Death of a Salesman

Death of a Salesman (1949) is a two-act play by Arthur Miller. It premiered on 10 February 1949 at the Morosco Theater in New York City. Death of a Salesman won the Tony Award for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Death of a Salesman Death of a Salesman

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Table of contents

    Death of a Salesman: summary

    Overview: Death of a Salesman

    AuthorArthur Miller
    GenreTragedy
    Literary PeriodRealism, Expressionism
    Written in1948
    First performance1949
    Brief Summary of Death of a Salesman
    • The play explores Willy Loman, a salesman who is struggling with his fading career and the disillusionment of his life.
    • As the play progresses, Willy's mental state deteriorates and he takes his own life to provide financial security for his family.
    List of main charactersWilliam Loman, Linda Loman, Biff Loman, Happy Loman
    ThemesAmerican Dream, appearance vs reality
    Play's Setting1949 Brooklyn, New York at the Loman's house.
    AnalysisAn exploration of the American Dream and the toll it can take on those who pursue it. Willy Loman is a tragic figure who embodies the struggles and disillusionment of many Americans in the post-World War II era.

    Death of a Salesman is a tragedy set in New York City in the early 1940s. Told through a montage of memories, it follows the last 24 hours of the life of travelling salesman Willy Loman. The narrative of the play is divided into the past and the present. The events of Willy Loman's present are revealed along with his memories.

    Willy Loman comes home from a sales trip. He's dissatisfied with his life and feels that he can't travel anymore. His two sons, Biff and Happy, both in their thirties, are also at home. Willy has a strained relationship with his older son, Biff. Willy had high hopes for Biff's success in life because Willy never realised his own. Biff used to be a promising young man in high school, but then he found out about his father's affair, causing tension in their relationship.

    Willy's wife, Linda, is worried about her husband. She tells their sons that Willy has tried to kill himself and asks them to get along with him. In turn, Biff and Happy decide to ask for a loan to start a business together. This announcement makes Willy happy. He decides to ask his boss, Howard, to let him work in New York City so that he can stop travelling all the time.

    The following day, Willy, Biff, and Happy do as they had planned, but they fail. Willy gets fired. He visits his neighbour, Charley, and asks him for money that he plans to use for his insurance premium. It's revealed that Willy has been borrowing money from Charley for quite some time and pretending that this is part of his wages.

    Willy meets Biff and Happy for dinner at a restaurant. Biff tries to explain to Willy that they didn't get the loan and that he's not the son he imagined him to be. Willy refuses to listen to Biff, preferring his own illusion. They argue and Biff leaves the restaurant, followed by Happy.

    Later, back in the Lomans' house, Willy is in the garden talking to his brother Ben, who died nine months ago. In his troubled state, Willy believes that Ben agrees with his plan to commit suicide so that the insurance premium money can go to Biff. Willy is certain that, in this way, Biff would finally have the means to become someone great.

    Death of a Salesman, Play production, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Willy Loman is haunted by hallucinations of his late brother, Ben, who is a symbol for success and wealth.

    Biff finds Willy and tells him that, despite his hopes for him, he's just an ordinary man and that maybe it's best if they don't see each other again. None of this common sense reaches Willy, who's lost in his own hallucinations. Willy wrecks his car on purpose and dies in the crash. Willy's funeral is only attended by his family.

    The last scene of the play is a requiem. Biff remains certain that he isn't like his father, while Happy decides to follow in Willy's footsteps. Linda is distraught and doesn't understand why Willy killed himself. She talks to him and tells him their debts are all paid off.

    Requiem: In a literary context, a requiem is a song or poem that is sung or recited in memory of someone who has died. The term 'requiem' comes from the Latin word requies, which means rest or repose.

    In the context of Arthur Miller's play Death of a Salesman, the Requiem is the final scene of the play, in which Willy Loman's family and friends gather to mourn his passing. It is not a traditional requiem in the musical sense, but rather a series of short speeches and conversations in which the characters reflect on Willy's life and legacy.

    Death of a Salesman characters

    Miller's characters explore the different expectations and viewpoints of the American Dream.

    Death of a Salesman charactersRole in the Narrative
    Willy LomanProtagonist and tragic hero of the play, a salesman who is struggling with the disillusionment of his life and the fading of his career.
    Linda LomanWilly's wife, a supportive and loyal woman who struggles to cope with her husband's decline and is caught between Willy and their sons.
    Biff LomanWilly and Linda's eldest son, a former high school football star who is now struggling to find his place in the world.
    Happy LomanWilly and Linda's younger son, a womanizer who is always seeking attention and validation from his family.
    CharleyWilly's neighbour and friend, a successful businessman who tries to help Willy with financial problems and offers him a job.
    BernardCharley's son, a successful lawyer who was Biff's childhood friend and is now a foil to Biff's lack of success.
    The WomanA former mistress of Willy's, whose presence and influence continue to haunt him throughout the play.
    BenWilly's deceased brother, who appears in Willy's hallucinations and serves as a symbol of success and wealth.

    William (Willy) Loman

    Willy Loman is a 64-year-old travelling salesman. He has wasted his life trying to reach the perfect version of the American dream that he believes in. His ambitions have negatively affected his wife, Linda, and his sons, Biff and Happy. During the last 24 hours of his life, Willy is in a confused state of mind. He relives his memories of the past and confuses illusion with reality. Willy compares himself to his dead brother, Ben, who attained the material success that escapes Willy's grasp.

    Willy Loman is a victim of a society which puts financial gain above all else. At the same time, Willy himself is to blame for his downfall, for he refuses to embrace reality and to be grateful for what he has. At the end of the play, Willy commits suicide, convinced that he's doing the right thing for his family, who can collect the insurance money.

    Linda Loman

    Linda is Willy's wife. She is patient and supportive of him even though he doesn't always deserve it. At times he mistreats her and in the past, he has cheated on her. Linda is aware of Willy's first attempt to take his life. She urges her sons, especially Biff, to be on better terms with Willy and to make him proud, so that he won't harm himself. She also implores Willy to ask his boss to let him work in the city and not travel anymore.

    Biff Loman

    Biff is the elder son of Willy and Linda. During high school, he had the opportunity to gain a football scholarship that would allow him to attend university. However, witnessing his father's infidelity made him drop out of summer school.

    At 34, Biff is torn between trying to achieve the success that his father envisioned for him and going to the countryside to work on a farm. Biff is the only member of the Loman family who eventually manages to break free from his father's illusions that have defined their lives. Biff repeatedly tells Willy that he's an ordinary man and not destined for greatness.

    Harold (Happy) Loman

    Happy is the younger son of Linda and Willy. Happy is neglected by his parents, who have put their hopes on his brother, Biff. Happy has a more chaotic lifestyle. He sleeps around with different women. He's not ashamed to deceive and cheat in order to move up in his workplace.

    At 32, most of what Happy does is a cry for attention. However, his actions don't make his parents see him in a more positive light. At the end of the play, Happy, who has been influenced by Willy's illusions throughout his whole life, decides to follow in his footsteps.

    Death of a Salesman: brief analysis

    Now we will explore the main themes and symbols in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman.

    Themes

    The American dream

    'You can't eat the orange and throw the peel away - a man is not a piece of fruit.'

    - Willy, Act 2

    When Willy's boss, Howard, fires him, Willy tells him that he can't throw him away like he's a piece of fruit. Arthur Miller argues that human beings should not be disposable and that they're not only as valuable as the profit they make.

    Death of a Salesman explores the idealised view that Willy Loman has of the American dream. Willy believes that if he's well-liked and hard-working, he can achieve the success he dreams of. He believes that the same logic applies to his sons, especially to Biff. Willy is sure of this because he has seen men like his brother Ben achieve this ideal.

    In his obsession with reaching the American dream, Willy fails to enjoy the good things that he already has in his life, such as his family. Willy prefers to die so that he can give his family the financial security he couldn't provide when he was alive. Arthur Miller comments on the pressures of a capitalist success-driven society. The constant competition of financial gain can lead a person astray.

    At the end of the play, Biff realises that his father had the wrong dreams, while Happy risks ending up just like Willy.

    Reality vs Illusion

    'I realized what a ridiculous lie my whole life has been. We’ve been talking in a dream for fifteen years.'

    - Biff, Act 2

    Biff finally acknowledges that his life until this moment has been the product of his father's illusions.

    Willy Loman is a man who lives more in his mixed-up memories and illusions than in reality. Willy sees himself not as he really is, but through the illusions he has about himself. In his mind, he is liked and respected by all, and his success is only a matter of time. Willy's illusion encompasses the other people in his life too. He pretends that he didn't cheat on Linda and tries to block his affair out of his memory.

    Willy also refuses to accept Biff for who he is and entertains the illusion that he is going to be extremely successful. Indeed, the whole Loman family functions on Willy's illusions. Only Biff realises the damage that this distorted view of reality has done.

    The title of Death of a Salesman is a foreshadowing of the end of the play. It is a lso a reference to Willy's profession and demise, which is driven by his struggles with his career and inability to achieve the American Dream.

    Symbols

    The symbols in Death of a Salesman include seeds, stockings, and flute music.

    Seeds

    The seeds symbolise Willy's efforts to plant something that would grow. He desperately wants to be successful. Just before he kills himself, he's planting seeds as he gets lost in his hallucinations. This is his last attempt to not have lived in vain. At the same time, the seeds are symbols of the peace of the natural world that Willy longs for. He's forced to spend his whole life in the concrete jungle of the city.

    Stockings

    During the 1940s, good-quality stockings were hard to come across. The fact that Willy gives stockings as a gift to The Woman (his lover) is a symbol of his infidelity and his betrayal to his wife.

    Flute

    The flute music is described in the stage directions. It serves as an expression of the past and it emphasises the flashbacks. The melody of the flute symbolises Willy's memories.

    Another way in which the contrast between past and present, and illusion and reality, is presented is through the use of lighting. Arthur Miller wanted the light on stage to change in a way that would make the audience feel like they're entering Willy's inner world.

    Death of a Salesman: setting

    The play is set in 1949 in Brooklyn, New York. The Loman family's home is the primary setting for the play, and it is where much of the action takes place.

    The house is described as being small and cramped with all four members of the Loman household. The house is filled with Willy's memories and regrets, and it becomes a symbol of his failed dreams and aspirations.

    The play also takes place in various other locations, including hotel rooms and restaurants where Willy conducts his sales business. However, the play's setting focuses on both the physical and mental confinement that Willy Loman faces.

    Act One takes place in the present, while Act Two of the play is a series of flashbacks that show events from Willy's past.

    How has Death of a Salesman influenced culture today?

    Death of a Salesman is one of the most famous plays of all time. Since its premiere in 1949, it has had four Broadway revivals. The play has inspired numerous adaptations for stage, screen, and radio, in different languages.

    In 1983 Arthur Miller himself directed a production of Death of a Salesman at the Beijing People's Theatre. This experience revealed to him that, although the play is written in the context of the American dream, it can be interpreted in different ways. Death of a Salesman is much more than a commentary on American reality in the 1940s. It is a drama that explores the tragedy of the human condition, which people all around the world can relate to.

    Did you know that there's not one but two music bands named after the play? A Thai indie rock band and a Northern Irish metal band both share the name Death of a Salesman.

    Death of a Salesman - Key takeaways

    • Death of a Salesman is a two-act tragedy by Arthur Miller. It premiered on 10 February 1949 at the Morosco Theatre in New York City. The play won the Tony Award for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
    • Set in New York City in the early 1940s, Death of a Salesman follows the last 24 hours in the life of travelling salesman Willy Loman. The narrative of the play is divided into the present action and Willy's memories of the past.
    • The play explores the place of an everyday man in society and the pressures of the American dream.
    • The main themes in Death of a Salesman are: the American dream and reality vs illusion.
    • The main characters are Willy, Linda, Biff, and Happy Loman.

    References

    1. Fig. 1 - Death of a Salesman (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:MG_6765_(9479976846).jpg) by SarahSierszyn (https://www.flickr.com/people/97835623@N02) is licensed by CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en)
    Frequently Asked Questions about Death of a Salesman

    What is the main idea of the play Death of a Salesman?

    Death of a Salesman explores the place of an everyday man in society and the pressures of the American dream.


    What is the plot structure of the Death of a Salesman play?

    The plot structure is a montage of memories - it changes between the present and the past.

    What are the two main themes in Death of a Salesman?

    The two main themes in Death of a Salesman are the American dream and reality vs illusion.

    What are the symbols in the play Death of a Salesman?

    The symbols in the play are the seeds, the stockings, and the flute.

    Who are the main characters in Death of a Salesman?

    The main characters are Willy, Linda, Biff, and Happy Loman.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    How does Willy justify his sucide?

    The seeds are NOT a symbol of....?

    Which member of the Loman family breaks free from the illusions they live on?

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