Arthur Miller's Pulitzer Prize winning play of 1949 is widely considered to a cornerstone of American letters. A caustic attack on the "American Dream" of materialism, Death of a Salesman is a three-act play (two acts and a "requiem"), centering on the main character, Willy Loman.
At age sixty-three, Willy has been a traveling salesman all his life. Despite his hard work and grueling schedule, the Lomans have always lived on the edge of poverty and Willy has always been an underling in his company. Yet Willy constantly tells himself and his family that the "big break" he deserves is just around the corner. He has raised his two sons, Biff and Happy, to also believe that somehow life has cheated them and insists that one day they will get their due. Linda, Willy's dutiful wife, lives under the thin veneer of denial that her husband has so long tried to keep from collapsing.
Willy finds that because of changing economic conditions the company has no further need for his services. Willy is devastated and is unable to understand how his employer could just cast him aside after so many years of faithful service. In Act 1, Willy states his work ethic clearly when he says that a man who makes his appearance in the business world is the man who gets ahead. Willy’s old boss has died, leaving his son the company. The new owner sees Willy as having outlived his usefulness to the company. Willy is terminated and soon discovers that he is unable to find other similar employment.
Despite his protests otherwise, Willy knows he is a failure. He begins to slowly kill himself by inhaling gas fumes from a hose in the garage, an act that relieves his mental anguish and gives him a brief high. The gas also muddles Willy's mind, conflating past, present, and future. This shifting through time and space helps the reader/audience see how much pressure there has been on this simple man to be accepted in the only way he thinks is valuable: to make money. He wants desperately to be "well liked," and without the status of being a manager who makes more money, the dream is impossible. He dies as he has lived, a failure in the eyes of society.