The tone is apparent primarily through the play’s stage directions. The directions are sensitive to the very real pain suffered by the characters. However, in its frankness, the tone is also mocking of Willy’s blind acceptance of a very hollow, materialistic version of the American Dream.
Well, the play is definitely a drama, because, you know… it's a play, a piece of literature meant to be spoken by actors in front of a live audience. This particular drama centers on the trials and tribulations of the Loman family, making it a family drama.
Death of a Salesman is also in many ways a tragedy. You've got the basic ingredients here. A misguided person sets out to accomplish something that he thinks is the right thing, but ironically it is that very thing that causes pain and anguish to himself and everyone around him. Just add wide-sweeping themes that show just what's wrong with all of society, and voila…you've got a nice steaming dish of tragedy.
Of course, Death of a Salesman has a lot of differences from the ancient Greek version of the genre. There are no choruses in this play and the protagonist, Willy Loman, differs in several ways from a traditional tragic hero. The main difference is that he's not a king or mighty warrior of some kind—he's just a salesman. And an unsuccessful one at that. With Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller set out to create what he called a "tragedy of the common man." He wanted to show that the sorrows of your average everyday guy were just as worthy of dramatization as those of kings.
The title has several layers of meaning. The most blatantly obvious one is that it refers to Willy Loman's actual physical death—unfortunately by suicide. So, yeah, Willy is a salesman, and he dies. That one is pretty clear.
Of course, this is Arthur Miller we're talking about here, so we're pretty sure the title goes deeper. It also refers to Willy's idealized way of dying; he wants a massive funeral with everyone weeping and beating their chests and so forth. Willy models this dream funeral on the service held for an old salesman named Dave Singleman.
Singleman's funeral is in fact part of what inspired Willy to become a salesman in the first place. Willy says that it was huge and well-attended, making it totally obvious to all that Singleman was successful and well-liked. In some ways, Willy seems to measure the worth of a man by size of his… umm… funeral.
Unfortunately for Willy, his funeral is nothing like the way he describes Singleman's. Hardly anybody comes at all. We hope the ghost of Willy wasn't around to watch it, because he would be totally bummed out. By Willy's own standards, his funeral shows that he wasn't very successful and wasn't particularly liked. The gap (or massive chasm) between how Willy dreams that his death will be received and how it actually goes down makes this title sadly ironic.
The title also refers to the death of Willy's salesman dream—the dream to be financially successful and a father to hotshot sons. By the end of the play, Willy is flat broke and without a job. It's pretty clear that his dream of being a big-time salesman is already dead.
Willy hopes, though, that by killing himself he can leave some legacy to his son Biff in the form of life insurance money. This would give Biff a chance to succeed in the business world. Perhaps, with Willy's death a new salesman will be born.
Actually, nope, that doesn't happen at all.
In the funeral scene, it's more than clear that all Willy's dreams are deader than dead. Biff has no interest in following in his father's footsteps. Also, it's painfully obvious to everybody that Willy committed suicide, meaning that there will be no life insurance money coming to his family. In the end, Willy's salesman dream is dead, dead, dead.
On a larger level, the title could be taking yet another swipe at capitalism and the American Dream. Willy, being a salesman, in many ways represents American commercialism. The fact that he gets chewed up and spit out by the system may be a comment on the soullessness of the system itself. Instead of calling the play Death of a Salesman, you could call it Death of Capitalism, or Death of the American Dream. Hmm, those titles aren't quite as subtle and cool as Miller's, are they? We guess we'll leave the whole writing-great-works-of-literature thing to him.
(Click the setting infographic to download.)
Most of the action is set in Willy Loman's home and yard in Brooklyn, NYC. Because of recent population growth, the Lomans' house is boxed in by apartment buildings. Throughout the play, the big encroaching buildings are shown to choke the more natural beauty that once surrounded the Lomans' home. Once there were trees and enough sunlight to grow a garden. The looming buildings, which have separated the characters from nature, add to their feelings of confinement and desire to escape.
There are a few scenes that don't take place at the Lomans' Brooklyn home. We see Willy get fired in an office in Manhattan, and he also meets his sons at a Manhattan restaurant. There's also the scene where Biff learns of Willy's affair, which happens in a hotel room in Boston. The Loman house, however, totally dominates the set, perhaps highlighting Willy's longing to provide for his family and showing that no matter how misguided he is, everything he does in some way revolves around his family.
We should also point out that the play, or at least a good portion of it, is set inside Willy's mind. The audience experiences many of the events through Willy's subjective viewpoint. All the flashbacks and blurred realities are from Willy's point of view.
The time period also has a big effect on the action of the play. It's the late 1940s, meaning that we've just come out of WWII. The country is all gung-ho about rebuilding itself and everyone achieving—yes, you've got it—the American Dream. Basically, the nation is just revving up for the economic boom of the 1950s. So, American commercialism as we know it is just about to take off in a really major way. This, of course, ties into many of the play's themes.
Death of a Salesman takes place primarily within the confined landscape of the Lomans’ home. This narrow, and increasingly narrowing setting is contrasted with the vastness of the American West, Alaska, and Africa. If the Lomans’ home symbolizes restriction, both physical and mental, distant locations symbolize escape, freedom, and the possibility of something better. While Willy insists New York is a land of opportunity and abundant success, his idolization of his brother Ben’s adventures and forays into faraway lands shows that he is really not so convinced. Furthermore, Biff, Happy, and Ben repeatedly suggest that the Lomans are better suited to physical, hands-on kinds of work, an assertion supported by their failure as salesmen. Willy’s obsession with distant lands further proves that he might prefer a very different livelihood than the one he has.
The seeds that Willy insists on buying and planting are an important symbol in the play. Willy is frequently troubled by feelings of confusion and inadequacy. He’s uncertain about how to raise his sons and worries that, like his own father, he will be unable to provide for them. When Willy says, "Nothing’s planted. I don’t have a thing in the ground" we have a feeling he’s really talking about his sons and their future. Willy is additionally preoccupied with being well known and leaving a legacy when he dies. All of these feelings come to a head in Willy’s seed planting. Through planting seeds, Willy wants grow something that will thrive, provide for others and remain after his own death. The MOST interesting part is that he chooses planting to make up for being a failed salesman – he’s actually better suited to working with his hands, to agriculture, to labor, just like his son Biff.
Stockings appear in a number of contexts in Death of a Salesman. Willy gives stockings to the woman he has an affair with, and repeatedly yells at Linda for mending her stockings in front of him (they seem to be a reminder of his affair and how he’s not providing for his family). Biff’s anger at his father’s affair gets similarly channeled into the stockings; ostensibly, they are the reason for his anger.
The tennis racket Willy observes when he chats with Bernard in Charley’s office is a symbol of Bernard’s success and Biff’s failure. While athletic Biff and Happy hoped to make a fortune selling sports equipment, it is Bernard, who in high school stood on the sidelines while Biff played sports, that now owns the tennis racket.
The diamonds that made Ben rich are a symbol of concrete wealth in Death of a Salesman. Unlike sales in which Willy has nothing tangible to show for his work, the diamonds represent pure, unadulterated material achievement. The diamonds are also seen as a "get-rich-quick" scheme that is the solution to all troubles. When Willy is considering killing himself, he hears Ben telling him that, "the jungle is dark but full of diamonds." The jungle here is a risk (physically and, more interestingly, morally), which has the potential to yield wealth. In deciding to commit suicide, Willy perceives himself going into the dark jungle to get diamonds for his son.
Though all works of literature present the author’s point of view, they don’t all have a narrator or a narrative voice that ties together and presents the story. This particular piece of literature does not have a narrator through whose eyes or voice we learn the story.
Each of the central characters is troubled and wants his or her life circumstances to change. Willy can’t drive for his traveling job, and is disappointed in his son’s inability to get real, serious work. Linda is worried about the family’s financial stability and about her husband’s mental health. Biff is feeling insecure and unsatisfied with life. He wants to be settled, help out his parents, and get on good terms with his father. Happy, despite having a good job and unlimited girlfriends, is also feeling lonely and dissatisfied with his life. What everyone is anticipating here is change, or something better.
The "dream stage" has been going on for basically Willy’s entire life, but it’s still possible to pinpoint the moment within the play when everyone’s aspirations seem like they really will come to fruition. For a time, the future is full of promise. Willy plans to stop traveling and get a New York-based job, and Biff’s going to ask for a loan to start a business.
Well that certainly didn’t work. Willy and Biff’s aspirations are totally shot down. Initially hopeful, Biff is scared and lost. Willy is increasingly absorbed in his delusions as a means of denial.
Willy just doesn’t want to face the fact that his son didn’t get a loan from Oliver and isn’t going to be a successful businessman. Biff can’t handle his father’s expectations and freaks out.
Willy kills himself in order to get life insurance payout money for Biff to start a business with. The second death is a metaphorical one, as Biff essentially kills what is left of his father’s dream.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In the first act, Willy comes home early from his work trip because he is no longer able to drive. For a traveling salesman, this means he also can’t do his job. Things are falling apart and money is a problem. His wife, Linda, encourages him to ask his boss for a non-traveling job. However, Willy’s mental health isn’t so good, and his sons are noticing that he’s talking to himself more than is socially acceptable. Willy’s mental wanderings are preoccupied with Biff’s aimlessness and inability to find success in business. To please his dad, Biff decides to ask a former employer, Bill Oliver, for a business loan the next day in order to start a small business. As a result, both Willy and Biff go to sleep with a plan and high hopes of the next day bringing financial and business success.
The following morning, Biff leaves to talk to Oliver and Willy heads to his boss’s office to ask for a job transfer. Oliver refuses to see Biff for more than a few seconds and he definitely doesn’t give him a loan. Biff realizes that he was totally deluded and steals Oliver’s pen. Meanwhile, Willy has approached his boss to get a non-traveling job and has totally failed. He ends up begging to keep his original traveling gig, but is fired instead. Depressed about his failed dreams of success, Willy attempts to hide from his son’s failures as well. Biff continues to try to force the truth on his father. The argument ends with Willy understanding that Biff loves him. However, Act II still ends with the big suicide (Willy’s).
While the Requiem isn’t designated as Act III in the play, it functions as essentially the same thing. (Note that in the playbill, seeing the title "Requiem" instead of "Act III" is further confirmation that someone dies. You know, in case the title of the play wasn't enough for you.) The Requiem takes place at Willy’s funeral. Here, Biff declares that his father pursued the wrong dream and didn’t know himself. Biff refuses to live life as his father did. Happy, however is defensive and buys into his dad’s misguided dreams. Linda, on the other hand, can’t figure out why her husband killed himself, especially since she just made the last payment on their house that day. Linda is still clueless.