Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller (1915 – ) Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller (1915 – ) Type of Work: Dramatic play Setting New York and Boston; 1949 Principal Characters Willy Loman, a disgruntled traveling salesman Linda, his wife Biff, Willy’s favorite and most athletic son Happy, another son Play Overveiw (Like many plays, this one shifts back and forth in time and place. We view much of the Loman family’s daily life through the eyes and mind of the father.) Nobody believes more fervently in the American Dream than Willy, yet the dream has somehow eluded him. Now he is sixty years old, a beaten and discouraged traveling salesman, with nothing to show for a lifetime of hard work but a small house on a crowded street where grass doesn’t grow anymore and apartment houses block his view. Rustling about upstairs are Willy’s grown sons, Happy and Biff, home for a visit. Their presence in the house causes Willy to reminisce on happier times; times when their growing strength and athletic feats – especially Biff’s – were a source of pride and joy to him; times when it seemed certain that his kids would go out and conquer the world. In this heightened and reflective state ‘ Willy speaks aloud to his boys as if the two youngsters he fondly remembers from the past had materialized in the room.
WILLY: That’s just what I mean. Bernard [the son of Willy’s friend] can get the best marks in school, y’understand, but when he gets out in the business world, y’understand, you are going to be five times ahead of him. That’s why I thank Almighty God you’re both built like Adonises. Because 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. Willy’s philosophy is sound and fool-proof, he feels, but, unaccountably, it hasn’t worked for him, nor for his favorite son, Biff.
Ever since graduation from high school when he inexplicably ignored a prestigious scholarship offer to play football for the University of Virginia, Biff had acted like a restless vagabond, moving from one place and one job to another, unable to get a hold on life. He had also had a run-in with the police stealing, they said. Willy paces the kitchen floor and strolls around the yard, trying to understand – how could a boy with such promise have gone so wrong? However, the father is never quite able to admit any responsibility for Biff’s problems. “I never told him anything but decent things,” he rationalizes. During the boys’visit, Willy can not help but argue with Biff.
His son’s dreams are simply unacceptable. Biff’s latest scheme is to own a ranch somewhere in the West. He figures that Bill Oliver, a man he used to work for, will loan him the ten thousand dollars to buy it. Later that evening, Biff and Happy bound down the stairs to talk with their mother, Linda. Willy comes in from the garden just in time to hear Biff mention his plans to go see Oliver: “He always said he’d stake me.
I’d like to go into business, so maybe I can take him up on it.” Then, seeing Willy, and anxious to please his father, Biff stammers on, emphasizing that it is a “business” he wants, not necessarily a ranch. Retiring to bed that night, Willy is convinced that Biff is off to a new start. “God Almighty, he’ll be great yet,” he says to Linda. “A star that magnificent can never really fade away!” When Willy awakes the next morning, Biff and Happy are gone – Happy to his job, Biff to speak with Bill Oliver. Willy, still feeling the optimism of the ni ht before, is now determined to also make his own life better.
First thing he’ll do is go to New York to tell his boss that he wants to be taken off the road; life’s too short to be away from home all the time. He and his wife’s future promises to be happy. “It’s changing,” she tells him excitedly. “Willy, I feel it changing!” But, once again, things don’t work out the way Willy plans. His boss, Howard – who had been named by young Willy himself after Will had just started to work for Howard’s father – is not interested in the salesman’s problems.
When Willy asks that his traveling be cut down, Howard summarily fires him. Broken, Willy stops to see his old neighbor-buddy Charley in his office. But Willy has always been jealous of Charley; and his “friend” isn’t much comfort to him now. CHARLEY-. Howard fired you? WILLY: That snotnose. Imagine that.
I named him. I named him Howard. CHARLEY: Willy, when’re you gonna’realize that them things don’t mean anything? You named him Howard, but you can’t sell that. The only thing you got in this world is what you can sell. And the funny thing is is that you’re a salesman, and you don’t know that.
Near emotional collapse, Willy leaves and drives to Frank’s Chop House, where Biff and Happy are to meet him. Earlier, Biff, in trying to see Bill Oliver, had waited and waited in the reception area, but finally gave up late in the afternoon. However, before leaving, out of spite he had stolen Oliver’s fountain pen. But through this experience Biff discovered something deep and previously hidden about himself, and he is anxious to communicate this new-found understanding to his father. But Willy isn’t interested in hearing what Biff has learned: “I was fired, and I’m looking for a little good news to tell your mother, because the woman has waited and the woman has suffered.” Biff starts, then stops, never really able to get the truth out.
Soon, Bill and Happy leave the restaurant, arm-in-arm with two girls Happy had managed to pick up. But Willy remains at the Chop House. There on the dirty floor of the men’s room, he relives in his mind a sordid sexual affair from years ago. Biff had inadvertently stumbled onto the affair shortly after his graduation from high school – just before he was to begin college, and football .. When the young men arrive home that evening, they are greeted by their mother.
She says that Willy has been puttering in the yard since he got home, talking to himself – and to Ben, his brother, who has been dead now for nine months. Biff informs his mom that he will be leaving the next day and probably won’t be coming back, then walks outside to say goodbye to his father. By and by their father-and-son talk turns into an argument. Biff has already tried once to tell Willy what he had learned that day; now he is determined to make him hear. WILLY: Then hang yourself! For spite, hang yourself! BIFF: No! Nobody’s hanging himself, Willy! I ran down eleven flights with a pen in my hand today.
And suddenly I stopped … I stopped in the middle of that building and I saw – the sky. 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! Why can’t I say that, Willy? WILLY. The door of your life is wide open! BIFF: Pop! I’m a dime a dozen, and so are you! WILLY: I am not a dime a dozen! I am Willy Loman, and you are Biff Loman! BIFF: I am not a leader of men, Willy, and neither are you. You were never anything but a hard-working drummer who landed in the ash can like all the rest of them! I’m one dollar an hour, Willy! I tried seven states and couldn’t raise it. A buck an hour! Do you gather my meaning? I’m not bringing home any prizes any more, and you’re going to stop waiting for me to bring them home! Still, Willy can’t – won’t – grasp what Biff is saying.
The argument escalates. But just as it looks as though Biff is ready to haul off and strike Willy, he falls into his arms, weeping. Deeply moved, as Biff stumbles up the stairs to his bedroom, Willy prophesies, “That boy – that boy is going to be magnificent!” That night Willy remains alone in the kitchen. Everyone else has gone upstairs. He drifts in and out of the past, talking to himself and to his brother Ben, once a successful land developer, who once had gone into the “jungle” and come out rich. Linda is worried, and urges her exhausted husband to come to bed. But Willy puts her off.
He’s still speaking with Ben, his illusory ideal of complete, success. Willy has a proposition to make. “Can you imagine that magnificence [Biff] with twenty-thousand dollars in his pocket?” he mutters across the table. Twenty-thousand dollars is the amount of the benefit in Willy’s life insurance policy. Suddenly, Linda hears the car motor turn over.
Willy guns the engine, the car squeals off down the street – then comes the sound of grinding steel and shattering glass. Commentary Death of a Salesman is perhaps the greatest and most significant American play of the 20th century. In many ways, it penetrates to the heart of the American experience, to the dark side of the capitalistic ideal. It is also a sensitive, heart-rending drama. Miller’s play is hard to classify.
Some may label it a tragedy, and Willy Loman a tragic hero. But is he? Typically, heroes make the journey from darkness into light, from ignorance to understanding; but Willy never accepts the truth of what is going on in his or his family’s life. He begins to catch a glimpse of the joy life can offer, and moves to take advantage of the time he has left, but his firing sends him into a tailspin. His delusions persist till the end, when he manages to misconstrue both his own motives and his son’s aspirations, even in the act of suicide. Early in the play, Willy reminisces on a fellow salesman who was highly successful and well-liked.
When this man died, people from all over came to pay their respects. However, as the epitome of a shattered dream, Willy Loman dies a forgotten failure – and not one of his associates attends his funeral.