Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...©
complete title of the play is Death of a Salesman: Certain Private Conversations
in Two Acts and a Requiem. The first word of the title refers not only
to the death of the main character, Willy Loman, but also to the death
of his career and his hopes for a better life for himself and his family.
Requiem is the first word of a Latin funeral mass in Roman Catholic
ritual. The sentence in which the word occurs is Requiem aeternam dona
eis Domine, which means "Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord." Requiem
means rest. Requiem also refers to a song for the dead.
of a Salesman is a stage play in the form of a tragedy. It contains
two acts and a conclusion called a “Requiem.” Unlike the classic Greek
or Elizabethan tragedy, which focuses
on the downfall of a noble person (often a king or another person of high
social status), Death of a Salesman focuses on an ordinary person,
a common American salesman.The play won the Pulitzer Prize and a Tony award
after it debuted in New York City.
of Publication and Historical Background
of a Salesman was published in 1949. In that year, America was enjoying
an economic boom that initiated a significant trend: the absorption of
small businesses by large corporations that reduced the importance of the
individual worker and increased the importance of the company as a whole
and its bottom line. To an extent, Willy Loman must cope with this trend.
action takes place at Willy Loman’s house in the New York City area, as
well as other New York locales, and in a hotel room in Boston. Some of
the action takes place in flashbacks while Willy hallucinates.
In a broad sense, competitive America society, represented in part by Howard
Wagner; in a narrow sense, Willy's combative son Biff
Willy Loman: An aging
salesman haunted by a feeling that his life has been a failure. He hallucinates
about past events. These hallucinations center on his dreams for a better
tomorrow; on the future of his son, Biff, a star football player; and on
a woman with whom he had an affair while on a sales trip. During his hallucinations,
he sometimes talks to himself.
Linda: Willy’s loyal
wife. She accepts her role as a devoted and subservient housewife.
Biff Willy’s older
son, who has trouble holding a job and getting along with his father. After
he returns home from the West, his presence and his failure to get a job
Willy’s younger son, who has a steady job but is afraid to take risks to
Successful businessman who lives next door to Willy. Willy envies him because
he is a constant reminder of what Willy is not. Willy snidely says Charley
“is liked, but not well liked.” Nevertheless, Charley lends Willy money
and even offers him a job.
son. He is intelligent, hard-working, and successful–everything Biff Loman
Ben: Willy’s deceased
older brother, who appears only in Willy’s hallucinations. He struck it
rich at an early age in South African diamond mines. He symbolizes the
success that has eluded Willy.
Howard Wagner: The
son of Willy's former boss, Frank Wagner, whom Willy admired. Howard, who
is now Willy’s boss, represents a new breed of business executive, interested
more in advancing technology than people. He fires Willy because of his
inability to perform satisfactorily.
Stanley: A waiter
at a bar/restaurant where Willy meets his sons.
The Woman: An employee
of a Boston company who has an affair with Willy. She is one of the subjects
of his hallucinations.
Miss Forsythe and Letta:
Attractive young women whom Hap and Biff meet in the bar/restaurant
Jenny Charley's secretary
Michael J. Cummings...©
salesman Willy Loman arrives home later than expected one evening after
a car trip through New England. When his wife, Linda, greets him, he tells
her that he was delayed because his car kept swerving and he had to drive
is deeply concerned, for he has been in a series of accidents lately. She
thinks the accidents are suicide attempts, symptoms of a terrible realization
that begins to gnaw at him: failure as a husband, a father, a human being.
63, no longer receives a salary from his company, only commission. He lives
in a shabby house on which he still owes money. Bills for appliance repairs
are piling up. He frequently borrows money from his neighbor Charley, a
successful businessman, even though he doesn’t like Charley and sometimes
ridicules him. Willy’s son Biff is a 34-year-old ne’er-do-well who has
recently returned home from the West after failing to make his mark. His
other son, Hap, 32, has a steady job, his own apartment, and a way with
women. But he lacks the push and derring-do to rise above mediocrity. Nevertheless,
Hap has big ideas for business ventures that he and his brother can look
into now that they are together again.
high school, Biff was a star football player–the pride of the Loman household–earning
an athletic scholarship to the University of Virginia. But he lost it after
failing a high-school math test.
and irritable after his motor trip, Willy complains to Linda about repair
bills and about Biff. Nothing seems to work, he says, slamming a fist on
the kitchen table–not the refrigerator, not the car, not Biff. But although
Willy ridicules Biff one moment, calling him a lazy bum, he praises him
the next, saying he has what it takes to succeed in the business world.
upstairs, Hap–pleased that Biff has returned home–reminisces with his brother
about their high-school days and proposes plans for business ventures.
Biff, who has worked many jobs and says he once herded cattle, announces
he may try to get a job selling sporting goods for Bill Oliver, for whom
he worked years before in a local store.
again, Willy begins hallucinating. He sees himself in the back yard of
the Loman house, years ago, with his sons. Willy laughs when Biff tells
him that he stole a football from a locker room. It was all good fun; it
was what spirited young men do. The future is as bright as the sun that
shines down on them as they play catch and Willy tells Biff that he will
be a successful businessman someday, more successful than their neighbor,
Charley, who owns his own business and enjoys respect even though, as Willy
says, he is “liked, but not well liked.” Willy boasts about his own success:
On the road selling his products, he says, everybody recognizes and esteems
him; he has even met the mayor of Providence, Rhode Island.
the hallucination, Charley’s son, Bernard, comes by and reminds Willy that
Biff should be studying for his math test. Passing it will assure his entry
into the University of Virginia on a scholarship. Willy dismisses Bernard
as a pest; Willy’s son, a star athlete, cannot be bothered with such trivialities
as math. Being able to throw a football–being able to meet the mayor of
Providence–those are the things that count. Like his father, Willy says,
Bernard is “liked, but not well liked.”
also hallucinates from time to time throughout the play about his late
older brother Ben, who made a fortune in African diamond mines. Ben is
the man Willy has always wanted to be.
returns to reality momentarily, bemoaning his present state of affairs,
and Linda–ever a supporting pillar–comforts him, saying people esteem him
and his sons respect him. He then slips back into an illusion, seeing himself
in a Boston hotel room with a woman with whom he is having an affair. (These
lapses enable playwright Miller to reveal not only Willy’s disturbed state
of mind but also the secrets of his past.) He also sees Bernard again,
who warns Willy that Biff is breaking the law by driving without a license
and that he is jeopardizing his future by not studying for his math test.
The woman in the hotel room then speaks to Willy, and he again returns
to reality and shouts at Linda, this time defending Biff.
they hear their father ranting, Biff and Hap go downstairs. Willy and Biff
argue, make up, then argue some more. Linda does her best to pacify them.
Every time she interrupts the conversation to promote an armistice, Willy
scolds her. Eventually, everyone makes peace and goes to bed.
problems continue to worsen. After Linda pleads with him to ask his boss,
Howard Wagner, to station him in New York so he no longer has to go on
tiring road trips, Willy broaches the idea to Wagner, saying that he’s
too old to travel anymore and that he’s willing to accept a modest salary.
Wagner not only refuses to grant the request, but he also fires Willy.
Biff, who has agreed to ask Bill Oliver for a job, fails even to get an
interview with Oliver. In a bar where Biff, Hap, and Willy are to have
dinner, Biff first lies to his father about his latest failure, then admits
he did not see Bill Oliver. They argue. To pacify Willy, Biff says he has
an appointment with Oliver the next day.
and Hap then leave with women they met before Willy arrived–Miss Forsythe
and Letta. Willy goes to the restroom and hallucinates again about the
woman in the hotel room. Here is the scene he relives:
persistent knock at the door of the hotel room unnerves Willy, and he orders
the woman into the bathroom to hide. The door opens and Biff presents himself,
informing his dad that he has traveled all the way to Boston to tell him
that he failed math with a 61 and his teacher won’t give him the extra
four points needed to pass and to graduate. He begs his father to talk
to the teacher.
shifts back to the bar. When a waiter named Stanley calls out to Willy,
Willy awakens from his hallucination and comes out of the restroom assisted
by Stanley, who tells him that his sons have left with the two women. Willy
gives Stanley dollar, saying, “You’re a good boy.” Stanley refuses the
money, but Willy throws out more bills.
on,” Willy says. “We’ll drive right back.”
says the teacher doesn’t like him because one day Biff imitated him in
class by speaking with a lisp and crossing his eyes. They both laugh raucously.
Unfortunately for Willy, the woman in the bathroom laughs too, and she
comes out. Biff, shocked, begins to weep. Willy says, “She’s nothing to
me, Biff. I was lonely, I was terribly lonely.”
disappointed in his father, Biff calls him a liar and a fake.
don’t need it any more,” he says.
asks directions to a store that sells gardens seeds. After Stanley gives
directions to a hardware store, he stuffs the money in Willy’s coat pocket
after Willy turns around to leave.
Biff and Hap arrive home, Hap gives his mother flowers and tells her he
and Biff were out with two girls. She angrily knocks the flowers to the
floor and says, “Don’t you care whether he [Willy] lives or dies?”
then orders them out of the house.
don’t want you tormenting him any more,” she says.
Biff insists on seeing his father, now in the back yard planting seeds.
After going out to the garden, Biff tells Willy he is leaving never to
return. They go inside and Biff asks to shake his father’s hand. Willy
refuses and says, “May you rot in hell if you leave this house!” They argue
violently. However, still holding out hopes for Biff, Willy says, “The
door of your life is wide open!”
says, “Pop, I’m a dime a dozen, and so are you! . . . I am not a leader
of men, Willy, and neither are you.”
breaks down and hugs his father, and Willy says, “Isn’t that remarkable?
Biff–he loves me!” Linda and Hap both assure Willy that his observation
is true. Everyone goes to bed except Willy, who tells Linda he will come
upstairs in two minutes. Moments later, there is the sound of a car starting
up and driving off.
is a crash. Willy dies.
the funeral, Hap says Willy “did not die in vain. He had a good dream.
It’s the only dream you can have–to come out number-one man.” Linda says,
“Willy, I can’t cry. It seems to me that you’re just on another trip .
. . . I made the last payment on the house today. And there’ll be nobody
Loman, like so many other American men of the last century, is in conflict
with society, his family, and himself. In his struggle to compete in materialistic
America, he comes up short; society beats him down. In his effort to communicate
with his son Biff and mold him into a success, he fails. In a war with
his own inner self, he refuses to accept what he is–ordinary,
average, unremarkable. Ultimately, Willy's inner
and outer conflicts destroy him.
to Willy Loman's traffic accidents–possible
suicide attempts, his wife thinks–at the beginning
of the play foreshadow the ending and help to make it plausible.
climax occurs when Biff, who well knows his own and his father's
limitations, tells Willy,
“Pop, I’m a dime a dozen,
and so are you! . . . I am not a leader of men, Willy, and neither are
denouement, or conclusion, occurs when Willy drives off and crashes, apparently
committing suicide, and his wife says at his funeral, “Willy,
I can’t cry. It seems to me that you’re just on another trip . . . . I
made the last payment on the house today. And there’ll be nobody home.”
The Death of a Dream
play centers primarily on the inability of Willy Loman to fulfill his dream
of a more prosperous and rewarding life for himself and his family. Willy’s
failure as a breadwinner and father are due mostly to his own shortcomings,
but he is also a victim of the survival-of-the-fittest business philosophy
taking hold in America.
his career, Willy has been an average salesman at best. However, he has
always thought himself far above average. Consequently, he has always expected
more than he deserves. In addition, he has always expected Biff to become
a high achiever, as he was as a football player in high school.
Faulty Notion of Success
Loman believes the measure of a man is his ability to achieve material
success. In this respect, he lionizes his brother Ben, who became wealthy
by mining diamonds in Africa. Willy says, "The man knew what he wanted
and went out and got it! Walked into a jungle, and comes out, the age of
twenty-one, and he's rich!"
Pathological Desire for
Loman appears to have a pathological desire for public recognition and
the money and lifestyle that go with it. His abnormal desire to win esteem
and respect as a businessman so obsesses him that he loses his grip on
sanity and reality. The specific cause of his debility may be rooted in
attempts, at an early age, to keep up with his high-achieving brother,
Ben, and to adapt to an aggressive, fast-paced, materialistic society.
becomes desperate in his continuing effort to rise from mediocrity and
show the world that he is somebody. Though he is 63 and has little money,
he tells his wife, "Before it's all over we're gonna get a little place
out in the country, and I'll raise some vegetables, a couple of chickens."
Nurturing this dream, he later says to himself , "I've got to get some
seeds. I've got to get some seeds, right away. Nothing's planted. I don't
have a thing in the ground." After buying seeds at a store, Willy begins
to plant them in his back yard in a final, desperate attempt to do something
that succeeds--or, if he does in fact commit suicide--to leave behind his
mark on the world.
words on the ancient Greek temple at Delphi advised, "Know thyself." But
Willy continually fails to recognize his limitations. He does not know
himself. Consequently, he constantly overreaches himself and thus constantly
fails. Biff, on the other hand, eventually realizes "what a ridiculous
lie" his and Willy's life have been. Happy lacks this insight. After Willy
dies, he says, "I'm gonna show you and everybody else that Willy Loman
did not die in vain. He had a good dream. It's the only dream you can have--to
come out number-one man. He fought it out here, and this is where I'm gonna
win it for him." His attitude suggests that he will walk the same road
as his father and end up a failure.
and Significance of Names
Ben: In Scottish and
Irish, this is a word meaning mountain peak. Willy looks upon Ben as the
summit of success.
Biff: This name is
also an English noun meaning to hit or strike. Biff verbally strikes back
of wealth, success, and--because of their hardness--the durability of a
reputation earned by skill and hard work.
Garden, Seeds: Willy
speaks of buying a home in the country. There, he says, he will grow vegetables.
Later, after his fortunes continue to decline, he buys seeds and begins
planting them in the back yard of his present home. A garden--whether in
the city or in the coutry--symbolizes Willy's desire to lead a productive
life. The vegetables will be visible evidence that he can do something
Happy: This name
may be an ironic commentary on the future of Willy's younger son: He appears
to be following in his father's footsteps and thus seems destined for unhappiness
Jungle: Ben entered
a jungle to mine diamonds. The jungle symbolizes the competitive, often-heartless
Loman: This surname
obviously represents the low social status of Willy and his family, as
well as the state of Willy's mental health.
Questions and Essay Topics
When Willy arrives home at the
beginning of the play, he complains that nothing
around him at his household seems to work–not the refrigerator, not the
car, not Biff. What irony do you see in Willy's observation?
What is the cause of the conflict
between Willy Loman and his son Biff?
so many Americans today overemphasize the importance of material success?
parents "push" their children to succeed, as Willy pushes Biff?
society promise more success than it offers?
you think Willy's wife wants out of her marriage and life in general?
the life of Arthur Miller. Then write an essay explaining how his own experiences
helped shape the subject matter of Death of a Salesman.
Miller's attitude toward the main character? Does his play ridicule Willy?
Is it sympathetic toward him? Or does Miller remain essentially neutral
a psychological profile of Willy Loman. Take into account the statements
he makes and the hallucinations he experiences. Support your observations
with research gleaned from reliable sources.
a hallucination? What causes them?