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

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Willy Loman, a traveling salesman for the Wagner Company, comes on stage carrying his suitcase, which is described as “his burden”. Willy has suddenly come back home because he cannot keep his mind on driving. He tells Linda, his wife, that he was having strange dreams as he drove. She says that Willy needs a long rest. She also suggests that he talk to his manager about getting a transfer from the New England territory to someplace closer to New York. Willy, however, feels that he is vital to the New England territory.

Willy asks Linda about his sons, who are home for the first time in years. He is particularly concerned about Biff, his thirty-four year old son who cannot find a job and keep it. He cannot understand Biff’s troubles since he is so attractive, a trait that is very important in Willy’s mind.

Willy complains of being suffocated in the city, feeling "all boxed in." Linda suggests that they take a ride in the country on Sunday and open the windshield. Willy tells her that the windshields do not open on the new cars. He then thinks about his old 1928 Chevrolet.

The scene next shifts to the bedroom of Biff and Happy, the two sons of Willy, who discuss their father. Happy tells Biff that he is worried that Willy's driver's license may be taken away from him. Biff complains about Willy constantly mocking him. He feels that he cannot establish a rapport with his father. Happy tells him that Willy talks about Biff all the time.

Biff then begins to tell Happy about his life for the last fourteen years. He says he can never keep a job because when spring comes, he feels like moving on to another place. Biff remembers that he had once stolen a carton of basketballs from one of his coaches, Bill Oliver, and wonders whether Oliver still remembers him. Happy assures Biff that Oliver always thought highly of him because he was so well liked.

Happy tells Biff that he has most of the things he ever wanted--his own apartment, a car, and relationships with women; in spite of these things, he still feels lonely. Biff thinks his brother should be working outside in the open air and should settle down with a nice steady woman, one like their mother. Their conversation is interrupted by Willy, who is talking rather loudly to himself. Biff resents that his mother still tolerates Willy’s behavior.

The scene next shifts to Willy, who is talking to himself and reflecting on a time in 1928 when he had come back from a trip. Young Biff and Happy come on the stage dressed as young boys, to indicate that Willy is thinking of the old days. The boys are excited about the punching bag that their father has bought for them. When Willy asks Biff about his new football, the boy tells him that he borrowed it from the locker room so he can practice. Happy remarks that Biff will get into trouble because he has stolen the football, but Willy thinks that the coach will probably congratulate him on his initiative. Willy tells the boys that he will have his own business some day and will not have to go on any more trips. Before then, he promises to take the boys with him on a trip up through New England.

Bernard, a friend of Biff, arrives. He reminds Biff that they are supposed to study, stating that the math teacher has threatened to flunk Biff. Willy, however, thinks that it is unnecessary for a boy who has made a mark in athletics to study. When Biff does not respond, Bernard leaves. Biff then tells his father that Bernard is liked but not well liked. Willy says that good marks in school do not ensure success in life. What really matters is being well liked and being personally attractive.

While Willy is conversing with young Biff and Happy, Linda enters the scene carrying a basket of wash. Willy tells her how great he was on the road and how much he has sold. Linda tells him how much debt they owe, and Willy realizes that they owe more than he has made. Later Willy says he is worried that people do not like him. Linda, who is mending some silk stockings, assures Willy that he is well liked. Willy worries whether he has lost his personal attractiveness, but Linda assures him that he is still a handsome man. The silk stockings trigger a flashback for Willy. Suddenly a woman appears in his thoughts. She is laughing while she gets dressed. She says that she picked Willy out because he is such a joker. As she leaves, she thanks Willy for the stockings he gave her.

Willy returns to the present and tells Linda how lonesome he gets on the road. He also reassures her that things will get better and has her stop mending the stockings. Bernard then re-appears in Willy’s mind and reminds Biff to study. Willy now gets mad at Biff for not studying and threatens to whip him. He then changes his mind and says that he does not want Biff to be a worm like Bernard, for Biff has got spirit and personality.

As the lights begin to return to indicate the present, Happy comes down to check on his father. He says that he is going to retire his dad, which Willy considers to be ridiculous. Willy then remembers his dead brother Ben and says that he should have gone to Alaska and become rich with him. At this point, Charley enters and sends Happy away. He sits with Willy to play cards and offers his friend a job; Willy, however, refuses. Charley tells Willy not to worry so much about Biff. As he and Charley are talking, Brother Ben appears to Willy in an illusion, but Ben is in a hurry. Back in the present, Willy insults Charley, who gets up and leaves.

Willy now turns his full attention to his illusion of Ben, who says that he went into the jungle when he was seventeen and came out rich at twenty-one. Willy asks Ben about their parents. Ben says that their father made flutes and then went about the country selling them. Biff and Happy appear as youngsters. Ben tells Biff to hit him in the stomach to show how tough he is. Before the boy can act, Ben trips Biff and tells him to never fight fair, especially with a stranger. Willy sends the boys to the neighboring construction project to steal lumber so as to show Ben how fearless they are. Ben says he must leave to tend to the stock exchange. Willy pleads with him to stay, to no avail. As Ben leaves, he assures Willy that his sons are "manly chaps."

Linda comes downstairs to check on Willy, who is going for a walk even though he is wearing house slippers. Biff asks his mother what is wrong with his dad. Linda explains how his coming home affects his father; Biff’s presence seems to agitate him. Linda tells her son that he has to learn to respect Willy and pay attention to him. She also tells Biff that after thirty-four years of service, the company has put Willy back on straight commission. Biff says that the company is ungrateful. Linda tells him that the company is no worse than Biff and Happy. Biff refuses to take the blame and accuses his father of being a fake.

Linda tells Biff that Willy is trying to commit suicide. Sometime back, when he was in a car wreck, the insurance company investigated whether it was a deliberate attempt. Another time Linda found a rubber hose attached to the gas pipe. She pleads with Biff, telling him that Willy's life is in his hands. Biff’s answer is that they should all be in jobs where they can work outside and whistle when they want.

In the next scene, Willy re-enters. Happy tells Willy that Biff is going to see Bill Oliver. Willy is excited over the idea. Happy even suggests that they form two Loman brothers teams and compete against each other for publicity. Willy says that if they do so they could lick the world together. Willy then gives some pointers to Biff to make his appointments with Oliver a success. He tells him to wear a dark suit, to talk little, and to tell no jokes. Biff says that he will ask Oliver for ten thousand dollars, but Willy says that ten is too little and tells him to ask for fifteen thousand. His advice to Biff is "if you start out big, you end up big." He then decides that Biff should begin with a couple of jokes because "personality" always wins the day. When Linda tries to say something, Willy yells at her. Biff resents this, and he and Willy argue again. Willy leaves, and Biff thinks with ten thousand dollars he can really do great things.

Linda follows Willy up to the bedroom and reminds him of the plumbing problem. He feels that suddenly everything is falling to pieces. Biff and Happy come in to the room to say good night. Willy gives more advice to Biff about what to do in the interview with Oliver and reminds him that he has greatness in him. Happy tells his parents that he is going to get married. Biff goes down to the kitchen and removes the rubber tubing.

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