Death of a Salesman Study Guide

Death of a Salesman By Arthur Miller

Willy Loman is just returning from a business trip to the arms of his loving wife Linda. They talk, and Willy reveals that he feels that he is growing senile. Linda goes to bed, but Willy stays up, muttering, until his reminiscing awakens his kids, Biff and Happy. Biff complains of being 'boxed in' at the house; he works outside.

Willy goes outside and dreams of Biff's childhood as star quarterback of the football team. In the flashback, Willy ignores his son's theft of a football from the school, and plays football with his son even when they are supposed to be studying math. The flashback ends with a memory of a flirtatious encounter with The Woman in which he gave her stockings he had originally purchased for his wife. When Willy returns to the present, he sees his wife mending stockings, and snatches them away from her in guilt.

Later, Willy and friend Charley are playing a card game, and Willy is reminded of his brother Ben, a successful man with whom Willy once conversed about money. This is one of many such internal dialogues with Ben, most of which are about how Ben made his millions.

Ben had tried to go to Alaska to find their father, but ended up in Africa, where he joined the diamond business and had become successful by the time Willy was old enough to care about financial 'success'. Willy wants to become successful by luck alone, as he believes his brother did.

Willy, however, works for commission, travels long distances, and loans money from his brother to make ends meet. He tries to load his dreams onto his son's shoulders, but they fail at everything he pushes them towards. Willy, it is revealed, has tried to kill himself several times.

Biff and Happy concoct a plan to start a sporting-goods business, and Willy gets excited about it. Willy asks his boss for a job that doesn't require so much travel, gets fired instead, and is crushed. Another flashback with Ben follows, and Willy ends up in Charley's office. When Charley learns that Willy has been fired, he offers a job, but Willy is too proud to take it.

Later, Willy confronts Biff about the business they were going to start, and the intense pressure he puts on Biff to succeed forces Biff to lie and say that everything is going well (in fact, they're broke). Willy has a flashback to when Biff caught Willy with The Woman and tried to hide his affair, but Biff saw through it. Willy goes home afterwards.

Biff catches up, admits to Willy that he had been in jail for a long time, and confronts Willy with evidence of his suicide attempts. He pleads with Willy to stop judging himself by his financial success, but Willy is adamant. The play ends as Willy drives off, intent on killing himself in order to give Biff the money from his life insurance.

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Why does it matter to the story that his surroundings are no longer the way they used to be?