the past. Willy’s regret at not following his brother Ben on a life of adventure is clear. It is ironic in this context that Willy’s sense of longing for the past is also the source of guilt. It is possible to get the sense that Willy wishes he could go back in time and start again, especially when it comes to Biff exposing Willy’s affair. This, perhaps, is the route of Willy’s flashbacks, all of which involve some level of nostalgia, and a sense of tragedy. The only ‘unhappy’ flashback that Willy has is to the hotel room in Boston, and it is here that the pace of the play changes. After this, Willy decides to sacrifice himself. This is one of the few occasions in the narrative where he plans for the future in any meaningful way.

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Artificiality

Everything in Willy’s life is shown to be artificial. Miller is here commenting on the fact that the American Dream seems to have been replaced by a desire to accumulate goods, rather than to be truly happy. The core aspects of Willy’s life are built on artificiality and lies. His personality is based on ‘being liked’, which is about appearing to be nice, and he thinks he is a good salesman because he is ‘attractive’ – another way of saying that he appears (looks) nice. In addition, the credit he uses to pay for his house and his car is artificial money, which he is not sure that he can pay back.

The flashbacks and hallucinations that Willy has are testament to this artificiality. It is here that his fake world is breached. Often his hallucinations are based on real events, which juxtapose with the world of lies he has created. The fact that his hallucinations are real, and his life is fake is an example of inversion. Fittingly, even Willy’s life is artificial, as it is an attempt to con $20,000 out of an insurance company. Although it is done with good intentions, Willy’s life and death are both rooted in deception.

Hypocrisy

Willy is shown throughout the play to be a hypocrite. This is partially based on his sense of artificiality (he struggles to keep up with his own lies) and partially from his own mental health. In the very first scene of the play, Willy comments on Biff being a ‘hard worker’, having previously called him ‘a lazy bum’. This establishes Willy as a character who has no core convictions, and seems to think little about what he says. In addition, Willy’s weak grasp on reality, and burning sense of disappointment at Biff’s life leads him to twist and turn the situation in a manner that leads him to appear hypocritical. Willy’s relationship with Biff in particular is based on a seeming hypocrisy – Willy wants Biff to be successful and free, but can’t stand that Biff won’t follow the specific career path that Willy designed for him. A further hypocrisy is that Willy seems to care for his family, and yet his ultimate act of betrayal (his affair) ends up undermining his relationship with his wife, as well as Biff’s future prospects.

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Key Quotes

He's liked, but not well-liked. (Biff – about Bernard, Act I)

This quote highlights two key things about the Lomans. Firstly, they view everything in terms of comparison. Biff is talking about Bernard’s popularity in comparison to his own (because Bernard is a better student). Secondly, they see popularity and ‘being liked’ as one of the most important things about a person. Although it is Biff saying these lines, it could easily be Willy. This shows us that Willy has passed many of his prejudices and character flaws onto Biff. This quote therefore serves as exposition – it advances our understanding of the characters, and tells us more about Biff and Willy than it does about Bernard.

The man knew what he wanted and went out and got it! Walked into a jungle and comes out, the age of twenty-one, and he's rich! (Biff – about Ben, Act I)

This quote highlights the sense of regret and nostalgia held by the Loman family. Again, although it is Biff speaking, it is clear that many of his regrets come straight from Willy. Ben serves as a foil to Willy, representing everything that Willy could never do. Although Willy likes to see Ben as an adventurer and a brave man, the only difference between Ben and Willy is that Willy was too scared to gamble on an adventure. Ben also serves as a mirror for Willy. Willy was not able to make his riches in the urban ‘jungle’, despite his best attempts.

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And I looked at the pen and I thought, what the hell am I grabbing this for? Why am I trying to become what I don’t want to be . . . when all I want is out there, waiting for me the minute I say I know who I am. (Biff, Act II)

Biff is here commenting on his decision to steal a pen when his former employee Bill doesn’t recognise him. This represents Biff’s nadir (low point), and the stage at which he decides he doesn’t want to gamble a worse life on the potential of being successful in business (as Willy has done), but instead to accept his life of relative mediocrity. This is the stage where Biff finally breaks away from Willy, and finally begins to take control of his own life. Biff realises that success is not dependent on business or wealth, but happiness. This is a realisation that Willy never had.

Nothing’s planted. I don’t have a thing in the ground. (Willy, Act II)

Although Willy is here literally referring to his garden, and the fact he hasn’t planted anything, it has a wider symbolic or metaphorical meaning. The subconscious parallel that Willy is making is between the plants and his sons. In both cases, he has the opportunity to raise them, and make them grow as he wants. However, he realises that he has done a bad job with his sons, and therefore he will not be able to reap a strong relationship with them. In addition, the inability or unwillingness to grow plants emphasises the fact that Willy is more interested in the artificial than the natural.

I am not a dime a dozen! I am Willy Loman, and you are Biff Loman! (Willy, Act II)

This line, when Biff claims to Willy that he is ‘a dime a dozen’ (i.e. very common and not worth much), shows that Biff is willing to accept his mediocrity. However, Willy doesn’t allow Biff to believe that. This is Willy’s chance at catharsis (accepting and letting go of his emotions) and he refuses to take it. Interestingly, Willy still talks of the success of the family in terms of their success compared to others (in rebuffing Biff, he is effectively saying that they are better than everyone else). Also, it is interesting that Biff and Willy talk in the language of money, which is a recurring motif throughout the play.

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Key Characters

door to door sales

Willy Loman

The biggest tragedy of Willy Loman from a character perspective is that he never becomes truly self aware. Ultimately, the audience know more about Willy Loman than he does. In the desperation to live the American Dream, Willy crafts lies and artificialities, and manages to deceive himself. This makes him increasingly less able to deal with reality. Willy is constantly feeling regret and nostalgia, although the fact that he has lied to himself means that it manifests itself in the form of hallucinations. This is, ironically, the only way that Willy can face reality. Although it seems as if Willy is going mad, it is during his normal life that he is going mad, and only in the daydreams does he see the world as it really is.

Willy’s relationship with the American Dream is what drives his own personal decline. Willy is not a victim of the American Dream itself, but his own twisted version of what the American Dream means. Because Willy is not a success, he is ultimately selling himself, to make himself seem successful. Even his name – Loman – reminds the audience that he is a low-man, a man who is not great. The only truly noble thing Willy does is kill himself, and even that is built on a lie.

Biff Loman

Even the name of the character juxtaposes with that of his father and his brother. Where Willy and Happy both have names that convey contentment with the situation, Biff’s name is one of aggression and fighting. Biff’s character is the one that experiences the biggest trajectory throughout the course of the play, going from a virtual clone of his father to someone who rejects his father’s pushes for greatness. At the end of the play, Biff seems fully content with himself, suggesting that Willy may have inadvertently (accidentally) set Biff on the right path after all.

The key moment we discover in the life of Biff was in the hotel room in Boston, when Biff found out that Willy was having an affair with The Woman. This marks a turning point in Biff’s life (as Bernard mentions to Willy). Before, he was on course to go to an academic summer camp, after this, he shows no interest in schoolwork. Another turning point comes when Biff is in Bill’s office, and realises that he is in a prison of lies and ambition built by Willy. It is only after this point that he is truly happy, and begins to live the life he wants.

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Happy Loman

In contrast to Biff, Happy is one of the most tragic characters in the play. He even challenges Willy in this respect, as Happy seems determined to continue Willy’s legacy, stating that he needs to ‘avenge’ his father’s death by becoming a successful businessman. Despite the fact that Willy places most of his attention on Biff, it is Happy who takes on board most of his messages, and therefore the one who becomes most like his father. Like Willy, Happy does not seem to know himself, and therefore we assume that his life will be a tragic spiral, as was his father’s. Happy’s name is perhaps an ironic allusion to the fact that his life will not be happy, although it could also be a reference to the fact that he is Happy in his self-deception. Throughout the play, Happy serves as a foil to Biff, highlighting the fact that Biff’s realisations are optimistic and impressive. In addition, the relationship between Biff and Happy mirrors that of Ben and Willy. Where Biff is happy in himself, Happy is destined to regret his decisions and will be constantly jealous of Biff’s life.

Charley

Charley is the opposite of Willy Loman in many respects. Charley is a successful man (by any measure), and has a successful son and a healthy family life. Charley represents everything that Willy is not, but wishes he could be. However, Willy doesn’t realise this, and Charley’s attempts to help Willy are rebuffed. Charley represents the audience in many respects. He is rational and logical, and works out what is going on with Willy long before Willy does. In addition, Bernard (Charley’s son) is able to shed light on why Biff did not make a success of his schoolwork long before Willy does. Charley’s sense of personal satisfaction and wisdom juxtaposes with Willy’s lack of self-awareness.

Charley has almost a mythical quality, in that he seems to know things that he couldn’t possibly know. In this respect, he represents the narrator, similar to Alfieri in Miller’s ‘A View from the Bridge’, a similarly wise character. Miller was greatly inspired by Greek theatre, and as such, the character of Charley may echo some of the characters in a Greek play, which were omniscient and able to interact with the other characters, yet see all the action unfold.

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Key Scene

travelling salesman

The key scene in Willy’s downward trajectory comes in Act II, when he meets his sons for dinner at a chop house. Biff has just had his business proposition rejected by Bill Oliver. This scene is the one in which truth and artificiality end up clashing, and none of the characters are the same afterwards. Biff experienced a moment of clarity when he met with Bill Oliver, where he realised that he was content being himself, rather than following his father’s desires to be a ‘success’. However, Biff is unable to tell Willy this, and Happy advises Biff to just lie to keep his father sane. Happy also lies to Miss Forsythe, saying that he is a successful salesman, and Biff is a successful football player (the same lies that Willy tells). Biff represents the truth, and Willy represents lies, and Happy effectively has to decide which one to follow. By choosing to lie, Happy shows that he will end up perpetuating Willy’s lifestyle.

Ironically, although the scene is defined by Willy’s hallucinations, it is also the scene in which Willy is forced to engage with the real world. Willy seems to be falling apart, and he begs Biff and Happy to help him rebuild his life, admitting that he is not well liked. However, in the battle for Willy’s sanity, it is the lies and the hallucinations that ultimately win, rather than his desire to be honest. For Willy, the key road to salvation is through self-knowledge (understanding his own place in the world). Biff has just experienced such a revelation, but Willy seems unable to do the same thing. The juxtaposition between Biff and Willy comes from the fact that Willy’s lies cause him to learn all about his father, although it is Willy knowing all about his son (and why his son failed maths), that causes him to fall into his hallucinations. In the war between sanity and insanity, and truth and lies, this is the key battle scene.

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Additional Material

The video (above) is a short summary of the link between 'Death of a Salesman' and the American Dream. It highlights the different ways in which social pressure and Willy Loman's own failings combine to cause him to focus on appearance rather than reality. It also provides a neat explanation of why Willy Loman is a tragic hero.

Click here or on the image above to read an article in the New York Times (an American newspaper) about Arthur Miller and the story behind "Death of a Salesman". This will give you some extra insight into Miller's intentions in writing the play, as well as the story behind the character of Willy Loman.

The video above contains a literature analysis of 'Death of a Salesman'. When you are writing your essay answer, the analysis you see here will help you to structure your own answer. Take note of how the videomaker balances narrative (outlining the plot) and analysis (explaining why things happen).

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Image Credits:

Image 1: by the Sheldon-Clare Company via Wikimedia Commons, Image 2: by Jussi via Flickr, Image 3: by Brian Snelson via Wikimedia Commons, Image 4: by Ebert F. Baumgartner via Wikimedia Commons, Image 5: by Alden Jewell via Flickr, Image 6: by James Vaughan via Flickr, Image 7: by Al Ravenna via Wikimedia Commons, Image 8: by Loco Steve via Flickr, Image 9: by James Vaughan via Flickr