SummaryWilly Loman, a traveling salesman for the Wagner Company, comes on stage carrying his suitcase, which is described as “his burden”. Willy has suddenly come back home because he cannot keep his mind on driving. He tells Linda, his wife, that he was having strange dreams as he drove. She says that Willy needs a long rest. She also suggests that he talk to his manager about getting a transfer from the New England territory to someplace closer to New York. Willy, however, feels that he is vital to the New England territory.
Willy asks Linda about his sons, who are home for the first time in years. He is particularly concerned about Biff, his thirty-four year old son who cannot find a job and keep it. He cannot understand Biff’s troubles since he is so attractive, a trait that is very important in Willy’s mind.
Willy complains of being suffocated in the city, feeling "all boxed in." Linda suggests that they take a ride in the country on Sunday and open the windshield. Willy tells her that the windshields do not open on the new cars. He then thinks about his old 1928 Chevrolet.
The scene next shifts to the bedroom of Biff and Happy, the two sons of Willy, who discuss their father. Happy tells Biff that he is worried that Willy's driver's license may be taken away from him. Biff complains about Willy constantly mocking him. He feels that he cannot establish a rapport with his father. Happy tells him that Willy talks about Biff all the time.
Biff then begins to tell Happy about his life for the last fourteen years. He says he can never keep a job because when spring comes, he feels like moving on to another place. Biff remembers that he had once stolen a carton of basketballs from one of his coaches, Bill Oliver, and wonders whether Oliver still remembers him. Happy assures Biff that Oliver always thought highly of him because he was so well liked.
Happy tells Biff that he has most of the things he ever wanted--his own apartment, a car, and relationships with women; in spite of these things, he still feels lonely. Biff thinks his brother should be working outside in the open air and should settle down with a nice steady woman, one like their mother. Their conversation is interrupted by Willy, who is talking rather loudly to himself. Biff resents that his mother still tolerates Willy’s behavior.
The scene next shifts to Willy, who is talking to himself and reflecting on a time in 1928 when he had come back from a trip. Young Biff and Happy come on the stage dressed as young boys, to indicate that Willy is thinking of the old days. The boys are excited about the punching bag that their father has bought for them. When Willy asks Biff about his new football, the boy tells him that he borrowed it from the locker room so he can practice. Happy remarks that Biff will get into trouble because he has stolen the football, but Willy thinks that the coach will probably congratulate him on his initiative. Willy tells the boys that he will have his own business some day and will not have to go on any more trips. Before then, he promises to take the boys with him on a trip up through New England.
Bernard, a friend of Biff, arrives. He reminds Biff that they are supposed to study, stating that the math teacher has threatened to flunk Biff. Willy, however, thinks that it is unnecessary for a boy who has made a mark in athletics to study. When Biff does not respond, Bernard leaves. Biff then tells his father that Bernard is liked but not well liked. Willy says that good marks in school do not ensure success in life. What really matters is being well liked and being personally attractive.
While Willy is conversing with young Biff and Happy, Linda enters the scene carrying a basket of wash. Willy tells her how great he was on the road and how much he has sold. Linda tells him how much debt they owe, and Willy realizes that they owe more than he has made. Later Willy says he is worried that people do not like him. Linda, who is mending some silk stockings, assures Willy that he is well liked. Willy worries whether he has lost his personal attractiveness, but Linda assures him that he is still a handsome man. The silk stockings trigger a flashback for Willy. Suddenly a woman appears in his thoughts. She is laughing while she gets dressed. She says that she picked Willy out because he is such a joker. As she leaves, she thanks Willy for the stockings he gave her.
Willy returns to the present and tells Linda how lonesome he gets on the road. He also reassures her that things will get better and has her stop mending the stockings. Bernard then re-appears in Willy’s mind and reminds Biff to study. Willy now gets mad at Biff for not studying and threatens to whip him. He then changes his mind and says that he does not want Biff to be a worm like Bernard, for Biff has got spirit and personality.
As the lights begin to return to indicate the present, Happy comes down to check on his father. He says that he is going to retire his dad, which Willy considers to be ridiculous. Willy then remembers his dead brother Ben and says that he should have gone to Alaska and become rich with him. At this point, Charley enters and sends Happy away. He sits with Willy to play cards and offers his friend a job; Willy, however, refuses. Charley tells Willy not to worry so much about Biff. As he and Charley are talking, Brother Ben appears to Willy in an illusion, but Ben is in a hurry. Back in the present, Willy insults Charley, who gets up and leaves.
Willy now turns his full attention to his illusion of Ben, who says that he went into the jungle when he was seventeen and came out rich at twenty-one. Willy asks Ben about their parents. Ben says that their father made flutes and then went about the country selling them. Biff and Happy appear as youngsters. Ben tells Biff to hit him in the stomach to show how tough he is. Before the boy can act, Ben trips Biff and tells him to never fight fair, especially with a stranger. Willy sends the boys to the neighboring construction project to steal lumber so as to show Ben how fearless they are. Ben says he must leave to tend to the stock exchange. Willy pleads with him to stay, to no avail. As Ben leaves, he assures Willy that his sons are "manly chaps."
Linda comes downstairs to check on Willy, who is going for a walk even though he is wearing house slippers. Biff asks his mother what is wrong with his dad. Linda explains how his coming home affects his father; Biff’s presence seems to agitate him. Linda tells her son that he has to learn to respect Willy and pay attention to him. She also tells Biff that after thirty-four years of service, the company has put Willy back on straight commission. Biff says that the company is ungrateful. Linda tells him that the company is no worse than Biff and Happy. Biff refuses to take the blame and accuses his father of being a fake.
Linda tells Biff that Willy is trying to commit suicide. Sometime back, when he was in a car wreck, the insurance company investigated whether it was a deliberate attempt. Another time Linda found a rubber hose attached to the gas pipe. She pleads with Biff, telling him that Willy's life is in his hands. Biff’s answer is that they should all be in jobs where they can work outside and whistle when they want.
In the next scene, Willy re-enters. Happy tells Willy that Biff is going to see Bill Oliver. Willy is excited over the idea. Happy even suggests that they form two Loman brothers teams and compete against each other for publicity. Willy says that if they do so they could lick the world together. Willy then gives some pointers to Biff to make his appointments with Oliver a success. He tells him to wear a dark suit, to talk little, and to tell no jokes. Biff says that he will ask Oliver for ten thousand dollars, but Willy says that ten is too little and tells him to ask for fifteen thousand. His advice to Biff is "if you start out big, you end up big." He then decides that Biff should begin with a couple of jokes because "personality" always wins the day. When Linda tries to say something, Willy yells at her. Biff resents this, and he and Willy argue again. Willy leaves, and Biff thinks with ten thousand dollars he can really do great things.
Linda follows Willy up to the bedroom and reminds him of the plumbing problem. He feels that suddenly everything is falling to pieces. Biff and Happy come in to the room to say good night. Willy gives more advice to Biff about what to do in the interview with Oliver and reminds him that he has greatness in him. Happy tells his parents that he is going to get married. Biff goes down to the kitchen and removes the rubber tubing.
In the first act, the reader is introduced to the Loman family. Willy lives most of his life in a world of illusion in which he romanticizes his past, and his family does nothing to stop him. Although his illusions have been with him all his life, the problem is that now, in his later years, Willy is having trouble distinguishing between past and present, appearance and reality. In the opening scene, Willy comes home and tells Linda he has been driving with the windshield open. When she suggests that they take a ride later with the windshield open, he says windshields are no longer made to open. He has earlier confused his present car with his old 1928 Chevy, in which the windshields did open. The period around 1928 seems to be the last happy time in Willy's life; it was the time when Biff was a high school senior and the captain and star of the football team.
It quickly becomes apparent in this first act that Willy's personal philosophy of life deals entirely with superficial values; he is concerned with appearance rather than substance. He believes the most important things in the world, in both social and business environments, are to be well liked and attractive; unfortunately, he has also taught his sons these values, and they are seen espousing them as their own. Willy also feels nostalgic for the olden days, when everyone lived on a farm. In the city, he always complains of feeling "boxed in" and tells Linda that "nothing will grow here." As life begins to close in on Willy, this idea is symbolically portrayed in Willy's inability to get anything to grow in his back yard. The image of Willy trying to plant seeds that never spring to life is symbolic of the failure of the American Dream to come to fruition for Willy and most other working class people. Hard work and dedication do not bring Willy success; instead, he finds himself in old age to be poor, out of work, and dissatisfied with life.
As he wanders in and out of illusions, Willy often contradicts himself. For instance, Willy says of Biff, "The trouble is he's lazy. Biff is a lazy bum!" Yet, later, he says, "There's one thing about Biff--he is not lazy." In a fleeting moment of reality, Willy truthfully criticizes Biff, but he returns to his illusions that "personal attractiveness" is all a man needs to succeed. In his illusory world, nothing is wrong with Biff. Happy and Biff also live in a world of illusion. Biff casually mentions to Happy that he stole some basketballs from Oliver, trying to insert reality into the world of the Loman fantasies. Happy tries to overlook the dishonesty and tells Biff that Oliver always thought highly of Biff. In a later flashback, Willy remembers Biff saying that he “borrowed” a football from the locker room; Happy states the reality that Biff has stolen the ball and is sure to get in trouble. Willy brushes off the dishonesty by saying the coach would probably be proud of Biff for taking the initiative to practice. Later, Willy actually sends his sons out to steal lumber, in order to impress Ben. Willy’s lack of morality on the issue of honesty greatly affects Biff and his ability to hold a job.
Like Willy, Happy also lies to himself about his work and about his appearance; he constantly tells his father that he is successfully losing weight, improving his attractiveness. He also erroneously believes that as soon as the merchandise manager dies, he will become the new manager. It is doubtful, however, that such a promotion would make Happy happy. He says that he already has everything he wants, an apartment, a car, and women, and he still feels lonely. Biff is obviously a lonely idealist as well. He believes that all the Loman problems can be fixed by simply working outdoors where they will have the freedom to whistle when they want.
In Act 1, Miller explores the relationship between the son and the father. Biff feels that he can never communicate with Willy, and this feeling mounts until the climax of the play when Biff tries to force reality upon his dad. Biff has difficulty with the way that Willy treats his mother. He also has problems with Willy’s world of illusions. In truth, the fact that Willy has always excused his son for his behavior is a real problem for Biff, for he has developed no backbone. In later acts, it is revealed that Biff has lost every job because of stealing. In fact, Biff actually goes to jail for theft. In spite of Biff’s many problems, Willy is obviously very partial to him. Happy constantly stands in the shadow of his elder brother, unnoticed and craving the attention of his father.
Willy is not realistic about his earnings. He brags to Linda that he made $1200 gross in Boston, but when Linda calculates the commission, he has to admit that he made only $200 gross on the entire trip. Even in his illusion, he cannot face the fact that he is not a good salesman. At times, Linda hints at the reality of their economic straits. She seems to be the one in the family most affected by the reality of their poverty. Yet, she is terribly guilty of allowing Willy to live in his world of illusion. At times when he tries to face reality, Linda places him squarely back into his fantasy world. When Willy tells Linda that people do not seem to like him and laugh at him for talking too much, Linda tells him that he is a wonderful man whom everyone likes. Perhaps Linda contributes to his illusions because she knows there is nothing else to the man.
Willy's infidelities to Linda are revealed early in the play. In a flashback, Biff remembers the time he caught Willy in his hotel room with a strange woman; after the discovery, Biff never fully trusted his father again. As Willy stands before Linda as she mends the holes in her silk stockings, his guilt takes him years back when he stood in a hotel room and gave silk stockings to his lover. Willy responds to his guilt with empty promises, saying he is going to make it all up to Linda.
Linda's character is developed in this first act. She is the traditional wife and mother, staying at home to care for her family. Linda accuses Biff and Happy of being disrespectful to their father and begs them to pay Willy more attention. Though she loves her sons, her husband's interests are her primary concern. In fact, she asks Biff not to come home again unless he learns to respect his father. Linda’s speeches in the play often represent Miller's social conscience. Her words of advice to her sons are Miller’s words of advice to the younger generation to learn to respect the individual, no matter his or her status in life. It is also a plea for people not to be discarded in their old age .
Part of the American Dream is to one day own one's own business, for the belief is that ownership will make one rich. It is part of the dream of rugged individualism as a means to success. It is not surprising that Willy dreams of owing his own business and has planted this dream in the minds of his sons. Biff wants to borrow the money from Oliver to start his own company and become successful. It is also not surprising that Willy judges his brother, Ben, to be the ideal, the symbol of the American Dream. After all, he walked into the jungle as a young man and emerged a rich gentleman four years later. Of course, Ben is dead and his been dead for a while, indicating that all was not perfect for Willy’s brother.
When Willy questions Ben, in an illusion, about his secret for success, the answer is frightening. Ben clearly tells the young Biff that one must never fight fair, especially with a stranger; as a result, he cruelly trips a young, unsuspecting Biff. Willy tries to impress his brother by sending his sons to steal lumber in order to prove that Biff and Happy are fearless boys. The pathetic philosophies of Willy and Ben are probably due in part to their own father, who was a traveling salesman, peddling musical flutes that he made. Although Willy is a salesman like him, he must sell products that belong to others, a step below the salesmanship of his father.
Willy has based his career as a salesman on being well liked. In sales, where a person does not have mastery of a body of knowledge, it is important to be able to please others, to gain their trust to buy a product. Through most of his sales life, Willy has felt successful, not because he has made much money, but because he feels like his customers in New England have liked him. Now he even questions this fact and complains about it to his wife. Reinforcing Willy’s world of illusions, Linda assures him that everyone likes Willy. The audience, however, knows this is not true. Biff does not really like his father, and even his friend Charley gets easily irritated with Willy.
It becomes obvious that Willy is jealous of Charley, who is hard working, sincere, and practical. He is also successful in life; but Charley, ironically, is the exact opposite of what Willy believes a man needs to be successful. Charley has no personal attractiveness; he is not adventurous; and he is not well liked. Yet Charley has the financial security that Willy longs for. Out of subconscious, petty jealousy, Willy insults Charley in every scene where they are together; the jealousy also prevents Willy from accepting the job offer from Charley, even though he desperately needs to work.
In the later part of the scene, Bernard is introduced as the opposite of Biff, who is a practical boy and a good student. Not surprisingly, both Biff and Willy laugh at Bernard. Biff says that Bernard is liked but not well liked. Willy discourages Biff from befriending Bernard, for he thinks he is a “worm” and an unpopular, unattractive boy. Later in the play the unattractive Bernard is shown as a successful man, while the physically attractive Biff is a complete failure.
The first act also foreshadows the suicide of the last act. Linda points out that Willy has already made a number of attempts at suicide. She even goes as far as to issue an admonition to Biff, stating that “his life is in your hands." At the end of the first act, Biff responds by taking the rubber hose from the hot water tank as a preventive measure. The irony is that Biff drives his father to suicide by making him realize the emptiness of his life. With further irony, Willy kills himself so that Biff will have a better chance in life……..