'Death of a Salesman' Overview

Death of a Salesman, one of Arthur Miller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning plays, narrates the last 24 hours in the life of 63-year-old Willy Loman, a failed salesman who had a distorted idea of the American Dream and work ethic. The play also explores his relationship with his wife, his sons, and his acquaintances. 

Fast Facts: Death of a Salesman

  • Title: Death of a Salesman
  • Author: Arthur Miller
  • Year Published: 1949
  • Genre: Tragedy
  • Premiere Date: 2/10/1949, at the Morosco Theatre 
  • Original Language: English
  • Themes: The American dream, family relationships
  • Main Characters: Willy Loman, Biff Loman, Happy Loman, Linda Loman, Ben Loman
  • Notable Adaptations: 1984 at the Broadhurst Theater, with Dustin Hoffman playing Willy; 2012 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, with Philip Seymour Hoffman as Willy Loman.
  •  Fun Fact: Arthur Miller provided two alternate versions of a physical insult in the play: If Willy Loman is played by a small man (like Dustin Hoffman) he is called a "shrimp," but if the actor is large, Willy Loman is called a "walrus.”

Plot Summary 

Death of a Salesman is, at first glance, about the last day in the life of salesman Willy Loman, who, at 63, has failed at his career. While at home, he dissociates from reality, entering in time switches that explain why he turned out the way he did through interactions with his brother Ben and his mistress. He also constantly fights with his eldest son Biff, who, after dropping out of high school, has been getting by as a drifter and as an occasional thief. By contrast, his younger son, Happy, has a more traditional—albeit lackluster—career and is a womanizer. 

In the play’s climax, Biff and Willy fight and a resolution is reached when Biff explains how his father’s ideal of the American Dream has failed them both. Willy decides to commit suicide so that his family can collect his life insurance.

Major Characters

Willy Loman. The protagonist of the play, Willy is a 63-year-old salesman who had been demoted from salaried to a worker on commission. He failed at his American dream because he thought that being well liked and having good connections was a surefire way to success.

Biff Loman. Willy’s eldest son—and formerly his favorite son—, Biff is a former football star who was set to great things. Yet, after flunking math and dropping out of high school, he has been living as a drifter as he refuses to subscribe to the notion of American dream his father had taught him. He thinks his father is a phony.

Happy Loman. Willy’s younger son, Happy has a more traditional career path and can afford his own bachelor pad. Yet, he is a philanderer and quite a superficial character. He sometimes tries to win his parents’ favor in the play, but he is always ignored in favor of Biff’s drama.

Linda Loman. Willy’s wife, she appears meek at first, but she provides Willy with a solid foundation of love. She is the one who fiercely defends him in impassioned speeches whenever other characters belittle him.

The Woman in Boston. Willy’s former mistress, she shares his sense of humor and stokes his ego by emphasizing how she “picked him.”

Charley. Willy’s neighbor, he has been lending him $50 a week so he can keep up with his pretenses.

Ben. Willy’s brother, he became rich thanks to travels to Alaska and “the jungle.”

Major Themes

The American Dream. The American Dream is central in Death of a Salesman, and we see characters grapple with it from different perspectives: Willy Loman privileges being well liked over hard work, which makes him fall short of his own expectation; Biff rejects the traditional American career trajectory; Ben made his fortune by traveling far away.

Politics—or Lack Thereof. Even though Miller shows how the American dream turns individuals into commodities, whose sole worth is the money they make, his play does not have a radical agenda: Willy is not pitted against ruthless employers, and his failures are his own fault, rather than corporate-level injustices.

Family Relationships. The central conflict in the play is between Willy and his son Biff. As a father, he saw a lot of promise in the athletic and womanizing Biff. After he dropped out of high school, however, father and son had a fallout, and Biff explicitly rejects the notions of American dream imparted by his father. Happy is more in line with Willy’s way of life, but he is not the favorite child and is, overall, a lackluster character lacking any depth. The relationship between Willy, his father, and his brother Ben is explored as well. Willy’s father used to make and sell flutes, and for that purpose, he had his family travel all over the country. Ben, who made his fortune traveling, took after his father.

Literary Style

The language of Death of a Salesman, on a superficial read, is quite unmemorable, as it lacks "poetry" and "quotability." However, lines such as "He's liked, but he's not well liked," "Attention must be paid," and "Riding on a smile and a shoestring," have passed into the language as aphorisms. 

In order to explore Willy’s backstory, Miller resorts to a narrative device called time switch. Characters from both the present-day event and the past occupy the stage, and it represents Willy’s descent into insanity.

About the Author 

Arthur Miller wrote Death of a Salesman in 1947 and 1948 before its Broadway premiere in 1949. The play grew out of his life experiences, which included his father losing everything in the 1929 Stock Market crash. 

Death of a Salesman had its origins in a short story Miller wrote at the age of seventeen when he worked, briefly, for his father’s company. It told of an aging salesman who sells nothing, is abused by the buyers, and borrows his subway fare from the young narrator, only to throw himself under a subway train. Miller modeled Willy on his salesman uncle, Manny Newman, a man who was "a competitor, at all times, in all things, and at every moment. My brother and I he saw running neck and neck with his two sons in some race that never stopped in his mind," as he explained in his autobiography.

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Frey, Angelica. "'Death of a Salesman' Overview." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, thoughtco.com/death-of-a-salesman-overview-4588266. Frey, Angelica. (2020, August 28). 'Death of a Salesman' Overview. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/death-of-a-salesman-overview-4588266 Frey, Angelica. "'Death of a Salesman' Overview." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/death-of-a-salesman-overview-4588266 (accessed January 29, 2023).