"Death of a Salesman": Plot Summary and Study Guide

"Death of a Salesman": Plot Summary and Study Guide

"Death of a Salesman" was written by Arthur Miller in 1949. The play earned him success and a prominent place in theater history. It is a popular production for school, community, and professional theater companies and is considered one of the essential modern plays that everyone should see.‚Äč

For decades, students have been studying "Death of a Salesman," exploring various elements of the play, including the character of Willy Loman, themes of the play, and criticism of the play. Dramatists Play Service holds the rights to "Death of a Salesman."

Act One

Setting: New York, the late 1940s

"Death of a Salesman" begins in the evening. Willy Loman, a salesman in his sixties, returns home from a failed business trip. He explains to his wife, Linda, that he was too distracted to drive and therefore headed home in defeat. (This won't earn him any brownie points with his boss.)

Willy's thirty-something sons, Happy and Biff, are staying in their old rooms. Happy works as an assistant to the assistant buyer at a retail store, but he dreams of bigger things. Biff was once a high school football star, but he could never embrace Willy's concept of success. So he has just been drifting from one manual labor job to the next.

Downstairs, Willy talks to himself. He hallucinates; he visualizes happier times from his past. During one of the memories, he recalls an encounter with his long-lost older brother, Ben. An adventurous entrepreneur, Ben declares: "When I walked into the jungle, I was seventeen. When I walked out I was twenty-one. And by God, I was rich." Needless to say, Willy is envious of his brother's achievements.

Later, when Biff confronts his mother about Willy's unstable behavior, Linda explains that Willy has been secretly (and perhaps subconsciously) attempting suicide.

Act One ends with the brothers cheering up their father by promising to meet with a "big shot" businessman, Bill Oliver. They plan to pitch a marketing idea -- a concept that fills Willy with hope for the future.

Act Two

Willy Loman asks his boss, 36-year-old Howard Wagner, for $40 a week. (Recently, Willy has not been making zero dollars on his commission-only salary). Somewhat gently (or, depending on the actor's interpretation, perhaps disrespectfully), Howard fires him:

Howard: I don't want you to represent us. I've been meaning to tell you for a long time now.

Willy: Howard, are you firing me?

Howard: I think you need a good long rest, Willy.

Willy: Howard -

Howard: And when you feel better, come back, and we'll see if we can work something out.

Willy tells his troubles to his neighbor and friendly rival, Charley. Out of sympathy, he offers Willy a job, but the salesman turns Charley down. Despite this, he still "borrows" money from Charley -- and has been doing so for quite some time.

Meanwhile, Happy and Biff meet at a restaurant, waiting to treat their dad to a steak dinner. Unfortunately, Biff has bad news. Not only did he fail to meet with Bill Oliver, but Biff swiped the man's fountain pen. Apparently, Biff has become a kleptomaniac as a way of rebelling against the cold, corporate world.

Willy doesn't want to hear Biff's bad news. His memory drifts back to a tumultuous day: When Biff was a teenager, he discovered that his father was having an affair. Ever since that day, there has been a rift between father and son. Willy wants to find a way for his son to stop hating him. (And he's been considering killing himself just so Biff could do something great with the insurance money.)

At home, Biff and Willy shout, shove, and argue. Finally, Biff bursts into tears and kisses his father. Willy is deeply touched, realizing that his son still loves him. Yet, after everyone goes to bed, Willy speeds away in the family car.

The playwright explains that the "music crashes down in a frenzy of sound" symbolizing the car crash and Willy's successful suicide.

The Requiem

This short scene in "Death of a Salesman" takes place at Willy Loman's grave. Linda wonders why more people didn't attend his funeral. Biff decides that his father had the wrong dream. Happy is still intent on pursuing Willy's quest: "He had a good dream. It's the only dream you can have -- to come out number-one man."

Linda sits on the ground and laments the loss of her husband. She says: "Why did you do it? I search and search and search, and I can't understand it, Willy. I made the last payment on the house today. Today, dear. And they'll be nobody home."

Biff helps her to her feet, and they leave the grave of Willy Loman.