Death of a Salesman Summary

Table of Contents

Death of A Salesman Summary – Act 1, Scene 1

Miller begins his play with a bedtime dialogue between Willy and his wife, Linda.  Willy, an aging salesman, has just returned late from a business trip.  Linda is very concerned, asking her husband if he had a car accident.  Willy tiredly explains that indeed he did have a close call with his car, veering off the road on two occasions while enjoying the scenery.  Though at first Linda thinks that it’s a problem with the vehicle, eventually she attributes Willy’s driving problems to his exhausted mind.  When Willy explains that he’s just been on vacation, she asserts, “But you didn’t rest your mind. Your mind is overactive, and the mind is what counts, dear.”

Miller uses this scene to show Willy’s confusion.  The aging salesman is unable to assess his situation or come to any rational conclusion as to what to do to remedy his failures.  He blames his financial problems in part on Howard, the new owner of Willy’s company and son of the former owner.  According to Willy, Howard doesn’t appreciate his ability the way his father did.  Despite these setbacks, however, he still believes in his ability and value as a salesman.  When explaining why they can’t leave the crowded city to live in New York, Willy tells his wife, “I’m the New England man.  I’m vital in New England.”

Willy’s second major problem addressed in this scene is his troubled relationship with his son, Biff.  It seems Biff, who is grown up but now at home again for an extended visit after spending several years out west, hasn’t found financial success or even a decent paying job.  Willy (who wishes for the success of his sons in part because he hasn’t found success himself) blames Biff’s laziness for these problems.  Yet only a few lines later, Willy contradicts himself, maintaining that Biff is a very hard worker.  “There’s one thing about Biff-he’s not lazy,” the old man says.

Throughout the scene, Linda appears very apologetic for Biff, hoping to smooth things over with Willy and get him to sleep.  Linda is seen as a very conciliatory person, not wanting to upset anyone.  Later, this attitude will enable Willy to continue his downward spiral.

Death of A Salesman Summary – Act 1, Scene 2

While Willy and Linda are talking downstairs, Biff and his brother Happy listen from the loft where they sleep.  The two grown men discuss their past failures.  Biff says that he can’t find a job that both pays well and is satisfying, while Happy similarly admits that he doesn’t like his job as a business clerk.  Both brothers day-dream for a time about going out west and making a living together on a cattle ranch.  “Men built like we are should be working out in the open,” Biff asserts.

Happy too, but Biff especially, feels guilty that he’s not lived up to his father’s expectations.  “I’m thirty-four years old, I oughta be makin’ my future.  That’s when I come running home.  And now, I get here, and I don’t know what to do with myself.  I’ve always made a point of not wasting my life, and every time I come back here I know that all I’ve done is to waste my life,” the older brother admits.

Though Happy initially seems to agree with Biff’s sentiments that money-grubbing isn’t what life is all about, the younger brother later contradicts himself when he reveals his desire to emulate his rich boss.  He asserts, “when he walks into the store the waves part in front of him.” Happy goes on to brag about his sexual encounters with various women, including his bosses’ fiances.  Yet even this doesn’t satisfy him.  Later, the reader will learn that Happy takes after his father in this regard.  The conversation ends with a reference to Bill Oliver, an employer of Biff in the past.  Biff hopes that this businessman will lend him a few thousand dollars to buy his ranch out west.

Soon they hear Willy from downstairs, talking to himself as usual.  He’s actually speaking to Biff-the Biff of ten or more years ago.  This is one of the first signs that Willy is living in the past.

Death of A Salesman Summary – Act 1, Scene 3

This scene begins with a flashback to when Biff and Happy are in high school.  They are busy polishing the family car as Willy rambles on as usual.  Soon in becomes obvious that Happy is trying very hard to please his father, though Biff seems to receive all of Willy’s attention.  “I’m losing weight, you notice, Pop?” he asks his father.  Yet Willy doesn’t notice, choosing to talk to Biff instead.

When Willy learns that Biff has stolen a football from the high school, Willy shrugs it off, saying, “Coach’ll probably congratulate you on your initiative.” It seems nothing can get in the way of Willy’s belief in Biff’s success.  This incident is just a further example of Willy’s illusions about his sons.  These illusions are continued when Willy later tells his boys that he’s a great, successful businessman who one day will be rich like Uncle Charley.  Yet unlike Charley, Willy intends to be “well liked.” He brags about having friends all over the East Coast.  “I can park my car in any street in New England, and the cops protect it like their own,” he exaggerates.  It seems the idea of being liked is crucial to Willy’s notion of success.

Yet these illusions begin to be disproved when Bernard, a neighbor and son of Charley, enters the scene, warning Willy that Biff won’t graduate from high school if he doesn’t study math.  It soon becomes apparent that Biff is only a football hero, not a good student at all.  Yet again, Willy shrugs off this shortcoming, telling his sons that personality is more important than smarts.  He explains, “the man who makes an appearance in the business world, the man who creates personal interest, is the man who gets ahead.  Be liked and you will never want.”

Later, Miller flash-forwards to the present.  The reader learns that the Loman family is deeply in debt and that Willy is only getting paid by commission because he has lost most of his ability as a salesman.

Willy’s mind also seems to be going.  Though near the beginning of his conversation with Linda he says that his Chevrolet is the best car ever built, moments later he contradicts himself, saying, “they ought to prohibit the manufacture of that car!” These contradictions continue, as Willy laments over the fact that he is not well liked, despite the fact that moments before he tells his sons that he is very well liked.  Yet Linda tries to reassure her failing husband, telling him that he is successful and handsome.  This statement causes Willy’s mind to drift away to a time when he was with a prostitute on the road.  This short scene ends with Willy giving “The Woman” a pair of stockings as a present.  Though Willy certainly can’t afford to buy these gifts, he does so anyway.  Here again, Willy shows himself to be anyone but a strong role model for his sons.  Later, when the scene returns to the present and Willy finds Linda mending some stockings, he feels very guilty.

Finally, Willy returns to his illusions-this time, of his rich brother, Ben.  Throughout the play, Miller uses Ben to represent the pinnacle of capitalist potential and the benchmark for Willy’s success as a businessman.  According to Willy, Ben has made a fortune mining diamonds in Africa.  “The man knew what he wanted and went out and got it! Walked into a jungle, and comes out, the age of twenty-one, and he’s rich!” Thus, Willy’s illusions continue.  Many critics believe that Ben is simply a figment of Willy’s imagination-not a real person at all.

Death of A Salesman Summary – Act 1, Scene 4

Amidst Willy’s late-night yelling, Charley, a neighbor and friend of the family, enters from outside, wondering what all the commotion is about.  He starts a card game with Willy in order to settle him down.  Out of friendship, he offers Willy a job after hearing about his problems as a salesman.  Willy is quick to take offense at this offer, saying that he already has a good job.

Later, when Willy brings up the subject of Biff, Charley advises Willy to give up on his son.  “When a deposit bottle is broken you don’t get your nickel back,” Charley asserts.  Yet Willy is not willing to let go of his illusions about his sons’ potential for success.

Soon, Willy begins to confuse Charley with his brother, Ben.  This leads to a flashback of sorts to a scene with Willy and Ben. It seems Ben and his father left to make their fortunes sometime in Willy’s early childhood, leaving Willy and his mother behind.  It’s obvious that Willy idealizes Ben because he has “made it” in the world.  Willy is remorseful that he didn’t take his brother up on his offer to run his business in Alaska.  That was an opportunity of a lifetime, Willy admits.
Yet Ben has little time to spend with his little brother.  Willy, excited that Ben is there to give advice to his sons, forces Biff and Happy to listen to their Uncle Ben, hoping that they will learn his business techniques and strike it rich themselves.  In this way, Willy sees the potential success of his sons as the only remaining hope of being successful himself.  It all seems quite simple to Ben.  He tells Biff and Happy, “Why, boys, when I was seventeen I walked into the jungle, and when I was twenty-one I walked out.  And by God I was rich.” This ideal, however, proves to be unattainable by Willy and his sons when Willy’s desperate struggle for success and happiness is never achieved.  This realization is foreshadowed when Ben knocks Biff down with his umbrella, saying, “Never fight fair with a stranger, boy.  You’ll never get out of the jungle that way.”

But Willy is left with a glimmer of hope when Ben tells him that he’s taught his boys well.  Again, though, Ben seems more a figment of Willy’s imagination than anything else.  His word goes a long way with Willy, but no one else.

Death of A Salesman Summary – Act 1, Scene 5

Now, Linda steps in to persuade Willy to go to bed.  Unfortunately for her, Willy is still daydreaming about Ben, sauntering into the yard and street in his slippers, continuing to talk to himself.  Biff and Happy are surprised and embarrassed by their father’s behavior, reproaching their mother for not telling them about how Willy acts.  Biff even asserts that Willy has no character.  But Linda defends her husband, telling Biff that he is partly to blame for Willy’s insanity.  She gives Biff an ultimatum, saying, “Either he’s your father and you pay him that respect, or else you’re not to come here.” Here, Linda, always Willy’s arch supporter, feels that her husband has suffered unjustly.  Not only has the sales company taken away his salary after years of hard work (he has to borrow money from Charley every week), now even Biff has deserted him.

Yet Biff seems to know something that the reader doesn’t.  To explain why he and his father don’t get along, he calls his father a fake, saying that “he doesn’t like anybody around who knows.” This crushes Linda even more, who divulges to the boys that Willy has been trying to commit suicide.  Apparently his car “accidents” were not accidents after all.  Linda places the burden of Willy’s future on Biff’s shoulders, saying, “Biff, his life is in your hands!”

Death of A Salesman Summary – Act 1, Scene 6

Biff begins this scene with a pledge to his mother that he will “apply himself” and make something of his life so that Willy can rest easy.  Willy enters, however, having overheard Biff saying that people laugh at him.  The failing salesman goes on the counteroffensive, telling Biff, “You never grew up.” This is an ironic statement, since Willy is often Sthe one who lives in the past and idealizes his sons (Biff in particular) for their successes in high school.

Soon, however, the tension is lifted when Happy comes up with the idea that he and Biff can go into business together, selling sporting goods by playing sports themselves.  Here, Happy connects Willy’s devotion to business success with Biff’s love of the outdoors and physical activities.  Willy immediately loves the idea, and his fantasy world of illusions continues.  Here, Willy’s manic-depressive personality comes especially to light.  He can feel as though the world is falling in on him one moment, and then be instantly transformed when he hears something that feeds his illusional belief in his boys’ success.

Later, Biff and Happy say goodnight to Willy.  As the three men speak about Biff’s interview with Bill Oliver (a businessman who can supposedly help their sporting goods business venture), Linda chimes in, only to have Willy rudely tell her to shut up.  This happens several times before Biff finally stands up for his mother.  Willy feels reproached by Biff when he defends her, and the good feelings of the moment are spoiled.  Linda shrugs it off, however, and soon Willy forgets that he’s angry at Biff.  As Biff leaves, he tells his son, “You got all kinds of greatness..” Once again, Willy is back to his world of illusion, where personality triumphs over substance.  He advises Biff on how to make a good impression, saying, “personality always wins the day.” He tells Biff to demand fifteen thousand dollars from Oliver, saying, “start big and you’ll end big.” Obviously this notion contradicts the traditional business belief that one has to work his way up the corporate ladder.  Willy seems to think that a Loman can start at the top (despite his lack of success, which proves the contrary)-just another example of Willy’s inability to see reality.

Death of A Salesman Summary – Act 2, Scene 1

This scene is one of the happiest in the entire play.  Linda is serving Willy breakfast in the kitchen as they discuss their plans for the day.  Biff and Happy have already left to talk to Oliver about their business ventures and have planned to meet Willy later that day for dinner in a fancy restaurant.  Willy is very exited about his sons’ prospects as well as his own.  Today he has finally resolved to ask his boss, Howard, for a job in New York, instead of having to work on the road.  This newfound hope likewise fills Linda with happiness, now that joy is again abundant in the hearts of her family.

In this scene, the garden metaphor is once again referenced.  To Willy, success requires fulfillment of the traditional American Dream paradigm, or in Willy’s case, illusion.  Like his brother Ben who conquers the wilderness, Willy feels that he must live on the frontier, building a house and planting a garden for his family, if he wants to be successful.  He tells Linda, “Before it’s all over we’re gonna get a little place out in the country, and I’ll raise some vegetables, a couple of chickens.” Unfortunately, times have changed and his dream is no longer possible in twentieth century New England.  Willy is simply an old salesman who has lost his hold of reality, having never lived up to his own expectations.

Death of A Salesman Summary – Act 2, Scene 2

This scene takes place in the office of Howard, Willy’s boss.  Willy has come to Howard’s office, determined to convince his boss to offer him a job in New York.  Yet Howard is preoccupied with a new recording machine that he has purchased and is slow to listen to Willy’s plea.  This is just one more indication that Willy has little respect in the business community, despite his own often self-exalted opinion of his ability.  Yet when Howard finally does agree to talk to Willy, he is forced to give the old man bad news.  Howard admits, “Willy. there just is no spot here for you.”

When Willy realizes that his request has been turned down, he begins to lose his bearings again and he soon launches into his green slipper fantasy, which eventually forces Howard to kick him out of the office.  Willy explains his green slipper illusion by telling Howard the reason he became a salesman in the first place: he thought that he would die the death of a salesman, namely that he would die after living a life of luxury, having been a famous, loved and respected salesman who didn’t even have to leave his hotel room to make his deals.  Willy elaborates on the business world he knew as an eager, young salesman, lamenting to Howard, “There was respect, and comradeship, and gratitude in it.  Today, it’s all cut and dried, and there’s no chance for bringing friendship to bear-or personality.”

Here, it’s obvious that Willy no longer has a place in the commercial marketplace.  In many ways, Miller indicts society for being too commercial and money-oriented.  Willy soon grows angry, telling Howard, “You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away-a man is not a piece of fruit.” Here, Willy feels that Howard (the son of the father who had formerly promised Willy that he would be rewarded for his service to the company) has gone back on his father’s word by forgetting the salesman in his golden years, throwing away the peel after eating the orange, so to speak.  Howard ends the meeting by firing Willy.

Death of A Salesman Summary – Act 2, Scene 3

This scene launches into another of Willy’s flashbacks/dream sequences.  As before, Ben, Willy’s older and richer brother, appears.  Also like before, Ben is in a hurry to leave.  It seems Ben is always rushing away for one reason or another.  Miller cleverly uses this motif to symbolize Willy’s race against time.  Willy feels that if he or his sons don’t soon find success soon, his whole life will be a failure.

When Ben offers Willy a job in Alaska, Willy is tempted, but maintains that he is “building something” with his sales company in New England (keep in mind this occurs in the past, when Willy really did feel that he was building something with the firm).  He tries to show Ben that indeed he has been a success, bragging about Biff: “Without a penny to his name, three great universities are begging for him, and from there the sky’s the limit, because it’s not what you do, Ben, it’s who you know and the smile on your face!” Unfortunately, this is the whole fallacy behind Willy’s flawed life.  Life (as Willy has found out in the previous scene when he is fired) is about substance, not smiles.  Willy is unable to deliver the sales and so is unable to keep his job.  As difficult as this may seem to him, this is the reality of life in a free market economy.

Later, Charley enters the scene, and soon a confrontation between Willy and his neighbor ensues.  Even at this time Willy feels inferior to Charley, which causes the salesman to place the burden of the family’s success on the shoulders of Biff, his high school football star.

Death of A Salesman Summary – Act 2, Scene 4

This scene returns to the present.  Here, Willy goes to Charley’s office to pick up the money that he regularly borrows from his neighbor.  Getting off the elevator, he sees Charley’s son, Bernard, who is now an adult and a high-class lawyer (in fact he is currently arguing a case before the Supreme Court).

Bernard begins a conversation with Willy, asking the fired salesman about Biff.  At first Willy pretends that “big things” are happening to his son as well, seeing that Bernard is so successful.  Later, though, Willy admits that Biff has failed and asks Bernard where he went wrong in raising him.  It seems that after the Ebbets Field game, Biff’s career as a football player was over (Miller only briefly alludes to this point).  Bernard doesn’t know why Biff gave up, only saying that one day Biff went to Boston to visit Willy on the road.  After this incident, Biff apparently lost all desire to go to summer school and graduate.  Bernard asks the salesman about Biff’s trip: “I’ve often thought of how strange it was that I knew he’d given up his life.  What happened in Boston, Willy?” This causes Willy to grow uncomfortable, for though the reader doesn’t know it yet, Biff caught Willy with a prostitute in Boston.

Finally, Charley enters the scene, telling his son that he’s going to be late for his train.  Bernard exits, leaving Willy and Charley alone.  Charley willingly agrees to lend Willy whatever cash he needs to pay his insurance, but he also offers his neighbor a job with the firm.  Willy is stubborn, however, and tells Charley that he won’t work for him.  It seems Willy is too prideful to take a job from his neighbor.  Though he is willing to “borrow” money from Charley, accepting a job from his kind friend is going too far.

At the end of the scene, Willy alludes to suicide.  He admits to Charley, “After all the highways, and the trains, and the appointments, and the years, you end up worth more dead than alive.” It seems Willy has a sizable amount of life insurance.

Death of A Salesman Summary – Act 2, Scene 5

This scene starts in the restaurant where Biff and Happy have arranged to meet Willy for dinner.  Happy is waiting for the others when a beautiful woman enters and sits down nearby.  Soon, Biff also enters the scene, sitting next to his brother.  Happy tries to set Biff up with the woman, telling her that Biff is the quarterback of the New York Giants.  Soon, however, Biff drops a bombshell on Happy, telling him that Oliver wouldn’t even see him.  Yet to Biff, his experience at Oliver’s office is much more than this.  He sorrowfully concludes before his brother, “I realized what a ridiculous lie my whole life has been!” Biff realizes that he was never a salesman for Oliver, but just a lowly shipping clerk fired for stealing from the company he worked for.  Finally Biff realizes that his father’s illusions of success for him are just that-illusions.  Soon Willy enters, telling his boys that he has been fired; next, he hears from them that the deal with Oliver didn’t work out.  An argument ensues-this seems to be the final straw in the undoing of the Loman family.

Death of A Salesman Summary – Act 2, Scene 6

Unable to cope with the bad news, Willy saunters into the restaurant bathroom where he drifts into his fantasy world again.  This time it’s a flashback to Biff’s high school days.  It seems Biff has just flunked math and will not graduate from high school.  Soon Willy relives the terrible hotel room scene where Biff walked in on him and another woman.

Going back out to the table, Biff berates Happy for feeling no compassion for Willy.  He begs his brother to forget the girls (the woman and her friend) long enough to console his father.  It seems Happy tries to forget his problems by surrounding himself with women.  He leaves with the women, telling them that the babbling fool in the washroom isn’t really his father.

Death of A Salesman Summary – Act 2, Scene 7

This scene continues the flashback to the Boston hotel room where Willy and the prostitute are staying.  Unfortunately for Willy, he is about to receive an unexpected visit from his son, Biff.  Biff is heard knocking on the door, and finally Willy opens it after telling the woman to hide in the bathroom.  Willy opens the door, shocked to see his son.  He quickly tries to get Biff, who is telling him that he’s flunked math and won’t graduate, to go with him downstairs, away from the prostitute.  This strategy almost works, but just as they are about to leave, Biff hears someone in the bathroom and soon the naked prostitute walks out, asking Willy for her stockings.  Biff immediately realizes what’s going on and begins to cry, learning that Willy is paying this woman in Linda’s stockings.  He can’t describe the anger and loathing he now has for his father, crying, “You fake! You phony little fake!”

Having finished this flashback, Willy moves through the restaurant, getting ready to pay the waiter and leave.  On the way out, he asks the waiter where he can buy seeds for his garden.  He tells Stanley, “I’ve got to get some seeds.  I’ve got to get some seeds, right away.  Nothing’s planted.  I don’t have a thing in the ground.” This is a last, desperate attempt by Willy to salvage what’s left of his life and his legacy.  Planting seeds represents the success he hopes to leave for his sons and his wife.

Death of A Salesman Summary – Act 2, Scene 8

Back at home, Willy is planting his garden outside as Biff and Happy walk into the kitchen where Linda is waiting.  She lambastes both boys for abandoning Willy in the restaurant; she seems very angry that this critical day in the life of her family has been a failure.

Out back, Willy plants carrot seeds while he talks to Ben about killing himself in order to secure his twenty thousand-dollar life insurance policy for his family.  He tells his perhaps-mythical brother that his funeral will be a big event where thousands of businessmen from around New England will come to pay their respects.  Soon Biff walks out to the “garden” to confront his father once and for all.  He tells him that he is “never going to see” what he is and that there is no use trying to carry out his illusions anymore.  Furthermore, Biff says that he’s leaving and probably never coming home again.  Yet Biff isn’t done with his father.  He goes on, “We never told the truth for ten minutes in this house!” Indeed Biff blames Willy for his failure in life, charging, “I never got anywhere because you blew me so full of hot air I could never stand taking orders from anybody!” To top it off, Biff dispels Willy’s idea that the Loman family is special.  Biff asserts, “Pop! I’m a dime a dozen, and so are you!” This infuriates Willy who counterattacks, “I am not a dime a dozen! I am Willy Loman, and you are Biff Loman!”

After the argument is over, Willy absentmindedly remarks, “Isn’t that remarkable? Biff-he likes me!” Here, Willy finally realizes that Biff is really being honest about his feelings, not merely trying to “spite” his father, as Willy initially believes.

Alone again, Willy returns to his imagined conversation with his brother Ben.  When Ben says that “the jungle is dark but full of diamonds,” Willy seems to believe that his brother is advocating his decision to commit suicide for the life insurance money.  “Can you imagine that magnificence with twenty thousand dollars in his pocket?” Willy asks his imaginary brother as he thinks of Biff.  In this way, it seems as though the death of this salesman is near.  Though he won’t die in his idealized green slippers, Willy believes that suicide is the best option left.

Death of A Salesman Summary – Act 2, Scene 9

This final scene details Willy’s funeral.  To Linda’s surprise, no one attends the funeral besides the family except for Charley, Willy’s only friend.  The funeral scene is important, because it shows the increasing divergence between Biff and Happy.  While Biff realizes that their father “had the wrong dreams,” Happy defends Willy’s aspirations, saying, “I’m gonna show you and everybody else that Willy Loman did not die in vain.  He had a good dream.  It’s the only dream you can have-to come out number-one man.  He fought it out here, and this is where I’m gonna win it for him.” In this way, Happy picks up the torch that his father has left at the grave.