The play “Death of a Salesman” shows the final demise of Willy Loman, a sixty-year-old salesman in the America of the 1940s, who has deluded himself all his life about being a big success in the business world. It also portrays his wife Linda, who “plays along” nicely with his lies and tells him what he wants to hear, out of compassion.

The book describes the last day of his life, but there are frequent “flashbacks” in which Willy relives key events of the past, often confusing them with what is happening in the present. His two sons, Biff and Happy, who are in their 30’s, have become failures like himself. Both of them have gone from idolizing their father in their youth to despising him in the present.

On the last few pages of the play, Willy finally decides to take his own life ([1] and [2]). Not only out of desperation because he just lost his job, with which he was hardly earning enough to pay ordinary expenses at the end.

He does it primarily because he thinks that the life insurance payout [3] will allow Biff to come to something [4], so that at least one of the Lomans will fulfill his unrealistic dream of great wealth and success. But even here in one of his last moments, while having a conversation with a ghost from the past, he continues to lie to himself by saying that his funeral will be a big event [2], and that there will be guests from all over his former working territory in attendance.

Yet as was to be expected, this is not what happens, none of the people he sold to come. Although perhaps this wrong foretelling could be attributed to senility, rather than his typical self-deception [5]. Maybe he has forgotten that the “old buyers” have already died of old age. His imagined dialogue partner tells him that Biff will consider the impending act one of cowardice.

This obviously indicates that he himself also thinks that it’s very probable that Biff will hate him even more for doing it, as the presence of “Ben”, a man whom he greatly admires for being a successful businessman, is a product of his own mind. But he ignores this knowledge which he carries in himself and goes on with his plan. 

After this scene, Biff, who has decided to totally sever the ties with his parents, has an “abrupt conversation” (p.99) with Willy. Linda and Biff are in attendance. He doesn’t want to leave with another fight, he wants to make peace with his father [6] and tell him goodbye in a friendly manner. He has realized, that all his life, he has tried to become something that he doesn’t really want to be and that becoming this something (a prosperous businessman) was a (for him) unreachable goal that was only put into his mind by his father (p.105).

The Kite Runner Chapters 1-5: Summary, Themes, Analysis

He doesn’t want a desk, but the exact opposite: To work outside, in the open air, with his hands. But he’s willing to forgive [6] Willy for making this grave mistake while Biff was in his youth. He simply wants to end their relationship in a dignified way. Willy is very angered by this plan of Biff’s [7], because it means that he is definitely not going to take the 20000 dollars and make a fortune out of it. 

Happy, who has become very much like his father, self-deceiving and never facing reality, is shocked by what Biff says. He is visibly not used to hearing the naked truth being spoken in his family.

He objects by telling another lie, “We always told the truth!” (p.104).  This only serves to enrage Biff further, after Willy has already denied shaking his hand, which would have been a gesture of great symbolic meaning. For Willy, it would have meant admitting to everybody that he was wrong, and it would show acceptance of his son’s true nature.

But Willy goes on to say that Biff is doing all of this out of spite, and not because it is what he really wants. Spite, because the teenage Biff had once caught him cheating on Linda, and that was the turning point from being admired to being hated by Biff.  So now, instead of generously forgiving, Biff becomes just as angry and aggressive.

They almost get into a physical fight, but he suddenly lapses into utter sadness and desperation, and cries, holding on to Willy. Aver he has left, Willy is deeply moved, because he realizes that Biff actually liked him. But even this realization does not make him understand Biff, and he proclaims again that Biff “will be magnificent!” (p.106).

And his mental voice, in the form of Ben, adds that this will certainly be the case, especially “with twenty thousand behind him”. He is freshly motivated to proceed with his old plan by his gross misinterpretation of Biff’s startling behavior. He is simply unable to realize, that money is not what Biff wants or needs.

Although he does realize, that Biff, despite everything, loves him, and perhaps this is to him another incentive to give him the money.  At the funeral, Happy is unchanged, his old self. He says that “[they] would’ve helped him” (p.110), even though he himself had been extremely cruel to Willy by abandoning him at a restaurant just before the big quarrel, and certainly this wasn’t the only incident where he had shown no regard at all for Willy. 

Theme of Relationships in Death of a Salesman

Happy has obviously not learned a thing from the entire tragedy, which is why Biff gives him a “hopeless” glance near the end of the Requiem.  Biff speaks of the “nice days” that they had had together, which all involve the handyman’s work Willy had done on the day. Charley adds to this that “he was a happy man with a batch of cement” (p.110).

This adds a new dimension to the tragedy because it all indicates that Willy was, just like Biff, a man who enjoys physical work.  If this was the case, then Willy could simply never admit to himself, like Biff finally did, that he WASN’T going to make big money.  Linda voices her regret over not being able to cry, alone at Willy’s grave. An explanation of this would be, that she simply cannot understand and forgive him these last acts.

First, the not letting Biff go, and then committing suicide, despite the fact that Biff had made his intentions so clear. Also, she might interpret his self-inflicted death, which leaves her behind alone, that he did not love her.  This conclusion of the tragedy fits the rest of the play well. The dramatic character development is quite unpredictable; neither is the specific event, which makes it a compelling read.


[1]     p.96 (giving a tip to a waiter) “Here – here’s some more. I don’t need it any more.” 

[2]     p.100 “Ben, that funeral will be massive!” 

[3]     p.100 “It’s twenty thousand dollars on the barrelhead [..]” 

[4]     p.101 “Why, why can’t I give him [biff] something and not have him hate me?” 

[5]     p.44 Linda to Biff: “[..] the old buyers [..] they’re all dead, retired.” 

[6]     p.101 “To hell with whose fault it is or anything like that. Let’s just wrap it up, heh?” 

[7]     p.103 “May you rot in hell if you leave this house!”

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Muhammad Hashim
Muhammad Hashim
1 year ago

Very informative and useful article no doubt.