Death of a Salesman Summary

Arthur Miller

Death of a Salesman

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Death of a Salesman Summary

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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.