The curtain rises on Willy Loman's house in Brooklyn. The house, with its small backyard, looks fragile next to the tall apartment buildings that surround it. A soft flute melody is playing in the background. It is a Monday evening.
Home ownership is a central pillar of the American Dream. But Willy's house has been overwhelmed by the city, just as Willy is himself overwhelmed by the pressures on him.
Willy Loman returns home from a sales trip, carrying two suitcases of merchandise. He is exhausted, or as he puts it, "tired to the death." Linda Loman, who is in bed, comes out to see him. She wonders why he is home early.
The product Willy sells is never revealed, highlighting that what a salesman must really sell is himself. Willy's statement hints at the spiritually and materially unrewarding nature of his job.
Willy tries to avoid talking about the reason for his early return. When Linda presses him, he admits that he lost his concentration while driving and nearly drove off the road. He explains that he opened the windshield of his car to enjoy the scenery and warm air, and became too lost in his dreams to drive.
Linda brings up what is clearly an old argument between them: she wants him to work in New York, closer to home. But Willy responds that he is a vital salesman in the New England area. He points out that he opened up this market to his company, though he adds that now the founder of the company is dead and his son, Howard Wagner, does not appreciate Willy's history of service.
Willy's remarks about his importance as a salesman must be taken with a grain of salt: a salesman as successful as he claims to be would likely be better off than he is. Nevertheless, he has strived for success, only to be betrayed by his former's boss's son, who inherited success.
The conversation turns to Willy and Linda's grown sons, Happy and Biff, who are upstairs sleeping after a double date. Biff has been working as a farm laborer all over the West, and has returned home for a visit. Willy had fought with Biff a day earlier about the fact that Biff has been content with low-paying manual work for ten years. While criticizing Biff to Linda, he calls Biff a lazy bum and then contradicts himself, praising Biff as a hard worker.
Willy's contrasting statements on Biff's work ethic show how his hopes for Biff have been dashed, but also his capacity for self-delusion. He can't accept that Biff has turned out to be something other than a great man of the world because he can't let go of his American Dream of huge success for himself and his sons.
Linda convinces Willy to go downstairs to the kitchen so that he won't wake the boys. Happy and Biff, who are already awake, wonder if Willy has had another car accident.
Willy's car accidents, at this stage of the play, seem to point to his increasing age and physical fragility. As the play progresses, they will come to mean more.
Recalling his argument with Willy, Biff says that he doesn't know what he is supposed to want. He has tried following his father's salesman path and briefly worked as a shipping clerk, but he felt too constrained. He tells Happy how inspiring and beautiful it is to see a new colt born on the farm where he works. Then he admits to Happy that he has come home because he feels he has been wasting his life and needs a new direction.
The original American Dream involved proving and making a life for yourself by heading out into the wilds of nature, as Willy's father and older brother Ben did, and as Willy himself sometimes wishes he did. But Willy raised Biff to value financial success above all else, and so Biff wonders whether it is wrong to not make money.
Happy, who works at a department store, declares that he is not content either. He claims to feel guilty about his unethical behavior: sleeping with the girlfriends of higher executives and then attending their weddings, and taking bribes from manufacturers to put their items on display.
Biff decides he will ask his old employer, Bill Oliver, for some money to start a ranch, though he worries that Oliver still blames him for some basketballs that went missing when Biff worked there. Happy is encouraging, and reminds Biff that he is well liked. The boys are embarrassed to hear Willy downstairs talking to himself, and try to go to sleep.
Biff aims to win his father's approval while staying true to himself. He tries to reconcile both sides of the American Dream: doing the outdoor work he loves and also profiting as a ranch owner. Happy thinks that being well liked guarantees success.
In the kitchen, Willy is lost in a memory, which is acted out onstage. He is remembering a time when Biff and Happy, as young boys, helped him wash the car. Happy tries to get Willy's attention, but Willy is focused on Biff, who is playing with a new football. When Willy asks where he got it, Biff says he stole it from the locker room. Willy laughs, saying that if anyone less popular than Biff took that ball, there would be an uproar. He then goes on to tell the boys how well liked he is when he goes on business trips: he has coffee with the Mayor of Providence, and the police protect his car on any street in New England. He says he will soon open a bigger, more successful business than that owned by their neighbor, Charley, because he is better liked than Charley.
Throughout the play Willy gets lost in his memories. At first it seems these memories of better times provide him with solace. But it quickly becomes clear that the memories actually trace the seeds of his and his family's present troubles. Here, Willy clearly favors Biff over Happy, and also clearly instills in his sons the idea that being well-liked is more important than character. To make himself look successful, he lies to his sons about his stature as a salesman on the road.
Bernard, Charley's son, enters. He wonders why Biff has not come over to study math with him. Biff is close to flunking the subject, and Willy orders Biff to study, but is quickly distracted and impressed by the University of Virginia logo Biff has printed on his sneakers. Willy reasons that with scholarships to three universities, Biff can't fail. When Bernard leaves, Willy asks if he is well liked. His sons respond that Bernard is "liked," but not "well liked." Willy tells his sons that no matter how well Bernard does in school, he doesn't have the charisma to make it in the business world, but that the Lomans do.
In emphasizing "well liked" as the most desirable quality for success, Willy places a higher premium on outward projection than inner strength of character. He dismisses Bernard's hardworking attitude, and implies to his sons, through his disinterest in Biff's issues with math class and his talk of charisma, that they naturally deserve success, and that it will come easily to them.
A younger version of Linda enters. She asks Willy how much he sold on his trip. At first, he claims he made $1,200. Linda calculates his commission and is excited at the high figure. Willy then backs off, amending the amount down to $200. The underwhelming commission from this is $70, which is almost entirely swallowed up by what the family owes on their appliances and the car.
Willy's lie again shows his need to make himself look successful. Linda's excited response shows her willingness to believe in him despite his exaggerations. The endless payments on their possessions hint at how Willy and his family have become slaves to his dream of material comfort.
Sobered by the tiny amount that he has earned, Willy now worries to Linda that people don't seem to like him, which is stopping him from getting ahead. He wonders whether he talks and jokes too much, and confides that once he hit a fellow salesman because he overheard the man making fun of his weight. Linda tells him with fervor that, to her, he is the handsomest man in the world. Willy replies that Linda is his best friend and that he misses her badly when he's on the road.
Linda's love for Willy is steadfast, and isn't based on the money he makes.Willy fails to see this, however, and except for occasional moments like this one in which he admits his vulnerability, he is always trying to confidently "sell" himself, even to his family. His job also takes him away from his family, so that he is seldom around.
As Willy says these words to Linda, The Woman's laughter is heard from the darkness of another part of the stage The scene shifts, and now Willy is flirting with The Woman, a secretary for a buyer at one of the stores in Willy's territory, in a hotel room. She tells him that she picked him out from all the salesmen. He is extremely flattered. She thanks him for the stockings he has given her as a gift, and promises that when he returns she will make sure he gets to see the buyers.
The Woman's appearance in Willy's memory at this moment, along with his flattered response to her, suggests that loneliness and insecurity spurred him into the affair. The Woman's ghostly laughter suggests how his betrayal of Linda haunts him. Also notice how, in contrast to Linda's unconditional love, his relationship with The Woman seems almost like a financial transaction of gifts for sex and access.
Willy returns to his conversation with Linda, who is mending her stockings. Willy becomes upset, and orders her to throw the old stockings out. He says that he refuses to let his wife wear an old pair of stockings.
Linda mending stockings reminds Willy that he has betrayed Linda on both emotional and financial fronts.
Willy's memories build to a crescendo. Bernard runs through, begging Biff to study for the upcoming exam. Willy tells Bernard to just give Biff the answers. Bernard refuses, then advises Biff to return the football. Linda complains that she has heard that Biff is too rough with the girls from school, and that their mothers are afraid of him. Willy responds that he will whip Biff when he finds him, but then becomes angry and defends Biff as someone with spirit and personality. To himself, he wonders why Biff is stealing footballs.
Willy's memories reveal how the values with which he has raised Biff have made Biff come to consider himself exceptional and entitled to whatever he wants regardless of how hard he works or whether it harms others. Willy doesn't want to confront the more troubled side of Biff's nature. He'd rather believe Biff has failed him rather than that he's failed Biff as a father.
Happy comes downstairs, distracting Willy from his memories. Happy tries to convince Willy to come upstairs and go to bed. Willy wonders aloud why he didn't go to Alaska with his brother Ben, who started with nothing and made it rich by discovering a diamond mine in Africa.
Charley, who has heard the voices in Willy's house, comes over from next door to see if Willy is all right. The two men play cards. Charley suspects from Willy's early arrival home that work is not going well for him, and offers him a job. Willy refuses, taking this friendly offer as an insult to his abilities as a salesman.
Willy refuses Charley's offer because he thinks that a man must be self-sufficient, as Ben was. He also sees accepting the offer as giving up on his dream. He can't bear to give up on the dream that is the only thing he has left, even if the dream itself is the cause of his problems.
Willy asks Charley what he thinks of the new ceiling Willy has put up. Charley shows interest, but Willy quickly turns on him, mocking Charley because he can't handle tools.
Like his flute-making father, Willy enjoys making things. But his salesman job involves creating nothing and selling only himself. His regret and insecurity at having given up on that aspect of himself are evident in his nasty treatment of Charley.
In a kind of daydream, Willy's rugged, dignified older brother Ben appears onstage. Willy tells Charley that Ben died only a few weeks ago, in Africa. In his grogginess, he talks to Charley and Ben at the same time. He becomes confused, and accuses Charley, who has just won a hand, of playing the game wrong. Charley leaves, angry at the insult from Willy and disturbed that Willy is talking to his dead brother as if he is in the room.
Ben is the ideal of everything that Willy wishes he was: wealthy, strong, and manly. Yet his appearance in Willy's dreams coupled with Willy's bullying treatment of Charley (and his disregard for Charley's skill at cards) suggests that Ben may not be that great an example to follow.
Now alone, Willy remembers a time when Ben visited the house. In the memory, the two of them discuss their family history with Linda. Ben left home when Willy was nearly four years old to look for their father, who had abandoned them and gone to Alaska. His sense of geography was so poor, however, that he ended up in Africa and made a fortune in the diamond mines. Willy and Linda are impressed.
Willy was abandoned by both his father and older brother, foreshadowing his own final act of the play.The ludicrous luck that led to Ben's success has warped Willy's sense of what's important. Now he sees luck and charisma as more important than such things as Charley's lifetime of work.
Willy calls Biff and Happy into the room and asks Ben to tell them about their grandfather. Ben describes "a very great and a very wild-hearted man," who traveled through America in a wagon with his family, selling the flutes that he made. He says that their father made more money in a week than Willy will make in a lifetime.
Willy sees the gap between himself and his father, a craftsman whose product—or so the flute music in the play's score suggests—has outlived him. Notice how Ben bullies and mocks Willy, just as Willy bullied and mocked Charlie.
Willy boasts that his sons are also rugged. To test his claim, Ben begins to mock-wrestle with Biff, and then trips the boy and threatens him by hovering the point of his umbrella over Biff's eye. He gives Biff this lesson: never fight fair with a stranger. Willy, still anxious to impress Ben even though by now Linda is afraid of Ben, tells him that the family hunts snakes and rabbits in Brooklyn.
Willy desperately needs the approval of Ben, who was a father figure to him. But Ben is here revealed as a cruel, nasty man, and so Willy's desire to emulate Ben makes Willy a bully too. Willy's mentions hunting in Brooklyn to display his "wild" side, but Brooklyn is no Alaska.
A younger Charley enters and warns Willy not to let his sons steal any more from the construction site nearby. Willy, still trying to impress Ben, brags that his sons are fearless characters. Charley counters that the jails are full of fearless characters. Ben laughs at Charley, and says that so is the stock exchange. Before leaving to catch his train, Ben praises Willy on how manly his boys are. Willy, pleased, asks Ben what he should teach his boys about life. Ben repeats his own success story. Willy is left with the idea that to succeed is to walk into a jungle and come out rich.
Willy's ideas about the traits necessary for success are directly traceable to Ben, even though to the audience Ben now comes across as a blowhard who doesn't recognize the role that dumb luck played in his own success. Willy then passes on these traits to his own sons: in the belief that they will make them successes. Instead of correcting Biff's recklessness and dishonesty, he praises it.
Willy wanders out into the back yard, still talking to the ghosts from his past. He tries to look up into the sky, but can't see anything because of the big buildings crowding in from all sides. He says: "Gotta break your neck to see a star in this yard."
Linda, who has heard Willy talking to himself, comes to the door to the backyard and asks him to come to bed. He responds by asking what happened to the diamond watch fob Ben had given him. She reminds him that he pawned it thirteen years ago, for Biff's radio correspondence course.
Willy has sacrificed his connections to his brother and to the natural world in order to try to give everything to his sons. But unlike Charley, who gives his son love and a solid example, he only ever gives his sons money and dreams of easy success.
Willy leaves to go on a walk, though he is in his slippers. Biff and Happy join Linda downstairs and the three of them have a worried conversation about Willy's mental health. Linda asks Biff why he fights with his father all the time, and whether he has come home to stay. Biff avoids committing. Linda tells him that one day he will return home, having been away, and won't recognize her or Willy anymore. She demands that he respect Willy.
Linda, as the closest person in Willy's life, consistently acknowledges his humanity and worth. Biff sees only the discrepancy between the persona Willy projects and the actual realities of Willy's life, and looks at Willy more with pity than love. He also resents that Willy saddled him with lofty expectations that he could never fulfill.
Biff angrily responds that Willy never respected her. Linda counters that Willy may not be a great man, but he is a human being, and deserves to have attention paid to him. He has lost his salary, she reveals, and is working only on commission. Nobody will buy from him anymore, and he borrows fifty dollars a week from Charley and claims it is his salary. She tells her sons that Willy has worked all his life only for their benefit.
By advocating that "attention must be paid" to Willy, Linda is voicing one of the play's central ideas: that dramatic tragedy can befall not only a great man, but a small man. Though Willy is not regarded by the world as a hero, his dreams are large enough that their collapse is tragic.
Linda says that Biff and Happy have been ungrateful to their father. She says that Happy is a "philandering bum," and that Biff has been remiss as a son. Feeling guilty, Biff angrily offers to stay in his old room, in a city that he hates, to get a job and help her and Willy cover their expenses. Linda just asks him to stop fighting with Willy all the time, and reveals that Willy's car accidents weren't actually accidents: he has been trying to kill himself. She mentions a woman who witnessed the last accident. Biff mishears and thinks that she is talking about The Woman.
Linda is the only clear-eyed member of the Loman family. She cares about love and family, not the American Dream, and so she can see the other members of the family for what they really are. Biff's mishearing "The Woman" hints at a buried secret in Willy and Biff's past that explains why Biff's adult attitudes toward Willy have changed so much from the adulation he showed Willy as a child.
Finally, Linda tells the boys that she found a rubber hose behind the fuse box in the basement, and a new nipple on the gas pipe of the water heater, which she thinks means that Willy had tried to asphyxiate himself. Biff decides that though he hates the business world, it will be best for his family if he stays home and tries to make another go of it.
The stark reality that Willy is trying to bring about his own death is what finally moves Biff to take his father seriously. He realizes that the only way he can help his father is to fulfill his father's dreams for him, even if he doesn't share those dreams.
When Willy enters, having overheard his family arguing about him, Biff tries to joke, saying that Willy might whistle in an elevator. Willy takes offense, thinking that Biff is somehow calling him crazy, and declares that he is still a big shot among salesmen.
Willy's ego is too fragile to accept even the smallest jabs of humor. He responds to every slight by trying to make himself look big and powerful, instead of looking for support in his family.
To diffuse Willy's anger, Happy announces that Biff is going to ask his old boss Bill Oliver to ask for stake money to start a business. Willy is intrigued. On the spot, Happy comes up with the idea that he and Biff, both athletes, will start a sporting goods company and hold exhibition events in which the brothers will participate to promote it.
Willy and Happy are both younger and neglected sons, and each would do anything to make their distant (or absent) fathers proud. Though Happy's idea is absurd, it reawakens Willy's dreams, and, therefore, his confidence.
Excited by the sporting goods idea, which they call the "Florida idea," Willy gives advice to Biff regarding the interview. He tells Biff that he should walk into the office very seriously, then changes his mind and tells him he should walk in with a big laugh. He also tells Biff not to pick up anything that might fall off Oliver's desk, because that's a job for an office boy. But when Linda tries to offer advice, Willy keeps shushing her. Biff gets angry at his father, and the two of them once again start to argue, but they manage to reconcile slightly before Willy goes to sleep.
Willy doesn't give advice about how to plan and run a sporting goods store. Instead he tells Biff how to "sell" himself to Oliver. Willy's job as a salesman has so consumed him that he believes that how you sell yourself, not skill or work ethic, is all important. Yet even in the Loman's excitement about the idea, the macho values Willy learned from Ben, this time regarding the knowledge of women, cause strife in the family.
In bed that night, Linda asks Willy what Biff has against him, and reminds him to ask Howard Wagner for a sales position in New York. He tells her he is too tired to talk. Biff, meanwhile, searches in the basement and is horrified to find the rubber hose behind the heater. He takes it and goes upstairs to bed.
Willy continues to refuse to face his past betrayal of his family, or the failure of his career. He prefers to dream than face reality. By taking the hose, Biff presents himself as the one person who can save his father.