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Death of a Salesman | Study Guide

Arthur Miller

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Act 1, Section 1

Professor Kristen Over of Northeastern Illinois University provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Act 1, Section 1 of Arthur Miller's play Death of a Salesman.

Death of a Salesman | Act 1, Section 1 | Summary


Arthur Miller did not break the play's acts into scenes. This study guide breaks down each act into sections as groups of characters change.


The play opens in the present between Willy and Linda Loman in their home.

The stage directions describe a flute that plays in the background as Act 1 begins. The audience sees the Lomans' "small, fragile-seeming" home in Brooklyn, New York. The house is shadowed and physically crowded by the large apartment buildings around it.

Late at night, Willy Loman returns from a business trip earlier than expected. Linda, his wife, gets out of bed to greet him. Willy confesses that he was unable to make any sales and became confused on his trip, forgetting that he was driving and veering off the road—something that has become a pattern. Willy's confusion will only increase as the play continues. His wife, ignoring his confusion, encourages him to talk to his boss about getting a stationary job in the corporate office, since he has been working for the company for many years and deserves it.

Willy and his wife then discuss their son Biff, who has recently returned to New York from the West and is asleep upstairs along with his brother, Happy. The couple talks about Biff's inability to find stable, high-paying work and the ongoing tension between Biff and Willy about what it means to be a success.


As Willy describes losing his way on the trip, he is also expressing how he has lost his way in life, admitting that he "can't seem to—keep [his] mind to it." Working only on commission now, Willy is frustrated by his inability to reach the American Dream of financial success and social recognition for which he has been striving his whole life.

The theme of Nature versus Man-Made Environment is also introduced in this first section. Willy, driving alone and lost, longs to be unfettered from the city and is drawn to nature, where "the trees are so thick, and the sun is warm." Back at his home, Willy complains of how boxed in they are with car-lined streets where "you can't raise a carrot in the back yard." The desire to grow something in nature circles back at the end of the play when a delusional Willy tries to plant a garden in his dark city yard.

Linda's unwavering love and devotion are clear from the beginning of the play, where the stage directions describe how "she more than loves him, she admires him," because she shares Willy's hopes and dreams. This description provides an early clue regarding Linda's intentional blindness to Willy's true nature.

As is his tendency, Willy moves from despairing about himself to judging others, in this case his son Biff. The ongoing tension between Willy and his son Biff over what it means to be successful becomes clear as Willy and Linda reflect on an argument the two men had earlier that day. Willy is unable to accept, despite his own struggles with the American Dream, that his son may not fit the mold his father wants to force him into. Willy accuses Biff of being lazy, while his mother claims he is merely lost.

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