Study Guide

Death of a Salesman Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

By Arthur Miller

Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

Act One
Willy Loman

WILLY: Don’t say? Tell you a secret, boys. Don’t breathe it to a soul. Someday I’ll have my own business, and I’ll never have to leave home any more.

HAPPY: Like Uncle Charley, heh?

WILLY: Bigger than Uncle Charley! Because Charley is not liked. He’s liked, but he’s notwell liked. (Act 1)

Amidst his preoccupation with financial survival, Willy insists he will make it big some day and have the home life that he wants. Almost more important to him than actual successful business deals is being liked. Over the course of the play, however, we learn that Willy isn't particularly well liked at all. This is just another one of his delusions.

WILLY: Like a young god. Hercules—something like that. And the sun, the sun all around him. Remember how he waved to me? Right up from the field with the representatives of three colleges standing by? And the buyers I brought, and the cheers when he came out—Loman, Loman, Loman! God Almighty, he’ll be great yet. A star like that, magnificent, can never really fade away. (Act 1)

Willy clings to memories of the distant past to find hope for the future. What's interesting is that we see and hear of these past events through Willy's distorted lens. There's really no telling if anything was ever as wonderful as he paints it.

Linda Loman

LINDA: He’ll find his way.

WILLY: Sure. Certain men just don’t get started till later in life. Like Thomas Edison, I think. Or B.F. Goodrich. One of them was deaf. [He starts for the bedroom doorway.] I’ll put my money on Biff. (Act 1)

Willy clings to his hope that Biff will settle down and become a major business success despite the unlikelihood of such an event. This desperate hope is what eventually leads him to commit suicide by the end of the play. He goes to his death with the delusional idea that Biff will one day be a famous businessman.

LINDA: I’m just wondering if Oliver will remember him. You think he might?

WILLY [coming out of the bathroom in his pajamas]: Remember him? What’s the matter with you, you crazy? If he’d stayed with Oliver he’d be on top by now! Wait’ll Oliver gets a look at him. You don’t know the average caliber any more. The average young man today—[he’s getting into bed]—is got a caliber of zero. Greatest thing in the world for him was to bum around. (Act 1)

Willy's comments cross the line from hopefulness about the future to the suggestion that his aspirations are already reality. He clings to the delusional idea that Biff is somehow superior to the average young man.

Act Two
Happy Loman

HAPPY: Dad is never so happy as when he’s looking forward to something! (Act 2)

Happy's statement reflects a fundamental understanding of his father's need to dream as a means of escape. Is Willy's family in some ways responsible for furthering his delusions? Or are they only trying to make their father happy?

HAPPY: All right, boy. I’m gonna show you and everybody else that Willy Loman did not die in vain. He had a good dream. It’s the only dream you can have—to come out number one man. He fought it out here, and this is where I’m gonna win it for him. (Act 2)

Hoping to re-elevate his father's memory, Happy asserts that Willy had the right aspirations, and he will take on his father's dreams to prove it. What do you think is in the future for Happy? Will he become what his father always wanted to be? Or is he destined for the same sort of tragic death?

Charley

CHARLEY: Nobody dast blame this man. You don’t understand: Willy was a salesman. And for a salesman, there’s no rock bottom to the life. He don’t put a bolt to a nut, he don’t tell you the law or give you medicine. He’s a man way out there in the blue riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back—that’s an earthquake. And then you get yourself a couple spots on your hat and your finished. Nobody dast blame this man. A salesman is got to dream boy, it comes with the territory. (Act 2)

Charley insists that, being a salesman with an unsure future, Willy could not have avoided dreaming his absurd dreams. Do you think this is true? Is it impossible to be a salesman and not be totally delusional?

Biff Loman

BIFF: He walked away. I saw him for one minute. I got so mad I could’ve torn the walls down! How the hell did I ever get the idea I was a salesman there? I even believed myself that I’d been a salesman for him! And then he gave me one look and—I realized what a ridiculous lie my whole life has been. We’ve been talking in a dream for fifteen years. I was a shipping clerk. (Act 2)

Biff points out that because of excessive dreaming and fantasizing about a better future, he had lost his grounding in reality. When he forces his father to face this reality, it leads to Willy's destruction.

BIFF [crying, broken]: Will you let me go for Christ’s sake? Will you take that phony dream and burn it before something happens? (Act 2)

Biff attributes the tension and distress in his family to the irreconcilable gap between Willy's absurd dreams and reality. He longs to be released from Willy's dreams, so that he can create his own—ones that are based on the reality of his situation.

BIFF: He had the wrong dreams. All, all wrong.

HAPPY [almost ready to fight Biff]: Don’t say that!

BIFF: He never knew who he was. (Act 2)

Dreaming is so central an aspect of Willy's character that Happy nearly fights Biff to defend it. Unlike his brother, Happy still wants to believe in Willy.

Willy Loman

WILLY: You wait, kid, before it’s all over we’re gonna get a little place out in the country, and I’ll raise some vegetables, a couple of chickens…

LINDA: You’ll do it yet, dear. (Act 2)

Despite all evidence to the contrary, Willy maintains that they will escape their current financial situation and create something new. We wonder, though, if Linda is as delusional as her husband. Does she really believe that there is a house in the country in their future?

WILLY: [the last to leave, turning to Charley]: I don’t think that was funny, Charley. This is the greatest day of his life.

CHARLEY: Willy, when are you going to grow up?

WILLY: Yeah, heh? When this game is over, you’ll be laughing out of the other side of your face. They’ll be calling him another Red Grange. Twenty-five thousand a year. (Act 2)

Willy's hopefulness that the game will turn out well for Biff is based on the belief that Biff has already won the game, performed flawlessly, and is headed for a professional football career. This kind of baseless optimism eventually destroys Willy and seems to seriously damage his sons.

Linda Loman

LINDA: Biff was very changed this morning. His whole attitude seemed to be hopeful. He couldn’t wait to get down town to see Oliver.

WILLY: He’s heading for a change. There’s no question. There simply are certain men who take longer to get solidified. How did he dress? (Act 2)

Linda and Willy cling to even the slightest indication of change as definite proof of a better future to come. It's really sad that all their dream and hopes for themselves and their children have come down to this.

WILLY: Gee whiz! That’s really somethin’. I’m gonna knock Howard for a loop, kid. I’ll get an advance and I’ll come home with a New York job. Goddammit, now I’m gonna do it!

LINDA: Oh, that’s the spirit Willy! (Act 2)

Willy experiences occasional moments of extreme optimism that contrast with similarly extreme moments of depression. The back and forth between these highs and lows is what eventually tears him apart.

Ben

LINDA: You’re doing well enough, Willy!

BEN [to Linda]: Enough for what, my dear?

LINDA [frightened of Ben and angry at him]: Don’t say those things to him! Enough to be happy right here, right now. [To Willy, while Ben laughs] Why must everybody conquer the world? You’re well liked and the boys love you and someday—[to Ben]—why, old man Wagner told him just the other day that if he keeps it up he’ll be a member of the firm, didn’t he, Willy? (Act 2)

Linda expresses concern that Willy's massive aspirations are getting the better of him. She seems afraid that if Willy latches on to his brother's big dreams of success, then she may never see her husband again.