Death of a Salesman Summary
The setting is New York City. Willy Loman is an aging salesman who has just returned from a business trip. We learn that Willy is having memory lapses and having difficulty telling the difference from things in the past and things happening now. His wife, Linda, wants him to request a new job that does not require him to travel quite so much. The two argue about their son Biff.
Biff and his brother, Happy, overhear Willy talking to himself. It appears that Willy is talking to Biff even though Biff is not present while Willy is talking. The two brothers discuss women and their futures. Both are unsatisfied with their jobs since they both feel stuck. Happy cannot get a promotion until his current manager dies, and Biff wants to be his own boss. Biff overhears Willy muttering about how Biff has not lived up to Willy’s expectations. They contemplate dreams of the future including buying a ranch together.
Meanwhile, Willy seems to be reliving scenes from his past as if they were happening in the present. He is talking about the time Biff stole a football and promised to throw a pass to Willy. Willy relives a time when both boys visited him on a road trip to Boston. He conjures the memory of when the son of his next-door neighbor, Bernard, informs him that Biff is failing math class and may not graduate. Willy, while talking to himself, dismisses Bernard since he is not “well-liked.”
Willy also remembers a conversation with Linda in which Linda caught him lying about his earnings. She checked the commissions and confronted him. At the same time, he begins to talk about the time that Linda told him he was attractive. Willy’s memories are becoming mixed up with current events and with each other. He begins to talk out loud about a woman with who he had an affair, but he cannot keep this memory distinct from memories of talking with Linda.
Things clearly emerge in the present as Willy’s neighbor Charley comes over to play cards. But the past intrudes on this present moment as Uncle Ben appears to Willy. He and Willy relive an old conversation while Willy also talks to Charley. This leads to Willy becoming increasingly confused. He becomes agitated and accuses Charley of cheating. After Charley leaves, the jumble of memories continue. He goes over an old conversation in which he asked Ben for advice since Willy never actually knew his own father. He shifts into a moment form the past when he told Biff and Happy to steal supplies form a construction site so they could repair their porch.
We switch yet again to the present. Biff and Happy are talking with Linda. They tell her that Willy is working on straight commission (as opposed to a salary) and has been for quite a while. Linda accuses the boys of abandoning their father and of being selfish. She gives Biff an ultimatum: respect his father or do not come home. Biff decides to stay in New York and reminds he that it was Willy who told him to leave the home. Biff goes on to tell Linda that Willy is a “fake.” It is at this point that she tells the boys that Willy is suicidal.
Meanwhile, Willy overhears the conversation between his wife and sons. He and Biff get into an argument. Happy explains Biff’s idea to open his own business, and Willy, excited at the talk of business, offers Biff direction on how to handle the interview with Bill Oliver. Will drifts into memories of Biff’s football games. As Linda and Willy get ready for bed, Linda begins to ask Will questions. She asks him what Biff has against him, and Willy refuses to answer. We see Biff remove a rubber tubing from behind the heater.
The following day Willy gets ready to talk to Howard, his boss, about a job in New York. Later, during the meeting, Howard tells Willy there are no positions in New York. Willy, becoming defensive and confused, reminds Howard that he named him as a baby and the he had been a successful salesman. Howard is unresponsive and shocks Willy as he fires him.
The shock of being fired sends Willy into a morass of memories. He remembers a visit to Ben again to ask for advice. He remembers the time Ben offered him a job in Alaska. Willy accepted the job but Linda objected. Willy shifts to memories of Ben at Biff’s last football game. He remembers how Charley acted like he was unaware of the game and this infuriated Willy. He comes out of the day dreams and memories as he arrives at Charley’s office.
When Willy arrives at Charley’s office, Bernard is waiting for him. Willy and Bernard talk about various reasons why Biff is disinterested and seems to lack motivation. Bernard seems to think that Biff changed after he graduated high school and visited Willy in Boston. He asks Willy what happened between them in Boston at which point Willy becomes defensive. It turns out Bernard is on his way to present a case before the Supreme Court. Willy is both pleased and disturbed by Bernard’s success. Bernard gives Willy some money to cover his insurance payment. He also offers Willy a job, but Willy declines.
Willy, Biff, and Happy are to meet at restaurant. Happy flirts with a young prostitute while Biff appears upset that Oliver did not know who he was. Biff then remembers that he had been a shipping clerk for Oliver and not a salesman. Willy tells his sons that he was fired. Biff is anxiously trying to tell Willy what happened at Oliver’s office, but Will has again lapsed into old memories. He begins to talk about when Bernard told Linda that Biff failed math and may not graduate. He suddenly remembers when Bernard told Linda that Biff had taken a train to Boston.
Willy begins to relive the moment when Biff found out about his affair with the woman. Biff came to Willy’s hotel room in Boston. Biff came to tell Willy that he would not graduate unless Willy can convince Mr. Birnbaum to give him a passing grade. Willy remembers how he tried desperately to hide the woman in the bathroom. When she came out of the bathroom, Biff found out everything about Willy’s affair. Willy’s last memory of that night is hearing Biff call him a “fake” and storming out of the room.
The action returns to the present as Stanley reappears. Willy realizes he is still in the restaurant. He returns home and starts to work on a garden in the middle of the night. Linda throws the two sons out of the house in anger. Ben comes to Willy while he is planting in the garden. Willy cannot remember the conversation he just had with Ben. Ben explains to Willy that the insurance company may refuse to pay a settlement and Biff will never forgive him.
Biff comes to Willy in the garden. He tells Willy that he is leaving and that Willy may never see him again. The two argue. Biff confronts Willy with the rubber hose. He tells Willy he will not feel sorry if he commits suicide. Biff tells Willy that the Lomans have never been honest with each other or even themselves. Biff tells Willy that they are just ordinary people. They can be replaced and never missed. Biff and Willy seem to come back together. Ben appears to Willy and reminds him of the insurance. Willy drives away by himself.
The play ends with a requiem. We find Linda and Happy standing in a state of shock at Willy’s poorly attended funeral. Biff says that Willy just had the wrong dreams. Charley defends Willy. He says Willy was a victim of the life of a salesman. As they are about to leave, Biff invites Happy to go out west with him. Happy says he prefers to remain in New York to honor his father’s death. Linda begs Willy for forgiveness for not being able to cry, but she begins sobbing. She says: “We’re free…” The play ends.