Death of a Salesman: Summary

Miller's American Dream-Themed Tragedy

Death of a Salesman encompasses the last 24 hours in the life of 63-year-old failed salesman Willy Loman. Narratively speaking, not many events occur in that period of time. Rather, the play's primary focus is the relationship between the various characters. As author Arthur Miller said in a 1985 interview, “I wanted plenty of space in the play for people to confront each other with their feelings, rather than for people to advance the plot.” The play is comprised of two acts and a requiem, which serves as an epilogue. The setting is Brooklyn in the late 1940s.

Act I

During one of his business trips, salesman Willy Loman realizes that he is no longer able to drive his car. At home in Brooklyn, his wife Linda suggests that he ask his boss, Howard Wagner, for a job in New York City so that he doesn't have to travel. She is not fully aware of the extent of Willy's decline at work and the failure of his most recent trip.

Willy's two adult sons, Biff and Happy, are visiting after years spent apart. Linda and Willy discuss what became of their sons, as neither achieved a semblance of success, according to the standards of the time. Biff has a lackluster job doing manual labor in Texas. Happy has a more stable job, but is a womanizer and is dissatisfied because he cannot be promoted. Meanwhile, the two brothers talk about their father, with Happy telling Biff how he has been progressively unraveling in recent times; specifically, he has been caught talking to himself about past events. The brothers also discuss the possibility of going into business together.

In the kitchen, Willy starts talking to himself and reminiscing about happy memories. One concerns Biff, who, as a teen, is a promising football player and has been offered various university scholarships based on his athletic merits; by contrast, Bernard, the son of his neighbor and old friend Charley, is just a nerd. Willy is certain that his son will be successful because he is "well-liked," which in the Loman household is a more valuable trait than intelligence.

Another memory shows the beginning of Willy's struggles at work, as he talks to Linda about a past work trip, which he later admits to be less successful than he claimed. This memory blends with a conversation with his mistress, referred only as "the Woman."

Back in the present, Charley comes over to play cards and offers Willy a job, but he angrily declines. Then, another memory begins and Willy is unable to separate reality from fantasy. Willy imagines that his brother Ben has come into the kitchen and starts talking to him in front of Charley. Willy and Ben reminisce about their father and talk about his successful diamond mining business in Africa.

While Willy goes out for a walk, present-day Linda and the two brothers discuss Willy’s condition. Linda tells them about his declining health, incessant mumbling, and suicide attempts, but she attributes them to exhaustion instead of mental issues. The boys feel embarrassed about his state, but seem willing to help their father. When he comes back home, they inform him that Biff has a business idea and they discuss asking Bill Oliver, an old acquaintance, for financial backing.

Act II

The following morning, at breakfast, Linda and Willy discuss his planned request for a salaried position in New York and the certainty that the brothers will receive the money to open their business. However, after pleading to his boss, Willy ends up getting fired.

The next scene is another of Willy's memories, this time with Ben approaching a younger Willy as he prepares to leave for Alaska. Ben offers him a job, and though Willy wants to go, Linda talks him out of it highlighting his success and potential as a salesman.

After losing his job, Willy visits Charley in his office to ask for a loan. There he runs into Bernard, now a lawyer and expecting his second son. Willy asks how he managed to be successful while Biff's promising life was wasted. Bernard talks about Biff failing math and refusing to go to summer school after he went on a trip to Boston. Charley loans Willy the money and offers him a job, but he turns him down again.

Biff and Happy meet at a restaurant, where Happy flirts with a girl. Biff is upset because, after waiting for six hours to see Bill Oliver to ask him to finance their business idea, Oliver declined and didn't even remember him. When Willy arrives to meet them for dinner, he tells them that he was fired and Biff tries to tell him what happened with Oliver, but Willy goes off into another memory. This time, he sees young Bernard tell Linda that Biff failed math and got on a train to Boston to find his father. Willy then finds himself at the hotel in Boston with "the Woman" as someone knocks on the door. Willy tells her to go in the bathroom. Young Biff is at the door. He tells his father that he failed math and will not be able to graduate, and asks for his help. Then, the woman comes out of the bathroom. Biff calls his father a liar, phony, and fake. The encounter prompted Biff to give up on his “American Dream” career track, as he had completely lost faith in his father and in the values he had taught them.

Back in the restaurant, the brothers have left with two women. Willy is confused and asks the waiter for directions to a seed store. He then goes home to plant a garden. In another imaginary interaction, Willy discusses with Ben his plans to commit suicide so that his family can get his life insurance money and they can see how "well-liked" he was at his grand funeral.

Biff storms into the backyard to tell his father that he is leaving forever. They blame each other for their shortcomings and failures in life, but finally break down, crying, and Biff says that they are both just ordinary people and were never successful. Willy reads this as a demonstration of his son's love for him. He then gets in the car and drives away.

Requiem

This epilogue takes place at Willy Loman’s funeral, after his suicide. Of all of Willy’s acquaintances, only Charley and Bernard show up. Happy says he has decided to stay and fulfill his father's dreams, while Biff intends to leave Brooklyn forever. When Linda says her final goodbye to her husband, she expresses confusion as to why he decided to take his own life, especially the day they had finally finished paying the mortgage on their house.