Death of a Salesman: Characters & Quotes

Instructor: Margaret Stone

Margaret has taught both college and high school English and has a master's degree in English.

This lesson focuses on characters and significant quotations in Arthur Miller's 'Death of a Salesman.' The play reveals the tragic story of Willy Loman, a traveling salesman.

Willy Loman

Willy Loman is the protagonist of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. Willy is a man consumed and destroyed by the American Dream, the uniquely American notion of hard work as a means to social mobility and material success. Willy has spent his life as a traveling salesman for the Wagner Company; his journey, however, turns out to be a dead end. As Willy's life begins to unravel, he turns more and more to a dream world of memory and imaginings. As time runs out for Willy, life becomes meaningless to him, and the past bleeds seamlessly into the present.

Ironically, the symbols of material success that surround Willy begin to crumble, paralleling Willy's own deterioration. 'I am always in a race with the junkyard! I just finished paying for the car and it's on its last legs. The refrigerator consumes belts like a goddam maniac. They time those things. They time them so when you finally paid for them, they're used up.'

Willy is also 'used up.' His company no longer values him. His sons do not love him. His dreams have proved fruitless. Willy is unable to face reality, and he commits suicide in a final grasp for the brass ring. Willy dies without understanding that his dream has destroyed his life and those of his sons. 'Can you imagine that magnificence with twenty thousand dollars in his pocket?' Willy imagines asking his brother Ben this question as he thinks of Biff receiving the proceeds from his life insurance policy. To the end, Willy clings to material possessions, believing they will bring happiness and success to his family.

Biff Loman

Biff is Willy and Linda Loman's 34-year-old son. A star athlete in high school, he returns home to pursue a business deal with his former boss. When the man fails to even remember him, Biff steals a pen from the businessman's office. Biff has worked at a succession of jobs because of this propensity for theft. He realizes that his father's big ideas about success have had a detrimental effect on him, as well. 'And I never got anywhere because you blew me so full of hot air I could never stand taking orders from anybody! That's whose fault it is!' Biff attempts to get Willy to face the truth, but Willy refuses to believe that his son is a failure.

Howard Wagner

Willy's emotional disintegration is complete when Howard Wagner, his boss, fires him after Willy asks to stop traveling. Howard says: 'I don't want you to represent us. I've been meaning to tell you for a long time now.' Willy realizes that his former success is meaningless when he can no longer produce sales and is cast aside by the company.

Happy Loman

Happy is Biff's younger brother. A womanizer who leaves his father at a restaurant on the day he's fired, Happy thinks of himself as more successful in business than he really is. 'I'm gonna run that department before the year is up,' Happy says, an unlikely outcome since he is only an assistant buyer.

Ben Loman

Ben, Willy's dead older brother, comes to him as a dream. After becoming wealthy by finding diamonds, he represents success to Willy. With Ben, Willy discusses his plan to commit suicide to obtain the insurance money. Ben seems to encourage the act, saying: 'The jungle is dark but full of diamonds, Willy.'

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