In ‘Death of a Salesman,’ Willy Loman just can’t catch a break. And if the title is an indicator, things won’t end well. In this lesson, we’ll look at Arthur Miller’s 1949 masterpiece about a salesman and his family.
Death of a Salesman
‘Death of a Salesman.’ We haven’t even started and you already know how it ends. Maybe it should be called ‘Spoiler Alert: Death of a Salesman.’ Fortunately, this celebrated play is much more than a single plot point.
In fact, Death of a Salesman is Arthur Miller’s most famous work. It premiered in 1949 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play. Its title role has been played by everyone from Dustin Hoffman to Seymour Philip Hoffman and, of course, several people not named Hoffman.
While it’s very much a product of the post-World War II era in which it was written, it may be more relevant than ever in today’s America.
Before we get to the play, let’s take a quick look at the characters.
First and foremost, there’s Willy Loman. He’s our salesman. He’s married to Linda. Their grown kids are Biff and Happy. Biff is the older one.
Over here is Charley, the Lomans’ neighbor. His grown son is Bernard. Then there’s Howard Wagner, Willy’s boss. There’s also Willy’s older brother Ben. Finally, we should add Ms. Francis – she’s Willy’s mistress.
Ok, on to the play. Let’s start, as it only makes sense, at the beginning.
Plot Summary: Act I
We start with Willy, who is in his 60s. He’s home in New York after trying to drive to New England. He failed to make it, though. As he talks with Linda, we quickly learn that Willy is struggling. He has trouble remembering things and sometimes slips back and forth between the present and memories. When he’s reliving memories, others notice him talking to himself.
Willy is also upset that Biff, his older son, hasn’t done more with his career. Later that night, Biff and Happy, the other son, are talking about their father’s mental decline. They also admit to being unhappy in their jobs. Both feel stuck. They talk about going out West and starting a ranch together.
We cut back to Willy, who is reliving old memories, including a time when his boys visited him in Boston. He also remembers a time when Charley, the neighbor, warned Willy that Biff was failing in math, unlike Charley’s son, Bernard. But Willy brushes this off, since Willy’s boys are more attractive than Bernard, which he says will help them succeed in life. ‘Be liked and you will never want’, he says.
We get a broad view of the Loman family through these memories, and it’s definitely a mix of good and bad. There is a memory of Linda catching Willy lying about how much commission he’s earned, and Willy has to admit he won’t have enough to cover their expenses. Willy then remembers a woman with whom he had an affair in Boston – that’s Ms. Francis. Willy then starts getting confused between the present and the memories, mixing up people and situations. In the present, Charley comes over to play cards, but Willy remembers talking with Ben, his brother. Ben went off and struck it rich, and Willy wishes he’d gone with him.
Plot Summary: Act II
Ok, it’s the next day, and Willy goes to his boss, Howard, to ask about working locally and not having to be on the road. Things go poorly, and Willy ends up getting fired. That’s not good. Meanwhile, Biff is off trying to get a new job, but he fails at that. Not only that, he steals a fountain pen, too. Then he bumps into Bernard, the neighbor’s son, who is totally successful. It’s not a good day for the Lomans.
Biff and Happy are then at dinner together. Biff is upset at the futility of his career. He says, ‘I realized what a ridiculous lie my whole life has been!’
Willy joins them, and it comes out that when Biff visited his father in Boston, he discovered his father’s affair. Biff went from idolizing his father to losing all respect for him and losing his own focus. But Willy hadn’t remembered this earlier. Willy’s memories are a bit of a jumble.
Back at home, Willy talks with his brother Ben about his plan to commit suicide by crashing his car. He thinks that he can get his family the insurance money if he’s dead. Unfortunately, he’s tried this before and the insurance company is probably on to him.
Biff shows up and argues with Willy, calling him out as ordinary. Not great. Not destined for greatness. Just ordinary. Likewise, he just wants his father to be okay with who he is and not keep expecting him to do something great. Biff says:
‘I am not a leader of men, Willy, and neither are you. You were never anything but a hard-working drummer who landed in the ash can like all the rest of them! I’m one dollar an hour, Willy. I tried seven states and couldn’t raise it. A buck an hour! Do you gather my meaning? I’m not bringing home any prizes any more, and you’re going to stop waiting for me to bring them home!’
Willy decides this is the time to go kill himself, which he does. There’s your title moment. The play ends at his grave.
So what’s it all about? For starters, the American Dream. In 1949, America was prospering, but Miller poked some holes in that impossible ideal. Willy has built his life on the idea that being well liked is enough to be successful. He lives in total denial. He builds lies on top of lies, whether it’s lying about his affair or lying about his job.
Eventually, the house of cards collapses on itself. Willy is realizing throughout the play that he’s living a fantasy, and not a very good one. He says, ‘Work a lifetime to pay off a house. You finally own it, and there’s nobody to live in it.’
That gets us to another big theme: materialism. This is, of course, closely tied in with the American Dream. It’s no coincidence that there’s a more successful brother, Ben, for Willy to compare himself to. Plus, there’s Charley and Bernard, the more successful neighbors. Willy wants to have a better life than his neighbor, and he wants his son to make more money than his neighbor’s son. But to what end?
Willy says, ‘After all the highways, and the trains, and the appointments, and the years, you end up worth more dead than alive.’ Yet even this isn’t right. Willy’s hopeless pursuit tears his family apart and leads him to an early death.
In summary, ‘Death of a Salesman,’ Arthur Miller’s classic 1949 play, is about much more than the death of a salesman. Willy Loman and his sons, Biff and Happy, are symbols of the American Dream unrealized. They’re deeply unhappy, pursuing something that just can’t be. They see success around them – in Ben and Bernard, for example – but when they try to advance – as when Biff seeks a new job – they fail.
Completing this lesson should enable you to summarize the plot, characters, and themes of Arthur Miller’s ‘Death of a Salesman.’