Death of a Salesman is a realistic play that presents everyday characters with real problems. Yet a strange “air of dream” clings to the Loman house.
This reflects the influence on Miller of the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen (1828–1906) and the Expressionists, who sought the rebirth of truth and spiritual values in a world of crass commercialism.
Like the Expressionists, Miller uses symbols and abstract forces to reflect Willy’s state of mind (such as the “angry glow of orange” from threatening apartments). This combination of Realism and Expressionism creates the dreamlike quality that allows Willy to move across the barriers of time and space, as in his conversations with Ben.
You may still be wondering if you should read the book. This book review will tell you everything about this book so you can decide if it is worth your time.
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Table of Contents
An aging salesman, haunted by his past, suffers a mental breakdown and commits suicide.
The year is 1942 and Willy Loman, a traveling salesman for the Wagner Company, has reached a breaking point. Sales are down, he’s exhausted, and he can’t keep his mind on anything.
He abandons a business trip to New England after nearly driving off the road, and when he arrives home late that evening, his alarmed wife, Linda, gently tries to calm his nerves. She thinks Willy has had enough of the New England territory and ought to transfer to the New York office.
The trees that used to surround his “fragile-seeming” Brooklyn house have been replaced by towering apartment buildings. And now that he is faced with bricks and windows, Willy longs for a return to happier times.
He tells Linda that he enjoyed driving in the country that afternoon with his windshield open, but suddenly remembers that the windshield doesn’t open on his Studebaker. He had confused it with his red Chewy, which he hasn’t had since 1928, the last happy year of his life.
Willy’s grown sons, Biff and Happy, are home for a visit. Neither is successful or shows signs of promise. Willy is angry that Biff, once a high school football star with great “personal attractiveness,” is unemployed again at 34, after 20 jobs in seven years. Happy, a department store clerk, spends his time seducing women, including the fiancées of his bosses.
There’s a flicker of excitement when the brothers talk about buying a ranch out West where they would enjoy working outdoors. Biff hopes that Bill Oliver, a former employer, will lend them $10,000 to get started. But he wonders if Oliver will remember that Biff stole a carton of basketballs from his store 10 years earlier.
Alone in the kitchen, Willy relives a memory of the past; he will drift in and out of his memories for the rest of the play. Young Biff, Willy’s favorite son, has stolen a football to practice with. Willy praises Biff’s “initiative,” then boasts about someday having his own business—a bigger one than Uncle Charley’s, the next-door neighbor, who is liked, but not “well liked.”
When Charley’s son, Bernard, runs in to announce that if Biff doesn’t study for the final high school math exam, he’ll fail and won’t be admitted to college, Willy scoffs at him.
Still in the grips of his memory, Willy is annoyed about the carburetor and refrigerator fan belt, which have broken down before the car and refrigerator are paid for. He lies to Linda about his gross sales, then confides that he isn’t liked in New England.
People make fun of his appearance and he’s lonely on the road. Suddenly he hears a woman’s laughter—that of the Woman in Boston, a department store secretary named Miss Francis with whom he had an affair in 1928.
He had given her stockings and she promised to put him through to the buyers. Willy turns from this “memory within a memory” back to the present and sees Linda darning stockings. He angrily grabs them and orders Linda never to mend stockings in the house again.
Willy surfaces from the memory, agitated and angry. Charley, who has heard Willy’s screaming, comes over to play a game of cards with him. Knowing about Willy’s financial troubles, Charley offers him a job.
Willy refuses out of pride, and to the bewilderment of Charley, begins talking to his dead brother Ben. In his frenzy, Willy accuses Charley of cheating, so Charley leaves. Ben tells how, many years earlier, he had gone to look for their father in Alaska and had ended up a rich and successful man with diamond mines in Africa.
As the memory fades, Willy wanders off to bed. Linda tells Biff that the Wagner Company has demoted Willy from salary to commission and that he has been borrowing $50 per week from Charley to make ends meet.
What’s more, Willy has been trying to kill himself lately: he’s had several car accidents that the insurance inspector believes were not “accidents,” and Linda has discovered a rubber hose attached to the gas pipe in the basement.
Willy saunters in again and is excited to hear about Biff’s plan to see Bill Oliver. He suggests that Biff go into the sporting goods business, and Happy adds that they could have their own line, the Loman line.
Later, when the boys go to bed, Willy recalls the Ebbets Field high school football game where Biff was the star and looked like a young god. Linda asks what Biff has against him, but Willy will not answer her.
In the morning, Willy is cheerful and wants to buy seeds, but Linda says nothing will grow because there’s not enough sun. She tells him that the boys want to take him to dinner at Frank’s Chop House, and with this pleasant thought in mind, he goes to the office to talk with his boss, Howard Wagner, about a New York job.
Howard is more interested in the latest invention—a tape recorder that plays his family’s voices—than in talking with Willy. Since Willy insists on talking business, Howard finally tells him that there is no room for Willy in New York.
Willy desperately relates the story of Dave Singleman, a salesman who could make calls from his hotel room, wearing his green velvet slippers. Dave was successful because he was well liked, and when he died, friends came to his funeral from all over. Willy accidentally bangs the tape recorder and goes into a panic over its endless voices, which prompts Howard to blurt out that Willy is fired.
Willy relives the moment when Ben offered him a job in Alaska. In the memory, Linda tells him not to go because it would mean leaving the security of the Wagner Company, where he is liked.
Willy realizes that he is at the end of his rope. He visits Charley in order to borrow money for the payments on his insurance policy. Bernard is there, ready to leave for Washington to argue a case before the Supreme Court. For years, Bernard has wondered why Biff never went to summer school to pass math, and when he asks Willy what happened in Boston, Willy gets angry and won’t answer.
At Frank’s Chop House, Happy flirts with Miss Forsythe, a woman at the next table. Biff arrives, demoralized, after waiting six hours to see Bill Oliver, who didn’t even remember him.
When Oliver left the office, Biff stole his fountain pen, then ran for the restaurant. The experience makes him admit that he had never been a salesman for Oliver, as Willy has always maintained, but only a shipping clerk. He realizes that he has never been honest about his life and that it is time to be so.
Willy meets his sons and tells them of his firing, then drifts into a memory of young Biff arriving at Willy’s room in the Boston hotel with news that he has failed math. Young Biff finds Willy with the Woman and is devastated.
The scene continues in the present and past, with Willy talking in the past and the others not understanding him. When Willy stumbles off to the men’s room, Happy makes plans to go off with Miss Forsythe and her friend Letta, who has joined them. Seeing that his brother doesn’t care about Willy, Biff leaves in disgust.
Still caught in his memory of the Woman, Willy hears young Biff’s sobs. His son now hates him and has given up plans for college. Panic-stricken, Willy gives the Chop House waiter all his money (“I don’t need it any more”), and in his haste to plant something, frantically asks where there is a seed store.
Later that night, Biff insists on confronting Willy, who is outside planting a garden and asking Ben’s advice about a $20,000 insurance policy that Biff will inherit. Biff shows him the rubber pipe and calls him a phony, then grabs his father and sobs, “Will you take that phony dream and burn it before something happens?” Exhausted, Biff leaves.
Willy tells Linda he’ll be up to bed soon. Overcome with joy at the thought that Biff loves and has forgiven him, Willy gets into his car and drives to his death. REQUIEM At the grave a day or two later, Happy claims that Willy had no right to die. Biff believes there is more of Willy in the front porch than in all the sales he ever made. Charley sees Willy as a salesman who needed to dream.
And Linda, who never knew about Willy’s affair in Boston, can’t understand why Willy killed himself. She has made the last payment on the house, and now there’s nobody to live there.
Willy Loman: Traveling salesman for the Wagner Company for 34 years. Born in Brooklyn; age 63. Lower-middle-class, with little education and no evidence of political, moral, or religious beliefs. He experiences abrupt mood swings and is ruined by rejection, criticism, failure, self-doubt, and especially his self-delusions. His symbolic name “Loman” suggests the “low man” on the totem pole. He is haunted by his memory of the affair with the Woman in Boston. His major flaw is his false idea that success depends on being “well-liked,” and his major desire is to be accepted and loved by everyone—especially by his son Biff.
Linda: Willy’s unselfish, loving wife. She represents traditional American values such as family, loyalty, and hard work. She sees through Willy’s lies but still encourages them because she realizes that illusions are all Willy has.
Biff: Willy’s oldest son; age 34. He is a drifter, petty thief, and menial laborer. He was a former high school football star, an all-American boy who was shattered by his father’s affair with the Woman. He loves the outdoors and discovers that being truthful about himself will free him from the lies of the past.
Happy (“Hap”): Willy’s younger son; age 32. He is a clerk in a department store and is lonely and desperate for love. As a child, he tried to lose weight to impress Willy, and as an adult, he competes with his bosses by seducing their fiancées. He fails to see the value of truth in assessing his life.
Charley: Willy’s next-door neighbor and only friend. He is a successful businessman, good Samaritan, and well-adjusted. He is contrasted with Loman to show opposite traits.
Bernard: Charley’s son. He is a successful, reliable, hardworking lawyer. As a child, he was criticized by the Lomans for being studious rather than “well-liked.”
Uncle Ben: Willy’s older, dead brother. He was a self-made man who was ruthless and personifies wealth, power, and success.
Miss Francis: The Woman in Boston with whom Willy has an affair.
Howard Wagner: Willy’s shrewd boss; son of Willy’s original boss. He is a family man and is unsentimental about Willy’s problems.
Themes and Ideas
1. American Dream
Willy’s burning goal is to find prosperity, success, and be “well liked” by everyone. He fails to attain this because his ideals are false. He lacks self-confidence, despises his image, is not satisfied with what he has, envies others, is unable to learn from role models, fears risk, and lacks discipline.
2. Personal Attractiveness
For Willy, one gets ahead by being “well liked,” not just liked. He teaches this notion to his sons while scorning Charley’s work ethic of discipline, method, and hard work. It is a classic example of appearance vs. reality. The appearance of Willy as a brilliant salesman and Biff as a big success is overshadowed by the reality that Willy is a “hard-working drummer who landed in the ash can” and Biff is a “one dollar an hour” man.
3. “Fake and Phony”
The major focus of the drama is to strip away the lies and expose the truth. Willy is a “phony” who lies about his sales and his popularity with buyers and politicians (such as the mayor of Providence). Willy gives his sons false ideas about success and is unfaithful to Linda. Biff knows the truth about Willy and confronts him: “All right, phony! … We never told the truth for ten minutes in this house!” The result is that Biff rejects Willy’s phony values, but Happy remains ignorant and Willy dies content after his moment of “truth” with Biff.
4. The Family
Before Willy’s affair with Miss Francis in Boston, the Loman family is happy, as in the American dream. But his adultery violated the family structure. Linda and Happy, who never learn of the affair, don’t understand Willy and Biff’s tension. Linda tries unsuccessfully to hold the family together, and Happy makes a similar attempt with the idea of the Loman sporting goods line. Growing up as a child, Willy never had a family life. His father abandoned them when he was a child, which led to Willy’s sense of always feeling “kind of temporary.” Willy needed the stability of a strong family and the support of business associates (“respect, comradeship, gratitude”), but he had neither.
Willy has tried several times to kill himself but failed. He is unable to die until he makes peace with Biff, even if the reconciliation takes place only in Willy’s mind. It is ironic that Willy commits suicide in order for Biff to collect the $20,000 insurance policy, yet Biff has rejected Willy’s monetary values in favor of honesty and integrity.
Biff and Happy are sexual men. In high school, Biff was so “rough” with girls that their mothers feared him. Happy is “tall, powerfully made,” and uses sex to ease his loneliness. Sex is a dividing force in the Loman household. Willy’s affair drives Biff away, and Happy pursues a sex life in his apartment by seducing his bosses’ fiancées to compete with them.
Willy has the affair with Miss Francis because he feels lonely in Boston. Linda, alone in the household, worries about Willy. Biff is a loner for years, withdrawn from his family and from society. Happy is lonely in his apartment. Miller’s social comment is that even when surrounded by others, people often feel isolated and lonely, especially when judged by society’s standards of success.
Green Leaves: When Willy remembers his past, a pattern of green leaves covers the stage, symbolizing happier times when his house was surrounded by trees, not buildings.
Silk Stockings: Symbolize a turning point in Willy’s life. By giving stockings to the Woman, he symbolically destroys Biff’s faith in him (“You gave her Mama’s stockings”) and betrays Linda. When he sees Linda mending stockings, he explodes with guilt at this reminder of the affair.
The Woods are Burning: The woods represent a dream, peace, beauty, and a source of happiness to Willy: elm trees in the yard, trees he gazed at along the road (which caused accidents), the woods in Alaska (wild yonder). When Willy exclaims that “the woods are burning,” this is the symbolic moment when it is clear that Willy’s dream (i.e., his life) is falling apart: “I’m not interested in stories about the past…. The woods are burning…. There’s a big blaze going on all around. I was fired today.” (Note the ironic interplay of the words fired and burning.)
Symbols of Battle: (a) Ebbets Field symbolizes the “battlefield” of life, with its winners and losers. (b) The salesman’s battle: Willy “knocked ’em cold in Providence, slaughtered ’em in Boston.” (c) Minor symbol of the Hastings refrigerator (Battle of Hastings).
Seeds: Represent growth, prosperity, and hope for the future. Willy has nothing to show for his life (“I don’t have a thing in the ground”).
Sun: Symbol of life and health. At his most successful, Biff is surrounded by the sun at Ebbets Field, in full glory.
Stolen Objects: Happy “steals” (i.e., seduces) executives’ fiancées to compete with his superiors. Biff uses stolen objects to gain Willy’s approval (football, basketballs, and construction materials from the building site across the street). Stealing Oliver’s pen is the symbolic turning point that makes Biff take stock of his values.
Car: Symbol of Willy’s life on a collision course. The car, which he can’t keep on the road, finally becomes an instrument of his death.
Tape Recorder: Symbolizes an increasingly mechanical society where there’s no room for the Willys of the world. Its endless voices symbolize the frenzied thoughts that Willy can no longer control.
1. Magnificent portrayal of a man’s struggles
The script’s writing is magnificent in its portrayal of a man struggling to achieve his goals. Miller’s story represents what many people in life deal with and try to secure the elusive American Dream.
Willy Loman’s hopes and dreams as he wishes the world to be are shattered, and the tragedy is that life as he knows it does not bear the fruit he thought it would bear. Miller’s writing beautifully captures the essence of this struggle and makes the reader empathize with Willy’s character.
2. Complicated and well-developed characters
The character of Biff, who tries to find his purpose in life, is one of the best and complicated characters in this story. Willy, the main character, can also be regarded as an extremely complex character driven into insanity through his nostalgia of the past and persevering hope for the future. Although Willy has many flaws, his character is still portrayed with such a force so as to make the reader sympathetic towards him.
3. Relevant and unforgettable
Many reviews have said that what Miller brought forth in mid-20th century America of a struggling middle-class man trying to fulfill the American Dream is still relevant in today’s economy and that things really haven’t changed. Yes, Willie Loman was part of the 99% and, even back in 1949, there still was that 1% who seemingly controlled the American Dream.
The current revival of the play, directed by Mike Nichols and starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Linda Emond, and Andrew Garfield, is acted out by a superb cast and earns this classic play the absolute pantheon of Broadway productions. The performance was unforgettable and will remain etched in my memory.
1. Slow pace and lack of action
One of the criticisms of the book is its slow pace and lack of action. The play is more dialogue-driven than action-driven, which might make it less engaging for some readers. The book relies heavily on the characters’ conversations and their internal struggles, which can make the plot feel slow at times.
2. Depressing tone
The overall tone of the book is depressing, which might not appeal to all readers. Miller’s portrayal of Willy’s struggles, failures, and eventual death can be emotionally draining, and some readers might find it difficult to read the book in one sitting. The tragedy of Willy’s life might also leave readers feeling hopeless and sad, which can be a turn-off for some readers.
3. Dated cultural references
As the play was written in the late 1940s, it contains cultural references that might feel outdated to modern readers. The play’s themes, such as the pursuit of the American Dream, are timeless, but some of the specific cultural references might not resonate with younger readers. For example, the mention of Ebbets Field, a former baseball stadium in Brooklyn, might not be familiar to readers who are not fans of baseball or are not familiar with the history of New York City.
Death of a Salesman is a magnificent tragedy and compared to books such as Oedipus the King and Hamlet, it has to stack up as a favorite tragic novel and play. Although the ending is tragic and depressing, in the end, the reader feels assured that Willy fulfilled his purpose and mended difficult relationships. I highly recommend this book for anyone who loves theater and a good tragedy.
Arthur Miller was born in New York City. He is a social dramatist, playwright of ideas. He studied journalism at the University of Michigan. His early communist connections were investigated by the House Committee on Un-American Activities (1956). Author of All My Sons (1947), The Crucible (1953), and other plays.
He has been called a Marxist whose plays comment on the evils of capitalism, and a humanist who explores the plight of the individual in society.
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