Death of a Salesman Act 1 Summary

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Margaret Stone

Margaret has taught both college and high school English and has a master's degree in English from Mississippi State University. She holds a Mississippi AA Educator License.

Arthur Miller's ''Death of a Salesman'' introduces audiences to Willy Loman, an aging salesman. In Act 1, Willy's mental and physical deterioration becomes clear as he interacts with his wife and sons. Updated: 03/05/2021

Willy Loman Comes Home

As the curtain rises on Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman is returning home from a sales trip. His wife, Linda, is immediately concerned that he has had another wreck, but Willy says that is not the problem. ''I'm tired to the death. I couldn't make it. I just couldn't make it, Linda.''

Willy is exhausted because he is aging, but also because he is gradually accepting the idea that his dreams of material success are trickling away. He travels long distances to sell his wares, and he has recently suffered the indignity of being paid on a straight commission basis, which is an arrangement typically used with beginning salesmen, in which a salesman is paid only in relation to his sales figures.

He now pins all his hopes on his sons, Biff and Happy, though they have not quite lived up to their youthful potential thus far. Biff has worked in a succession of jobs, perhaps because of his thieving ways. When he comes home to visit, Biff and Willy seem to be always at odds with each other.

Happy, the younger of the two, has a low-level job that he presents in a promising light, but he is too busy chasing women to make great strides at work. Both boys love their mother, Linda, and Willy depends on her to prop up his deflated ego and urge him on.

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  • 0:04 Willy Loman Comes Home
  • 1:24 Linda's Secret
  • 2:17 Haunting Memories
  • 3:11 Father Advises Son
  • 3:41 Lesson Summary
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Linda's Secret

Linda talks to her sons about forgiving their father for his shortcomings. She points out that he used to be well-liked, but all his customers have died or retired. Linda reveals that Willy has been borrowing money from the man next door and pretending he has earned it.

She tells the boys that Willy is suicidal. The insurance company has informed her that witnesses say his last wreck was intentional. In addition, he keeps a rubber pipe hidden near the water heater, and he has installed a nipple to the gas pipe. Linda struggles as she tries to decide what to do about this development.

When Biff asks his mother if she has removed the apparatus, Linda replies, ''I'm—I'm ashamed to. How can I mention it to him? Every day I go down and take away that little rubber pipe. But, when he comes home, I put it back where it was. How can I insult him that way?''

Haunting Memories

Throughout Act 1, Willy Loman falls into a trance-like state in which he is haunted by memories. He thinks often of his brother, Ben, who is the embodiment of the ambition that Willy lacks. ''Why boys, when I was seventeen I walked into the jungle, and when I was twenty-one I walked out. And by God I was rich,'' Ben says in one of Willy's daydreams.

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