The play begins on a Monday evening at the Loman family home in Brooklyn. After some light changes on stage and ambient flute music (the first instance of a motif connected to Willy Lomans faint memory of his father, who was once a flute-maker and salesman), Willy, a sixty-three-year-old traveling salesman, returns home early from a trip, apparently exhausted. His wife, Linda, gets out of bed to greet him. She asks if he had an automobile accident, since he once drove off a bridge into a river. Irritated, he replies that nothing happened. Willy explains that he kept falling into a trance while drivinghe reveals later that he almost hit a boy. Linda urges him to ask his employer, Howard Wagner, for a non-traveling job in New York City. Willys two adult sons, Biff and Happy, are visiting. Before he left that morning, Willy criticized Biff for working at manual labor on farms and horse ranches in the West. The argument that ensued was left unresolved. Willy says that his thirty-four-year-old son is a lazy bum. Shortly thereafter, he declares that Biff is anything but lazy. Willys habit of contradicting himself becomes quickly apparent in his conversation with Linda.
Willys loud rambling wakes his sons. They speculate that he had another accident. Linda returns to bed while Willy goes to the kitchen to get something to eat. Happy and Biff reminisce about the good old days when they were young. Although Happy, thirty-two, is younger than Biff, he is more confident and more successful. Biff seems worn, apprehensive, and confused. Happy is worried about Willys habit of talking to himself. Most of the time, Happy observes, Willy talks to the absent Biff about his disappointment in Biffs unsteadiness. Biff hopped from job to job after high school and is concerned that he has waste[d] his life. He is disappointed in himself and in the disparity between his life and the notions of value and success with which Willy indoctrinated him as a boy. Happy has a steady job in New York, but the rat race does not satisfy him. He and Biff fantasize briefly about going out west together. However, Happy still longs to become an important executive. He sleeps with the girlfriends and fiances of his superiors and often takes bribes in an attempt to climb the corporate ladder from his position as an assistant to the assistant buyer in a department store.
Biff plans to ask Bill Oliver, an old employer, for a loan to buy a ranch. He remembers that Oliver thought highly of him and offered to help him anytime. He wonders if Oliver still thinks that he stole a carton of basketballs while he was working at his store. Happy encourages his brother, commenting that Biff is well likeda sure predictor of success in the Loman household. The boys are disgusted to hear Willy talking to himself downstairs. They try to go to sleep.
It is important to note that much of the plays action takes place in Willys home. In the past, the Brooklyn neighborhood in which the Lomans live was nicely removed from the bustle of New York City. There was space within the neighborhood for expansion and for a garden. When Willy and Linda purchased it, it represented the ultimate expression of Willys hopes for the future. Now, however, the house is hemmed in by apartment buildings on all sides, and sunlight barely reaches their yard. Their abode has come to represent the reduction of Willys hopes, even though, ironically, his mortgage payments are almost complete. Just as the house is besieged by apartment buildings, Willys ego is besieged by doubts and mounting evidence that he will never experience the fame and fortune promised by the American Dream.
Willys reality profoundly conflicts with his hopes. Throughout his life, he has constructed elaborate fantasies to deny the mounting evidence of his failure to fulfill his desires and expectations. By the time the play opens, Willy suffers from crippling self-delusion. His consciousness is so fractured that he cannot even maintain a consistent fantasy. In one moment, he calls Biff a lazy bum. In the next, he says that Biff is anything but lazy. His later assessment of the family car is similarly contradictoryone moment he calls it a piece of trash, the next the finest car ever built. Labeling Biff a lazy bum allows Willy to deflect Lindas criticism of his harangue against Biffs lack of material success, ambition, and focus. Denying Biffs laziness enables Willy to hold onto the hope that Biff will someday, in some capacity, fulfill his expectations of him. Willy changes his interpretation of reality according to his psychological needs at the moment. He is likewise able to reimagine decisive moments in his past in his later daydreams. Ironically, he asks Linda angrily why he is always being contradicted, when it is usually he who contradicts himself from moment to moment.
The opening pages of the play introduce the strangely affected and stilted tone of the dialogue, which transcends the1950sidiom of nonspecific pet names (an ungendered pal or kid for adult and child alike) and dated metaphors, vocabulary, and slang. Some critics cite the driving, emphatic, repetitive diction (Maybe its your glasses. You never went for your new glasses; Im the New England man. Im vital in New England) and persistent vexed questioning (Why do you get American when I like Swiss? How can they whip cheese?) as a particularly Jewish-American idiom, but the stylization of the speech serves a much more immediate end than stereotype or bigotry. Miller intended the singsong melodies of his often miserable and conflicted characters to parallel the complex struggle of a family with a skewed version of the American Dream trying to support itself. The dialogues crooked, blunt lyricism of stuttering diction occasionally rises even to the level of the grotesque and inarticulate, as do the characters themselves. Miller himself claims in his autobiography that the characters inDeath of a Salesmanspeak in a stylized manner to lift the experience into emergency speech of an unabashedly open kind rather than to proceed by the crabbed dramatic hints and pretexts of the natural.
Willy is lost in his memories. Suddenly, the memories of his sons childhood come alive. Young Biff and Happy wash and wax their fathers car after he has just returned from a sales trip. Biff informs Willy that he borrowed a football from the locker room to practice. Willy laughs knowingly. Happy tries to get his fathers attention, but Willys preference for Biff is obvious. Willy whispers that he will soon open a bigger business than his successful neighbor Uncle Charley because Charley is not as well liked as he is. Charleys son, Bernard, arrives to beg Biff to study math with him. Biff is close to failing math, which would prevent him from graduating. Willy orders Biff to study. Biff distracts him by showing him that he printed the insignia of the University of Virginia on his sneakers, impressing Willy. Bernard states that the sneakers do not mean Biff will graduate. After Bernard leaves, Willy asks if Bernard is liked. The boys reply that he is liked but not well liked. Willy tells them that Bernard may make good grades, but Happy and Biff will be more successful in business because they are well liked.
Still in his daydream of fifteen years ago, Willy brags to Linda that he made $1200in sales that week. Linda quickly figures his commission at over $200. Willy then hedges his estimation. Under questioning, he admits that he grossed only $200. The $70commission is barely adequate to cover the familys expenses. In a rare moment of lucidity and self-criticism, Willy moans that he cannot move ahead because people do not seem to like him. Linda tells him that he is successful enough. Willy complains that he talks and jokes too much. He explains that Charley earns respect because he is a man of few words. His jealousy of his neighbor becomes painfully clear. Willy thinks people laugh at him for being too fat; he once punched a man for joking about his walrus physique. As Linda assures him that he is the handsomest man ever, Willy replies that she is his best friend in the world. Just as he tells her that he misses her terribly when he is on the road, The Womans laughter sounds from the darkness.
One of the most interesting aspects ofDeath of a Salesmanis its fluid treatment of time: past and present flow into one another seamlessly and simultaneously as various stimuli induce in Willy a rambling stream-of-consciousness. It is important to remember that the idyllic past that Willy recalls is one that he reinvents; one should not, therefore, take these seeming flashbacks entirely as truth. The idyllic past functions as an escape from the present reality or a retrospective reconstruction of past events and blunders. Even when he retreats to this idyllic past, however, Willy cannot completely deny his real situation. He retreats into his daydreams not only to escape the present but also to examine the past. He searches for the mistake that he made that frustrated his hopes for fame and fortune and destroyed his relationship with Biff. Willys treatment of his life as a story to be edited and rewritten enables him to avoid confronting its depressing reality.
It is important to examine the evolution of Willys relationship with his family, as the solid family is one of the most prominent elements of the American Dream. In the present, Willys relationship with his family is fraught with tension. In his memories, on the other hand, Willy sees his family as happy and secure. But even Willys conception of the past is not as idyllic as it seems on the surface, as his split consciousness, the profound rift in his psyche, shows through. No matter how much he wants to remember his past as all-American and blissful, Willy cannot completely erase the evidence to the contrary. He wants to remember Biff as the bright hope for the future. In the midst of his memories, however, we find that Willy does nothing to discourage Biffs compulsive thieving habit. In fact, he subtly encourages it by laughing at Biffs theft of the football.
As an adult, Biff has never held a steady job, and his habitual stealing from employers seems largely to be the reason for this failing. Over the years, Biff and Willy have come to a mutual antagonism. Willy is unable to let go of his commitment to the American Dream, and he places tremendous pressure on Biff to fulfill it for him. Biff feels a deep sense of inadequacy because Willy wants him to pursue a career that conflicts with his natural inclinations and instincts. He would rather work in the open air on a ranch than enter business and make a fortune, and he believes that Willys natural inclination is the same, like his fathers before him.
Willys relationship with Happy is also less than perfect in Willys reconstruction of the past, and it is clear that he favors Biff. Happy tries several times to gain Willys attention and approval but fails. The course of Happys adult life clearly bears the marks of this favoritism. Happy doesnt express resentment toward Biff; rather, he emulates the behavior of the high-school-aged Biff. In the past, Willy expressed admiration for Biffs success with the girls and his ability to get away with theft. As an adult, Happy competes with more successful men by sleeping with their womenhe thus performs a sort of theft and achieves sexual prowess.
Willys relationship with Linda is even more complex and interesting. In one of his moments of self-doubt, she assures him that he is a good provider and that he is handsome. She also sees through his lie when he tries to inflate his commission from his latest trip. Although she does not buy his pitch to her, she still loves him. His failure to make her believe his fantasy of himself does not lead her to reject himshe does not measure Willys worth in terms of his professional success. Willy, however, needs more than love, which accepts character flaws, doubts, and insecurityhe seeks desperately to be well liked. As such, he ignores the opportunity that Linda presents to him: to view himself more honestly, to acknowledge the reality of his life, and to accept himself for what he is without feeling like a failure. Instead, he tries to play the salesman with her and their sons.
The Woman is Willys mistress and a secretary for one of his buyers. In Willys daydream, they sit in a hotel room. She tells him that she picked him because he is so funny and sweet. Willy loves the praise. She thanks Willy for giving her stockings and promises to put him right through to the buyers when she sees him next. The Woman fades into the darkness as Willy returns to his conversation with Linda in the present. He notices Linda mending stockings and angrily demands that she throw them outhe is too proud to let his wife wear an old pair (Biff later discovers that Willy has been buying new stockings for The Woman instead of for Linda). Bernard returns to the Loman house to beg Biff to study math. Willy orders him to give Biff the answers. Bernard replies that he cannot do so during a state exam. Bernard insists that Biff return the football. Linda comments that some mothers fear that Biff is too rough with their daughters. Willy, enraged by the unglamorous truth of his sons behavior, plunges into a state of distraction and shouts at them to shut up. Bernard leaves the house, and Linda leaves the room, holding back tears.
The memory fades. Willy laments to himself and Happy that he did not go to Alaska with his brother, Ben, who acquired a fortune at the age of twenty-one upon discovering an African diamond mine. Charley, having heard the shouts, visits to check on Willy. They play cards. Charley, concerned about Willy, offers him a job, but Willy is insulted by the offer. He asks Charley if he saw the ceiling he put in his living room, but he becomes surly when Charley expresses interest, insisting that Charleys lack of skill with tools proves his lack of masculinity. Ben appears on the stage in a semi-daydream. He cuts a dignified, utterly confident figure. Willy tells Charley that Bens wife wrote from Africa to tell them Ben had died. He alternates between conversing with Charley and his dead brother. Willy gets angry when Charley wins a hand, so Charley takes his cards and leaves. He is disturbed that Willy is so disoriented that he talks to a dead brother as if he were present. Willy immerses himself in the memory of a visit from his brother. Ben and Willys father abandoned the family when Willy was three or four years old and Ben was seventeen. Ben left home to look for their father in Alaska but never found him. At Willys request, Ben tells young Biff and Happy about their grandfather. Among an assortment of other jobs, Willy and Bens father made flutes and sold them as a traveling salesman before following a gold rush to Alaska. Ben proceeds to wrestle the young Biff to the ground in a demonstration of unbridled machismo, wielding his umbrella threateningly over Biffs eye. Willy begs Ben to stay longer, but Ben hurries to catch his train.