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So you just finished reading "Death of a Salesman" right? Maybe you think it’s this dusty old book with no relevance to our life nowadays, it’s so not true. Not only has it won tons of awards, like Tony Awards on Broadway, but it’s also been referenced in everything from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Seinfeld, The Simpsons even the Family Guy. It’s one of my top five favorite works of literature.
My name is Linda Hirw and I’m here to guide you through this amazing play, so you can develop a love for it too and see why it’s actually really important, in terms of our country, and our American culture.
In this episode, we’re going to start with plot and book summary. I’m also going to give you a little bit of social and historical context, so you know what was going on in America at the time that this book was written and published. The last thing we’re going to do, is meet the author. Arthur Miller is almost a character in it himself. So if you’re ready, I’m ready. Let’s go jump into this piece of American history.
Part of what gives kids a lot of problems, with Death of the Salesman when it comes to plot summary, is the fact that Willy Loman is going back and forth between fantasy and reality. It’s the present day. Some kind of activity is happening, then all of a sudden, he’s 25 years in the past, having some kind of a memory or a flashback of something that happened a long time ago. When you read it the first time, I mean a play is meant to be seen. If you’re sitting at home and reading it, that stuff is going to get really confusing. So what we’re going to do with plot summary today, is I’m going to go entirely chronologically. We’re going to stay in the present day and work through the different events of each day. Day one and day two, then actually we’ll do later that day and a requiem at the end.
Now I need to give you a word of caution. If you’re tempted to use a homework helper, or some kind of study guide, with this, be really careful. I’ve busted so many kids for completely messing up, because I can tell they didn’t read the book when they tell me, "Oh Miss Hirw, in act two scene four..." The acts one and two are not divided into scenes. But study guides have the tendency to make up their own scenes, just for ease. I guess summary and analysis and stuff like that, but if I hear you say that, I know that you didn’t read the book, because there’s no scenes in there. So just a little word of advice on that one.
Let’s start our plot summary. So the play opens. Day one, Willy is coming home to their apartment in Brooklyn. He’s had another unsuccessful sales trip. He talks about all different things that he’s really discouraged by. He’s talking to Linda. Linda, his wife is so reassuring. But she’s reassuring to the point where she makes excuses for Willy. It’s never Willy, his fault, if something bad has happened. They talk about Biff. Then we see Biff and Happy, the two sons. Biff is home after a long time away. It’s not specified here why he’s been away. We’ll find that out later. When Biff and Happy are talking, Biff makes the plan that he’s going to ask for a loan from his old boss, because he wants to start his own store.
Day two, starts off with a bang. This is when Willy gets fired. Do you remember that scene? He goes to Howard his boss. Howard’s a lot younger than him. And for the past many, many years, Willy was working for Howard’s dad and now Howard has come in to do the family business. So Willy goes in and talks to Howard. At Linda’s advice, he’s going to ask him if he can stop being a travelling salesman and just stay in the local office. Well, everything completely backfires. He ends up being let go. It seems like he hasn’t been bringing the company a lot of money in a long time, so he gets fired.
Next, Willy goes back home and he’s hanging out with their family friend and neighbor, Charley. Willy gets help from Charley financially. We get the idea that this has been happening for a while. Charley helps him out, loans him some money so that he can pay his bills.
What happens next is the restaurant scene. In this scene, Biff confides in Happy that the meeting with his boss did not go well at all. He waited all day long outside his office. He didn’t even want to see him. We hear a little bit of background information here about the fact that Biff stole things in the past, and he was so freaked out in the situation that he stole something from his old boss, and then ran away. It’s not a great thing to have happened. And then Biff tries to tell hi dad about it, and that’s another not great thing.
He starts to tell Willy about the fact that he didn’t get this opportunity, he didn’t get this loan. They’re not out of the woods, but then Willy announces that he’s been fired. So they’ve tried to confine to his dad, but his dad drops this bomb first. It’s really unfortunate and you kind of have to feel for everybody involved, because there’s a lot going on.
Now Willy goes to the bathroom at this point. While he’s in the rest room, his sons actually leave with these women that they’ve picked up at the restaurant. It’s a really sad turn of events. When Willy comes back out of the rest room, they’re gone.
Later that night, now this is when you’re in the end of the play here. The boys come home really late. They have roses for their mum, and they’re really in good spirits, but we find Willy outside. He’s planting a garden, and he’s talking to Ben. We haven’t talked about Ben yet, because Ben’s imaginary at this point. Ben is Willy’s brother who died a while back. He talks to him all throughout the whole play. Willy is really in a bad place at this point. He’s really trying to hide this all that he’s just talking. He’s thrown over the edge.
Biff at this point really tries to talk to his dad and be honest with him. Remember in the restaurant scene, he tried to confide in him and tell him, "Look dad this is what happened. I messed up I didn’t get it," but again, same thing happens. Willy refuses to really see this reality. Biff is saying I’m a nobody and I’m a dime a dozen, and so are you and Willy can’t, or won’t see it. At this point, Biff tries to sever ties with his dad. He says, “Maybe I should just leave. I’m going to get out of your life,” and he has a little bit of break down himself. He cries.
Now this crying is extremely important, because Willy is so moved by these tears. He says to Linda like what an incredible boy. I guess he sees it as his son loves him enough to cry in front of him. This actually ultimately causes Willy to make the decision that he is going to commit suicide. He has a life insurance policy that he’s taken out for his family. He thinks he’s got this amazing son and he’s got Lind and he’s got Happy, the kind of forgotten son. He wants to provide for them. He can’t do it any other way. So at the end we see him or hear him drive off and the impression is given of a car crush.
The requiem follows the first two acts and it’s a very short scene. We’re at Willy’s funeral here. Charley and the family are all at the gravesite together. Very sadly, the funeral is not well-attended. Remember Willy’s whole thing about wanting to be well-liked and all the people that were at the funeral for the other salesman that he knew, Dave Singleman, well, nobody really showed up for his. The idea of this tragedy, this loneliness is really just further emphasized. Linda announces essentially at the funeral that we were in the free and clear. That she had just made the last payment on their house. So financially, it wasn’t something he had to do for them to be able to survive.
Happy is completely still in denial. He hasn’t changed in this play at all. He says, “Willy Loman did not die in vain.” He’s got these grand plans to succeed in this life and do all these things that are really unrealistic. He’s very much like his father, kind of in denial.
Last we see Biff who really has changed. He looks at his brother who’s saying all the same kind of stuff that his dad would say. He says, "I know who I am kid." And we recognize that he’s seeing the truth of reality.
That’s a really basic plot summary. If you want more detail, other than going back and rereading passages, I’ve linked a really cool website. If you click on the part that says chapter by chapter summary, even though we don’t have chapters in this, it will be a lot more thorough and it’ll give you a lot more details. So if you feel rough on any of this, either go back and rewatch it, or check out that link.
The plot is pretty incredible. It’s an amazing play. So let’s go meet the man behind all this action.
Here is the man, Arthur Miller. That’s really him. Let’s talk first about his early life. This guy was born in 1915 in New York City, also the setting for the play. He was born to fairly wealthy parents, who then ended up losing a lot of money in the depression in the Stock Market crash. I think that this probably influenced Death of a Salesman, the play, because, he had some financial struggles of his own when he was growing up.
Once he graduated college, he moved to New York and he worked in theater for a while. So he had the kind of inherent love for drama and for plays. In 1940 he married his college sweetheart. They had two children together. In 1944, he wrote his first award-winning play.
Let’s move on to mid-life. That’s when this comes into play. Now Arthur Miller wrote Death of a Salesman in 1948. Pretty soon after, he was investigated by the House of Un-American Activities for ties to the communist party. This is kind of interesting and it actually became the basis for the play "The Crucible" which he wrote later on. So he was eventually cleared of all these charges. He was found in contempt and fined at one point, because he wouldn’t give up people’s names. But it’s just a weird little part of his personality, that it makes me always look at the things that he’s written and see how did that impact him. The Crucible is there for sure, but he had distrust for the government as well.
In 1956, he got divorced from his first wife, and actually married Marilyn Monroe. If you’re into writing, you’re on the bookish side, you can still get pretty hot chick like Marilyn Monroe. That’s what I think about. They had an affair actually in previous years. So when they got married, it was a bit of a reunion actually.
In 1961 though, they got divorced. Their marriage didn’t last very long, and Monroe actually died less than two years later. In 1962, he does move pretty quickly, he married a photographer and they had two children together. So that’s his mid-life.
Later in his life, he continued to write screen plays and plays and ended up writing over 60 of them in his life. In 2002, his wife of 40 years at this point, passed away. In the same year he was 89, he began living with a young 34 year old woman, who was a famous painter. In February of 2005, he died of heart failure, and he had a pretty interesting life to say the least. He was a really interesting character for this time period. He was a bit of a playboy. He was an artiste. It’s a pretty interesting figure to look at.
Like I was saying before, with his possible ties to the Communist party, how does he really fit into the time period of the 1940s and the 1950s? That’s what we’re going to talk about next, with a little social and historical context.
Let’s think about America after World War II. It was a long war. It was a hard war, but it ended up being really a time of prosperity for our country. The middle class and the upper class at this point did really, really well. However, those who were poor kept getting poorer. This really was a sense of continued bad times for the average man. If you think about it, in the play, Willy as a salesman, it’s certainly the average Joe. And his sons are as well. Happy is a retail clerk and Biff was a farm worker. So they’re not on this happy end of the spectrum with all these great things that are happening for our country. They have a struggle.
This is something that a lot of people really struggle with during the time period to retain their dignity, while are going through some really hard financial times and maybe working in a job that they were overqualified for. So actually some parallels going on with that nowadays America. US became this big super power and there was a really big push and an emphasis on the idea of being accepted by society. You wanted to be able to really impress your peers and look good in front of them. Americans really craved acceptance from each other.
How does that apply to Willy Loman? What’s his big quote? He’s always talking about being well-liked. He says that he’s well-liked, but not very well-liked and really equates that with success. That’s so indicative of this time period, just the desire for other people to see you as successful. There is a really big push during this time to believe in the American dream. All these middle and upper class people were like well in America all you need to do to succeed is to work hard. Well, what does that mean for the poor people? That they’re all lazy? That they’re not working hard?
So even though it was really a great time of prosperity in the ‘40s and ‘50s, we’re looking at a lot of things that weren’t so great for everyone. We’ll talk more about the American dream when get to episode three, because it figures in really well with theme. But that’s the basic sense of what was going on in our country at that time.
In case you were downloading episodes in podcast of the Michael Berry show, watch it when you should have been paying attention to my episode, here is the gist of what you missed. We talked about plot summary, and got a basic linear idea, of what happens chronologically through out the play. We also dished a little bit on Arthur Miller, the author, with three marriages. One of them was Marilyn Monroe. It’s a wonder he even had time to write 70 different things. We also talked a little bit about the social and historical context for this play. What was going on in America at the time, and how did it influence this piece of literature.
Now in the next episode, we’re going to talk all about characters. Do you remember who Bernard is? And what’s the woman’s real name? Well, now you’re going to find out in case you don’t know. Let’s move on to the next episode.