Death of a Salesman

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Date: 2007
Publisher: Gale
Series: Literary Themes for Students
Document Type: Plot summary; Critical essay; Work overview
Length: 9,466 words

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Death of a Salesman


If but one text were chosen as the embodiment of the failure of an American dream, Death of a Salesman would be it. Arthur Miller's 1949 play is widely considered his masterwork and established him as a leading American playwright. Though it is also considered one of the most important plays of the twentieth century, it only took Miller six weeks to write. Originally produced on Broadway, the first production of Death of a Salesman was directed by Elia Kazan and starred Lee J. Cobb. It ran for 742 performances, and won Miller the Pulitzer Prize, several Antoinette Perry "Tony" awards, the Donaldson Award, and a New York Drama Critics' Circle award.

The drama focuses on Willy Loman, a sixty-three-year-old New York City-based salesman whose career and life have been an illusion of success. Willy has reached a breaking point. After working for thirty-six years for the same company as a somewhat successful traveling salesman, he has been reduced to working on commission, feels weary, and, during the play, is fired after asking to be placed in a job in the New York office. Willy relies on his neighbor and "only friend" Charley for the funds to cover his family's expenses, yet he resents Charley's support.

Willy's turmoil is compounded by his family, and his consciousness often drifts to the past. While his wife, Linda, is endlessly supportive, she also knows that Willy exaggerates about his Page 196  |  Top of Articlesuccesses. Willy's younger son, Happy, lives a life similar to Willy's. Hap claims he is the assistant buyer at a retailer when he is only an assistant to the assistant buyer. Hap also finds his identity in his romantic and sexual conquests, even at work. Willy's elder son, Biff, is a failure in Willy's eyes for working on farms and ranches in the West making only a few dollars per week. Biff has returned home for a visit and, as usual, they cannot see eye to eye.

There is tension between them because Biff has some understanding of his father's failures. Also, Biff gave up on his dreams as a senior in high school when he discovered that his father had been having an affair while traveling for work. The betrayal resonated with Biff his whole life and created a sense of distrust between father and son. In the end, Willy believes that only killing himself will solve his family's problems, financial and otherwise. An insurance policy will allow his mortgage and other bills to be paid in full and give Biff and Hap the funding to start their own business.

In addition to exploring the internal life of the common man in whose life Miller saw tragedy, he was inspired to write this portrait of Willy's self-delusion and overtiredness by many salesman he knew in his family and growing up in his Brooklyn neighborhood in the 1920s and 1930s. Such men had a sense of outrageous importance in a world where they were basically ignored or irrelevant. A seventeen-year-old Miller even wrote a short story about one such salesman he met during the course of a summer job. This salesman fails to sell anything during the course of one day and is also treated poorly by every potential customer. Miller's mother found the story, "In Memoriam," after Death of a Salesman was produced.

In the play, Miller explores themes about the American dream of success and the expectations that can come from an unrealistic interpretation of what that means. Willy wants to believe that he is a smashing salesman and well liked by everyone; the reality, however, is far from the optimistic truth he publicly promotes, and he knows it on the inside. Embracing the materialism and commercialism of American society, superficial symbols of the good life, only adds to Willy's distress.

Willy has always encouraged his sons to think and live the same way, often to their detriment. Despite this sometimes dysfunctional relationship, Miller also emphasizes the substance and value of families like the Lomans. Willy and Linda want the best for their sons, and vice versa, but they do not always know what that means or the best way to accomplish this goal. Willy's suicide is his gift to his family for their continued well-being because he believes it is all he has left to give, as he has become irrelevant.

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Miller was born in New York City on October 17, 1915, the grandson of Jewish immigrants from Poland. Miller's father worked as a women's coat manufacturer, and he was raised in a middle-class household until his father lost his business during the Great Depression. The family then moved to Brooklyn. After graduating from high school in 1932, Miller worked in a warehouse to save money so that he could attend the University of Michigan, where he learned to write. He won several prestigious Hopwood Awards for works he wrote there as a student. With degree in hand, Miller returned to New York City. He held odd jobs and wrote radio scripts while establishing himself as a playwright.

At the age of thirty-three, Miller had his breakout success when Death of a Salesman debuted. Miller continued to produce socially relevant plays including The Crucible (1953), which was inspired by his own dealings with the House of Representative's Un-American Activities Committee hearings in the 1950s. Though Miller's new works were not as popular after the 1960s, he continued to write until his death from heart failure at the age of eighty-nine on February 10, 2005, in Roxbury, Connecticut. Miller's last play, Finishing the Picture (2004), was produced shortly before his death.

While ostensibly about the American dream and its failures, Death of Salesman has transcended its time, country, and culture of origin. The play has been continuously staged around the world to enthusiastic audiences, even in Communist Page 197  |  Top of Articlecountries. Miller himself supervised a Chinese-language production in Beijing, China, in 1983.

Miller explained to Newsweek's Jack Kroll in 1999, "The theme of the brutality of the system toward man—this goes down everywhere, in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden, Argentina." In an obituary for Miller, who died in 2005, Hollywood Reporter quoted him as saying, "I couldn't have predicted that a work like Death of a Salesman would take on the proportions it has. Originally, it was a literal play about a literal salesman, but it has become a bit of a myth—not only here but in many parts of the world." In the half-century between Loman's death and Millers's, the playwright saw his American everyman become universal.


Act I

When Death of a Salesman opens, sixty-three-year-old Willy Loman is returning to his home in New York City late at night. His wife, Linda, is awakened by his entrance as Willy, a traveling salesman, has come back early from his sales trip. When she questions why, Willy tells her, "I'm tired to the death…. I couldn't make it. I just couldn't make it, Linda." While Linda tries to reassure her husband that he just needs to rest, Willy tells her that he nearly got into a car accident while he was driving.

The couple talk about what he should do about his job. Willy's territory is New England, and Linda tells him to ask his boss, Howard, if he can work in New York. Willy and Linda also talk about their adult sons, Biff and Happy, who have spent the night in their old room. Linda questions why Willy chastised Biff earlier in the day. At the age of thirty-four, Biff makes little money working on farms out west. Willy agrees with his wife, "Biff Loman is lost. In the greatest country in the world a young man with such—personal attractiveness, gets lost. And such a hard worker." Willy promises to talk to Biff in the morning.

After Linda goes upstairs to bed, Willy talks to himself and eats in the kitchen. Biff and Happy, who were awakened by their parents' conversation, begin to talk in their room. Happy is worried about Willy driving as Happy has noticed Willy has a habit of not focusing on
Arthur Miller Arthur Miller AP Images the task. Happy also tells Biff that Willy has been talking to himself regularly.

As the brothers reminisce about the past, Biff asks why his father ridicules him. Happy asks about Biff's life and what his future holds. Biff has held many jobs over the years and does not want to be limited by business life but does not find working in the West satisfying either. Biff tells Happy, "every time I come back here I know that all I've done is to waste my life." Happy's life is not much better. He works in retail, has his own apartment, and sleeps with many women, including the girlfriends of several executives at his company. Yet Happy is lonely.

Biff thinks his only shot at success is Bill Oliver. Biff once worked for him many years ago, and he hopes Oliver will lend him thousands of dollars to buy a ranch. The brothers' discussion is interrupted by Willy talking loudly to himself as if his sons were still young. Biff and Happy worry about their mother hearing Willy's ramblings before going to sleep.

In the kitchen, Willy continues to talk to his absent sons as if they were still young. The teenage versions of Biff and Happy appear as the scene shifts to the past when Willy returned home from a sales trip one time. Willy gives the boys a punching bag, and he is not particularly Page 198  |  Top of Articleupset to learn that Biff "borrowed" a football from his school's locker room. Willy brags to his sons about his sales trip and his popularity in certain New England cities. He tells his sons, "I have friends. I can park my car in any street in New England, and the cops protect it like their own."

As Willy talks to Biff about his upcoming big football game, Bernard interrupts their conversation. Bernard, the son of Willy's close friend and neighbor Charley, is younger than Biff and is supposed to be helping him with math. Bernard tells Willy that Biff's math teacher is threatening to flunk him, preventing him from graduating and accepting an athletic scholarship. Willy dismisses Bernard and his concerns. He tells Biff that he will succeed in life, and Bernard will not.

Young Linda enters and the boys leave. Willy exaggerates his amount of sales to Linda, but he is forced to be truthful with her. The family's bills are a higher amount than what Willy has earned. He tells her he will do better next week in Hartford but also tells her, "people don't seem to take to me." Willy continues, "I know it when I walk in. They seem to laugh at me." Linda encourages him, telling him that he is good-looking and worshipped by his boys.

As young Linda praises him, The Woman appears, dressing. After Willy praises his wife, he moves into the space with The Woman. Willy is having an affair with her, one that she initiated. She is dressing to leave the room, and, as she does, the scene returns to young Linda speaking highly of him. Bernard reappears in the house looking again for Biff so they can study for the Regents, a state exam. Willy again dismisses Bernard's concerns, for which Linda states her support. Willy gets angry again, telling his wife of Biff, "You want him to be a worm like Bernard? He's got spirit, personality."

The scene shifts back to present day. Happy comes downstairs and questions his father about his return. Willy tells his son he regrets not joining his brother Ben in Alaska when Ben wanted him to come as part of a potential business deal. Confused, Willy says that Ben "Walked into a jungle, and comes out, the age of twenty-one, and he's rich!" Hap tries to help, but Willy does not listen. Charley comes in and Happy goes upstairs.

Charley also tries to help Willy by listening and playing cards with him, but Willy is insulted by his offer of a job. For every statement or comment Charley makes, Willy is defensive. Willy's brother Ben enters the scene, a figment of Willy's imagination. As Willy and Charley keep playing cards, Willy talks to both of them. Ben is impatient with Willy. Willy tells Charley that Ben died a few weeks ago in Africa. Ben is talking to Willy about coming to Alaska, a land of opportunity, and asks about their mother, who lived with Willy until her death some time ago. Charley becomes upset by Willy's nonsensical talk and leaves.

As the scene returns again to the past, Ben has arrived at Willy's house. Willy has not seen his brothers for many years, and he has questions about their father who left when Willy was a toddler. Ben left the family at the age of seventeen to look for their father in Alaska. He went in the wrong direction and landed in Africa where he made his fortune.

At Willy's prompting, Ben tells Biff and Happy about their grandfather, a flute salesman and inventor. To prove a point to Ben, Willy sends his sons "hunting" to a nearby construction site to steal supplies for a rebuilding project. Charley comes over and warns Willy that his sons will be caught by the watchman and arrested for what they are doing. Ben insists on leaving, despite Willy's longings for approval.

The scene returns to present day. Linda enters the kitchen and tries to convince Willy to come to bed. He asks her about the diamond watch fob Ben gave him many years ago, but Linda reminds him that he pawned it over a decade ago to pay for a correspondence course for Biff.

When Willy goes outside to take a walk in his slippers, his sons come downstairs and express their concern about him to their mother. Linda asks Biff why he argues with his father when he returns home. Biff has no real answer, nor does he have one about his plans for the future. The situation grows tenser. Linda tells Biff she will not tolerate his disrespecting his father: "Either he's your father and you pay him that respect, or else you're not to come here." Biff informs her and Happy that Willy does not really respect her.

Linda grows more indignant about her sons' attitude toward their father. She tells them that he is great, but tired. Linda also informs them that after working for the same company for thirty-six years, they have taken him off salary Page 199  |  Top of Articleand put him on commission only. Additionally, Charley has been giving Willy fifty dollars a week so it looks like he is earning money, but these funds do not cover the bills.

Biff offers to move home and help out, but Linda does not want to be around the fighting such a move would involve. Biff reminds her that Willy threw him out of the house, and tells her why he did so: "Because I know he's a fake and he doesn't like anybody around who knows!" While Biff still is willing to stay, Linda tells them that Willy has tried to kill himself several times. He has had a number of car accidents and nearly killed a woman. He also has tried to kill himself in the cellar with a rubber tubing device on the gas pipe that feeds the hot water heater.

Biff promises to stay in New York, get a job, and do well. Happy reminds Biff that he has taken off in the middle of the work day without covering himself in the past, something he cannot do if he is to succeed. Willy enters as Biff declares they should leave the city. Willy is again defensive about what he perceives is an insult by Biff, but becomes intrigued when Biff tells him that he is going to see Bill Oliver the next day to ask for the money to start a business.

Though Willy is initially dismissive of Biff's efforts because he does not believe that Biff has a serious plan, Happy believes they should start a family-owned sporting goods store. Willy and Biff become enthusiastic about the idea. Willy tries to give Biff advice on how he should handle the meeting with Oliver, but Biff grows angry when Willy yells at Linda for adding her own comments. Biff tells him not to speak that way to Linda.

Upstairs in Linda and Willy's bedroom, Linda wonders if Oliver will remember Biff. Willy is sure of it. Biff and Happy come into the room, to say goodnight. Willy continues to give unwanted advice, so Biff leaves. Willy gets into bed and remembers when Biff was a young, strong athlete. As his parents go to sleep, Biff removes the suicide device from the gas pipe.

Act II

Mid-morning the next day, Linda is serving Willy coffee. The boys have already left. Willy believes Biff will succeed at his meeting and imagines a future with a home out in the country. Linda tells Willy to ask for an advance of about two hundred dollars from his boss, Howard, to pay many bills that are due, including one for the insurance premium before it lapses. Before he leaves to meet with Howard, Linda tells him to meet his sons for dinner at a restaurant. Willy is hopeful when he leaves home. After Willy leaves, Biff calls. Linda tells him that she is excited that the gas pipe device is gone; she is disappointed to learn that Biff removed it, not Willy.

In Howard's office, Willy tells his employer that he does not want to travel anymore. He desperately tries to convince Howard to give him a job and small salary in New York. Willy reminds Howard that he was close with his father and helped name him. Howard tells him that there are no jobs available in New York. Willy will not accept the answer and tells him how he got into the business in the first place. Willy eventually yells at Howard, who grows impatient. Howard tells Willy to calm down, then he leaves for a bit.

Howard returns a moment later when Willy gets upset after having accidentally turned on Howard's recording machine. Willy says he will continue working on the road, but Howard will not take him back. Howard tells Willy to bring in his samples, take a rest, and come back later.

Willy remains in Howard's office after Howard leaves again. Ben returns and the scene shifts to the past. Willy tells Ben that nothing in his life is working out. Ben offers him a job in Alaska taking care of a business interest he has there. While Willy is enthusiastic, young Linda does not share it. She tells Ben and Willy that Willy is succeeding in New York "well enough." Ben leaves.

Young Biff has already entered the scene. Willy bragged about Biff's future to Ben before he left. Biff is going to play a big football game at Ebbetts Field that day. Happy will carry Biff's helmet to get into the clubhouse; Biff allows Bernard to carry his shoulder guards so he can get in, too. Willy and Linda are getting ready to watch their son play, and Willy gets annoyed when Charley feigns ignorance about the day's big event.

Back in present day, Willy shows up at Charley's office. Bernard is there, and he keeps Willy busy while Charley and Jenny, his secretary, work. Willy brags about Biff's deal, then asks Bernard why Biff did not do well. Bernard tells him that Biff's failing math, then not going to summer school to make up the class, hurt him. Even Willy does not know why Biff refused to go to summer school that year.

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Willy asks Bernard if it was his fault. Bernard remembers that Biff was ready to go to summer school when he left for a month and went to see Willy in New England. When Biff returned, he was not the same and gave up. Bernard asks if something happened in Boston, but Willy becomes defensive. Charley enters and Bernard prepares to leave. Charley brags to Willy that Bernard is going to argue a case before the Supreme Court in Washington. Willy is impressed and does not understand how Bernard could be this successful.

Charley hands Willy fifty dollars. Willy asks for enough to cover his insurance premium, and he promises to pay him back. Charley again offers him a job in New York at fifty dollars per week, but Willy is insulted. Willy tells Charley that he already has one, then that he was fired. Charley does not understand why Willy cares if everyone likes him or why Willy will not take a job with him. Willy will not tell him his reasoning, and Charley gives enough to cover the insurance payment. Willy calls Charley his "only friend," and leaves close to tears.

Happy arrives at the restaurant first, bragging to the waiter Stanley about his brother's seemingly imminent business deal. When Biff enters, Happy is flirting with a female patron, the Girl/Miss Forsythe, and lies to her about his and his brother's occupation. He asks her to find a friend and come back and join them.

After she leaves, Biff tells him what happened that day. Biff waited for six hours to see Oliver, without luck. When Oliver left his office at five o'clock and Biff caught his attention for a moment, he did not remember Biff. Biff tells Happy that he got angry, went into Oliver's office, and stole his fountain pen. Biff wants Happy's help telling their father the truth about what happened, but Happy wants him to lie and tell Willy only good news.

The boys have not settled their disagreement when Willy arrives. Willy asks Biff what happened. While Biff starts to lie and Happy builds on it, Willy grows excited and will not let Biff finish telling him what happened. Frustrated, Biff tells Happy, "I can't talk to him!"

The scene shifts between past and present. Young Bernard tells the family that Biff failed math. Willy is angry at young Biff for flunking. Interspersed is Biff's explanation of what happened at Oliver's office, including the theft of the pen. Willy is appalled and Biff tries to tell him that he stole it unintentionally. Biff promises his father he will be successful and tells him that Oliver talked to a partner about his idea. Biff says that he cannot go to a lunch meeting with Oliver and his partner the next day because of the stolen pen; Biff later confesses that there is no such appointment. Willy grows angry at his son and hits him.

Another scene from the past is then interspersed with the restaurant scene. Willy is with The Woman, while Miss Forsythe and her friend, Letta, arrive and join the party. Willy is drawn to The Woman who is telling him to answer the door. After Willy drifts off to the past, Happy starts to make plans with Miss Forsythe and Letta for the evening, meaning to just abandon Willy at the restaurant. Biff is insulted, telling Hap, "I sense it, you don't give a … damn about him." The brothers argue, and Biff leaves. Hap leaves with Miss Forsythe and Letta, denying Willy is his father and claiming that Biff will catch up.

Shifting to the past again, Willy and The Woman are dressing and talking about their affair. There has been a knock at the door, which Willy is reluctant to answer. After sending her to wait in the bathroom, Willy finds Young Biff at the door. He tells his father that he failed math and cannot graduate. Young Biff wants him to talk to his teacher, and Willy is ready to go home immediately to take care of the situation.

Willy tries to get rid of Biff by sending him downstairs to check out, but The Woman comes out of the bathroom before Biff leaves. Willy then tries to hide what she is doing there; Biff does not accept his explanations. Biff tells his father to forget helping him with his grades, and that he will neither go to summer school nor the University of Virginia. Biff yells at him, "You fake! You phony little fake!", and leaves as his father orders him to come back.

In the present, Willy returns to the dining room in the restaurant with Stanley standing over him. The waiter tells Willy that his sons have left and left word that Willy should go home. Willy asks Stanley where a seed store is, saying, "I don't have a thing in the ground." He leaves in search of seeds for a garden.

The scene comes back to the Loman kitchen late at night. Hap and Biff have returned and find their mother waiting up for them. Happy has flowers for her, but she knocks them out of Page 201  |  Top of Articlehis hands when she hears that they left their father for two women. Angry with both Linda and Hap, Biff wants to see Willy. Linda wants both of her sons to leave and not return. She tells them, "You're a pair of animals! Not one, not another living soul would have had the cruelty to walk out on that man in a restaurant!"

Happy removes himself from the situation by going upstairs. Biff expresses his self-hatred by admitting they left him talking to himself in the bathroom. He still demands to talk to Willy even though Linda tries to prevent it. The mother and son go outside to watch Willy planting a garden.

As Willy plants his seeds, Ben walks in. Willy tells him Linda has suffered and offers Ben a deal related to his insurance policy. Willy is implying to his brother that he will kill himself so his family can have the $20,000 benefit. Ben believes the move will be seen as cowardly to his family, but Willy enthusiastically believes it will be the right thing to do and his funeral will be packed with those he has worked with as a salesman. Willy hopes his suicide will impress Biff, especially.

After Ben leaves, Biff tells his father that he is leaving again and not coming back. Biff makes Willy come inside and talk to Linda about his decision, which Linda supports. Biff wants his family to forget he exists, and he tries to get Willy to shake his hand so he can leave. Willy refuses and accuses Biff of acting out of spite. Biff finally confronts him with the suicide device from the gas pipe, which Willy denies knowing anything about.

The family confrontation grows more heated as Hap joins in. Biff calls his brother a liar, and he admits to spending time in jail. Biff also tells Willy, "I never got anywhere because you blew me so full of hot air I could never stand taking orders from anybody!" Biff opens up about his recent revelations, but Willy cannot accept Biff's pessimistic truth. Biff nearly attacks his father with the truth about their lives, which Willy also cannot stomach. Biff breaks down and cries, begging to be free of fake dreams.

After Biff goes upstairs, Willy realizes that his son loves him and believes $20,000 would help him with his goals. Ben appears again, encouraging Willy to take action. Willy sends Hap and Linda to bed. When Ben disappears, Willy does not know what to do. His family eventually hears the car driving away quickly. The act ends with the family, Charley, and Bernard leaving the house and going to Willy's grave.


At the grave, Linda says she does not understand why Willy killed himself. Happy is similarly confused. Charley and Biff have a better understanding of Willy and his motivations. Biff tells them, "He never knew who he was." Happy is ready to prove his father's death was not in vain, but Biff realizes his brother still does not understand. Left alone at his grave, Linda asks for her dead husband's forgiveness and tells him, "We're free…. We're free."


Pursuit of the American Dream

The primary theme of Miller's Death of a Salesman is Willy's unfailing yet skewed belief in the American dream of success. Willy believes that being a profitable, money-making self-made man is key to living a successful life. He constantly harps on his sons, especially Biff, that they must be successes in business, even though Biff only values this goal to any degree because of his father. Willy and Hap believe they are successes in Willy's definition of the term, at least publicly. Willy brags to Linda about his prowess as a traveling salesman, but in reality he never makes as much money as he says he does. Similarly, Hap claims to be an assistant retail buyer, when in fact he is an assistant to the assistant buyer. Happy's success lies more in his sexual conquests than actual business dealings.

Willy secretly knows he has become a failure, but he hides it with his public bravado. At sixty-three, he has been taken off salary at the company for which he has worked for thirty-six Page 202  |  Top of Articleyears and put on straight commission. He cannot make money as a traveling salesman under this structure. Charley, his only friend and neighbor, gives him fifty dollars per week to cover his expenses and make it look to Linda like Willy is making money. She knows the truth about the funds as well as the fact that he has been thinking about killing himself. Willy will not let on to anyone about his failures, nor will he allow Charley to give him a job. Willy even scorns Charley for helping him. He needs the American dream to be true for his life to have validation, because the pursuit of wealth has been the major goal of his life.

Yet Willy's pursuit of success and the American dream is not exactly pure. He lies to everyone about his achievements, a habit that Hap enthusiastically embraces. In addition to inflating the amount of money he makes, Willy also repeatedly emphasizes how well liked he is around New England and how important he is; both statements are essentially untrue, at least at present time, and probably always have been.

Willy encourages his sons to share this false, self-inflated optimism. Biff's passing math is unimportant to his father, but Biff's popularity based on athletic skills is highly valued. Willy allows young Biff to get away with stealing a football from his school to practice, and he encourages both of his sons to appropriate building supplies from a nearby construction site when his brother Ben visits. As adults, the sons continue to act badly. Biff still cannot stop stealing. Hap wants to lie about Biff's meeting with Oliver to keep their father happy, while Biff wants to give up the false front. Biff does his best to be honest with his father no matter what the cost.

Though Biff does not believe it, he is living the American dream in one sense that his father cannot. He has left the fast life of the city and unsuccessful stints at business to live in the West and work on farms and ranches. While he is not paid much by his father's standards and still has problems holding a job, Biff also must engage in hard, honest labor in such environments. Returning home to the arguments makes him distressed, while working out west makes him more free to pursue his happiness.

Charley and his son Bernard are even greater examples of the American dream of success made good in Death of a Salesman. Their actions speak louder than words, and neither wealth nor popularity are their only pursuits in life. Charley tries to help Willy, while Bernard did all he could to get Biff to pass math, graduate from high school, and take one of his athletic scholarship offers. Willy believed that Biff would succeed in life while Bernard would fail solely because of his son's good looks and personality. As Willy learns when he is quite desperate to borrow money from Charley, Bernard has achieved the American dream: He is married with two sons, has a successful career as a lawyer, is about to argue a case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, and has time for leisure pursuits. Bernard is everything Willy wishes he and his sons were.

Importance of Family

Throughout Death of a Salesman, Miller emphasizes the importance of family, especially father-child bonds, as a key relationship in the American dream. Charley seems to be a decent father who taught his son Bernard the proper values. Family ties are also at play in Willy's career, as he works for a family operation. He began his salesman career for Howard's father, and helped name Howard. While Howard has not treated Willy well, he emphasizes the importance of his family to Willy by sharing recordings of his children's voices.

The Loman family is dysfunctional to be sure, but not for lack of caring for each other. Willy wants his sons to be successes and, though his means of promoting this idea in their life is often misguided, there is never any doubt that he cares about them. This situation goes both ways. Hap and Biff idolized their father as boys. As adults, they are both concerned about their father's mental state. Biff is especially troubled by his father's suicidal thoughts and actions. They act as best they can to help him and their mother with this situation. Yet the sons make mistakes as well. Hap and Biff abandon their father at the restaurant after he wanders off in the haze of the past again; Hap even denies that Willy is his father to the two women he just met.

There is a significant fissure in the Loman family structure. Biff gave up on his academic and athletic dreams when he found out his father was having an affair with another woman on the road. Willy's failure as a husband made Biff question his father's other values. While it seems that Biff never told Hap or his mother what he saw, Biff does not like Willy's sometimes Page 203  |  Top of Articlepoor treatment of Linda. Biff's difficulties with his father stem from Willy's infidelity; Linda does not always understand why Biff is standing up to Willy when her husband treats her poorly. Despite such problems, every member of the Loman family wants to do right by its other members. Willy even assumes killing himself is doing right by his family, in a misguided notion that money is worth more than honest relationships.


Another, darker aspect of the American dream explored in Death of a Salesman is the concept of materialism. Willy, Linda, and Hap, more so than Biff, want to own the best of everything associated with the good life, no matter what the cost economically or personally. One reason for Willy's distress is the amount of payments he owes on consumer items such as refrigerators, cars, washing machines, vacuums, and the like, as well as upkeep on said items. He also has a mortgage that is nearly paid off as well as a life insurance policy about to lapse for nonpayment. The Lomans have lived beyond Willy's salary for some time, embracing materialism as a physical embodiment of Willy's economic success.

Because Willy is not the success he tells everyone he is, this situation leads to increasing problems for him and his family. If they had budgeted their money and not bought items on the market because of advertising—Linda explains why they bought their refrigerator because "They got the biggest ads of any of them!"—the family's financial situation might be different when Willy loses his job. As it stands, he sees the only way to help his family is to kill himself. That way, they will get the $20,000 from their insurance policy, pay off debts, and perhaps start a business. Even Linda recognizes that "We're free" at the play's end. However, this freedom has come at a price. A few lines earlier, she tells Willy's grave that "I made the last payment on the house today. Today, dear. And there'll be nobody home."


Post-World War II Prosperity

After World II ended in the mid-1940s, the United States' economy greatly improved and Americans experienced prosperity as they never had before. Years after the Great Depression, the war led to increased industrial production in support of the war effort. Because workers could not spend much of their earnings during the war years as only limited commercial consumer items were being produced, Americans had about $140 billion in savings by 1945. Businesses responded by converting war-time industry to producing products many Americans wanted. Businesses also invested significant amounts of money into new materials and equipment, about $300 billion, and created new technologies. For the first time in decades, many Americans had money to spend and an excess of products and services from which to choose.

Not all Americans saw these economic benefits. Poor Americans suffered because of high inflation that did not allow them to save money. In 1946 alone, the inflation rate was 18.2 percent. Because of government policy support of big corporate farms, smaller farmers often lost out in the post-World War II economic boom. Migrant farm workers regularly received the lowest pay of any American job category. Unskilled laborers and clerks were not much better off. Strikes and labor unrest was common in this time period in many major industries.

Post-World War II Uncertainty

For the victors in World War II, the post-war period saw a tension-filled conflict arise between two major former allies: the United States and the Soviet Union. While Europe was recovering from the economic, physical, and psychological devastation of the war, the United States took on a greater international leadership role. Though the Soviet Union was similarly weakened by the war, Joseph Stalin, the country's dictator, ensured that the country's military remained strong.

Within a few years after World War II's end, the United States and the Soviet Union became locked in an international battle for dominance. The two emerged as dueling superpowers, with each country working for sway over other smaller countries. The resulting stand-off was not only political but ideological as well, as the United States promoted democracy while the Soviet Union pushed its version of Communism.

The "battles" of the Cold War began as soon as World War II ended. By the end of the war, the Soviet Union occupied a number of countries in Page 204  |  Top of ArticleEastern Europe, such as Poland, Romania, East Germany, and Bulgaria. The Soviets took control of most of these countries while driving back the Germans. Instead of ceding control of such countries to their people at war's end, the Soviet military remained in control and Soviet-run Communist governments were put in place. These countries were behind the so-called "Iron Curtain" and formed the Soviet bloc.

By 1947, the Soviet Union was attempting to do the same thing to Greece and Turkey. U.S. President Harry S. Truman responded with the Truman Doctrine, which stated American would act to contain the Soviets and prevent them from taking control of any more countries. The United States government showed it would follow the doctrine by giving $400 million in economic aid to Greece and Turkey. The United States also organized the Berlin airlifts of 1948 and 1949. These airlifts ensured the western-controlled portion of the German city would remain free from Communist influence.

The Cold War continued to escalate in the 1950s and eventually became an arms race as well. Both the United States and the Soviet Union soon had nuclear bombs; there was a looming threat that one or both countries would use them. The uncertainties created by the Cold War left many Americans feeling anxious about their future as well as the future of the world. Such feelings continued until the Cold War ended in 1991.


As businesses grew in the post-World War II period, corporations gained power in shaping American society and how Americans who had money spent it. Mass culture was also pushed by radio programs, movies, and, in a few short years, television by advertising for products made by such corporations. Goods highlighted in such advertising and programs also became more widely available to Americans. Everything from cars to electrical appliances to potato chips could be purchased nearly everywhere in the United States because of an improved national distribution network.

Though wages also were on the increase in this time period, many American consumers, especially the growing middle class, were tempted to spend more than they made. New forms of consumer credit became easily available and popular. There was short-term consumer credit such as loans for automobiles. This practice became common in post-World War II America; until this point, most cars were cash purchases. In 1946, Americans owed about $8.5 billion in short-term credit; by 1958, that figure increased dramatically, to $45 billion.

Many of Willy Loman's financial problems came from problems with owing too much on short-term credit. Many of the Lomans' household items and services were purchased on credit, and keeping up with payments proved difficult for Willy. Many Americans found their identity in the amount of consumer products they owned, used, and consumed.

Long-term consumer credit, such as home mortgages, also saw a major increase in the late 1940s and 1950s. Many Americans bought homes in the post-war housing boom. In 1946, Americans owed about $23 billion in long-term credit; by 1958, that figure increased to nearly $120 billion. Willy also has a home mortgage, but unlike his short-term credit problems, his home is nearly paid off.


Death of a Salesman was lauded by critics and audiences from its first production in 1949. It is said that businessmen wept during the original Broadway run. Robert Garland of the New York Journal American writes of the play's opening night:

Here's my true report that yesterday at the Morosco, the first-night congregation made no effort to leave the theatre at the final curtain-fall of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. It's meant to make known to you the prevailing emotional impact of the new play.

William Hawkins of the New York World-Telegram compares it to "the finest classical tragedy." Writing in the New York Post, Richard Watts Jr. concludes, "Death of a Salesman emerges as easily the best and most important new American play of the year."

Other critics of the original production found the ideas Miller explored to be universal. In the New York Times, Brooks Atkinson declares:

It is so simple in style and so inevitable in theme that it scarcely seems like a thing that has been written and acted. For Mr. Miller has looked with compassion into the hearts of some Page 205  |  Top of Articleordinary Americans and quietly transferred their hope and anguish to the theatre.

Miller, Death of a Salesman, and its characters continued to garner such critical kudos long after its premiere, as the play turned into an international phenomenon. By the 1984 Broadway revival, Willy Loman (played by Dustin Hoffman), is called "a classic American part in one of the sentimental icons of our theater" by Lloyd Rose in The Atlantic.

On the fiftieth anniversary of the first production of Death of a Salesman in 1999, the play's power was still evident, even by critics who took issue with some aspects of the drama. Writing in Time, Richard Zoglin asks, "Why does this depressing, sometimes overwritten, painfully familiar play still move us in almost every incarnation?… The chief reason, of course, is Willy Loman, that all-American victim of his own skewed recipe for success." Zoglin ends his conflicted piece by noting,

That it continues to fascinate us is testimony to Miller's ability to pack so much—heartbreaking family drama, an Ibsenian tragedy of illusions shattered, an indictment of American capitalism—into one beaten-down figure with a sample case. After 50 years it still makes the sale.

Other critics believe the play's universality has only increased over time. David Klinghoffer of National Review claims, "Now that women routinely labor outside their homes, we are all Willy Loman." The critic also concludes, "A man's descent to failure too horrendous to contemplate. Whatever line of work you are in, we are all salesmen, selling our products, our services, our selves."


Granger Babcock

In the following excerpt, Babcock examines how Willy's failure is a product of the fallacies of his masculine, individualistic, American success fantasy.

Most critics recognize that Arthur Miller intends Willy Loman as a victim of "society." But Willy's construction as a victim is interpreted within the parameters of a self-generated individual and is used as the main reason conservative critics deny Salesman tragic status. As a victim, the argument runs, Willy has no understanding of his situation; he is, in the words of Dan Vogel, "too commonplace and limited." Unlike Oedipus, Hamlet, or Lear, Willy is incapable of self-knowledge and is, therefore, not tragic but pathetic: "he cannot summon the intelligence and strength to scrutinize his situation and come to some understanding of it." Even liberal critics like Thomas Adler and Ruby Cohn, who are generally sympathetic towards Willy, tend to judge his character harshly; in their estimation, he is either a "victim of himself and his choices," or he "has achieved neither popularity nor success as a salesman, and has failed as a gardener, carpenter, and father." Willy's problem (or part of his problem), then, according to these critics, is that he accepts his fate; he does not possess the vision, volition, capacity, strength, knowledge, or pluck to fight against the cultural forces that shape his life.

Sidebar: HideShow


A film version of Death of a Salesman in 1985, featuring the same cast as the Broadway revival of 1984. Dustin Hoffman stars as Willy Loman, John Malkovich plays Biff Loman, and Kate Reid appears as Linda. It is available on DVD from Image Entertainment.

The underlying assumption of these arguments is that Willy can change his life—with a little hard work, perhaps—but that he will not. Behind these judgments is a model: the national subject, or what I will call the masculine unconscious. This model can also be described as the autonomous, active male subject that determines and makes itself, as well as the liberal subject, the rugged individual, or the exceptional American. Whatever linguistic sign the masculine unconscious uses to communicate itself, it is wholly other to the subject, and it is given to the subject by the publicity apparatus of capital. Miller calls this other the "law of success":

The confusion of some critics viewing Death of a Salesman … is that they do not see that Willy Loman has broken a law without whose protection life is insupportable, if not incomprehensible to him and to many others; it is a law which says a failure in society and in business has no right to live. Unlike the law against incest, the law of success is not administered Page 206  |  Top of Article
Scene from Death of Salesman with Lee J Cobb Scene from Death of Salesman with Lee J Cobb Columbia/The Kobal Collection by statute or church, but it is very nearly as powerful in its grip upon men.

As C. W. E. Bigsby notes, "Willy Loman's life is rooted in America's past." More precisely, his identity is rooted in models from two different periods of American capital, which are conflated in his mind. Willy's father represents the unfettered and unalienated labor of mercantile capital. His brother Ben represents the accumulative processes of monopoly capital. Both figures are mythic; that is, both figures embody an heroic past that is disseminated by the symbolic practices of capital and reproduced in individual men. Together, Miller suggests, they represent the (his)tory (not an history) of the (white) race in America. Or, as Irving Jacobson suggests,

What Willy Loman wants, and what success means in Death of a Salesman, is intimately related to his own, and the playwright's, sense of the family. Family dreams extend backward in time to interpret the past, reach forward in time to project images of the future, and pressure reality in the present to conform to memory [ideology] and imagination.

Willy desires to be like his father because his father is like other successful men, other "great" inventors; his father is a model citizen—he has amassed a fortune. His father is like America's first model citizen, Ben Franklin, who "invented" electricity and the lightning rod. His father is like Thomas A. Edison and B. F. Goodrich, both rich and famous because of their inventions. Nevertheless, given the mercantile economy in which Miller locates Willy's father, it is unlikely that he could have produced a "gadget" that earned him more in a week than Willy earns in his lifetime. This type of event was more common (but still relatively isolated) in the period of capital Ben represents (monopoly capital) when "great" inventors like Edison and Goodrich did earn more money in a week (by producing technology for an emergent industrial economy) than a salesman could earn in thirty-five years. The figure of Willy's father exists simultaneously in Page 207  |  Top of ArticleWilly's "mind" with the figures of Edison and Goodrich. The simultaneity of the Franklin-Edison-Goodrich-father Loman narrative produces a fusion of the individual stories, which erases the specific history of the individual figures by marginalizing their differences; this fusion, again, is produced by the publicity apparatus of capital. Through the other, that is, Willy plugs himself into the success narrative as he rereads his family history.

Historically, as C. Wright Mills notes, "for men in the era of classical liberalism, competition was never merely an impersonal mechanism regulating the economy of capitalism, or only a guarantee of political freedom. Competition was a means of producing free individuals, a testing field for heroes; in its terms men lived the legend of the self-reliant individual." Whether or not what Mills argues is historically representative, it is safe to assume that in a decentralized economy (an economy without the hierarchy of industrialized structures), individual competition through labor was a way for many to create mobility and wealth. However, as the economy became more centralized and hierarchical, competition, as Willy says, became "maddening" because it did not yield the same results (imagined or otherwise) as it did for men of Willy's father's and Ben's generations.

In Willy's time, in fact, competition has become warlike. After returning from a selling trip, for instance, Willy tells his family he "Knocked 'em cold in Providence, slaughtered 'em in Boston." Willy's gift to his sons on his return from this same trip is a punching bag with "Gene Tunney's signature on it." "[I]t's the finest thing for the timing," he tells his apprentices. Elsewhere, Willy describes business as "murderous." When Biff goes to ask Bill Oliver for a loan, Willy's advice is "Knock him dead, boy." The violence of Willy's language echoes the ruthlessness of his model, Ben—the same man who attacks Biff: "Never fight fair with a stranger, boy. You'll never get out of the jungle that way." Willy's desire to emulate Ben's power thus leads him to bring "the spirit of the jungle" into his home, where it reveals itself as what Sartre calls "counter-finality." His positive intention of providing his boys with a model for success results in the negative legitimation of theft and fantasy.

Miller problematizes Willy's pedagogy by suggesting that even sanctioned expressions of masculinity involve theft. In the scene which follows Ben's fight with Biff, for example, Willy has his sons start to rebuild the front steps because Willy doesn't want Ben to think he is just a salesman; he wants to show Ben that Brooklyn is not Brooklyn ("we hunt too"); he wants to show Ben what kind of stock his sons come from: "Why, Biff can fell any one of these trees in no time!" Instead of providing the materials to rebuild the front stoop, however, Willy directs his sons to "Go right over where they're building the apartment house and get some sand." Charley warns Willy that "if they steal any more from that building the watchman'll put the cops on them." Willy responds, addressing Ben, "You shoulda seen the lumber they brought home last week. At least a dozen six-by-tens worth all kinds of money." This, of course, is a parody of Ben's logging operations in Alaska, but it also suggests that the individualism that the success ideology sanctions legitimates theft, just as that ideology legitimates the expropriation of foreign land and mineral resources. This is made even clearer in the following lines, when Willy excuses his sons' behavior because, as he says, "I got a couple of fearless characters there." Charley counters: "Willy, the jails are full of fearless characters," and Ben responds, "And the stock exchange, friend!" Again, these lines suggest that Miller recognizes that even legitimized expressions of masculine behavior, practices and beliefs that the American publicity apparatus valorizes, involve theft.

A further example of Miller transforming the success ideology into theft is found in the scene where Biff "borrows" a football from his high school locker room so that he can practice with a "regulation ball." Willy, predictably, laughs with Biff at the theft and rewards the action by saying, "Coach'll probably congratulate you on your initiative!" Initiative, even in Franklin's day, is one of the key elements of masculine autonomy, and here Miller insists that initiative is a form of theft. Later in the same scene, Biff tells his father, "This Saturday, Pop, this Saturday—just for you, I'm going to break through for a touchdown." Happy then reminds Biff that he is "supposed to pass." Biff ignores Happy's warning and says, "I'm taking one play for Pop (italics mine). This taking is a pattern that will eventually take over Biff's life, for as Biff tells Willy at the end of the play, "I stole a suit in Kansas City and I was in jail … I stole myself out of every good job since high school!" More important for Miller, however, is Page 208  |  Top of Articlethat this one moment of taking represents a typical moment in the dominant version of American masculinity. Biff's "theft" of the play is another instance of his initiative, another example drawn from the headlines which celebrate individual achievement. For a moment in Willy's mind, Biff is like Red Grange or Gene Tunney. As he tells Charley, "When this game is over … you'll be laughing out the other side of your face. They'll be calling him another Red Grange. Twenty-five thousand a year." What is lost in Biff's taking, however, is the team. Biff's initiative, and his desire to place himself above the goal of the team, jeopardizes the collective goal of the team—to win the City Championship.

The final confrontation occurs two scenes later when Biff tells Willy "you're going to hear the truth—what you are and what I am." Biff rejects Willy's "phony dream" because

I ran down eleven flights with a pen in my hand today. And suddenly I stopped … I saw the things that I love in this world. The work and the food and time to sit and smoke. And I looked at the pen and said to myself, what the hell am I grabbing this for? Why am I trying to become what I don't want to be? What am I doing in an office, making a contemptuous, begging fool of myself, when all I want is out there, waiting for me the minute I say I know who I am!

This is an assertion of Biff's desire against Willy's desire and the fantasy that Willy's desire constructs. Because Biff recognizes that his father's dream is false, that his father has been positioned by the law of success to believe in the autonomous male, he is in a position to resist (at least partially) the ideology. Biff does not believe in the version of universal citizenship that Willy believes in. Biff recognizes that he is "a dime a dozen," that he will never be B. F. Goodrich or Thomas Edison or Red Grange or J. P. Morgan or Gene Tunney. He attempts to resist the ideology of the success narrative because he doesn't want to be other; he doesn't want to be number one: "I am not a leader of men, Willy, and neither are you … I'm a dollar an hour, Willy … A buck an hour." Willy, a believer to the bitter end, insists that he is exceptional: "I am Willy Loman, and you are Biff Loman." At this point there is a complete repudiation of the success fantasy: Biff screams, "Pop, I'm nothing! I'm nothing, Pop," and he begins to hug his father and cry.

Source: Granger Babcock, "'What's the Secret?' Willy Loman as Desiring Machine," in American Drama, Vol. 2, No. 1, Fall 1992, pp. 59-83.


"Arthur Miller dies; Pulitzer for Salesman," in the Hollywood Reporter, Vol. 387, No. 45, February 14, 2005, p. 4.

Atkinson, Brooks, "Death of a Salesman, a New Drama by Arthur Miller, Has Premiered at the Morosco," in the New York Times, February 11, 1949.

Garland, Robert, "Audience Spellbound by Prize Play of 1949," in the New York Journal American, February 11, 1949.

Hawkins, William, "Death of a Salesman Powerful Tragedy," in the New York World-Telegram, February 11, 1949.

Klinghoffer, David, "Undying Salesman," in the National Review, Vol. 51, No. 4, March 8, 1999, p. 54.

Kroll, Jack, "Rebirth of a Salesman," in Newsweek, Vol. 133, No. 8, February 22, 1999, p. 51.

Miller, Arthur, Death of a Salesman: Text and Criticism, edited by Gerald Weales, Bantam Books, 1951; reprint, Penguin Books, 1996.

Rose, Lloyd, Review of Death of a Salesman, in The Atlantic, No. 253, April 1984, p. 130.

Watts, Richard, Jr., "Death of Salesman A Powerful Drama," in the New York Post, February 11, 1949.

Zoglin, Richard, "American Tragedy," in Time, Vol. 153, No. 6, February 19, 1999, p. 77.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2895300027