Quicklet on Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman

by Steven John

What's in the book?

Quicklets: Your reading sidekick!

    • About the Book
    • About the Author
    • Overall Summary
    • Chapter-by-Chapter Summary and Commentary
    • Act One
    • Act Two
    • Requiem
    • Major Characters of Death of a Salesman
    • Key Terms & Definitions
    • Major Themes and Symbols
    • Facts About Death of a Salesman and the Author
    • Sources
    • Additional Reading



A diamond is hard and rough to the touch.”  - Ben Loman, Death of a Salesman

Why is Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman still relevant today? Perhaps this simple question begs the question “IS it still relevant?” To any who ask this, the simple answer is an admonition to read the play. Or see it staged. Or watch any of the myriad cinematic adaptations. (Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of Willy Loman is arguably a gold standard performance. There are many fine renditions of the role, but the best is surely the one conjured in a careful reader’s mind.)

Before we delve too deeply into the lasting meaning of this play and the still poignant struggles of its characters, let us discuss something held so directly before our faces that we may well look through it and never recognize its paramount importance: the play’s name.

Arthur Miller titled his play -- his first real success -- not simply Death of a Salesman but added the sub-title Certain private conversations in two acts and a requiem. Indeed, death hangs heavy here. The title makes it clear and the word requiem makes it tangible. But let us look, briefly, at the title in surgical detail. Why not “The” Death of a Salesman? Or why not Death of THE salesman? These simple words, these direct object identifiers, would change Willy Loman from the everyman to the man. The genius of Arthur Miller is that Loman manages to be both an everyman and a “real” person -- a character we believe existed, with all his faults, his ticks, his occasional smiles, and his undeniable, unbearable descent.

This is the story of one man and his family as his life circles the drain, the lives of all those who touch his -- an ever smaller circle of people -- following not far behind. It is a story of neurosis and denial, of failure and suffering and of a falsified, gilded past in which the broken characters try to find happiness and solace. Well, that sounds rather bleak.

So why is this such a resonant, potent, and beloved play? Perhaps because it tells a story we all know, and tells it so well. Perhaps it is because as we watch the ever descending arc that is the lives of Willy, Linda, Biff, and Happy Loman, we are made to whisper under our breath “Yes... and there but for the grace of god go I.”

Or maybe it is simply because Arthur Miller was such a fine playwright that he could likely have made a three act about pipe fitting enthralling to all. We shall see as we head deeper into the meat of the play; farther down into the minds -- and psychoses -- of the players. But first, who wrought this jewel?

And I looked at the pen and I thought, what the hell am I grabbing this for?


p>The curtain opens on a small house, several of its walls “removed” so we can see inside it. The lights gradually change to reveal that the house, once quaint and on a lovely spread of land, is now falling apart and is surrounded by tall, drab apartment buildings. The home’s decline mimics that of the head of household, Willy Loman, a man in his 60s and very, very tired.

Loman enters late at night, carrying his heavy valises -- the tools of the trade of a salesman in the 1940s -- and shuffling his tired feet. He is greeted by his wife Linda, a kind, patient but sad woman. The couple talk at length and Willy reveals that he could not complete his trip, intended to take him from their home in New York up to Boston, and has sold nothing that day. He could not complete the trip because his tired mind kept wandering into memories of the past and he found the car drifting about the road, following his meandering thoughts. Loman even thinks he was driving a car the family has not owned for years. He is a man whose best years are past; whose very mind is fading due to fatigue and atrophy.

Linda is kind and supportive and listens with sympathy to Willy’s long rambling about the past. But Linda is also aware that they must face the facts of life as they are at present: the couple discusses all the bills they owe, the money they do not have, etc. They also discuss their children, both boys in their 30s, Biff being the elder and Happy the younger. It just so happens that at that very moment, for the first time in years, both boys are back at the family home, sleeping up in their old bedroom bunk beds.

In fact, the two boys have been listening the whole time as their parents spoke, and as the focus shifts to them, Linda goes off to bed and Willy wanders about the house, muttering to himself.

After a brief exchange about the old days -- about girls and school and all of it, a brief chat during which we can tell the brothers are avoiding a topic -- the talk shifts to focus on their father, the subject broached by the very muttering we occasionally hear from Willy, wandering the house down below, throughout this scene.

The boys discuss how their father seems to be changing, how he seems to be losing his grip on reality. Happy, who lives closer to home and thus sees Willy far more often, reveals that while their father has always talked to himself under his breath, as Biff well knows, of late the talk has become more pronounced and has in fact often taken the form of imagined dialogue. Willy Loman seems to be slipping into a deluded state. Happy also tells his brother that most often Willy seems to be talking to Biff. The older son was a star football player in high school but let his future fall apart at age 18 when he failed a math class, lost his college scholarship and set out to wander the country aimlessly.

Biff goes on the defensive and Happy asks him why, after so many years, he is still so angry with the father. Biff demurs, saying little, but it is clear that there is much unfinished business in the Loman house.

The boys change the subject and talk of all the business ventures they could go into together. Biff urges Happy to move out west with him where he works on farms and ranches. He says that with Happy’s capital from his work in business they could buy a ranch or farmland and make a name -- and a tidy profit -- for themselves... for The Loman Brothers. The conversation is warm and optimistic, but it is clear to us (and, on most levels, to them) that is is idle talk; nice to think about and never to be. And we will see later on that idle plans leading to nowhere are rather the stock and trade of this downwardly mobile family.

As Biff and Happy’s conversation winds down, it is replaced with an ever more animated conversation between Willy and... the ghosts in his mind. The father sits down below talking loudly to his boys, but much to the chagrin of the eavesdropping sons, he is talking to his memories of them as young men. We are transported through these memories to a time nearly two decades past when the future of the boys and the family was still bright.

From the sad state of the present we travel back to the halcyon days of the past, the time when Willy was strong and proud and his boys, popular, fit and proud, were the idols of their fellow high school chaps and the dreams of countless high school girls. Willy veritably dances about with the boys as they wash the family car, praising every wipe and spray of water, the way they chamois the hubcaps, and so on.

“Terrific. Terrific job, boys! Good work, Biff,” Willy declares. The simplest act -- washing a car -- draws the loftiest praise and admiration from the beaming father. He has bought his boys a punching bag which thrills them, he oversees Biff doing exercise and practicing his football throwing and he revels as Happy dances around him, the epitome of, well, a happy young man.


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