In the beginning of the play, the main character, Willy Lowman, has just returned home after finding himself unable to concentrate on driving. His wife, Linda, suggests that he ask for a job in New York so that he wont have to drive so much. Willy insists, however, that it is vital to his company that he work in New England. Willy asks Linda about his son, Biff, who has just come home after being away for several years. He cant understand why Biff is unable to get a good job. Soon Willy begins thinking about when Biff was a senior in high school.
He remembers how Biff was the star of the football team and how he was offered scholarships from several colleges. After Willys daydream ends, Charley comes in to play cards with him. While they are playing cards Charley offers Willy a job, but Willy refuses. As they are talking, Willys brother, Ben, appears to him in an illusion. Willy tries to talk to both of them at once and Charley cant understand. Willy and Charley get into an argument and Charley leaves. Willy then turns his attention to Ben and asks him how he became so successful.
Ben tells Willy that he went into the jungle when he was seventeen and when he came out at twenty-one he was rich. After Biff overhears Willy talking to himself, he asks Linda whats wrong with him. Linda explains that Willy is exhausted and has even tried to kill himself. When Willy enters the scene, Happy tries to cheer him up by announcing that he and Biff are going to start their own sporting goods company. He tells Willy that Biff is going to see Bill Oliver in the morning and ask for a loan.
Willy is optimistic and reminds Biff that the most important things in life are to be well liked and to have personal attractiveness. The next day Willy decides to ask his boss, Howard, if he can have a job in New York. Howard explains that there is no room for him in New York, and then tells Willy that he no longer wants him to represent the company. Now that Willy has no job, he must ask Charley for the money to pay his insurance premium. When Charley finds out that Willy has been fired, he offers him a good job in New York, but Willy refuses.
Charley gives Willy the money and then Willy leaves to meet Biff and Happy at a restaurant. When Willy arrives at the restaurant, Biff tries to explain to him that he has been living an illusion and will never amount to anything extraordinary. Willy refuses to listen to him and pretends that Biff has another appointment for the next day. When Biff tries to make Willy face the truth, Willy becomes furious and goes off to the bathroom. Biff and Happy then leave the restaurant. While Willy is in the bathroom, he goes into another illusion.
He finds himself in a hotel room with a woman. She is telling him how much she loves his sense of humor. Then knocking is heard at the door, and at first Willy refuses to answer it. As the knocking continues, Willy tells the woman to wait in the bathroom. He opens the door and finds Biff there. Biff tells Willy that he has flunked math and asks that Willy talk to his math teacher about it. Biff explains that his teacher doesnt like him because he once caught Biff imitating him in class.
Biff shows Willy the imitation and they both start laughing. The woman hears them laughing and comes out of the bathroom. Willy hurries her out of the room, but not before the woman demands the stockings that Willy promised her. Willy tries to explain the situation, but Biff wont listen. He accuses Willy of giving away Lindas stockings and calls him a liar and a fake. Willy is startled out of his illusion by the waiter who has come in to check on him. Willy asks if there is a seed store in the neighborhood and then leaves.
Later that night Biff and Happy come home and find Willy planting seeds in the back yard. Biff tells Willy that it would be best if they didnt see each other again. He tries to explain that he is only a common man and will never live up to Willys expectations, but Willy refuses to listen. Willy decided that he would commit suicide because he believes that with the 20,000 dollars of life insurance money Biff would finally be able to make something of himself. At his funeral, we see that Willy died a forgotten man because no one except his family came.
Analysis This play, Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, opposes many of the predominant values of the 50s, though it most notably opposes. These two qualities are Achievement and Progress. The play challenges the 50s ideal of achievement in the sense that its main character, living in the guise of achievement for many years, must come to grips with the fact that he has never really achieved the notoriety and respect that he believes he has. Likewise, his two sons are also without achievements in life.
Happy, the older son, lives his life working at his mediocre job, backing up his illusions of success with the fact that the office girls all want to sleep with him. Biff, the counterculture element of the play, Has tried repeatedly to achieve that goal which his father has set for him, and has failed every time. Biff realizes, though, that this goal is unattainable and subsequently realizes that it is alright to live in mediocrity, that success need not be measured by fame and fortune. It is at this point that the play conflicts with the ideal of progress.
As Biff attempts to explain to his deluded father that one need not be well known and rich to be a man, Willy refuses, maintaining his death-grip on the idea that a man must be remembered as great to have lived a commendable life. Willy absolutely refuses to part with his vision of the American Dream, where you are measured just as much by how you are remembered after death as you are by your notoriety in life. Likewise, a device used by Miller in illustrating this point is the idea that all aspects of Willys material belongings are old.
His car, his house, his clothes are all of an antiquated nature by contrast to those of everyone around him. All in all, Death of a Salesman is a freeze frame of the changing society in the 50s and into the 60s. Sons were rebelling against the molds their fathers set for them. Men who lived by the old codes and social mores were growing disillusioned and derelict. And the society of the whole nation was slowly getting turned inside out, all as the traditions of the old school were grudgingly usurped by the traditions of the new.