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Death of a Salesman: Act 2 - Summary

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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.

Expert Contributor
Sasha Blakeley

Sasha Blakeley has a Bachelor's in English Literature from McGill University and a TEFL certification. She has been teaching English in Canada and Taiwan for seven years.

This lesson focuses on Act 2 of Arthur Miller's ''Death of a Salesman.'' Act 2 portrays Willy Loman's continuing decline and his inability to face reality. Updated: 03/08/2021

Big Plans

As Act 2 of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman opens, Willy awakes, rested and hopeful about his son Biff's meeting with Oliver. Willy begins to tell his wife Linda of his plans to ask Howard, his boss, to take him off the road and let him work in New York. Linda reminds Willy to be sure to ask Howard for an advance because the bills are piling up. The final house payment is due, and Willy is no longer earning as much as he used to. The deterioration of the Lomans' possessions seem to parallel Willy's decline.

Linda tells Willy that Biff and Happy want to take him out for dinner. This invitation bolsters Willy's confidence for his meeting with Howard, ''I'm gonna knock Howard for a loop, kid. I'll get an advance, and I'll come home with a New York job.''

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  • 0:04 Big Plans
  • 0:53 Rejections
  • 2:38 Dinner With Biff and Happy
  • 3:46 Death of Willy
  • 4:32 Epilogue
  • 4:58 Lesson Summary
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Rejections

When Willy arrives at the office, Howard is distracted by the tape recorder he has just purchased. Willy eventually manages to divert his attention from the machine, and he tells Howard that he would rather not travel anymore. Howard says there's no place for Willy on the local sales team. Willy reminds Howard that he worked for Howard's father and has been with the company a long time, but Howard refuses Willy's request.

In desperation, Willy finally agrees to go to Boston. Howard declines this offer, saying, ''I don't want you to represent us. I've been meaning to tell you for a long time now.'' Howard suggests that Willy set aside his pride and ask his sons for financial help.

Willy goes once again to his neighbor Charley to borrow money. As he enters the office, he encounters Charley's son Bernard, now a successful attorney. Bernard remembers that Biff was not able to go to college because he failed high school math; that he was planning to make up the course in summer school, but he apparently changed his mind after going to Boston to talk to his father. ''I've often thought of how strange it was that I knew he'd given up his life. What happened in Boston, Willy?'' Bernard asks.

Willy is immediately defensive about Bernard's questioning. ''What are you trying to do, blame it on me? If a boy lays down is that my fault?'' As Charley joins them, Bernard rushes out to catch his train.

Charley offers Willy fifty dollars, but Willy says that he needs more to pay the insurance. Charley offers Willy a job, and Willy finally admits that he's been fired. Typically, Willy's ego stands in the way of him accepting work from Charley, and he leaves lamenting the fact that he's worth more dead than alive.

Dinner with Biff and Happy

Willy arrives at dinner, anxious for news of Biff's success at getting a loan from Oliver. Biff tries to tell him that he waited to see Oliver all day, and when he finally did, the man did not even remember him. Willy refuses to believe Biff and continues to insist that his sons are going to be a big success in their new sporting goods business. Biff reveals that after he saw Oliver, he went into his office and stole his fountain pen. Again, Willy refuses to see the act as anything but accidental.

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Additional Activities

Death of a Salesman: Explore Further

This lesson summarized the second and final act of Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller. Check out the following activities to learn more about this classic play.

Character Study

Willy is a fascinating character. He has trouble accepting some facets of reality and has a very warped view of his value as a person. Think about Willy's desires, hopes, and fears. What motivates him? What is he like? Write a character study examining Willy over the course of the second act of the play. Make sure to use supporting quotes from the play to illuminate your points throughout your writing.

The Ending

Miller's play has a very definitive ending that has a feeling of inevitability to it. Unlike so many other pieces of fiction, it is hard to imagine an alternate ending for Death of a Salesman because it is representative of larger societal structures rather than simply being a story about individual people. Write an essay explaining why you think the play ends with Willy's death. What does this symbolize in the grand scheme of things? What do you think the play tells us about America, capitalism, and the state of the world?

Compare and Contrast

There are many plays that deal with similar themes to Death of a Salesman, including financial instability, family dynamics, and the disintegration of the American Dream. Write a paragraph or reflection comparing and contrasting Death of a Salesman with any other play that you think deals with similar themes.

Examples: You might compare and contrast Death of a Salesman with Fences by August Wilson, Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks, or The Good Person of Szechwan by Bertold Brecht.

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