Death of a Salesman
Short Plot In the beginning of the play, the main character, Willy Lowman, has just returned home after finding himself unable to concentrate on driving. His wife, Linda, suggests that he ask for a job in New York so that he won't have to drive so much. Willy insists, however, that it is vital to his company that he work in New England. Willy asks Linda about his son, Biff, who has just come home after being away for several years. He can't understand why Biff is unable to get a good job. Soon Willy begins thinking about when Biff was a senior in high school. He remembers how Biff was the star of the football team and how he was offered scholarships from several colleges. After Willy's daydream ends, Charley comes in to play cards with him. While they are playing cards Charley offers Willy a job, but Willy refuses. As they are talking, Willy's brother, Ben, appears to him in an illusion. Willy tries to talk to both of them at once and Charley can't understand. Willy and Charley get into an argument and Charley leaves. Willy then turns his attention to Ben and asks him how he became so successful. Ben tells Willy that he went into the jungle when he was seventeen and when he came out at twenty-one he was rich. After Biff overhears Willy talking to himself, he asks Linda what's wrong with him. Linda explains that Willy is exhausted and has even tried to kill himself. When Willy enters the scene, Happy tries to cheer him up by announcing that he and Biff are going to start their own sporting goods company. He tells Willy that Biff is going to see Bill Oliver in the morning and ask for a loan. Willy is optimistic and reminds Biff that the most important things in life are to be well-liked and to have personal attractiveness. The next day Willy decides to ask his boss, Howard, if he can have a job in New York. Howard explains that there is no room for him in New York, and then tells Willy that he no longer wants him to represent the company. Now that Willy has no job, he must ask Charley for the money to pay his insurance premium. When Charley finds out that Willy has been fired, he offers him a good job in New York, but Willy refuses. Charley gives Willy the money and then Willy leaves to meet Biff and Happy at a restaurant. When Willy arrives at the restaurant, Biff tries to explain to him that he has been living an illusion and will never amount to anything extraordinary. Willy refuses to listen to him and pretends that Biff has another appointment for the next day. When Biff tries to make Willy face the truth, Willy becomes furious and goes off to the bathroom. Biff and Happy then leave the restaurant. While Willy is in the bathroom, he goes into another illusion. He finds himself in a hotel room with a woman. She is telling him how much she loves his sense of humor. Then knocking is heard at the door, and at first Willy refuses to answer it. As the knocking continues, Willy tells the woman to wait in the bathroom. He opens the door and finds Biff there. Biff tells Willy that he has flunked math and asks that Willy talk to his math teacher about it. Biff explains that his teacher doesn't like him because he once caught Biff imitating him in class. Biff shows Willy the imitation and they both start laughing. The woman hears them laughing and comes out of the bathroom. Willy hurries her out of the room, but not before the woman demands the stockings that Willy promised her. Willy tries to explain the situation, but Biff won't listen. He accuses Willy of giving away Linda's stockings and calls him a liar and a fake. Willy is then brought out of his illusion by the waiter at the restaurant. Willy asks if there is a seed store in the neighborhood and then leaves. Later that night Biff and Happy come home and find Willy planting seeds in the back yard. Biff tells Willy that it would be best if they didn't see each other again. He tries to explain that he is only a common man and will never live up to Willy's expectations, but Willy refuses to listen. Willy decided that he will commit suicide because he believes that with the 20,000 dollars of life insurance money Biff will finally be able to make something of himself. At his funeral, we see that Willy died a forgotten man because no one except his family came. Character Analysis Willy Lowman The main conflict in Death of a Salesman deals with the confusion and frustration of Willy Lowman. These feelings are caused by his inability to face the realities of modern society. Willy's most prominent delusion is that success is dependant upon being well-liked and having personal attractiveness. Willy builds his entire life around this idea and teaches it to his children. When Willy was young, he had met a man named Dave Singleman who was so well-liked that he was able to make a living simply by staying in his hotel room and telephoning buyers. When Dave Singleman died, buyers and salesmen from all over the country came to his funeral. This is what Willy has been trying to emulate his entire life. Willy's need to feel well-liked is so strong that he often makes up lies about his popularity and success. At times, Willy even believes these lies himself. At one point in the play, Willy tells his family of how well-liked he is in all of his towns and how vital he is to New England. Later, however, he tells Linda that no one remembers him and that the people laugh at him behind his back. As this demonstrates, Willy's need to feel well-liked also causes him to become intensely paranoid. When his son, Biff, for example, is trying to explain why he cannot become successful, Willy believes that Biff is just trying to spite him. Unfortunately, Willy never realizes that his values are flawed. As Biff points out at the end of the play, "he had the wrong dreams." Biff Lowman In many ways Biff is similar to his father. In the beginning of the play we see that Biff shares many of the same ideas as Willy. He values being well-liked above everything else and sees little value in being smart or honest. One of Biff's main flaws is his tendency to steal. Early in the play we learn that he has stolen a football from the school locker. When Willy finds out about this, instead of disciplining Biff, he says that the coach will probably congratulate him on his initiative. We also learn that Biff once stole a box of basketballs from Bill Oliver. This foreshadows the scene in which Biff steals Bill Oliver's fountain pen after trying to get a loan for his sporting goods business. The climactic scene in Biff's life comes when he finds a woman in Willy's hotel room. This causes Biff to realize that Willy is a fake. Biff's tragedy is that he has accepted Willy's values all his life, and now that he finds out they are false, he has no values of his own to rely upon. Thus, Biff becomes lost and must set out to find his own values. Once Biff begins to develop his own beliefs, his opinions about his father change. Instead of viewing his father as a fake, Biff comes to realize that his father had some good qualities, but was simply misguided by inadequate values. Happy Lowman Happy is the younger of the two Lowman brothers and thus is often overshadowed by Biff. Because of this, Happy is constantly trying to get attention from Willy. In one of the flashbacks Happy continually says, "I'm losing weight, you notice, Pop?" This is an attempt by Happy to get recognition from Willy. When in the present, Happy tries to get recognition by announcing that he is getting married. In both instances, however, Happy's remarks are dismissed as unimportant. Thus it is no surprise when Happy leaves Willy alone in the restaurant. It is merely in retaliation for his own rejection. Another characteristic of Happy is his refusal to recognize reality. When Biff, Happy, and Willy are in the restaurant, Happy tries to prevent Willy from learning that Biff did not get the loan. While Biff is trying to explain that he never actually worked as a salesman for Oliver, Happy is continually reassuring Willy that the interview went well. Another example occurs at the end of the play when Happy insists that Willy "did not die in vain. He had a good dream." Themes/Purpose/Ideas The main theme in Death of a Salesman is illusion versus reality. Willy has lived his entire life in a world of illusions. These illusions include Willy's belief that being well-liked is the key to success, as well as the literal illusions that Willy has of his past. Originally, Biff shared Willy's illusions of success and greatness, but by the end of the play he has become completely disillusioned. Once Biff comes to fully understand his place in life, he says to Willy, "I'm a dime a dozen, and so are you." Willy, however, has lived too long in his dreams and cannot understand what Biff is trying to say. If Willy had to face reality, he would then be forced to examine the affair he had in Boston, his philosophy, and all of his illusions. Instead, he prefers to live in the past. And now Biff, who is trying to confront the truth about himself, finds that he is completely unable to commuicate with his father. Another theme of Death of a Salesman is the old order of agrarian pride and nobility versus the new order of industrialization. In the beginning of the play, Willy foreshadows this theme by criticizing the changes brought about by industrialization. "The street is lined with cars. There's not a breath of fresh air in the neighborhood." It is this conflict between the old and new orders that brings about Willy's downfall. Willy's father, a pioneer inventor, represents the traditional values and way of life that Willy was brought up on. So does Dave Singleman, the eigthy-four year old salesman that inspired Willy to go into the sales industry. Howard, the young boss of Willy's company, represents the impersonal and ruthless nature of capitalistic enterprise. When Willy goes in to ask Howard if he can be transferred to a job in New York, Howard refuses to help him even though Willy has been working for the company for several decades and was good friends with his father. When Willy asks why he cannot be reassigned, Howard replies, "Sit's a business, kid, and everybody's gotta pull his own weight," thus demonstrating Howard's cold indifference to Willy's situation. Style In Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller uses a very realistic style of speech. Because the story is carried almost completely by the dialog, this is vital to the play's success. Miller also uses repetition of significant phrases throughout the play. Phrases such as "He is not just liked, but well-liked" and "Isn't that a remarkable thing" acquire greater meaning over the course of the play. One example of this is how the phrase "Isn't that a remarkable thing" comes to signify Willy's occasional disillusionment. The first time we hear this phrase is when Willy says that he can't roll down the windshield on his car and Linda reminds him that he said he rolled it down on his trip to Boston. The phrase doesn't really acquire significance, however, until the scene in which Willy borrows money from Charley. Willy has always thought of Charley as representing the worst qualities in humanity. He is neither well-liked nor personally attractive. For this reason, Willy has never considered Charley to be his friend. After Willy is fired, however, he discovers that the only person he can borrow money from is Charley. Thus he comes to realize that Charley is his only friend, and he says "Isn't that remarkable." Willy also uses the phrase near the end of the play after Biff has broken down and cried while trying to explain his life. Willy has always though that Biff was destroying his own life just to spite him, but now he realizes that Biff actually loves him. Another technique used by Miller is changing the tone of the play when switching to different time periods. In the present, the tone is generally serious and dark. When it changes to the past, however, the tone becomes brighter and more optimistic. This change in tone represents Willy's desire to return to the time before he became enemies with Biff.