Death of a Salesman’ Play by Arthur Miller

Subject: Literature
Pages: 8
Words: 2202
Reading time:
8 min
Study level: College


The play, Death of a salesman is widely viewed as its author’s masterpiece and a valuable asset of contemporary American drama. Written by Arthur Miller, the work has attracted innumerable audiences and gathered several awards that include the New York Drama Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer award. Since its first production in 1949, the play has emerged to have the most performances and plays in the history of American theatre. This play has seen this tremendous success due to the skills employed by its author in portraying the lives of middle-class Americans through his protagonist Willy Loman. The relation of the fears and hopes of this character to the contemporary lives of middle-class Americans makes it an interesting piece. The author uses the protagonist to show the tragic effects of undivided faith in the American dream, which may possibly go unfulfilled. Thus, Death of a salesman shows the contradictions between Willy Loman’s false ideas of popularity, physical attractiveness, and self-righteousness; and what is truly valued by society; hard work, education, and respect (Miller 1-19).

Plot summary

The play starts with the protagonist, Willy Loman returning home from a sales trip. His wife, living in their home in Brooklyn welcomes him home and tries to talk him into convincing his boss to relocate him to New York so that he could reduce the traveling. He tells his wife that he would talk to Howard Wagner, his boss, the following day. He complains that his eldest son, Biff is an embarrassment to the family since he has not found himself yet. While in the kitchen, his sons Biff and Happy remember their adolescence as they criticize their father’s characteristic babbling. From their criticism, it is evident that their father’s babbling is caused by frustrations about unfulfilled dreams about himself and his family, especially his eldest son Biff. As his sons fantasize about buying a ranch, Willy daydreams about his sons who are younger in his dream. He sees Biff as a high school footballer. He interacts with them and he reveals to them that he would open a large business one day more successful than their neighbor’s. As they finish their conversation, their neighbor’s son, Bernard comes to call Biff for a mathematics class. Will comments that Bernard may be smart but he lacks a very crucial quality that will disadvantage him in the end. He spells out the quality as being “well-liked” (Miller 99) by people.

Willy starts bragging about how successful his trip was to his younger wife after his sons leave for some tasks. After his wife expresses doubts about the success, Will confesses that he has problems with his job and reveals that he would soon be unable to pay their bills. He argues that he has failed in his job because he has not made people like him. As he is consoled by his wife he sinks into another daydream. He sees himself flirting with his mistress who laughs at him and afterward thanks him for his gift of stockings. Going back to his previous dream, he commands his wife to dump the stockings as Bernard gets in the house. The woman laughs again when his wife explains to Bernard that Biff was involved with girls in the neighborhood. His dream ends but Will is babbling to himself. In the scenes that follow, Willy regrets not accompanying his brother to Alaska who had been lucky to become rich. Their neighbor Charley also comes and later offers Willy employment. Willy rejects it citing pride. His brother also comes and they talk about his fortunes. Ben leaves and Willy, in a further daydream does not stop talking to him (Miller 85).

As Act II opens Will thinks about his ‘bright’ future and suddenly gets angry about appliances. After being excited about a dinner invitation by his sons, he announces that his boss would give him a job in New York. Willy tries talking his boss into giving him a New York job but his plea is rejected. He starts explaining to his boss how a salesman by the name of Dave Singleman was the reason he developed his sales passion. His boss leaves him and he becomes angry. As his son, Biff enters he talks of how his son is going to be successful in the future and congratulates him for being well-liked. Biff prepares for a game and his father talks optimistically about the game. Happy makes a contrasting statement and his father chases him. This brings us into another stage where Will asks Bernard the reason for the failure of his son Biff. When Bernard asks him why Biff missed summer school, Willy says that he is blaming him and ends the conversation. He confesses to Charley that he was fired as he borrows his money. Charley proposes to employ him but he declines. Charley gives him the money and accuses him of always seeking people’s appreciation. Willy becomes tearful and calls his neighbor his only friend (Miller 127).

When Willy enters a disagreement with his son, Biff, Happy starts a talk about Biffs’ success and suddenly, his father becomes attentive. Willy criticizes his son for failing in Mathematics and, after illusions of a woman shouting at him, hits his son. Later in that scene, Willy is found by Biff with a woman in the bathroom and Biff tells him that he failed his math and speaks to his father with his math teacher’s lisp which makes Willy see the laughing woman. As he covers his mistake, Biff calls him a fake. Back at home in the kitchen, Willy is nowhere to be seen, he is found planting seeds with a lamp. He offers Biff $ 20 000 but Biff ignores him. He later commits suicide with his car to give his son, Biff, $ 20 000 in life insurance. His burial ceremony is poorly attended. Biff says his father dreamt wrong dreams while Charley calls him a victim of his profession. Willy’s wife is unable to cry and chants the phrase “we are free …” (Miller 131) repetitively.

Willy’s illusive ideas

Throughout the play, Willy is depicted be living in a dream world. He gets his happiness from his daydreams and believes in unrealistic dreams that have made him have psychological instability. This aspect of Will has given the play its characteristic appearance as an analysis of the unrealistic dreams based on ideals of popularity, self-righteousness and physical attractiveness; and the things that are, in reality, valued by the society like hard work, education and respect. His psychological instability plays a very important role in depicting how unrealistic his dreams are and how pathetic his situation is (Miller 67).

The greatest contradiction is bought by the fact that we are aware of the situation his sons are in. This is compounded by the fact that whenever he dreams, he sees his sons as being very successful and even when he is in his sound mind he gives unrealistic talks about how he sees his sons’ future. With this kind of contradiction and the frequency with which he repeats unrealistic dreams, it is apparent that dreaming is a part of him and that he can not face the situation on the ground. This is also evidenced by the fact that when he is made to face the reality by losing his job, he continues dreaming about how his sons are going to achieve the success he was unable to achieve. To show how much he treasures his dreams, he sacrifices his life to give a contribution to helping in the realization of his dream for his son, Biff (Miller 81).

Consider the statement Willy makes to his sons concerning Bernard’s smartness. He argues that Bernard is smart but will be disadvantaged later in life due to his inability to win the liking of people. From this statement, it is clear that Willy put undeserved importance on self-righteousness and appreciation. In addition to this, Willy values being liked over being smart in class and thus he puts more trust in appreciation by other people than education. This acts as a contradiction since he gets bewildered when his son, Biff fails his math exam. It becomes very hard to deduce what he values most between education and getting the “liking of others” (Miller 57).

Another contradiction between Willy’s belief in dreaming and reality is seen in his lifestyle and career. After a failed sales trip he brags to his wife about how successful the trip was yet later after his wife probes, he confesses that the trip failed. In this case, he proves himself to be an escapist who is always aware of the situation on the ground and does not want to face it. On the contrary, he later complains about his inability to pay for expensive household appliances. This shows that he had faith that he would get money to pay for these appliances before getting them and in this case, he is portrayed as a dreamer. Therefore, this scene has the potential to contradict his stand as either a dreamer or realist in escapism (Miller 77).

From the play, it is evident that Willy overestimates himself. As stated above, he had bought expensive household appliances which he could not pay for. It is when he is made to face the reality about how his job is that he realizes that he will be unable to pay for the appliances. He also borrows money from his neighbor and when he is offered a job, he rejects it on the grounds of pride. This means that according to him, the job he was being offered was below his standard. This is an overestimation of self especially considering the fact that he is facing many problems after being sacked from his sales job. He, thus, evidently valued popularity over hard work because his condition necessitated the taking of the job he was offered but he could not tarnish his salesman reputation by taking other ‘demeaning’ jobs. It can therefore be argued that his condition and needs at this point contradict his actions and proclaimed pride because we do not expect a person with the problems he is facing to have the pride he is having (Miller 93).

Willy’s ideas of success have affected his family greatly. His wife is said to be supportive of his ideas and from the look of things, she is made to undergo so many unpleasant things. This is evidenced by the fact that after his death, she does not mourn for him and instead she is relieved that he died. She says “we are free …” (Miller 131) repetitively. His unrealistic ideas have also affected his sons. He is shown to be very unstable and he reacts negatively to apparent failures by his sons. This may be taken as the reason his sons never became the people he wanted them to be. He has also infected his sons with his dreaming nature. At one point, Biffy and Happy dream of buying a ranch. The fact that his ideas were leading his sons to make wrong decisions is evidenced by Biffy’s comment after his burial. Biffy confesses that his father dreamt the wrong dreams. This is a contradiction since he was obsessed with the success of his children yet he was drifting them away from success by his dreams. The success of his children only existed in his mind while in reality, he was a stumbling block to their success. This brings the fact that while he was trying too much to win the appreciation of his sons by ensuring their success, he ended up being disrespected by his sons and his wife due to the wrong dreams that he had. In the end, it appears as if his family is celebrating his death (Miller 120).


The play Death of a salesman is thematically inclined to the contradictions between reality and dreams. The author uses the protagonist, Willy Loman to show how failure to appreciate one’s condition may turn out to be disastrous. Willy escapes reality and makes his decisions; parenting, investment, etc based on dreams and his preconception about how his situation is supposed to be. This leads to a massive effect on the welfare of his family members and it costs him the little he had in his life: job, family, mental fitness, life, etc. He makes a decision to invest his life insurance benefits in his son who was supposedly going to start a business with the life insurance benefits but the benefits are not paid and thus reality outwits him in the end.

The depiction of the American dream in the play was very substantial in building on the theme of the play. Willy was struggling to be successful and believe that one day he would live his dreams. He thus lived way above his reputation and based his spending and investment decisions on dreams. He also wanted his children to live a good life and thus kept dreaming about how their future would be. He also became so vocal that his unrealistic dreams, in a way, made the sons fail to achieve the success he had planned for them.

Works Cited

Miller, Arthur. Death of a salesman. The USA. Penguin Group1976, Print.