Death of a Salesman: Free Study Guide / Summary / Analysis

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The protagonist of a story is the main character who traditionally undergoes some sort of change. Willy Loman is the protagonist. He is a traveling salesman, the low man of popular United States culture, who believes in the false promises of the American Dream.


The antagonist of a story is the force that provides an obstacle for the protagonist. The antagonist does not always have to be a single character or even a character at all. The antagonist is the false promise of the American Dream, which makes people believe that anyone in the United States can become rich through only hard work, perseverance, or personality. The dream also seems to say that the individual need not master any form of skill or profession to make it big. Unfortunately, Willy is overcome by his dreams and illusions during the course of the play. He is fired by the company that he believes will promote him; he is rejected by his sons, for whom he has worked and struggled; and he is forced to see that his life and his philosophies are lies.


The climax of a plot is the major turning point that allows the protagonist to resolve the conflict. Biff, Willy’s son, makes his father see that both he and Willy are failures, who will never obtain the American Dream. Biff makes his father realize the emptiness of their lives and the unimportance of being well liked. Willy Loman cannot face or accept this reality.


The play ends in tragedy. Willy commits suicide in order to financially provide for his family, especially to safeguard Biff's future with the receipt of Willy’s twenty thousand dollar insurance policy.


Willy Loman has been a traveling salesman for the Wagner Company for thirty-four years. He likes to think of himself as being vital to the New England territory. As the play opens, Willy has just come back home after having left New England earlier that morning. He tells his wife Linda that he has returned unexpectedly because he cannot seem to keep his mind on driving anymore. Linda thinks that he needs a long rest. He asks about his sons, who are home for the first time in years.

Willy has trouble understanding why Biff, his thirty-four year old son, cannot find a job and keep it. After all, Biff is attractive and was a star football player in high school with several scholarships; however, he could not finish his education, for he flunked math. When Biff went to Boston to find his father and explain the failure to him, he found Willy in his hotel room having an affair with a strange woman. Afterwards, Biff held a grudge against his father, never trusting him again.

Biff and his brother Happy try to think of some job that Biff could get that would allow him to settle down in New York. Biff thinks of a man named Bill Oliver, for whom he was worked; Biff believes he can get a loan of ten thousand dollars from Oliver in order to begin a business of his own. Biff and Happy tell Willy about their plans. Willy explains to his sons that the important things in life are to be well liked and to be attractive. Willy assures Biff that he is attractive and that Oliver has always liked him.

The next day, Willy is to meet his sons for dinner at a restaurant to hear how Oliver has reacted to Biff’s request for a loan. Willy himself goes to young Howard Wagner, the present owner of the firm for which he works, and asks for a transfer to New York City. Howard tells him there is no room for him in New York and then explains to Willy that he cannot even represent the firm in New England any more. This news turns Willy's life upside-down. Suddenly unemployed, he feels frightened and worthless. He goes to Charley, an old friend, to borrow money to pay his insurance premium. After Charley lends him the money, Willy goes to the restaurant to meet his sons.

Before Willy arrives, Biff tells Happy that Oliver did not even recognize him. He admits that he is tired of living a life filled with illusion and plans to tell his father not to expect anything from him anymore. When Willy arrives, he tells Biff and Happy that he has been fired. He also refuses to listen to Biff's story and simply believes that Biff will have another appointment the following day. Out of frustration, Biff leaves the restaurant. Happy, who has picked up two women, follows him, leaving Willy alone.

Later that night, Biff comes home and finds Willy planting seeds in the backyard and "talking" to a long dead brother, Ben. Biff again tries to explain to Willy that he has no real skills and no leadership ability. In order to save his father from disappointment, he suggests that they never see one another again. Willy still refuses to listen to what Biff is saying; he tells Biff how great he is and how successful he can become. Biff is frustrated because Willy refuses to face the truth. In anger, Biff breaks down and sobs, telling Willy just to forget about him.

Willy decides to kill himself, for Biff would get twenty thousand dollars of insurance money. Then Biff could start his own business and make it a decent living. At Willy’s funeral, no one is present. He dies a pathetic, neglected, and forgotten man.

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