Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. Viking P, 1949.
Summary of Work
Salesman Willy Loman comes back to his home after struggling to drive to Boston. He tells his wife Linda that he is just too distracted on the road and cannot go to Boston that evening, and that he will try again tomorrow. He inquires after his boys, who are visiting. Linda says they went out together and are now asleep in their old room. Linda asks him if he is hungry or would like to go to bed, but he says he will go downstairs himself and take care of it. He starts talking to himself downstairs, and it wakes his boys, Happy and Biff. Happy tells Biff it has been going on for a long time, and that it gets worse when Biff comes into town. Biff is worried his father is going crazy.
Willy’s neighbor Charley is also awoken, and comes over to play cards with him. Willy, however, is still talking to his dead brother Ben, who struck riches in Africa, so Charley leaves. When the boys come down and start making worried comments and say things against their father, Linda tells the boys that Willie has lost his salary and works solely on commission, and hasn’t been making any money, but actually borrowing it from Charley. Biff determines that evening that he will stick around in New York City even though he doesn’t want to (he’s a bum who goes from job to job out West), and he talks with Happy about meeting an old boss to invest in a sports company they have an idea for. Willie gets very excited, getting more delusions in his head about the grandiose things his eldest sone will do. When they finally get Willie up into bed, Linda tells her sons that their father has been trying to kill himself for some time now by crashing his car, and he has a rubber pipe in the cellar that he’s used to try and kill himself. Biff is so furious that he goes down to the cellar and gets the rubber pipe, putting it in his pocket.
The next morning the boys leave early, and Willie determines he will go to the office and demand a job in New York City rather than having to travel for work. And Linda tells Willie that the boys are planning on having him at a restaurant for a fancy dinner. Upon going into the office, he is made to listen to a dictation device recording that his boss, Howard, has used the night previously with his family. When he finally gets around to having the job change discussion with Howard, he fires him despite the over three decades Willie has spent with the company. This throws Willie into another fit of delusion, and he remembers back to the football game his son Biff played and all the colleges that were after him. He wanders over to Charley’s office and talks to Charley’s son Bernard about the past, asking why his son never made anything of himself. Bernard talks about Biff flunking math and not making it up in summer school, and asks him about what happened when Biff went to see him in Boston. This throws Willie into even deeper fits of delusion and he fights with Bernard, saying that nothing happened and he can’t help that his boy just rolled over and failed.
Bernard leaves when his father Charley comes in to talk with Willie. Charley tells him that his son is now leaving to go try a court case before the Supreme Court, and Willie is sick with jealousy. He asks Charley for another hundred or so dollars to make the insurance payments, and Charley asks him why he doesn’t just take the job he offered him for 50 a week. Willie gets mad and admits that he lost his job but he just can’t work for Charley. Charley angrily hands him the money, and as Willie is leaving, he admits to Charley that he’s the only friend he has. He meets his sons for dinner, and Biff tries and fails to tell his father that he didn’t get in to see Oliver and did not get the money. Upon several failed attempts, Biff leaves the restaurant in a fury. Happy, the whole time, has been courting two women and trying to sweep the family drama under the rug. Willie wanders into the interior of the restaurant toward the stairs, and Happy states that Willie isn’t his father, pays the check, and leaves with the women.
Willie goes into another flashback where he is in Boston with his mistress and Biff unexpectedly comes knocking at the door. He hides her in the bathroom and opens the door, talking with Biff about the failed math class. While he is talking with his son, his mistress comes out and Biff is horrified and will not do anything his dad says after that, calling him a phony and a fake. The waiter Stanley helps him out of the restaurant and gets him on his way home. When the boys return home, their mother is furious, stating that they should get out and never come back because they left their father in the restaurant. Biff goes out to his father, who is planting a garden in the middle of the night and talking to his dead brother Ben about killing himself to give his family the insurance money. Biff tells his father that he’s never been anyone and that no one in the family ever has; they’ve all lied about themselves and their goings on their entire lives. He explains that over the last few months he’s been in jail for stealing a suit, and he stole his way out of every single job he ever worked. He determines he will leave and never come back because it will be better for everyone involved, especially his Dad. He grabs his father and starts crying, and his father comes to realize that his son does love him, but Willie is unable to get rid of his delusions of grandeur about his son. With the reassurance that his son loves him and the thoughts that he will one day be a great man, Willie goes through with his suicide plan and crashes his car.
The family goes to his funeral, but no one else attends. Linda doesn’t understand why she can’t cry about her husband’s death. Biff feels like his father never knew who he really was, which is why he ended up killing himself. And Charley feels that he died the true death of a salesman.
Brief Note on Themes
This play goes a long way in exploring the heart of the American Dream and what its real value is, as well as what a failure to reach that dream does to people as they age. The structure of the play experiments with the idea of life as a series of memories, and what happens when there is no growth or improvement: people live in the past to live with themselves, and when it brings regrets, brings bitterness. In order for these people to live with themselves, they create mythologies or legends surrounding their family members and themselves; it is hard to know if Ben actually struck rich or if it is a story that Willie made up to feel better about his family. The whole of their family’s identity is based on performance, on presenting a likable image to the world with the idea that image alone will get you ahead. The American West is an escape for Biff, although Biff realizes that the dreams of making it big in the frontier are far flung.