The play opens to the protagonist, Willy Loman returning from a business trip that has been cancelled. After talking the matter over with his wife, Linda, Willy decides to speak to his boss, and ask to work closer to home. As well as Willy's dissatisfaction with his work, his son, Biff has returned home to visit. This opens up old issues about Biff's lack of achievements. When Willy begins muttering to himself, Biff and his brother, Happy begin to talk about their childhood and discuss the possibility of buying a ranch (farm) out in the West of the country. Meanwhile, Willy begins a series of complex daydreams.
In the daydream, Biff and Happy are younger, and they are washing Willy's car. Willy talks about his hopes for the future, including opening a business more successful than that of his neighbour, Charley. Charley's son Bernard encourages Biff to study for a Maths test, which leads Willy to tell Biff that while Charley is intelligent, Biff is popular, which is more important, particularly in the world of sales. Willy tells his wife that his business trip was extremely successful, although admits later that this was not the case. He worries openly about affording payments on the car and other luxuries, all of which have been bought on credit.
Willy then has a daydream within a daydream, and begins fantasising about 'The Woman', a lady he once had an affair with. After flirting with her briefly, this daydream abruptly ends, and he is back in the original hallucination with Linda. After shouting at Linda and Bernard in his dream, he snaps out and back to reality, where he is consoled by the adult Happy. Although Willy is no longer daydreaming, he begins to mutter to Happy about missing an opportunity to go to Alaska with his brother, who later became rich.
After Happy goes to bed, Willy and Charley play cards. Charley offers Willy a job, although Willy turns him down. During the game, Willy hallucinates that his brother Ben has entered the room, and begins to talk with him. Charley sees Willy talking to himself and begins to question Willy's sanity. Willy shouts at Charley, who quickly leaves the house. Willy's daydream continues and he hallucinates Ben meeting the younger Linda. Charley and Bernard also enter the daydream to tell Willy that Happy and Biff are stealing wood. Willy continues to talk to Ben.
Outside of the daydream, Linda finds Willy muttering to himself outside. Biff and Happy witness their father's madness, although Linda warns the boys against judging him too harshly. Linda mentions that Willy has attempted suicide, and Biff states that Willy is a fake. Happy, defending his father, criticises Biff's failures in the business world. After Willy joins in the attack on Biff, Happy suggests that the two sons start a business together, and identifies Biff's old boss, Bill as a potential source of a loan. After peace seems to settle within the house, the characters all go to bed, and Act I ends on this scene.
Act II continues with the sense of peace that Act I finished with. Willy is eating breakfast, although he quickly becomes angry at the cost of the items in the kitchen, showing he is stressed about money. Linda passes on a message from Biff and Happy that they will take him out to dinner in the evening, and Willy reiterates his plan to ask his boss for a locally (New York-based) job. Biff and Linda speak on the phone, and Linda asks him to be nice to Willy at dinner.
Willy goes to ask his boss Howard, for a job change, but Howard only seems interested in playing a voice recording of his wife and children that he has made. When Willy eventually gets through to Howard, he rejects his request for a local job, and instead is told to take some time off because Howard is worried about his health. After Howard leaves, Willy again begins to daydream - talking to Ben and a younger Linda. The two represent different propositions: Ben wants Willy to move to Alaska, but Linda says that Willy must stay and look after his children. Willy states that Biff has great prospects because he is popular.
Willy continues to daydream about Biff, imagining that he is about to play a big American football game, talking to Charley and Bernard about the match. Willy is eventually snapped out of his daydream by the real-life Bernard. Willy tells Bernard that Biff is about to conduct a big business deal. However, when Bernard mentions that he is going to Washington D.C. to fight a case (Bernard is a lawyer), Willy seems to show vulnerability and asks Bernard why Biff has never made a success of his life. Bernard pinpoints an incident that took place in Boston that changed Biff's outlook on life. Willy clearly knows what Bernard is talking about and becomes defensive, although doesn't reveal what the event was.
Charley arrives, and Willy asks him for money. Willy implies that this is a regular occurrence. Willy asks Charley for more money, and Charley once again offers Willy a job. After Willy refuses but admits he was fired, Charley begins to criticise Willy for needing always to be popular. Willy is clearly upset by this and leaves.
Willy meets Biff and Happy at the restaurant. Happy has been flirting with a girl waiting for Biff to arrive, and Biff tells Happy that he failed to get the loan from Bill. Willy announces that he was fired, and so Happy tries to pacify Willy by hinting that they got the loan. Biff eventually has had enough and yells at Willy for never listening. This prompts Willy into another daydream. Bernard is telling Linda that Biff has failed his Maths class. At this point, in the real conversation, Willy criticises Biff for failing Maths. Willy then daydreams that he is in a hotel, and shouts that he is not in the hotel room. Biff attempts to calm Willy by suggesting that they may get the loan after all. Willy and Biff begin to argue, and when Willy hears The Woman laugh, he hits Biff. Biff helps Willy to the toilets to calm him down. When Biff returns to the table he finds Happy flirting and laughing with two girls. Biff and Happy argue, and Biff storms out. Happy leaves with the two girls, leaving Willy in the restaurant.
Willy then has a flashback to the hotel room in Boston. Willy and The Woman are in the room when there is a knock at the door. Willy hides The Woman in the bathroom when Biff comes in. Biff tells Willy that he failed his Maths class. While Willy tries to usher Biff outside, Biff does an impression of his Maths teacher that makes The Woman laugh. Biff realises what has gone on, and shouts at Willy. Willy is then snapped out of his flashback in the restaurant, where he is helped up.
Back at the house, Happy and Linda argue about leaving Willy in the restaurant. Biff goes looking for Willy, and finds him planting seeds in the garden. Willy is talking to the hallucination of Ben about a $20,000 'proposition'. Biff helps Willy into the house, although they begin arguing. After Happy joins in, Biff eventually begins to cry, which calms Willy down. After the boys go to bed, Willy begins talking to 'Ben' about the $20,000 sum, which is revealed to be insurance money. When Linda shouts for Willy, there is no response, and Linda and the boys hear Willy's car race away.
The play finishes with Willy's funeral, which is a depressing affair. There are hardly any attendees, and all of the characters have a different interpretation of Willy's death. Biff says that Willy should have kept his dreams in check. Charley says that Willy was a victim of the American dream, and sales in general. The boys talk about the future, although Happy says that he wants to stay in memory of his father. The play ends with Linda crying, and saying, "We're free", over and over.Back to top
He’s a man way out there in the blue . . . A salesman is got to dream, boy.
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To Linda’s considerable chagrin and bewilderment, Willy’s family, Charley, and Bernard are the only mourners who attend Willy’s funeral. She wonders where all his supposed business friends are and how he could have killed himself when they were so close to paying off all of their bills. Biff recalls that Willy seemed happier working on the house than he did as a salesman. He states that Willy had all the wrong dreams and that he didn’t know who he was in the way that Biff now knows who he is. Charley replies that a salesman has to dream or he is lost, and he explains the salesman’s undaunted optimism in the face of certain defeat as a function of his irrepressible dreams of selling himself. Happy becomes increasingly angry at Biff’s observations. He resolves to stay in the city and carry out his father’s dream by becoming a top businessman, convinced he can still “beat this racket.” Linda requests some privacy. She reports to Willy that she made the last payment on the house. She apologizes for her inability to cry, since it seems as if Willy is just “on another trip.” She begins to sob, repeating, “We’re free. . . .” Biff helps her up and all exit. The flute music is heard and the high-rise apartments surrounding the Loman house come into focus.
Charley’s speech about the nature of the salesman’s dreams is one of the most memorable passages in the play. His words serve as a kind of respectful eulogy that removes blame from Willy as an individual by explaining the grueling expectations and absurd demands of his profession. The odd, anachronistic, spiritual formality of his remarks (“Nobody dast blame this man”) echo the religious quality of Willy’s quest to sell himself. One can argue that, to a certain extent, Willy Loman is the postwar American equivalent of the medieval crusader, battling desperately for the survival of his own besieged faith.
Charley solemnly observes that a salesman’s life is a constant upward struggle to sell himself—he supports his dreams on the ephemeral power of his own image, on “a smile and a shoeshine.” He suggests that the salesman’s condition is an aggravated enlargement of a discreet facet of the general human condition. Just as Willy is blind to the totality of the American Dream, concentrating on the aspects related to material success, so is the salesman, in general, lacking, blinded to the total human experience by his conflation of the professional and the personal. Like Charley says, “No man only needs a little salary”—no man can sustain himself on money and materiality without an emotional or spiritual life to provide meaning.
When the salesman’s advertising self-image fails to inspire smiles from customers, he is “finished” psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually. According to Charley, “a salesman is got to dream.” The curious and lyrical slang substitution of “is” for “has” indicates a destined necessity for the salesman—not only must the salesman follow the imperative of his dreams during his life, but Miller suggests that he is literally begotten with the sole purpose of dreaming.
In many ways, Willy has done everything that the myth of the American Dream outlines as the key path to success. He acquired a home and the range of modern appliances. He raised a family and journeyed forth into the business world full of hope and ambition. Nevertheless, Willy has failed to receive the fruits that the American Dream promises. His primary problem is that he continues to believe in the myth rather than restructuring his conception of his life and his identity to meet more realistic standards. The values that the myth espouses are not designed to assuage human insecurities and doubts; rather, the myth unrealistically ignores the existence of such weaknesses. Willy bought the sales pitch that America uses to advertise itself, and the price of his faith is death.
Linda’s initial feeling that Willy is just “on another trip” suggests that Willy’s hope for Biff to succeed with the insurance money will not be fulfilled. To an extent, Linda’s comparison debases Willy’s death, stripping it of any possibility of the dignity that Willy imagined. It seems inevitable that the trip toward meaningful death that Willy now takes will end just as fruitlessly as the trip from which he has just returned as the play opens. Indeed, the recurrence of the haunting flute music, symbolic of Willy’s futile pursuit of the American Dream, and the final visual imprint of the overwhelming apartment buildings reinforce the fact that Willy dies as deluded as he lived.