Opening scene to Willy’s first daydream
The play begins on a Monday evening at the Loman family home in Brooklyn. After some light changes on stage and ambient flute music (the first instance of a motif connected to Willy Loman’s faint memory of his father, who was once a flute-maker and salesman), Willy, a sixty-three-year-old traveling salesman, returns home early from a trip, apparently exhausted. His wife, Linda, gets out of bed to greet him. She asks if he had an automobile accident, since he once drove off a bridge into a river. Irritated, he replies that nothing happened. Willy explains that he kept falling into a trance while driving—he reveals later that he almost hit a boy. Linda urges him to ask his employer, Howard Wagner, for a non-traveling job in New York City. Willy’s two adult sons, Biff and Happy, are visiting. Before he left that morning, Willy criticized Biff for working at manual labor on farms and horse ranches in the West. The argument that ensued was left unresolved. Willy says that his thirty-four-year-old son is a lazy bum. Shortly thereafter, he declares that Biff is anything but lazy. Willy’s habit of contradicting himself becomes quickly apparent in his conversation with Linda.
Willy’s loud rambling wakes his sons. They speculate that he had another accident. Linda returns to bed while Willy goes to the kitchen to get something to eat. Happy and Biff reminisce about the good old days when they were young. Although Happy, thirty-two, is younger than Biff, he is more confident and more successful. Biff seems worn, apprehensive, and confused. Happy is worried about Willy’s habit of talking to himself. Most of the time, Happy observes, Willy talks to the absent Biff about his disappointment in Biff’s unsteadiness. Biff hopped from job to job after high school and is concerned that he has “waste[d] his life.” He is disappointed in himself and in the disparity between his life and the notions of value and success with which Willy indoctrinated him as a boy. Happy has a steady job in New York, but the rat race does not satisfy him. He and Biff fantasize briefly about going out west together. However, Happy still longs to become an important executive. He sleeps with the girlfriends and fiancées of his superiors and often takes bribes in an attempt to climb the corporate ladder from his position as an assistant to the assistant buyer in a department store.
Biff plans to ask Bill Oliver, an old employer, for a loan to buy a ranch. He remembers that Oliver thought highly of him and offered to help him anytime. He wonders if Oliver still thinks that he stole a carton of basketballs while he was working at his store. Happy encourages his brother, commenting that Biff is “well liked”—a sure predictor of success in the Loman household. The boys are disgusted to hear Willy talking to himself downstairs. They try to go to sleep.
It is important to note that much of the play’s action takes place in Willy’s home. In the past, the Brooklyn neighborhood in which the Lomans live was nicely removed from the bustle of New York City. There was space within the neighborhood for expansion and for a garden. When Willy and Linda purchased it, it represented the ultimate expression of Willy’s hopes for the future. Now, however, the house is hemmed in by apartment buildings on all sides, and sunlight barely reaches their yard. Their abode has come to represent the reduction of Willy’s hopes, even though, ironically, his mortgage payments are almost complete. Just as the house is besieged by apartment buildings, Willy’s ego is besieged by doubts and mounting evidence that he will never experience the fame and fortune promised by the American Dream.
Willy’s reality profoundly conflicts with his hopes. Throughout his life, he has constructed elaborate fantasies to deny the mounting evidence of his failure to fulfill his desires and expectations. By the time the play opens, Willy suffers from crippling self-delusion. His consciousness is so fractured that he cannot even maintain a consistent fantasy. In one moment, he calls Biff a lazy bum. In the next, he says that Biff is anything but lazy. His later assessment of the family car is similarly contradictory—one moment he calls it a piece of trash, the next “the finest car ever built.” Labeling Biff a lazy bum allows Willy to deflect Linda’s criticism of his harangue against Biff’s lack of material success, ambition, and focus. Denying Biff’s laziness enables Willy to hold onto the hope that Biff will someday, in some capacity, fulfill his expectations of him. Willy changes his interpretation of reality according to his psychological needs at the moment. He is likewise able to reimagine decisive moments in his past in his later daydreams. Ironically, he asks Linda angrily why he is “always being contradicted,” when it is usually he who contradicts himself from moment to moment.
The opening pages of the play introduce the strangely affected and stilted tone of the dialogue, which transcends the 1950s idiom of nonspecific pet names (an ungendered “pal” or “kid” for adult and child alike) and dated metaphors, vocabulary, and slang. Some critics cite the driving, emphatic, repetitive diction (“Maybe it’s your glasses. You never went for your new glasses”; “I’m the New England man. I’m vital in New England”) and persistent vexed questioning (“Why do you get American when I like Swiss?” “How can they whip cheese?”) as a particularly Jewish-American idiom, but the stylization of the speech serves a much more immediate end than stereotype or bigotry. Miller intended the singsong melodies of his often miserable and conflicted characters to parallel the complex struggle of a family with a skewed version of the American Dream trying to support itself. The dialogue’s crooked, blunt lyricism of stuttering diction occasionally rises even to the level of the grotesque and inarticulate, as do the characters themselves. Miller himself claims in his autobiography that the characters in Death of a Salesman speak in a stylized manner “to lift the experience into emergency speech of an unabashedly open kind rather than to proceed by the crabbed dramatic hints and pretexts of the ‘natural.’ ”
In the kitchen, Willy is lost in a memory, which is acted out onstage. He is remembering a time when Biff and Happy, as young boys, helped him wash the car. Happy tries to get Willy's attention, but Willy is focused on Biff, who is playing with a new football. When Willy asks where he got it, Biff says he stole it from the locker room. Willy laughs, saying that if anyone less popular than Biff took that ball, there would be an uproar. He then goes on to tell the boys how well liked he is when he goes on business trips: he has coffee with the Mayor of Providence, and the police protect his car on any street in New England. He says he will soon open a bigger, more successful business than that owned by their neighbor, Charley, because he is better liked than Charley.
Throughout the play Willy gets lost in his memories. At first it seems these memories of better times provide him with solace. But it quickly becomes clear that the memories actually trace the seeds of his and his family's present troubles. Here, Willy clearly favors Biff over Happy, and also clearly instills in his sons the idea that being well-liked is more important than character. To make himself look successful, he lies to his sons about his stature as a salesman on the road.