Death of a Salesman

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By Mackenzie Amis

Author: Arthur Miller (1915-). Born in New York City. Writer of many plays. Two-time winner of the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award. Pulitzer Prize winner in 1949. Works concerned with an individual’s responsibility to society.

 Setting: Present time (1949) in a suburb of New York City. Most of the action takes place at the Loman home.

 Plot Summary: Willy Loman used to be a well-known and well-liked salesman, but now no one gives him the time of day. To combat his unhappiness, Willy retreats into the past, imagining times where he felt happy, loved, and successful. Willy is frustrated with himself and tries to commit suicide several times. His wife, Linda, works to cheer him up, but has no success. Willy's two sons, Biff and Happy, also try to improve Willy's morale by attempting to get powerful jobs and trying to be somebody. They, too, are unsuccessful, and Willy kills himself at the end of the play.

 Outstanding/Memorable Characters:

Willy Loman is a sixty-year-old salesman who is dealing with failure. He is not as successful in his work as he once was, and his children are not as successful as he hoped they would be. Throughout the story Willy has visions of good times in the past, and he tries to kill himself (and succeeds in doing so at the end of the play).

Linda Loman is Willy's wife and worries a great deal about Willy's well being. She does all that she can to prevent Willy from committing suicide.

Biff Loman is Willy and Linda’s oldest son (early 30’s) who comes home to visit. He has never had a solid job and is not pleased with his life.

Happy Loman is Willy and Linda’s youngest son (early 30’s) who lives at home. Happy has a job, but he is not as successful and powerful as Willy hoped he would be.

 Recurring Motifs/Symbols:

University of Virginia sneakers: The shoes symbolize Biff's bright future that he never has the opportunity to take advantage of. On a larger scale, the shoes represent all of the missed opportunities in the Loman’s lives.

The West, Alaska, and Africa: These places symbolize Willy’s and Biff’s desires for a new life. They want to get away from their problems in the East and to escape to somewhere else.

Seeds: Willy often comments on his want to plant his own garden. The seeds represent Willy's desire for a fresh start in life.

Imaginary people: Willy imagines several people, which shows his want for a world that he has created himself and cannot have.

Rubber hose: Inhaling gas through the rubber hose is one method by which Willy tries to commit suicide. It both literally and figuratively explains how Willy has given up on life.


We must not let failure control our lives (Through Willy, readers see the harmful effects that being controlled by failure can cause. Willy is so obsessed by his failure that he cannot see beyond it, and he lets one shortcoming ruin his entire life).

Dream big, but if these dreams do not amount to anything, do not let it ruin your life (Willy is destroyed by Biff's failure to achieve all of Willy's goals and dreams that he had for Biff. Willy feels that he has failed greatly with Biff, which contributes to him committing suicide).

Focus on the present and the future instead of the past (Willy spends unnecessary time reminiscing on the past. While it is fine to recall good times, it is not healthy to long for the past continuously and be blinded so much by the past that we fail to consider the present and the future. Willy essentially lives in the past, causing him not to be able to function in the present. The past has already happened, and Willy needs to realize that there is nothing that he can do to change it).

 Quotes: “Funny, y’know? After all the highways, and the trains, and the appointments, and the years, you end up worth more dead than alive” (95).

“He [Willy] never knew who he was” (130).

            “A salesman is got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory” (130).

 Style/Structure: Sentences and vocabulary are simple, which shows the averageness of Willy and the Loman family. Their problems are everywhere and not limited to a certain group of people. There are two acts and a requiem.

 Tone: Angry, impatient, and frustrated (Biff towards Willy and Willy towards Biff). Fearful and somewhat helpless (Linda). Desperate (Willy).

 Point of view: objective

By Pam Gomutputra

Arthur Miller: was born in New York on October 17, 1915. He eventually entered the University of Michigan, where he began writing plays and worked on the college newspaper. After graduating he continued writing, primarily dramas. Miller's works are known for their strong commitment to social justice, their concern for the ordinary person, and their intricate explorations of the inner lives of their characters. Death of a Salesman is one of his most famous works.

The Setting: The play is told through Willy’s mind and memory. Most of the play is set in Loman’s house. The play also switches back and forth between 1942 and 1928. The play opens at a moment when Willy feels especially trapped by all the events of his past.
Plot Summary: Willy comes home in Brooklyn one night after his sales trip. He then starts to complain about Biff, his older son who has come home to visit. Willy is disappointed that Biff is not as successful as Bernard. At the same time, Biff and Happy also unhappy with their father and the life that he wants them to live. Willy gets consistently mad about Biff’s failure. The family starts to fall apart. After Willy’s death, while Biff states that Willy had the wrong dreams, Charley simply defends Willy as a victim of his profession.

Willy Loman – He is a traveling salesman who is very insecure. He believes in American Dream of easy success and wealth even though he never achieves it. He also greatly disappointed in his sons. Once reality fails his illusions, his mental health fails as well.

Biff Loman – Willy’s eldest son. He is thirty four years old. He is a very attractive gentleman. He was a football star whom every girl wants to date. However, he ends up failing math and cannot graduate. Since then he always gets fired from every job he ever has. Biff represents his father tragic side. He fails to live the life that Willy wants him to live. 

Linda Loman – She is Willy’s wife. She is another one who has suffered from Willy’s dreams. She is far more realistic that her husband. She is the one who seems to be keeping this family together. It is her who stays by Willy’s side until the end. 

Happy Loman – Willy’s younger son. He is two years younger than Biff. Happy lives in his brother’s shadow for all his life. He represents Willy’s ambition and self-importance.

Charley – He is Willy’s only friend. He owns a successful business. His son, Bernard, is also a successful lawyer. Willy is jealous of Charley’s success.

Ben – He is Willy’s older brother who is very wealthy. He had just died very recently and appears in Willy’s daydreams. Willy sees Ben as a symbol of success.

The Woman – She is Willy’s mistress when his sons were in high school. She is the one who keeps Willy’s ego up. When Biff catches Willy and the woman, he loses faith in his father and also his dream of going to college. 

Symbols: Willy's car, Bill Oliver's pen, Ben's diamonds and timberland

Themes: The American dream and material success are one of the most important issues in the play. The truth vs. lie/fantasy also makes the play more colorful.

Quotes: “I saw the things that I love in this world. The work and the food and the time to sit and smoke. And I looked at the pen and I thought, what the hell am I grabbing this for? Why am I trying to become what I don't want to be … when all I want is out there, waiting for me the minute I say I know who I am” (Act II), “A diamond is hard and rough to the touch!” (Act II), “He's a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine … A salesman is got to dream, boy” (Act II)

Tone: Generally, the tone of the play is very tender. However it also ranges from truthful to ridicule.  

Point of view: Objective.

Structure: The play is full of foreshadowing. For examples, Willy's flute foreshadows the exposure of his father's occupation and abandonment; Willy's preoccupation with Linda’s stockings foreshadows his affair with the woman; Willy's automobile accident before the start of Act I foreshadows his suicide at the end of the play.

By Craig Kedrowski

Arthur Miller (1915-): He was born in 1915 in New York. He attended the University of Michigan in 1934 and studied journalism. After graduating in 1938 he joined the Federal Theatre Project and then married Mary Slattery in 1940 (two children). In 1949 he produced Death of a Salesman and in 1953 The Crucible. He married Marilyn Monroe in 1956, but divorced in 1961. He is the most famous post WWII playwright.

Setting: The time period is the late 1940’s probably, with some flashbacks into Willy’s past. There are three major cities that the play occurs in: 1) Brooklyn, 2) New York, and 3) Boston.

Plot: An old successful salesman has now aged and is not successful anymore. He tried to convince his lazy and worthless sons that they need to make something of their lives, but his call is unheard. He then goes to talk to his boss about a raise, and in turn he is fired. Happy then has the idea that all three of them should start their own company, but when Biff is denied the loan he doesn’t tell his father. Both Happy and Biff leave Willy at the restaurant, which causes Willy to be depressed. Biff then leaves the home in anger and Willy is finally successful at committing suicide after many failed attempts.

Willy Loman: Father of Biff and Happy, and husband of Linda. He is a traveling salesman that wants the easy way to riches. His sons don’t have a promising future and when he gets fired he ends up committing suicide.

Linda Loman: Mother to Biff and Happy, and caring wife of Willy. She tries to help Willy through the hard time, but she just does not know what to do with Willy at the end of the play.

Biff Loman: Brother to Happy. Son of Willy and Linda. He is the star football player, but he gets injured. He is not very smart and does not get along too well with his father. He lives out west.

Happy Loman: Brother to Biff. Son of Willy and Linda. He is the assistant buyer at the store and thinks of himself highly. He likes to sleep around.

Bernard: Son of Charley. A very successful lawyer that always admired Biff. He makes Willy jealous because neither of his sons were that successful.

Charley: Father to Bernard. He is one of Willy’s only friends; he is also Willy’s neighbor. He owns his own business and offers Willy a job, but he refuses. He also gives Willy money to pay his bills.

Uncle Ben: Willy’s older brother, who recently died. He appears only in Willy’s dreams. He is the symbol of success that Willy is so desperately looking for.

Howard Wagner: Willy’s boss, who fires him. He inherited the company from his father.

Symbols: The garden. Seeds. Wire recorder. Stockings. Car. Diamonds. Football. Mortgage. Anything related with the house. Pen. Flute music. Sexuality. The American West. Religion.

Themes: The act of betrayal is bad. Lie to make someone happy is bad. The fantasy world. Importance of good relations with family members. Having to enjoy your job.

Quotes: “I don’t want you to represent us. I’ve been meaning to tell you for a long time now” (83). “Two minutes” (134). “Wait a minute. I’ve got to see that old confidence again. Do you want her? She’s on call.” (102).

Style: The style is not very complex, because this helps the reader see the lack of education of the Loman family. The style is also informal because most of the time they are talking to each other casually.

Tone: The tone of the play tends to vary every once in a while. Usually the tone is tender and questioning, but sometimes the tone is brutal because Miller has to stress the importance of Willy’s actions.

Point of View: Dialogue-based point of view (play).

Structure: The actual play itself is divided into two different acts. Since Death of a Salesman is a play, it is also written in dialogue form.