Death of a Salesman: Full Book Summary | SparkNotes (2022)

As a flute melody plays, Willy Loman returns to his home in Brooklyn one night, exhausted from a failed sales trip. His wife, Linda, tries to persuade him to ask his boss, Howard Wagner, to let him work in New York so that he won’t have to travel. Willy says that he will talk to Howard the next day. Willy complains that Biff, his older son who has come back home to visit, has yet to make something of himself. Linda scolds Willy for being so critical, and Willy goes to the kitchen for a snack.

As Willy talks to himself in the kitchen, Biff and his younger brother, Happy, who is also visiting, reminisce about their adolescence and discuss their father’s babbling, which often includes criticism of Biff’s failure to live up to Willy’s expectations. As Biff and Happy, dissatisfied with their lives, fantasize about buying a ranch out West, Willy becomes immersed in a daydream. He praises his sons, now younger, who are washing his car. The young Biff, a high school football star, and the young Happy appear. They interact affectionately with their father, who has just returned from a business trip. Willy confides in Biff and Happy that he is going to open his own business one day, bigger than that owned by his neighbor, Charley. Charley’s son, Bernard, enters looking for Biff, who must study for math class in order to avoid failing. Willy points out to his sons that although Bernard is smart, he is not “well liked,” which will hurt him in the long run.

A younger Linda enters, and the boys leave to do some chores. Willy boasts of a phenomenally successful sales trip, but Linda coaxes him into revealing that his trip was actually only meagerly successful. Willy complains that he soon won’t be able to make all of the payments on their appliances and car. He complains that people don’t like him and that he’s not good at his job. As Linda consoles him, he hears the laughter of his mistress. He approaches The Woman, who is still laughing, and engages in another reminiscent daydream. Willy and The Woman flirt, and she thanks him for giving her stockings.

(Video) Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller | Summary & Analysis

The Woman disappears, and Willy fades back into his prior daydream, in the kitchen. Linda, now mending stockings, reassures him. He scolds her mending and orders her to throw the stockings out. Bernard bursts in, again looking for Biff. Linda reminds Willy that Biff has to return a football that he stole, and she adds that Biff is too rough with the neighborhood girls. Willy hears The Woman laugh and explodes at Bernard and Linda. Both leave, and though the daydream ends, Willy continues to mutter to himself. The older Happy comes downstairs and tries to quiet Willy. Agitated, Willy shouts his regret about not going to Alaska with his brother, Ben, who eventually found a diamond mine in Africa and became rich. Charley, having heard the commotion, enters. Happy goes off to bed, and Willy and Charley begin to play cards. Charley offers Willy a job, but Willy, insulted, refuses it. As they argue, Willy imagines that Ben enters. Willy accidentally calls Charley Ben. Ben inspects Willy’s house and tells him that he has to catch a train soon to look at properties in Alaska. As Willy talks to Ben about the prospect of going to Alaska, Charley, seeing no one there, gets confused and questions Willy. Willy yells at Charley, who leaves. The younger Linda enters and Ben meets her. Willy asks Ben impatiently about his life. Ben recounts his travels and talks about their father. As Ben is about to leave, Willy daydreams further, and Charley and Bernard rush in to tell him that Biff and Happy are stealing lumber. Although Ben eventually leaves, Willy continues to talk to him.

Back in the present, the older Linda enters to find Willy outside. Biff and Happy come downstairs and discuss Willy’s condition with their mother. Linda scolds Biff for judging Willy harshly. Biff tells her that he knows Willy is a fake, but he refuses to elaborate. Linda mentions that Willy has tried to commit suicide. Happy grows angry and rebukes Biff for his failure in the business world. Willy enters and yells at Biff. Happy intervenes and eventually proposes that he and Biff go into the sporting goods business together. Willy immediately brightens and gives Biff a host of tips about asking for a loan from one of Biff’s old employers, Bill Oliver. After more arguing and reconciliation, everyone finally goes to bed.

Act II opens with Willy enjoying the breakfast that Linda has made for him. Willy ponders the bright-seeming future before getting angry again about his expensive appliances. Linda informs Willy that Biff and Happy are taking him out to dinner that night. Excited, Willy announces that he is going to make Howard Wagner give him a New York job. The phone rings, and Linda chats with Biff, reminding him to be nice to his father at the restaurant that night.

(Video) Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller | Plot Summary

As the lights fade on Linda, they come up on Howard playing with a wire recorder in his office. Willy tries to broach the subject of working in New York, but Howard interrupts him and makes him listen to his kids and wife on the wire recorder. When Willy finally gets a word in, Howard rejects his plea. Willy launches into a lengthy recalling of how a legendary salesman named Dave Singleman inspired him to go into sales. Howard leaves and Willy gets angry. Howard soon re-enters and tells Willy to take some time off. Howard leaves and Ben enters, inviting Willy to join him in Alaska. The younger Linda enters and reminds Willy of his sons and job. The young Biff enters, and Willy praises Biff’s prospects and the fact that he is well liked.

Ben leaves and Bernard rushes in, eagerly awaiting Biff’s big football game. Willy speaks optimistically to Biff about the game. Charley enters and teases Willy about the game. As Willy chases Charley off, the lights rise on a different part of the stage. Willy continues yelling from offstage, and Jenny, Charley’s secretary, asks a grown-up Bernard to quiet him down. Willy enters and prattles on about a “very big deal” that Biff is working on. Daunted by Bernard’s success (he mentions to Willy that he is going to Washington to fight a case), Willy asks Bernard why Biff turned out to be such a failure. Bernard asks Willy what happened in Boston that made Biff decide not to go to summer school. Willy defensively tells Bernard not to blame him.

Charley enters and sees Bernard off. When Willy asks for more money than Charley usually loans him, Charley again offers Willy a job. Willy again refuses and eventually tells Charley that he was fired. Charley scolds Willy for always needing to be liked and angrily gives him the money. Calling Charley his only friend, Willy exits on the verge of tears.

(Video) Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller | Book Summary | Audiobook Academy

At Frank’s Chop House, Happy helps Stanley, a waiter, prepare a table. They ogle and chat up a girl, Miss Forsythe, who enters the restaurant. Biff enters, and Happy introduces him to Miss Forsythe, continuing to flirt with her. Miss Forsythe, a call girl, leaves to telephone another call girl (at Happy’s request), and Biff spills out that he waited six hours for Bill Oliver and Oliver didn’t even recognize him. Upset at his father’s unrelenting misconception that he, Biff, was a salesman for Oliver, Biff plans to relieve Willy of his illusions. Willy enters, and Biff tries gently, at first, to tell him what happened at Oliver’s office. Willy blurts out that he was fired. Stunned, Biff again tries to let Willy down easily. Happy cuts in with remarks suggesting Biff’s success, and Willy eagerly awaits the good news.

Biff finally explodes at Willy for being unwilling to listen. The young Bernard runs in shouting for Linda, and Biff, Happy, and Willy start to argue. As Biff explains what happened, their conversation recedes into the background. The young Bernard tells Linda that Biff failed math. The restaurant conversation comes back into focus and Willy criticizes Biff for failing math. Willy then hears the voice of the hotel operator in Boston and shouts that he is not in his room. Biff scrambles to quiet Willy and claims that Oliver is talking to his partner about giving Biff the money. Willy’s renewed interest and probing questions irk Biff more, and he screams at Willy. Willy hears The Woman laugh and he shouts back at Biff, hitting him and staggering. Miss Forsythe enters with another call girl, Letta. Biff helps Willy to the washroom and, finding Happy flirting with the girls, argues with him about Willy. Biff storms out, and Happy follows with the girls.

Willy and The Woman enter, dressing themselves and flirting. The door knocks and Willy hurries The Woman into the bathroom. Willy answers the door; the young Biff enters and tells Willy that he failed math. Willy tries to usher him out of the room, but Biff imitates his math teacher’s lisp, which elicits laughter from Willy and The Woman. Willy tries to cover up his indiscretion, but Biff refuses to believe his stories and storms out, dejected, calling Willy a “phony little fake.” Back in the restaurant, Stanley helps Willy up. Willy asks him where he can find a seed store. Stanley gives him directions to one, and Willy hurries off.

(Video) Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller | Book Summary

The light comes up on the Loman kitchen, where Happy enters looking for Willy. He moves into the living room and sees Linda. Biff comes inside and Linda scolds the boys and slaps away the flowers in Happy’s hand. She yells at them for abandoning Willy. Happy attempts to appease her, but Biff goes in search of Willy. He finds Willy planting seeds in the garden with a flashlight. Willy is consulting Ben about a $20,000 proposition. Biff approaches him to say goodbye and tries to bring him inside. Willy moves into the house, followed by Biff, and becomes angry again about Biff’s failure. Happy tries to calm Biff, but Biff and Willy erupt in fury at each other. Biff starts to sob, which touches Willy. Everyone goes to bed except Willy, who renews his conversation with Ben, elated at how great Biff will be with $20,000 of insurance money. Linda soon calls out for Willy but gets no response. Biff and Happy listen as well. They hear Willy’s car speed away.

In the requiem, Linda and Happy stand in shock after Willy’s poorly attended funeral. Biff states that Willy had the wrong dreams. Charley defends Willy as a victim of his profession. Ready to leave, Biff invites Happy to go back out West with him. Happy declares that he will stick it out in New York to validate Willy’s death. Linda asks Willy for forgiveness for being unable to cry. She begins to sob, repeating “We’re free. . . .” All exit, and the flute melody is heard as the curtain falls.

FAQs

What is the summary of the story Death of a Salesman? ›

Arthur Miller's play Death of a Salesman addresses loss of identity and a man's inability to accept change within himself and society. The play is a montage of memories, dreams, confrontations, and arguments, all of which make up the last 24 hours of Willy Loman's life.

How did Death of a Salesman end? ›

Willy has killed himself. In the final scene, Linda, sobbing, still under the delusion that her husband was a well-liked salesman, wonders why no one came to his funeral. Biff continues to see through his family's lies and wants to be a better man who is honest with himself.

What is the main lesson of Death of a Salesman? ›

The play demonstrates how a person's self-perpetual denial can impact those around him, and include them. Ultimately, Willy's tragic end is the failure to realize the American dream (and a really bad case of sales burnout).

What are 3 themes in Death of a Salesman? ›

The three major themes within the play are denial, contradiction, and order versus disorder. Each member of the Loman family is living in denial or perpetuating a cycle of denial for others. Willy Loman is incapable of accepting the fact that he is a mediocre salesman.

Who is the hero in Death of a Salesman? ›

Loman is a modern tragic hero turning the American dream into American Nightmare because of his personal flaw. For those reasons, this play can be classified as a "bourgeois" tragedy. This modern tragic hero represents individuals who try to survive and quest for self identity in a capitalistic commercialized world.

What is Arthur Miller message in Death of a Salesman? ›

He knew that not everyone had equal opportunities to succeed. What does it mean to live in a society that promises a lot but guarantees nothing? Miller wrote Death of a Salesman with that question in mind. It's a play about the struggle for success and disappointment of the American Dream.

What is the last line of Death of a Salesman? ›

After Biff comes toward her, Linda's last words take on an additional implication, that Linda and her sons are now free from Willy. The words “We're free” are the last words spoken in the play.

What is the climax of Death of a Salesman? ›

Biff gets honest and destroys Willy's dream; Willy finally realizes that Biff loves him. This climax earns its stripes in two different ways.

Why is Death of a Salesman a tragedy? ›

In a tragedy, the story details the downfall of the protagonist. The character fails as a result of tragic flaw in his/her personality. In Death of a Salesman, tragedy is shown by Willy, who is plagued by his American Dream that is unrealistic and impractical.

What is the conflict of the Death of a Salesman? ›

The main conflict in Death of a Salesman deals with the confusion and frustration of Willy Lowman. These feelings are caused by his inability to face the realities of modern society. Willy's most prominent delusion is that success is dependant upon popularity and having personal attractiveness.

What are the symbols in Death of a Salesman? ›

Diamonds. To Willy, diamonds represent tangible wealth and, hence, both validation of one's labor (and life) and the ability to pass material goods on to one's offspring, two things that Willy desperately craves. Correlatively, diamonds, the discovery of which made Ben a fortune, symbolize Willy's failure as a salesman ...

What is the American Dream Death of a Salesman? ›

To the protagonist of "Death of a Salesman," the American Dream is the ability to become prosperous by mere charisma.

What does the rubber hose symbolize in Death of a Salesman? ›

In sum, the rubber pipe symbolizes Willy's quiet determination to eliminate himself in the midst of what has turned out to be an unfulfilling and superficial life. The rubber pipe, as well as the title of the play, are also indicators as to how the play will end.

What does the jungle symbolize in Death of a Salesman? ›

In Death of a Salesman, the jungle represents the antithesis of the middle-class life that Willy Loman had strived to achieve.

What does the flute symbolize in Death of a Salesman? ›

The flute represents Willy, the protagonist's, memories of his father. As the play begins, flute music plays symbolizing Willy's overwhelming life as well as his abandonment issues. The flute appears again and portrays Willy's father's haunting him.

How is Willy's killing himself for the insurance money? ›

He wrecks his car and kills himself to leave his family 20,000 dollars insurance money. Willy Loman is a suicide.

What is the common man's tragic flaw? ›

For Miller, the tragic flaw, what Aristotle had called the hamartia, is redefined in modern terms as the hero's inherent unwillingness to remain passive in the face of what he conceives to be a challenge to his dignity and rightful status in society.

Who is the woman Death of a Salesman? ›

Linda is a woman in an awkward situation. She knows that Willy is suicidal, irrational, and difficult to deal with; however, she goes along with Willy's fantasies in order to protect him from the criticism of others, as well as his own self-criticism. Linda is Willy's champion.

Why did Biff go to jail? ›

Biff states that he has stolen himself out of every job since high school and that during the three-month period when he was completely out of touch with his family he was, in fact, in prison for stealing a suit.

Why is Willy's wife Linda worried? ›

Linda has reason to worry. She knows that Willy has attempted suicide before, and she is acutely aware of the fact that her husband is disintegrating. Willy is a pitiable character, reduced to subsisting on only the commissions he makes from his sales.

What does Ben symbolize in Death of a Salesman? ›

Ben. Willy's wealthy older brother. Ben has recently died and appears only in Willy's “daydreams.” Willy regards Ben as a symbol of the success that he so desperately craves for himself and his sons.

What is ironic about Willy's death? ›

Situational Irony

Willy ends up committing suicide after deciding that he is not living up to his dreams. He believed the insurance money would help his son, Biff, begin a successful career; however, the insurance money never materialized because the death was a suicide.

Why is it called Death of a Salesman? ›

The title also refers to the death of Willy's salesman dream—the dream to be financially successful and a father to hotshot sons. By the end of the play, Willy is flat broke and without a job. It's pretty clear that his dream of being a big-time salesman is already dead.

What happens to happy at the end of Death of a Salesman? ›

Death of a Salesman Ending

Happy, on the other hand, is the son that chooses to live his life more like his father did. Willy's loving and supporting wife, Linda, is still oblivious to the fact that Willy was not the successful and well-liked man he portrayed himself to be.

Who is the antagonist of Death of a Salesman? ›

Answer and Explanation: Willy Loman can be seen as both the protagonist and antagonist in Death of a Salesman.

What was Willy's dream for Biff? ›

Willy believes that Biff is far more important than Happy because his football career will lead Biff to a college scholarship and his college degree will bring high paying…show more content…

Who is the protagonist in Death of a Salesman and why? ›

Willy. Willy is the salesman who dies, so you can pretty much assume before you start that he plays the central role, which of course he does. Overall, Death of a Salesman centers on Willy's struggle to find self-validation amid his unrealistic dreams.

What is Happy's main flaw? ›

However, through his behavior, one can notice some shortcomings. The tragic flaws of Happy Loman include being almost like his father. He is unrealistic, over-confident, shallow as well as completely clueless about his real identity.

What happened to Willy's father in Death of a Salesman? ›

Willy immerses himself in the memory of a visit from his brother. Ben and Willy's father abandoned the family when Willy was three or four years old and Ben was seventeen. Ben left home to look for their father in Alaska but never found him. At Willy's request, Ben tells young Biff and Happy about their grandfather.

Is Death of a Salesman sad? ›

The Destruction of Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman In the book Death of A Salesman, author Arthur Miller shows how cruel life can be through the life of Willy Loman, the main character. His feelings of guilt, failure, and sadness result in his demise.

What is the climax of Death of a Salesman? ›

Biff gets honest and destroys Willy's dream; Willy finally realizes that Biff loves him. This climax earns its stripes in two different ways.

What is Willy's philosophy in Death of a Salesman? ›

Willy's philosophy is that a person becomes wealthy on the basis of being well liked (success is based on popularity instead of hard-work). Biff as high school football hero embodies his father's dreams of being popular. Willy often says the importance of being well-liked.

What type of tragedy is Death of a Salesman? ›

I would say Death of a Salesman is a classical modern tragedy, since it deals with modern subject-matters and speaks to a modern audience. Willy Loman, the protagonist of this tragedy, is a lower-middle class, ordinary man who does not sit on a throne but in a car with which he earns his living.

What is the introduction of Death of a Salesman? ›

The play is a scathing critique of the American Dream and of the competitive, materialistic American society of the late 1940s. The storyline features Willy Loman, an average guy who attempts to hide his averageness and failures behind increasingly delusional hallucinations as he strives to be a "success."

Who is the antagonist of Death of a Salesman? ›

Answer and Explanation: Willy Loman can be seen as both the protagonist and antagonist in Death of a Salesman.

How is Willy's killing himself for the insurance money? ›

He wrecks his car and kills himself to leave his family 20,000 dollars insurance money. Willy Loman is a suicide.

What are the symbols in Death of a Salesman? ›

Diamonds. To Willy, diamonds represent tangible wealth and, hence, both validation of one's labor (and life) and the ability to pass material goods on to one's offspring, two things that Willy desperately craves. Correlatively, diamonds, the discovery of which made Ben a fortune, symbolize Willy's failure as a salesman ...

What was Willy's mistake? ›

Miller's main character Willy Loman somehow comes to believe that success always comes to those who are well liked and good looking. His downfall is that he does not equate success with hard work and perseverance. This faulty thinking keeps him from achieving his goals of wealth and status.

Why does Miller have the girls come in? ›

The reason Miller decides to have the girls come in because it is a foreshadow about what is to come. It is a reminder to Willy of the event that happened in the hotel room in Boston and forces Willy to confront his past.

What is the irony of Linda's last speech? ›

Linda does not understand that for a man like Willy, a salary is more than just paying bills. The money that Willy brings in shows how successful he is which feeds his confidence and ego. The irony is in the end of the speech when she says "we're free". The last payment is made so they are out of financial debt.

What is Happy's main flaw? ›

However, through his behavior, one can notice some shortcomings. The tragic flaws of Happy Loman include being almost like his father. He is unrealistic, over-confident, shallow as well as completely clueless about his real identity.

Why is Death of a Salesman sad? ›

The salesman's tragic stature stems not from the likes of Othello's outsized jealousy or Macbeth's overreaching ambition, but from the utterly mundane, which makes his tragedy much more relatable (and for some, much more tragic) to the average theatregoer.

What is Willy's dream in Death of a Salesman? ›

Willy's American dream is to leave his thumbprint on the world through his oldest child Biff. Willy was unable to succeed in doing so through a lifelong career as a salesman and living under the ideology that being well-liked was far more important than actually working hard to be successful.

Who is the woman Death of a Salesman? ›

Linda is a woman in an awkward situation. She knows that Willy is suicidal, irrational, and difficult to deal with; however, she goes along with Willy's fantasies in order to protect him from the criticism of others, as well as his own self-criticism. Linda is Willy's champion.

What is the historical importance of Death of a Salesman? ›

Although Death of a Salesman is set in the 1940s, the play has a clear interest in the influence of the past. In this we can see how Miller's own experiences during the Great Depression made him skeptical of the materialism and consumerist culture which was a part of the American Dream during the 1940s.

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