A sixty year old salesman living in Brooklyn, Willy Loman is a gregarious, mercurial man with powerful aspirations to success. However, after thirty-five years working as a traveling salesman throughout New England, Willy Loman feels defeated by his lack of success and difficult family life. Although he has a dutiful wife, his relationship with his oldest son, Biff, is strained by Biff's continual failures. As a salesman, Willy Loman focuses on personal details over actual measures of success, believing that it is personality and not high returns that garner success in the business world.
The thirty-four year old son of Willy Loman, Biff was once a star high school athlete with a scholarship to UVA. But he never attended college nor graduated from high school, after refusing to attend summer school to make up a flunked math class. He did this primarily out of spite after finding out that his father was having an affair with a woman in Boston. Since then, Biff has been a continual failure, stealing at every job and even spending time in jail. Despite his failures and anger toward his father, Biff still has great concern for what his father thinks of him, and the conflict between the two characters drives the narrative of the play.
The dutiful, obedient wife to Willy and mother of Biff and Happy, Linda Loman is the one person who supports Willy Loman, despite his often reprehensible treatment of her. She is a woman who has aged greatly because of her difficult life with her husband, whose hallucinations and erratic behavior she contends with alone. She is the moral center of the play, occasionally stern and not afraid to confront her sons about their poor treatment of their father.
The younger of the two Loman sons, Happy Loman is seemingly content and successful, with a steady career and none of the obvious marks of failure that his older brother displays. Happy, however, is not content with his more stable life, because he has never risked failure or striven for any real measure of success. Happy is a compulsive womanizer who treats women purely as sex objects and has little respect for the many women whom he seduces.
The Lomans' next door neighbor and father of Bernard, Charley is a good businessman, exemplifying the success that Willy is unable to achieve. Although Willy claims that Charley is a man who is "liked, but not well-liked," he owns his own business and is respected and admired. He and Willy have a contentious relationship, but Charley is nevertheless Willy's only friend.
Bernard is Charley's only son. He is intelligent and industrious but lacks the gregarious personality of either of the Loman sons. It is this absence of spirit that makes Willy believe that Bernard will never be a true success in the business world, but Bernard proves himself to be far more successful than Willy imagined. As a grown-up, he is a lawyer preparing to argue a case in front of the Supreme Court.
Willy's older brother, Ben left home at seventeen to find their father in Alaska, but ended up in Africa, where he found diamond mines and came out of the jungle at twenty-one an incredibly rich man. Although Ben died several weeks before the time at which the play is set, he often appears in Willy's hallucinations, carrying a valise and umbrella. Ben represents the fantastic success for which Willy has always hoped but can never seem to achieve.
The thirty-six year old son of Frank Wagner, Willy Loman's former boss, Howard now occupies the same position as his late father. Although Willy was the one who named Howard, Howard is forced to fire Willy for his erratic behavior. Howard is preoccupied with technology; when Willy meets with his new boss, he spends most of the meeting demonstrating his new wire recorder.
Stanley is the waiter at the restaurant where Willy meets his sons. He helps Willy home after Biff and Happy leave their father there.
An assistant in a company in Boston with which Willy does business, this nameless character has a continuing affair with Willy. The Woman claims that Willy ruined her and did not live up to his promises to her. When Biff finds the Woman in Willy's hotel room, he begins his course of self-destructive behavior.
An attractive young woman at the restaurant, who serves the play by allowing Happy to demonstrate his womanizing and seduction habits.
Death of a Salesman Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Death of a Salesman is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
Themes is Death of a Salesman include gender relations, the dangers of modernity, insanity, nostalgia, and opportunity. For a detailed look at these themes, simply follow the link to Gradesaver's theme page for the unit.