Death of a Salesman

 

Death of a Salesman +Summary

 

Plot Summary

Willy Loman, a sixty-year-old traveling salesman, is having trouble lately because he can't seem to keep his mind on the present. He keeps drifting back and forth between reality and memory, looking for exactly where his life went wrong. Having been demoted to a strictly commissions salesman, as he was in the beginning of his career, Willy begins to wonder what missed opportunity or wrong turn led his life to this dismal existence. Willy always believed that being well liked was the key to success -- it's not what you know, it's who you know. But now, as he nears the end of his life, he realizes that the only things you can count on are the things you can touch. You can't touch appointments and half-hearted sentiments. This was something that his brother, Ben, a man independently wealthy by the age of twenty-one, tried to tell him years ago. Despite this, Willy insisted that his success would come from being well liked.


Throughout his life, Willy attempted to show his sons the keys to success and to prepare them, or at least Biff, his oldest son, for excellence in the business world. Willy pretended to be an important, respected, and successful salesman to win the love and respect of his family (and himself in some ways). He even started believing that he was as important as he convinced the boys he was; whenever he couldn't live up to that expectation, and reality contradicted the image he tried to put forth, his whole life began to crumble. He realizes that he is a failure and he has wasted his life. Not only that, but he has taught his sons the wrong things. Now Biff is a bum who can't hold a job anywhere but in the West as a farmhand, and Hap is a philandering assistant's assistant who is just as deluded about his importance as Willy. Willy taught his sons the wrong things, and now their lives are mediocre because of it.

Willy and Biff, although close when Biff was younger, are always at odds because Biff hasn't lived up to Willy's great expectations for him. Biff was never given the proper direction to fulfill these expectations. Willy encouraged him only to be well liked and popular; Biff learned he never had to work for anything or take orders from anyone, and as a result, he couldn't keep a job in the business world. Willy even encouraged his boys to steal: another reason Biff couldn't hold a job, because he kept getting in trouble for stealing. Integrity was never an emphasized characteristic in the Loman house. Now Biff has come home and he realizes that he's just an ordinary guy who was meant for a life outside the business world. He is happy only when he is honest with himself. This realization prompts an entire overhaul of the values taught to him by his father, and Biff wants to expose the lies Willy has been telling for years. Willy won't have it. After a series of long arguments, Biff decides it's best if he leaves for good; he will never fulfill his father's dreams, nor will he convince Willy to confront reality.

Willy, now unemployed and completely broken down, decides that he must do something magnificent to prove to Biff his life wasn't useless and completely wasted. Feeling he will be of greater value dead, he kills himself so that Biff can use the insurance money to start his own business. His son will consider his father a hero, and appreciate the sacrifice that he made for his son. He also wants to prove that his importance and success as a salesman was not fake, expecting a grand funeral attended by many buyers in New England (similar to the funeral of Dave Singleman). It doesn't work out that way. The insurance doesn't cover suicide and only Willy's family and their two neighbors attend the funeral. In the end, Willy's legacy is one of a broken man, whose life had become a sad failure.

Major Characters

Willy Loman: Main character of the play. Willy Loman is a traveling salesman who grew up inspired by the success of his craftsman/salesman father who left his family for Alaska. His older brother, Ben, who also left when Willy was young, and made a fortune in the diamond mines of Africa when he was only 21 years old, is another measuring stick for Willy. Willy believes that success comes from being well liked, and he instilled this belief in his sons, Biff and Happy, who were his brightest hopes in life. Although Willy encouraged their success, he neglected to instill any sense of integrity or morality in the boys, and it leads to their ultimate failure in his eyes. As Willy grows older and realizes that he has failed to meet his own expectations as a salesman, his life seems wasted. His sons are mediocre bums; he's no longer able to provide for his family; no one knows him anymore, and he feels like a failure. He decides that the best thing he can do for his family is to award them the money from his life insurance policy by killing himself.


Linda Loman: Willy's wife, mother of Biff, and Happy. Linda is Willy Loman's link to reality. She sees what her husband is going through, and she supports him and loves him despite his many failures and weakness. She realizes that Willy is just an ordinary man, but she doesn't fault him for it. If anything, she loves him more because of it. She protects him when Biff fights with him, defends him to her sons who think he's going crazy, and she respects him enough to pretend she doesn't know that he's trying to kill himself and that he's lost his salary. Linda tries to protect Willy from himself, but her efforts are in vain.

Biff Loman: Willy's oldest son. Biff is Willy's pride and joy. As the oldest son, Biff is the personification of all of Willy's dreams, and as a teenager, he worshipped his father. Biff was everything Willy wanted him to be -- star athlete, popular with the girls, well liked all around. Willy ignored his petty thefts because he was a hometown hero. Being well liked wasn't enough to help Biff graduate from high school; failing his math class was the beginning of his adult failures, and his inability to hold a job. When Biff went to Boston to tell his father that he wasn't graduating, and ask him to talk to his Math teacher, he found Willy with another woman. This crushed Biff's image of his father; Willy's successful life has been only been a lie. Their relationship falls apart. As an adult, Biff drifted from job to job, a failure in Willy's eyes; after Biff comes home and ruins another opportunity at success, he realizes that his life has been a lie; he no longer wants to try to become something he's not. Biff does not want to end up like his father.

Happy Loman: Willy's youngest son. Happy was often ignored by his parents while growing up. Growing up in Biff's shadow, Happy was always vying for Willy's attention, but never really got it. As an adult, Willy and Linda seem to brush him off in much the same way they did when he was younger. Although Hap grows up to become more financially successful than his older brother, his father still focuses his attention only on Biff. Hap is a salesman who seduces the fiancees of store executives and takes bribes from manufacturers. He has his own apartment, car, and plenty of women, and yet he is still unhappy. He insists on fighting his way through the business world as a way to honor Willy, even though he may never go further than his current position as an assistant's assistant.

Charley: Willy's neighbor and long-time friend. Charley is a businessman who has lived next door to Willy for a long time. Although Willy is condescending to him, Charley is willing to help Willy through a rough spot. When Willy loses his salary, Charley loans him money every week so that Linda won't know what's happened. Charley offers Willy a job, but Willy is too proud to take it. Charley is an honest man who warns Willy about the consequences of his boys' behavior: stealing supplies from construction sites, etc. Willy thinks Charley is ignorant because he is not well liked. Charley turns out to be the only friend Willy has.

Ben Loman: Willy's older brother. Ben left the family to search for his father in Alaska when Willy was almost four. Ben ended up in Africa and got rich off of the diamond mines by the time he was twenty-one. He only visited Willy twice (briefly) on his way to and from Alaska. He encouraged Willy to keep teaching the boys to steal and to be fearless, but acts condescending towards Willy, because he is an unsuccessful salesman. Willy remembers Ben as a missed opportunity because Willy didn't go to Alaska with him. Ben is a symbol of all that Willy could have been but missed out on.

Minor Characters

Bernard: Charley's son. Bernard is the nerdy neighbor who helped Biff study and gave him the answers on tests. Bernard kept warning Biff that he wouldn't graduate if he didn't study for his math test, but Biff and Willy both ignored him and made fun of him for being nerdy. Willy insisted that because Bernard was not well liked, he would not do well for himself when he grew up. But when Willy runs into Bernard as an adult, Bernard is a successful lawyer who is arguing a case before the Supreme Court, while Biff, who was well liked, is a bum.

The Woman: Willy's out-of-town mistress. The Woman was a secretary for a store that Willy sold to, and she would put him through to see the buyers. Willy bought her silk stockings when he saw her, and seeing Linda mending her own because it is too expensive to buy a new pair, racks Willy with the guilt of his infidelity. It was after Biff discovered Willy with the Woman, that Willy and his son grew apart. Willy's infidelity to his mother crushed Biff, and after realizing his dad was a fake, Biff gave up on summer school and the University of Virginia.

Howard Wagner: Willy's boss. Wagner was the son of Willy's original employer, and because he does not have a position for him in New York, Willy had to drive to New England. He later demotes Willy, who must work strictly on commission like a beginning salesman. Willy goes to Wagner to request a salaried position in New York, and Wagner fires him.

Bill Oliver: One of Biff's old employers. Biff believes he was a salesman for Oliver a long time ago, but he quit because Oliver suspected that he stole a carton of basketballs. When he left, Biff claims that Oliver told him to come see him if he ever needed anything, and so years later, Biff expects that Oliver will loan him ten thousand dollars to start a sporting goods store. When Biff meets with him, Oliver doesn't even remember Biff because Biff was only a shipping clerk, and Biff, unable to control himself, steals Oliver's fountain pen and runs out of the office. It is this moment that makes him realize his whole life has been a fraud.

Willy's Father: Willy's father made and sold flutes across the country; he would take his family with him when he traveled by wagon to sell his flutes. One day he abandoned them and went to Alaska. Ben, Willy's older brother, went after him, but ended up in Africa. Willy feels as if he's missed out on a great deal because he never talked to his father. He makes his father into a myth of courage and success and measures himself against those imagined standards, but always seems to fall short.

Dave Singleman: Dave Singleman was an 84-year-old traveling salesman who made sales from his hotel room because he was so well known and well liked. When he died, buyers and salesman from all over New England attended his funeral. This is the life Willy wishes for. Singleman was his inspiration for being a salesman and this dream was the reason he went into sales and didn't leave for Alaska when his brother urged him to.

The Girls: The girls are two women (one a covergirl) Hap picked up at Frank's Chop House, where he and Biff took Willy for dinner. While Willy was in the restroom, Biff took off and Hap and the girls followed him, leaving Willy alone and abandoned in the restaurant. Linda considered the boys abandoning their father at the restaurant the final straw, and when they came home, she told them both to leave and not to come back.

Objects/Places

Studebaker: The Studebaker is the car in which Willy kills himself. His first obvious lapse in reality is when he admits that he thought that he was driving the Chevy the whole day, when actually he was driving the Studebaker.


Chevy: The Chevy is the car Willy had when Biff was in high school. Willy remembers a day when the boys were waxing the car after he returned from a trip. His comments about the Chevy, first that it's the greatest car ever built, then that they shouldn't be allowed to manufacture such junk, show his tendency to contradict himself.

Football: Biff stole the football from the locker room because the coach told him to work on his passing. Willy tells him to return it, but then says that the coach would congratulate Biff on his initiative instead of being angry that he stole it.

Fountain Pen: Biff steals the fountain pen from Bill Oliver's desk when he goes to borrow money to start a business. He can't keep from taking it, and it ruins his chance to get the loan.

Rubber Piping: Linda tells Biff and Happy about the rubber piping she found in the basement with the attachment that fits around the nipple on the water heater's gas pipe. Willy's been trying to kill himself with it, and although she often takes it from the basement while he's gone, she always puts it back before he returns, because she doesn't want to insult him by confronting him about it. Biff takes it from the basement and later confronts Willy with the piping before Willy kills himself in the Studebaker.

Building Supplies: Biff and Happy stole building supplies from a construction site so that Willy could build a new stoop. He pretended to scold them when they stole lumber, but he really was proud of their theft, and his attitude encourages their deviant behavior.

University of Virginia sneakers: Biff printed 'University of Virginia' on a pair of sneakers he had because that's where he wanted to go play ball in college. The shoes show up in Willy's memory at the first mention of Biff having trouble with math. Later, Bernard tells Willy that he knew Biff had given up his life when he threw those shoes into the furnace after he got back from visiting Willy in Boston.

Frank's Chop House : Frank's Chop House is the restaurant where Willy met Biff and Hap for dinner. Biff told Willy about the incident with Bill Oliver while they were in the restaurant, and the disappointment sent Willy reeling back to the past. Biff and Hap left Willy babbling to himself in the bathroom of the restaurant, and that was the final straw for Linda. After that, she tells both the boys to leave and not to come back.

Topic Tracking: Dishonesty

Act 1, Part 1


Dishonesty 1: Dishonesty is common throughout Death of a Salesman. Whether the lies are intentional or delusional, Willy, Biff, and Happy seem to be spewing out untruths all the time, and Biff finally realizes that they've been lyingthe company in New England, and how he'd already be running New York if his original employer were still alive. There's no guarantee that Willy and his former boss were good friends, and Willy hasn't been important in New England for a long time (if indeed, he ever really was). He creates a false image of a skilled salesman in demand, when in reality, he's really washed up. to each other and themselves so much, that they don't even know who they really are. The dishonesty begins with Willy telling Linda that he came home because he couldn't drive anymore. The reason, he later admits, is that he almost ran over a kid in Yonkers, and it spooked him. But he doesn't lie only about the reason for his return, he also lies about his importance to

Dishonesty 2: Willy is on a tirade about Biff because he thinks that Biff is wasting his life; he has become a shiftless bum, when Willy had such high expectations for him. As Willy is talking to Linda about Biff, he says that he's lazy and that's why he's a failure. But in the next breath, Willy says that he doesn't understand why someone as hard-working as Biff isn't more successful. Willy's speech is constantly riddled with inconsistencies and contradictions. These contradictions make his convictions completely unreliable.

Act 1, Part 2

Dishonesty 3: Happy admits that he seduces the fiancees of top executives at the store, and he also takes bribes. He laughs about it like it's a game, and Biff pays it no attention. Their disregard for ethics and morality is evident; accepting bribes seems everyday and normal. It doesn't occur to either of the boys that there's something wrong with this, and the audience is left to wonder how they developed such an attitude.

Dishonesty 4: Biff quit working for Bill Oliver becausehe was accused of stealing a carton of basketballs (which he did), butdespite that, Biff believes that Oliver will loan him $10,000 to start a ranch. Biff is creating a dishonest vision of the past (like his dad). He stole from and lied to Oliver when he worked for him, and now he's lying to himself by asserting how much Oliver liked him. His lies are convinced enough to become the truth, and he can't remember which version of the story is right.

Act 1, Part 3

Dishonesty 5: Biff stole a football from the locker room when he was in high school, and he claimed that he took it because the coach told him to work on his passing. Willy acts for a moment as if Biff should return it, but when Hap implies that Biff was wrong for taking the ball, Willy defends Biff and declares that the coach, rather than being angry with Biff for stealing, would have been proud and impressed with Biff's initiative. Willy tells Biff that it's OK that he took the ball because the coach likes him. Willy tells his son it's perfectly fine to steal from people, as long as you are well liked; they'll let you get away with it.

Dishonesty 6: Willy lies to the boys about meeting and having coffee with the mayor of Providence. He likes to make his sons believe that he's an important and great man, when in reality, he is just an average guy, like everyone else. Willy gets trapped in the false image he has created, believing the lies he has been telling himself for years. He is unable to confront reality and has the expectation that people are going to react to him as a successful and important salesman. He cannot understand why people treat him like an unknown, washed up pity-case (which he is). He's just a common, everyday guy who talks as if he's so much more (he has built up an image with his kids that he cannot fill), and when he realizes that he's a failure, and everyone knows his "success" is a fake, life is no longer worth living. Willy feels worth more dead, than alive.

Dishonesty 7: When Linda asked Willy how well he did on his trip, Willy lied about how much he sold. He admitted the truth only a few sentences later, and Linda ignores the whopper he told her, but the fact remains that Willy is a liar. He contradicts himself continuously -- one minute the Chevy is the greatest car ever built, the next minute it's a hunk of scrap metal. One minute he's making $1200 sales, and the next instant, it was only a $200 sale. That's a $1,000 lie, and no one calls him on it or makes him accountable for it, so he just goes right one lying to himself and everyone else.

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