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

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Willy Loman

Willy Loman is the main character and protagonist of the play. He has been a traveling salesman, the lowest of positions, for the Wagner Company for thirty-four years. Never very successful in sales, Willy has earned a meager income and owns little. His refrigerator, his car, and his house are all old - used up and falling apart, much like Willy. Willy, however, is unable to face the truth about himself. He kids himself into believing that he is well liked by his customers in the New England territory and by the company, who is sure to give him a promotion or opportunity to make more income.

Willy's dream is to become like Dave Singleman, who was very popular with his clients and able to do business by just making phone calls. Because he was so well liked, when Singleman died, customers from all over his region came to his funeral. Willy dares to believe that his funeral will be similar to Singleman’s. Ironically, when Willy commits suicide, almost no one attends the funeral, proving the error of his philosophies. Throughout his life, Willy believed that if one was attractive and well liked, everything would be perfect. The doors would automatically open for such a man, and he was sure to be successful.

In order to believe that he and his family are successes, Willy lies to himself and lives in a world of illusions. He says of himself that he is well liked in all the towns he visits and by all the customers that he calls on; he also erroneously believes that he is vital to the New England territory and will some day receive a promotion for his hard work. He even lies to himself, and then his boss, about how much he actually earns. Because he wants to prove to himself that he is well liked, Willy has at least one affair, attracting the young woman by offering to purchase her a pair of silk stockings. When Biff discovers his father in the hotel room with the woman, he recognizes Willy for what he is and calls him a liar and a fake.

Willy also lives in a world of illusions about his two sons. He is convinced that Happy is a content, successful young man who will soon become a store manager. In truth, Happy is a loser, like his father, who lives in his own world of illusions and contributes to keeping Willy in his fantasies. Although he has his own apartment and car and claims to have relationships with women, Happy admits that he is lonely and unhappy, with no clue of how to rise above the unhappiness. Willy is even more naïve about Biff. Since he is the more attractive son who has been a successful athlete in high school, Willy has placed most of his dreams in this older son. Biff, however, fails miserably. He flunks math and cannot continue his education. He is a compulsive thief, who has lost every job because of his stealing. Biff even admits he is a “nothing,” a total failure. Willy refuses to see the truth about Biff, even when the son tries to tell him. In fact, Willy commits suicide so that Biff will have his life insurance money. He is certain that Biff can make something of himself with twenty thousand dollars.

Willy Loman is a tragic figure who is largely to blame for his own downfall. He is fired from the Wagner Company because he is no longer effective and gets angry with and lies to the boss. He misjudges his sons and fails to accept the truth about either of them. He even puts his wife Linda into the position where she is totally dependent on him; in order, to protect herself and her family, she supports Willy’s illusions, even telling him that he is a good provider. Because Willy has an incorrigible inability to tell the truth, even to himself, and an unreasonable mode of thinking, he justifies his death by saying that his sacrifice will save his sons, particularly Biff; the insurance money they collect will be a tangible remembrance of Willy. The people at the funeral, who Willy is sure will be in attendance, will prove to his sons that he was respected and well liked. It is obvious that even until the last moments of his life, Willy lives a lie.

The one redeeming quality in Willy Loman is his love for his family, particularly for his unworthy son, Biff. Even when Biff forces his father to face reality, Willy is unable to accept the truth as presented to him by his elder son. Instead, he chooses to commit suicide, believing it will give Biff a better chance to succeed in life. In his mind, Willy is making the ultimate sacrifice for his family when he kills himself. Therefore, Willy, in his own mind, dies as a father and husband, not as a salesman as Miller indicates in the title of the play.

Linda Loman

Linda Loman, Willy’s faithful wife, is the most sympathetic character in the play. Downtrodden and leading a seemingly miserable existence, Linda still truly loves her husband in spite of all his faults and always stands by him. Although she spends her life cooking, cleaning, trying to make ends meet, and bolstering Willy’s sense of self-importance, she never complains about the way she lives. Instead, she complains about how shabbily her sons, Happy and Biff, treat their father. She even tells Biff that he cannot come home again unless he learns to get along better with Willy.

Linda's weakness is that she does not have the imagination to understand Willy's dreams of success. When Willy has the opportunity to go off to Alaska and make it big with Ben, it is Linda who holds him back by reminding him of his great future with the Wagner firm. She also repeatedly lies to Willy, leading him to believe that he adequately provides for her and the family. She also tells him that he is popular and well liked by everyone.

Linda's role in the play is not a complex one. She is simply the traditional and concerned wife and mother, who struggles to make ends meet and keep her family, particularly Willy, happy. She also serves to feed and enhance Willy’s illusions about himself. The Requiem of the play gives a pathetic final picture of Linda. She stays behind at Willy’s grave after everyone has left, for she wants to say a final good-bye. She proudly tells Willy that she has made the last mortgage payment on the house; she also sadly tells him that there is now no one to live there with her.

Biff Loman

Biff is the older of Willy’s two sons. He is an attractive man, even though he is a failure in life. In high school, Biff was a star football player, winning several scholarships. Unfortunately, he was unable to continue his education because he failed math, even though Bernard tried to make him study and helped him to cheat on the exam. He also began stealing in high school and was never reprimanded for it. In fact, when he steals balls from the locker room, Willy excuses the behavior by saying that the coach would probably be proud of Biff’s initiative for wanting to practice at home.

Early the play, Biff proves that he has assumed all of Willy's values and has not developed any of his own. Biff has learned from his father that to be well liked and attractive are the most important ingredients for success. Biff even echoes small bits of Willy's view of life when he says that Bernard "is liked but not well liked." Biff himself feels that since he is handsome, he will be well liked and successful; he waits for grand things to come his way, but they never do. Instead, he loses one job after another, because of his compulsive stealing.

During the play, Biff slowly begins to accept that both he and his father are failures in life. The disillusionment begins when he is still a teenager. When Biff goes to Boston to find Willy and tell him that he has failed math, he makes an awful discovery about his father. He finds him in a hotel room with a strange woman and feels Willy is betraying his mother, both sexually and financially. He calls Willy a liar and a fake. In spite of these accusations, Biff still lives by Willy’s philosophies. Since he has no skills and little education, Biff tries to get by on being handsome and well liked; however, he is a miserable failure, who resorts to stealing to get what he wants.

Late in the play, Biff comes to some realistic understanding of his place in life. He knows that he is a “nothing,” in spite of Willy’s praises of him and dreams for him. Biff tries to make his father see that he is "no good. I am a dime a dozen, Pop, and so are you." He begs for Willy to communicate with him and accept him for who he is. Although Willy is forced by Biff to see some of his own failures, he never accepts that Biff will turn out the same way. In fact, Willy commits suicide so that Biff can receive his life insurance of twenty thousand dollars and make something of himself.

At the end of the play, Biff seems to be developing a strength of his own. He has faced and accepted the truth about himself and his father. Now that he acknowledges his problems, there is hope that he can reach his potential. If this play offers any hope, it is through the character of Biff. There is a chance that he can be rehabilitated and lead a normal life, away from the shadow of Willy.

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