Death of a Salesman Summary and Analysis: Arthur Miller

Read our detailed notes on the play Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller. Our notes cover Death of a Salesman summary and analysis.

Death of a Salesman Introduction:

Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, is written in 1949, is a modern tragedy and is considered both the masterpiece of the playwright and foundation of modern American drama. The play is awarded various honors and awards that also includes the Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. Initially the play was titled as The inside of His Head, however, later he appears dissatisfied with the title and conferred the second title of the play i.e., Death of a Salesman. We, from the 1st title, get a deep intuition into the psychosomatic temperament of the central character who is a salesman.

In Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller reconnoiters subjects of money, death and the loss of individuality. Other than the American Dream, Willy Loman desires nothing. He craves his brother’s prosperity and endeavors for a flawless life, nonetheless, he frequently is unsuccessful to accomplish his dreams. He, as a salesman, is subject to the impulses of the flea market and thinks that it is this job that can only rise him in the world of business. But, due to a miserable financial status, he couldn’t secure a loan for his son to start his own business. And in the end, Willy commits suicide, realizing his so little accomplishments in his life.

Death of a Salesman Summary:

Willy Loman, after having set out on a sales trip to Portland, Maine that morning, returns to his Brooklyn home very late at night since he continually drove his car off the side of the road. Willy, who is now sixty-three years old, has been working as a traveling salesman for more than thirty years. Recently, his sales rate has declined as his old costumes are either dying or retiring. Moreover, the company has taken away his salary so that he works on a straight commission. On his return to home, Linda, Willy wife, ease him and motivates him to ask the master of the company, Howard Wagner, for a place in in the New York office where he his salary will be guaranteed without traveling.

Biff and Happy, Willy’s two sons, upstairs in their bedroom recalls their past happier times of their adolescents and compares it with their disappointing lives of today. Biff, now thirty-four years of age, has held four different jobs since graduating from his high school. He senses that he’s not moving ahead toward anything at all. At a high school, he was among the best football player but couldn’t get a college scholarship since he failed the mathematics test and declined to earn money for his summer school to graduate. After working on a farm in Texas, Biff has just returned home and Willy, that morning, begins criticizing for his failures to earn money and to find a prestigious profession. Happy, the younger son of Willy, works as a low-level sales position in New York City, employing most of his time seducing women. Biff and Happy, as they talk, resolve that they can be effective, successful, and happier if they initiate a business of their own, together.

Meanwhile, Willy sits downstairs in the kitchen and talks to himself loudly, recalling happy moments from past: their family car cleaned by Biff and Happy, Biff’s preparation for his important football game, willy’s joyfully working on projects around his own home, his afternoon with a woman in a hotel room on trips to Boston. Ultimately, Charley, Willy’s neighbor, enters from the next door. While playing play cards and talking to Charley, Willy imagines himself talking to his elder brother, Ben. Ben once invited Willy to Alaska and ask him to join him in order to make his fortune. Willy moves outside the kitchen, after Charley leaves home, and is still caught up in his imagined conversation with his elder brother. Meanwhile, Linda comes downstairs and speaks to Biff and Happy that she dreads that Willy is planning to kill himself as she had found a piece of rubber hose that was connected to a gas pipe in the basement. The conversation turns to dreams when Willy returns home: of Biff becoming a successful entrepreneur and a salesman that Willy has of him. Willy advises Biff, upon which the whole family agrees, to see Bill Oliver, one of his former bosses, and request for a mortgage so that he can start his own sporting goods business.

The next very morning, Willy visits his boss, Wagner, to requests for a place in the New York office. However, despite getting a new place, Wagner fires him from the job. Leaving Wagner’s office, Willy directs his way to Charley’s office to request for a mortgage to pay off his bills where he meets Bernard, Charley’s son. Bernard was a boyhood friend or Biff and Happy, now a successful lawyer dealing with cases before Supreme Court. Willy, being amazed, inquiries that how he was able to succeed since Biff and Happy failed, however, Bernard asks Willy why Biff never went to school to graduate, after doing badly in a mathematics course for a scholarship.

Happy arranges a dinner in a local restaurant so as to celebrate the successful meeting of biff with Mr. Oliver, however, when Biff reaches he informs that his owner didn’t recognize him, and Biff, as a reaction, angrily stole Mr. Oliver’s fountain pen. Biff lies to his parents about his meeting (that it was a successful one) when hears about his father’s news that he is fired so as to console them. At the restaurant, happy arranges two women to join them. When Willy excuses for the washroom, Biff and Happy abandon their father and leave the restaurant with their father. While in the washroom, Willy recalls the time when Biff failed his Mathematics test and comes to Boston on a surprise visit and discover him with another woman in a hotel room. It was because of this incident that Biff refused to join summer school and to graduate from high school.

Willy, after leaving the restaurant, resolves on the way to the home that the only way to provide the best livings is that he commits suicide. By doing so, the twenty thousand dollars for his life insurance settlement would come to his family. When Biff and Happy return from their date with the women, they encounter Linda’s scolding for abandoning their father at the restaurant. In return, Biff angrily accused his father and brother of not taking life seriously and claims that he, now finally, knows himself and will work at the farm with his own hands, that gives him more satisfaction than any other job could. Biff confronts everything and cries at his father’s shoulders. Willy, moved by Biff’s affectations, leaves home and drives the car to commit suicide and ultimately died.  Linda, in the last scene, in the graveyard, talks ironically to Willy that he killed himself in the same way when they ended disbursing for their house.

Death of a Salesman Character Analysis:

Willy Loman

He is a sixty-three-year-old traveling salesman. Willy has started dwelling on past unknown of the present condition. His past life frequently flashes back before his eyes in the last two days of his life. He has two sons, Biff and happy, who he wants to have a cherished lifestyle and worldly success, though he is unable to help to achieve it. At last, he commits suicide, the last gesture for his family, so that they can have a lavish lifestyle by the insurance money.

Biff Loman

He is the elder son of Willy Loman. Biff, thirty-three-year-old, is still in search of himself. The best football player at school, couldn’t get anywhere for further studies. When his owner refused to give a loan, frustrated, he steals his owner’s cheap fountain pen. Though he loves his father, however, because of his defeated state curses him as a fool and a dreamer.

Happy Loman

He is Willy Loman’s younger son, who is somehow successful in his life, he works as a clerk in a store. He is a womanizer, who chases a woman to seek pleasure.

Charley

He is a friend and a neighbor of Willy Loman. He provides money to Willy and also suggests him a job.

Bernard

He, son of Charley, is a successful lawyer who argues cases before the Supreme Court. His success is an indictment for Biff and Happy.

Linda Loman

She is Willy’s wife. She is fearful, however, patient woman. Despite Willy’s failures, she loves him very much and consoles him in his hard times.

Howard Wagner

He is the son of Willy’s boss at the company. He fired him from the company and let him know that he is no more able to work as a salesman

Uncle Ben

He is a brother of Willy. He is a rich man whose success is an accusation to Willy. He once goes into the jungle and comes out, after a few years, from the diamond mines, a rich man.

The woman

The unnamed character in the play with whom Biff caught his father in a hotel room and due to this discovery he refuses to join the summer school for further studies.

Death of a Salesman Themes:

Failure of the American Dream

One of the most important themes of the play Death of a Salesman is the failure of the American dream. The American dream symbolizes a promise and commitment of opportunity and freedom for all. Those who follow the American dream believed that the only way to accomplish a dream is hard work and those who work hard are only qualified to be the follower of the American dream.

The followers of American dream believe in a happy and prosperous life; moreover, they also believe that those who are born Americans naturally acquires a happy and prosperous life. Moloch, money, and materialism have become the famous song of the followers of American dreams. They believed that, in a material world, one is always destined to have a prosperous and successful life. Failure is no option for the one born in America and if a failure occurs, suicide is much better than that failure.

Willy Loman is also facing this kind of creed behind the American dream in his life. Willy had a natural capability in the field of carpentry, but the craze of earning more money and a bright future made him choose the field of business with an occupation of a salesman. He spent the mature and productive period of his life doing hard work in hopes of having a comfortable and settled life in a later part of life. Opposing this expectancy, he was downgraded and terminated. He, financially ruined, had to lend money from his friend to pay off his bills. Furthermore, his son Biff, from whom Willy had great expectations, has ruined his life by not joining the school. Biff, another follower of American dreams, didn’t know how to start his career from the bottom and also wants to start from the top. Biff was not settled in his life, even in the age of Thirty-four, he was moving from one job to another. It was wearisome for Willy to see the unsettled life of both of his son. Failure of his son was equally burdened for him as his own failure. Crumpled by absolute defeat and great desperateness Willy planned suicide. When his miserable itch overwhelmed him, he committed suicide.

Fake existence

Willy Loman turned out to be an obsessive believer of the deity of success. Success, to him, was life, and life is all about success. He was ambitious to make his dream for successive life a reality. He not only became ambitious is striving towards success but also made his son ambitious, too. There was no limit in his struggle to achieve his dreams as they were natural, however, the consequences of all the struggle that he made turned out to be humiliating. Willy, throughout his life, encourages his son to realize the principles of the American dreams, but Biff turned out to be immature and reckless boy who couldn’t proper in getting a settled life and a salaried job and turned out to be a briber; Happy carried dishonor by seducing the women in his store whom he had no concern at all. Willy was penniless when fired from the job, and borrowed from his friend Charley, in order to give an impression to his wife, Linda, that he is earning money.  Willy was living a fanciful, fake life that was filled with illusions. He was full of arrogance, egocentric and unreasonably over-assertive. It was because of these flaws that he was unable to accept and face the reality. Sightless to his genuine dilemma he instigated to hide in the sanctuary of illusion. Despite his total failure, he wasn’t accepting his failure. It was more insulting and painful for him to accept his failure. It was due to this reason, he stopped talking to his friends and avoided people around. He would use to lie to others and was just making himself a fool by a false vision of his popularity.

Nature versus City

The comparison between nature and city is shown through Willy’s love for music. He is a great admirer of natures. When Willy’s self goes close to his nature, the music plays in a loud tune. This melody is a representation of Willy’s sentimental yearning for instinctive rusticity that has exemplified in the affiliation between music and Willy. It appears that Willy is certainly prone to adore and appreciate nature. When we traced the family background of Willy Loman, we see that Willy father was a wanderer, a musician, a maker of flute and a pioneer. Similarly, his brother Ben was also an adventurer. Willy’s son has strong athletic skills. Thus all of them were wonderful in outdoor skills. However, Willy’s monetary anxieties locked in on him, overwhelming him with the need to produce money.

Morality versus Immortality

The dramatist Arthur Miller has said that besides hunger and thrust, to leave a thumbprint after death is also another strong need of humans. Every human, consciously or unconsciously, has a strong desire to be remembered after his death. Physically man is mortal, however, through his deed, he can make himself immortal. In the play, Willy is a symbol of failure. He is accused, mocked, and humiliated by many. He is considered petty and useless. It was because of this, he planned suicide and the insurance money of twenty thousand dollars will be given to the family which will settle their lives. Willy, by committing suicide made himself immortal.

Death of a Salesman Analysis:

The play Death of a Salesman is also subtitled as “Certain Private Conversations in Two Acts and a Requiem”. According to the subtitle, the play is divided into two acts and each act is further divided into conversations- the present conversation and the conversation from the past- that are intermingled. The play covers an evening and the day following, however, the action is intermittent with past memories and flashbacks, mostly 17 years back.

The play The Death of a Salesman is a modern tragedy that depicts the last days of the life of Willy Loman, a traveling salesman. The play is both emotionally and psychologically realistic when the action occurs in the present; however, when the action occurs in past, the drama appears more dreamlike. For instance, only Willy can see the scenes when his sons Biff and Happy are in high school. Moreover, to inculcate Willy’s elder brother Ben, a rich man whom Willy consulted for advice when things were not functioning well in his life, a flashback system is also used.

The plot of the play is complex not only because it chains past and present events but also as it propagates out of a period of deceits, lies, and reputation. The tragic hero, Willy, is unable to uphold his energetic life on the path as a traveling salesman and is looking for a stable job in New York City. On request for this job, he is fired by his boss, Howard Wagner, the son of the man who hired him in the first place. Furthermore, he is burdened by his Thirty-four-year-old son Biff, who has recently returned from the farms in Texas in hopes of finding a salaried job in New York.

Biff and Happy have moved back to their parent’s house lamenting of their failures and their loss of innocence. Their boyhood friend’s Bernard, success has become accusation for both of them. Only Bernard has realized his dreams. Both brothers, consequently, blame Willy for not directing them well, though their resentment is yet oppressed with respect and affection.

Linda, during the quarrel, discloses before her sons that their father has been attempting to suicide by different means that is he has attempted suicide in a car with series of accidents and also with a hose that is fastened to a gas pipe. Upon hearing this, Biff decides to modify his life for his father. Act 1 of the play closes with the acquainted renunciation of long-standing abrasions and Biff’s promise to create a professional deal in New York.

The act two opens with Biff, Happy and Willy’s meeting at a restaurant. Willy, after being fired from the job, hopes to listen to good news regarding his meeting with his former boss, however, Biff reveals him the scene of the stolen fountain pen. Shocked, Willy departures to the restroom, where he recalls the crucial and critical moment of his and Biff’s life, i.e., the time when Biff discovers his father with another woman in a hotel room, after coming back from failing math course. Biff, crumpled by his dad’s unfaithfulness with his mother, snubbed to go to summer school and to graduate from high school. This incident was the beginning of the series of trivial tragedies and insignificant robberies that have tumble-down his life.

The family, after meeting in the restaurant, reunite at home. In this gathering, they have the final short-tempered confrontation. Both Willy and Biff accuses each other: Biff accuses his father of not taking his life seriously and calls him the cause of his failures while Willy accuses Biff of spoiling his life without any reason. Linda, a patient lady, and a peacemaker try to calm them down, however, is shouted down. Biff throws a hose before Willy and asks him whether committing suicide will make a hero out of him or something else. Willy starts weeping and both of them reconciled crying on each other’s shoulders. When the rest of the family goes to sleep. Willy accelerates his car for suicide in hope that the insurance money will provide Biff to initiate his own business and a new life that he greatly needs.