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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 

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 

 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 


 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 


 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.


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