Death of a Salesman

by: Arthur Miller

Willy Loman

I’m tired to the death. The flute has faded away. He sits on the bed beside her, a little numb. I couldn’t make it. I just couldn’t make it, Linda.

In the first scene of the play, Willy Loman has returned early from a sales trip because he has lost the ability to drive. He is speaking to his wife. In his exhausted state, Willy does not try to hide the truth. Willy’s admission of failure is evidence that he trusts Linda enough to reveal to her his shortcomings. The dialogue also establishes that Willy is dependent on Linda for emotional support.

They don’t need me in New York. I’m the New England man. I’m vital in New England.

Willy Loman is responding to his wife’s suggestion that he try for a job at his firm’s New York office. Willy’s response shows how completely he identifies with his job. Willy inflates his position in New England to cover up the reality that the New York office does not need him. Willy’s self-importance barely conceals his fear that he is not needed in New England, either. Willy’s mental survival depends on his believing he is essential, which is why he deceives himself so often throughout the play.

Biff Loman is lost. In the greatest country in the world a young man with such—personal attractiveness, gets lost. And such a hard worker. There’s one thing about Biff—he’s not lazy.

Willy is talking to his wife Linda about their son Biff’s inability to find himself. Willy’s lines reveal his interpretation of the American Dream. He believes that America rewards hard work, but he also believes that America rewards personal attractiveness. Willy depends on salesmanship to make his living, so he has convinced himself that being liked is crucial to success.

You and Hap and I, and I’ll show you all the towns. America is full of beautiful towns and fine, upstanding people. And they know me, boys, they know me up and down New England…. I can park my car in any street in New England, and the cops protect it like their own. This summer, heh?

In a flashback, Willy is talking to Biff after just returning from a sales trip. Willy inflates his own importance in order to impress his son. He also promises to take his sons on a road trip. Willy’s words reveal that he is always selling himself, even to his own sons. Willy’s promise foreshadows a trip to Boston that Biff will make that summer and that we will learn about much later in the play.

I’m fat. I’m very—foolish to look at, Linda. I didn’t tell you, but Christmas time I happened to be calling on F.H. Stewarts, and a salesman I know, as I was going in to see the buyer I heard him say something about —walrus. And I—I cracked him right across the face. I won’t take that. I simply will not take that. But they do laugh at me, I know that.

Willy’s memory takes the audience back several years. In this memory, Willy has come home from a road trip and as always is unburdening himself to his wife. Willy seldom tells the truth about himself to anyone except Linda. Willy’s admission to Linda reveals that he is prone to violence and hints at a darker side to his personality, marriage, and family life.

Can’t you stay a few days? You’re just what I need, Ben, because I—I have a fine position here, but I—well, Dad left when I was such a baby and I never had a chance to talk to him and I still feel—kind of temporary about myself.

As Willy speaks to his older brother, Ben, we learn that their father left when Willy was a baby. Willy’s admission that he feels “temporary” explains his determination to work hard for a permanent home and family. As always, Ben appears only in Willy’s memory or imagination. But the feelings Willy expresses to the imaginary Ben help the audience empathize with Willy’s real, abandoned self.

[WILLY:] Put up your hands. Goddam you, put up your hands! Charley, chuckling, shakes his head and walks away, around the left corner of the stage. Willy follows him. The music rises to a mocking frenzy. WILLY: Who the hell do you think you are, better than everybody else? You don’t know everything, you big, ignorant, stupid…put up your hands!

Willy has just lost his job. In shock, he reverts to a past way of thinking and his competitive spirit awakens. Willy must find a way to define and feel better about himself once again. Here, Willy challenges Charley his neighbor to a fight, revealing to the audience his lifelong jealousy of and rivalry with Charley. The physical challenge to Charley might be Willy’s idea of joking around. Even so, he acts like a bully.

Funny, y’know? After all the highways, and the trains, and the appointments, and the years, you end up worth more dead than alive.

Soon after losing his job, Willy Loman is speaking to his old friend Charley, from whom he has just borrowed the money to make his insurance payments. Willy’s comment is an admission of his own failure and an acknowledgment that money has been the goal of all his journeys. The comment also hints at the suicidal plan that is starting to form in Willy’s troubled mind.

I was fired, and I’m looking for a little good news to tell your mother, because the woman has waited and the woman has suffered. The gist of it is that I haven’t got a story left in my head, Biff. So don’t give me a lecture about facts and aspects. I’m not interested. Now what’ve you got to say to me?

Emotionally exhausted, Willy tells Biff and Happy the truth about being fired. Willy, unable to make up another story, begs Biff to falsify events about Biff’s interview earlier that day, so Willy can give Linda some good news. He asks Biff to deceive him, as he is so beaten down, he no longer has the energy to deceive himself.

Oh, I’d better hurry. I’ve got to get some seeds. He starts off to the right. I’ve got to get some seeds, right away. Nothing’s planted. I don’t have a thing in the ground.

Willy is coming back to his senses after Biff and Happy have abandoned him in a restaurant. He is speaking to Stanley, the waiter who has helped him get back onto his feet. Willy, still mentally reeling from being fired and then left by his sons, suddenly fixates on working in his garden, which hasn’t grown well for years. The seeds represent false optimism and the fallow ground foreshadows a tragic future.