The story of Death of a Salesman is told partly through the mind and memory of Willy Loman, the protagonist. The times of the play’s action fluctuate between 1942 and 1928, making a simple narration of plot impossible and probably not very meaningful, thus a summary of the action, not necessarily in the order of the play, is much more helpful:
Willy Loman has been a traveling salesman for thirty-four years, and he likes to think of himself as being vital to the New England territory he works. He constantly compares himself to Dave Singleton, a salesman who would go into a town, pick up a phone, and place many orders without ever leaving his hotel room. When Dave died, people from all over the country came to his funeral.
But, as the play opens, Willy has just come back home after having left for New England that morning. He tells his wife, Linda, that he just can’t seem to keep his mind on driving anymore. He asks about his son, Biff, who has just come home for a visit after being away for a long time. Willy thinks about Biff when Biff was a senior in high school some fourteen years ago. Biff was playing in a great football game, and people were coming from all over the country to offer him scholarships. But then something happened to Biff. He never fulfilled the potential Willy felt he had. Later, Willy reveals through his disjointed memories that Biff had caught him with another woman in his motel room in Boston. After this episode, Biff seemed to hold a grudge against his father and could never again bring himself to trust him.
Now, after some fourteen years of wandering and working odd jobs, Biff returns home. He and his brother, Happy, decide to ask Bill Oliver, whom Biff used to work for, for a loan of $10,000 to begin a business of their own. The boys tell Willy about their plans, and Willy thinks that together the two could absolutely conquer the world. He goes on to explain that the important thing in life is to be well-liked.
The next day, Willy is to meet the boys for dinner in a restaurant. He is so pleased to have his boys with him that he decides to ask his boss for an office job in New York City, to get him off the road. But his boss tells him there is no room, and then fires him instead. Thus, suddenly, Willy’s day has reversed, and he has to go to an old friend, Charley, to borrow enough money to pay his insurance premium. We then find out that Willy has been borrowing fifty dollars a week from Charley for quite some time, and then pretending that this amount is his salary.
Trying to explain that he has been living an illusion, Biff meets Happy in the restaurant early, and claims he wants to make everyone (especially Willy) understand Biff is not the man Willy thinks he is. But when Willy arrives, he tells the boys that he has been fired and he refuses to listen to Biff’s story. Willy simply pretends that Biff has another appointment the following day. Willy gets furious and is about to make a scene. Suddenly, when Willy goes to the bathroom, Biff, out of frustration, leaves the restaurant. Happy, who has picked up two girls, follows him and leaves Willy alone.
Later that night, Biff comes home and finds Willy out in the backyard, apparently losing his wits planting seeds and talking to his brother, Ben, who has been dead for nine months. Biff explains to Willy that it would be best if they break with each other and never see one another again. He tries once again to explain that he is no leader of men and that he is a common person. But Willy refuses to believe him and tells Biff once again how great he could be. He then resolves on suicide, which he has hinted at before, because with $20,000 in insurance benefits, Biff could be such a magnificent person. Thus, Willy commits suicide. But he dies a forgotten man, and nobody but his family attends the funeral.