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.
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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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?''
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.
Willy drifts easily between the present and the past, and time often laps over itself in the play. For example, Willy is talking to Linda when he is suddenly transported to a memory of a woman at his office. Following an apparent sexual encounter, the woman thanks Willy for stockings he has given her: ''And thanks for the stockings. I love a lot of stockings. Well, good night.''
The woman laughs as she leaves, and her laughter blends into Linda's laughter as she sits at the kitchen table mending her stockings.
Father Advises Son
Biff discusses his idea to have Bill Oliver stake him in business. Willy is pleased at the prospect and begins to offer advice about Biff's upcoming meeting with Oliver. The irony of Willy offering business advice is not lost on the boys, who pity their father now that their mother has informed them of the truth about Willy.
Willy and Linda are going to bed as Act 1 ends. Biff removes the rubber tubing from the hot water heater and takes it with him as he prepares to go to bed as well.
Okay, let's take a moment to review. In this lesson, we looked at Act 1 of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. We saw that it reveals Willy Loman's deterioration, having recently suffered the indignity of only 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.
As business success continues to elude him, Willy slips further into the world of his dreams. Willy's family tries to placate him, but Willy now recognizes that he is washed up in the business world. Willy Loman has previously attempted suicide, and his son Biff removes a rubber tube attached to a gas line in attempt to thwart further attempts.
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Death of a Salesman Act 1 Summary
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