Study Guide

Death of a Salesman Success

By Arthur Miller


Act One
Happy Loman

BIFF: Why? You’re making money, aren’t you?

HAPPY [moving about with energy, expressiveness]: All I can do now is wait for the merchandise manager to die. And suppose I get to be merchandise manager? He’s a good friend of mine, and he just built a terrific estate on Long Island. And he lived there about two months and sold it, and now he’s building another one. He can’t enjoy it once it’s finished. And I know that’s just what I’d do. I don’t know what the hell I’m workin’ for. Sometimes I sit in my apartment—all alone. And I think of the rent I’m paying. And it’s crazy. But then, it’s what I always wanted. My own apartment, a car, plenty of women, and still, goddamnit, I’m lonely. (Act 1)

Although he has amassed concrete wealth, it is the intangible aspects of life that Happy craves. Material things and lots of hook-ups with random girls just don't seem to be the kind of success that Happy truly wants.


BEN: Principally diamond mines.

LINDA: Diamond mines!

BEN: Yes, my dear. But I‘ve only a few minutes—

WILLY: No! Boys! Boys! [Young Biff and Happy appear] Listen to this. This is your Uncle Ben, a great man! Tell my boys, Ben!

BEN: Why, boys, when I was seventeen I walked into jungle and when I was twenty-one I walked out. [He laughs] and by God I was rich!

WILLY [To the boys]: You see what I been talking about? The greatest things can happen! (Act 1)

Willy clings to Ben's material success as tangible evidence of his family's worth. He longs to measure up to the financial success of his brother. In many ways, Ben's success fuels Willy's misguided notion that riches are just around the corner.

Willy Loman

WILLY: … was rich! That’s just the spirit I want to imbue them with! To walk into a jungle! I was right! I was right! I was right! (Act 1)

Willy interprets Ben's tangible wealth as proof of the worth of his family and himself. He wants his sons to be like his brotherunafraid to go out and make their own success.

Act Two
Willy Loman

WILLY: Sure, sure. I am building something with this firm, Ben, and if a man is building something he must be on the right track, musn’t he?

BEN: What are you building? Lay your hand on it. Where is it?

WILLY [hesitantly]: That’s true, Linda, there’s nothing. (Act 2)

Ben implies that physically tangible results are central to a definition of progress and success. He sees no true value in Willy's life as a salesman.

WILLY [now assured, with rising power]: Oh, Ben, that’s the whole beauty of it! I see it like a diamond, shining in the dark, hard and rough, that I can pick up and touch in my hand. Not likelike an appointment! This would not be another damned fool appointment, Ben, and it changes all the aspects. Because he thinks I’m nothing, see, and so he spites me. But the funeral—[Straightening up] Ben, that funeral will be massive! They’ll come up from Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire! All the old timers with the strange license plates—that boy will be thunderstruck, Ben, because he never realized—I am known! Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey—I am known, Ben, and he’ll see it with his eyes once and for all. He’ll see what I am, Ben! He’s in for a shock that boy! (Act 2)

Willy's musings about diamonds and his funeral foreshadow his death. This all becomes incredibly tragic later on when nobody really shows up at Willy's funeral at all. By Willy's own standards, his life and death have been totally unsuccessful.

WILLY: 'Cause what could be more satisfying than to be able to go, at the age of eighty-four, into twenty or thirty different cities, and pick up a phone, and be remembered and loved and helped by so many different people? Do you know? When he died—and by the way he died the death of a salesman, in his in his green velvet slippers in the smoker of New York, New Haven and Hartford, going into Boston—when he died, hundreds of salesman and buyers were at his funeral. Things were sad on a lotta trains for months after that. In those days, there was personality in it, Howard. There was respect, and comradeship and gratitude in it. Today it’s all cut and dried, and there’s no chance for bringing friendship to bear—or personality. You see what I mean? They don’t know me anymore. (Act 2)

Willy feels his success is made real through his relationships with others. If he is well-liked by all, then he will have truly made it. Unfortunately, he's having to face the fact that not many people really know him or care about him.

WILLY: Without a penny to his name, three great universities are begging from him, and from there the sky’s the limit, because it’s not what you do. It’s who you know and the smile on your face! It’s contacts, Ben, contacts! The whole wealth of Alaska passes over the lunch table at the Commodore Hotel, and that’s the wonder, the wonder of this country, that a man can end with diamonds here on the basis of being liked! [He turns to Biff] And that’s why when you get out on that field today it’s important. Because thousands of people will be rooting for you and loving you. [To Ben, who has again begun to leave] And Ben! When he walks into a business office his name will sound out like a bell and all the doors will open to him! I’ve seen it, Ben. I’ve seen it a thousand times! You can’t feel it with your hand like timber, but it’s there. (Act 2)

Willy's timber analogy is used to convince Ben that even intangible success is real. Do you think this is true? How exactly do you measure success?

Biff Loman

BIFF: I am not a leader of men, Willy, and neither are you. You were never anything but a hard-working drummer who landed in the ash can like the rest of them! I’m one-dollar an hour, Willy! I tried seven states and couldn’t raise it. A buck an hour! Do you gather my meaning? I’m not bringing home any prizes anymore and you’re going to stop waiting for me to bring them home! (Act 2)

Biff insists he be left alone to live his life. He's begging his father to allow him to measure his personal success in his own way. Biff no longer wants any part of Willy's delusions.


BEN: The jungle is dark but full of diamonds, Willy.


BEN [with greater force]: One must go in to fetch a diamond out.


BEN: Not like an appointment at all. A diamond is rough and hard to the touch.


BEN: Best thing! (Act 2)

Ben's refrain, with words like "hard" and "touch," suggests the importance of concrete wealth. Willy is haunted by the fact that his life of work hasn't really amounted to anything tangible.