74 pages 2 hours read

Arthur Miller

Death of a Salesman

Fiction | Play | Adult | Published in 1949

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Summary and Study Guide


Death of a Salesman is a play written by American playwright Arthur Miller and first performed on Broadway in 1949. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and a Tony Award for Best Play, it is considered by critics to be one of the greatest plays of the 20th century. The cynical play follows the final hours of a mentally unstable salesman at the end of his career who fails to attain the American Dream.

Plot Summary

Willy Loman, a 63-year-old traveling salesman, returns to his home in Brooklyn after another failed business trip. He has difficulty remembering things and distinguishing the past and present. His wife, Linda, suggests that he request a job in New York. They discuss their older son Biff’s failures as Willy heads to the kitchen. There, Willy talks to an imaginary Biff, criticizing his failures. Meanwhile, Biff and his younger brother Happy reminisce about their youth and fantasize about living in the country. Willy falls into a memory of young Biff and Happy washing his car and displaying affection. Willy says that he will own his own business, one bigger than that of their neighbor Charley whom Willy dislikes.

Charley’s son, Bernard, interrupts the Lomans to say that Biff will fail math if he doesn’t study. Willy points out that although Bernard is intelligent, he is not “well-liked”. Willy brags to Linda about how successful his business trip was until she cajoles him into admitting that it wasn’t. Willy complains about his inability to pay the bills and the fact that people don’t like him. When Linda reassures him, Willy hears the laughter of his past mistress and enters a daydream of “the Woman,” who flirts and thanks Willy for the stockings he gave her.

The scene shifts to Willy’s memory of Linda mending stockings. An irritated Willy demands that she stop. Bernard again looks for Biff, and Linda reminds Willy that Biff stole a football. The Woman laughs, and a frustrated Willy begins shouting. Willy returns to the present, mumbling about Biff’s thievery and expressing his regret for not taking his elder brother Ben’s offer to go to Alaska. Charley arrives to play cards with Willy. Willy converses with both Charley and an imaginary Ben simultaneously until a confused Ben leaves.

In another daydream, Ben shares stories of their father, who abandoned them when Willy was a baby. Back in the present, Linda finds Willy outside muttering. Biff and Happy discuss Willy’s mental state with Linda, who reveals that he has attempted suicide multiple times. Willy yells at Biff for his failures until Happy interjects with the proposal that he and Biff start a sporting goods business. Biff decides to ask his old employer, Bill Oliver, for a loan.

Act II opens on Willy and Linda discussing their hopes for Biff and their upcoming dinner. Willy heads to his office to request a job in New York. His employer, Howard, shows no interest and instead shows off his record player. Willy insists, slowly lowering his asking salary until Howard tells Willy that they have no openings. Given that he spent over 30 years at the firm, an angered Willy doesn’t understand. Howard tells Willy to have his sons support him. When Howard leaves, Willy reminisces about Ben’s offer to come to Alaska. Willy turns down his offer, stating that he can become successful as a businessman.

In the present, Willy arrives at Charley’s office. Unlike Biff, the grown-up Bernard is largely successful. Bernard remembers that after failing math, Biff visited Willy in Boston and returned bitter. A defensive Willy lashes out at Bernard before he leaves. Charley then gives Willy money and offers him a job. Offended, Willy rejects the offer but calls Charley his only friend.

At dinner, Biff tells Happy that Bill Oliver didn’t even remember him—Willy lied in telling Bill that Biff was a well-liked salesman, when he was only a clerk. Happy asks that Biff not tell Willy the truth. However, when Biff attempts to give Willy the news, he refuses to listen and an exasperated Biff explodes. Willy blames Biff’s failures on failing math. The voice of a phone operator and a knocking on a hotel door comes into focus. The Woman asks if Willy will open the door before he sends her into the bathroom. Willy opens the door to find Biff, who admits he failed math. The Woman then enters in her nightgown. Biff refuses to listen to Willy’s excuses and storms off.

Back in the present, Linda scolds the boys for abandoning Willy in the restaurant. Willy is in the garden consulting an imaginary Ben about suicide and the life insurance it will give his family. When Willy enters the house, Biff confronts him about his fabricated reality and how ordinary they are. As Biff sobs in his arms, Willy is touched and decides to commit suicide to impress his son with a big funeral. He speeds off in his car after everyone goes to bed. At the funeral, the Lomans are shocked at the lack of a crowd. Biff sadly admits that Willy never knew who he was, and Happy declares that he will fulfill Willy’s dreams. Linda doesn’t understand why Willy committed suicide, as they have finally paid off their home and are free of debt.