Act I (Loman Home, Present Day):
The salesman, Willy Loman, enters his home. He appears very tired and confused. Linda Loman, his wife, puts on a robe and slippers and goes downstairs. She has been asleep. Linda is mostly jovial, but represses objections to her husband. Her struggle is to support him while still trying to guide him. She worries that he smashed the car, but he says that nothing happened. He claims that he's tired to death and couldn't make it through the rest of his trip. He got only as far as Yonkers, and doesn't remember the details of the trip. He tells Linda that he kept swerving onto the shoulder of the road, but Linda thinks that it must be faulty steering in the car.
Linda says that there's no reason why he can't work in New York, but Willy says he's not needed there. Willy claims that if Frank Wagner were alive he would be in charge of New York by now, but that his son, Howard, doesn't appreciate him. Linda tells him that Happy took Biff on a double date, and that it was nice to see them shaving together. Linda reminds him not to lose his temper with Biff, but Willy claims that he simply had asked him if he was making any money. Willy says that there is an undercurrent of resentment in Biff, but Linda says that Biff admires his father. Willy calls Biff a lazy bum and says that he is lost. Willy longs for the days when their neighborhood was less developed and less crowded. He wakes up his sons Biff and Happy, both of whom are in the double bunk in the boys' bedroom.
At the beginning of the play, Arthur Miller establishes Willy Loman as a troubled and misguided man, at heart a salesman and a dreamer. He emphasizes his preoccupation with success. However, Miller makes it equally apparent that Willy Loman is not a successful man. Although in his sixties, he is still a traveling salesman bereft of any stable location or occupation, and clings only to his dreams and ideals. There is a strong core of resentment in Willy Loman's character and his actions assume a more glorious past than was actually the case. Willy sentimentalizes the neighborhood as it was years ago, and is nostalgic for his time working for Frank Wagner, especially because his former boss's son, Howard Wagner, fails to appreciate Willy. Miller presents Willy as a strong and boisterous man with great bravado but little energy to support his impression of vitality. He is perpetually weary and exhibits signs of dementia, contradicting himself and displaying some memory loss.
Linda, in contrast, shows little of Willy's boisterous intensity. Rather, she is dependable and kind, perpetually attempting to smooth out conflicts that Willy might encounter. Linda has a similar longing for an idealized past, but has learned to suppress her dreams and her dissatisfaction with her husband and sons. Miller indicates that she is a woman with deep regrets about her life; she must continually reconcile her husband with her sons, and support a man who has failed in his life's endeavor. Linda exists only in the context of her family relationships. As a mother to Biff and Happy and a husband to Willy, and must depend on them for whatever success she can grasp.
The major conflict in Death of a Salesman is between Biff Loman and his father. Even before Biff appears on stage, Linda indicates that Biff and Willy are perpetually at odds with one another because of Biff's inability to live up to his father's expectations. As Linda says, Biff is a man who has not yet "found himself." At thirty-four years old, Biff remains to some degree an adolescent. This is best demonstrated by his inability to keep a job. He and Happy still live in their old bunk beds; despite the fact that this reminds Linda of better times, it is a clear sign that neither of the sons has matured.
A major theme of the play is the lost opportunities that each of the characters face. Linda Loman, reminiscing about the days when her sons were not yet grown and had a less contentious relationship with their father, regrets the state of disarray into which her family has fallen. Willy Loman believes that if Frank Wagner had survived, he would have been given greater respect and power within the company. Willy also regrets the opportunities that have passed by Biff, whom he believes to have the capability to be a great man.
Miller uses the first segment of the play to foreshadow later plot developments. Willy worries about having trouble driving and expresses dissatisfaction with his situation at work, and Linda speaks of conflict between Willy and his sons. Each of these will become important in driving the plot and the resolution of the play.