Death of a Salesman
by Arthur Miller
Analysis: Plot Analysis
Most good stories start with a fundamental list of ingredients: the initial situation, conflict, complication, climax, suspense, denouement, and conclusion. Great writers sometimes shake up the recipe and add some spice.
Willy and Biff are both home again.
Willy comes home early from his work trip because he is no longer able to drive and he can’t do his job. Biff is home after working as a farm hand for many years in the West. But with the contrasting seeds of conflict buried here, this initial situation isn’t bound to last long.
Willy is deteriorating and suicidal; Biff is told to get serious.
Here comes the conflict, right on schedule. Willy’s mental wanderings are getting worse; he is preoccupied with Biff’s aimlessness and inability to find success in business. Linda informs her sons that Willy has been trying to commit suicide and tells Biff that his father’s life is in his hands. Biff needs to get a job and get serious—or take the blame for his father’s actions.
Willy gets fired and Biff doesn’t even get close enough to a job to get fired.
On the same day, both Willy's and Biff’s high expectations are dashed to the ground. Willy goes to his boss, Howard, to try to get a non-traveling job but ends up getting completely fired. Meanwhile, Biff waits for six hours to see Oliver, only to be reminded that he is a nobody in the man’s eyes. As if that were not complicated enough, Biff steals Oliver’s fountain pen.
Biff gets honest and destroys Willy’s dream; Willy finally realizes that Biff loves him.
This climax earns its stripes in two different ways. The first is psychological: Biff realizes he and his entire family have been living a lie. The second is more of an action-based climax, and takes the form of a huge blow-out argument between Biff and his father. This is followed by much shouting and crying, and at last Willy finds out that Biff really does love him. That would be great and we’d probably have a happy ending if it weren’t for the small fact that we haven't gotten to the suspense stage yet.
Willy starts chatting with the imaginary figure of his brother and considers killing himself.
Now that Willy has realized that Biff loves him, he wants to do anything he possibly can to make his son successful. In his mind, Willy hears Ben saying that "the jungle is dark but full of diamonds," but sadly ignores the "dark" bit while he shoots for the "diamonds" part. The suspense, of course, is that we’ve heard this suicide song-and-dance before, so we’re not sure if he’ll actually go through with it. This suspense is heightened by the fact that Willy’s family is in bed thinking everything’s fine, which we all know in any movie, play, or work of literature means horrible things are coming soon.
Willy commits suicide.
And now for the horrible things. Willy’s death was actually a foregone conclusion. The play’s title and Linda both predict it. What was unsure earlier in the play was why Willy would commit suicide. And the why, as we’ve discussed, is the real kicker.
Biff rejects his father’s misguided dream, but Happy runs with it.
At the conclusion of the play, it is totally clear that Willy was wrong about himself. Not that we ever thought otherwise, but practically no one comes to his funeral. Biff now realizes that his father didn’t know himself and picked the wrong path. He will certainly not follow in his father’s footsteps. Happy, on the other hand, defends his father’s misguided dreams and decides to take them on himself.