Notes on Characters from Death of a Salesman

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Death of a Salesman Major Characters

Willy Loman: Main character of the play. Willy Loman is a traveling salesman who grew up inspired by the success of his craftsman/salesman father who left his family for Alaska. His older brother, Ben, who also left when Willy was young, and made a fortune in the diamond mines of Africa when he was only 21 years old, is another measuring stick for Willy. Willy believes that success comes from being well liked, and he instilled this belief in his sons, Biff and Happy, who were his brightest hopes in life. Although Willy encouraged their success, he neglected to instill any sense of integrity or morality in the boys, and it leads to their ultimate failure in his eyes. As Willy grows older and realizes that he has failed to meet his own expectations as a salesman, his life seems wasted. His sons are mediocre bums; he’s no longer able to provide for his family; no one knows him anymore, and he feels like a failure. He decides that the best thing he can do for his family is to award them the money from his life insurance policy by killing himself.

Linda Loman: Willy’s wife, mother of Biff, and Happy. Linda is Willy Loman’s link to reality. She sees what her husband is going through, and she supports him and loves him despite his many failures and weakness. She realizes that Willy is just an ordinary man, but she doesn’t fault him for it. If anything, she loves him more because of it. She protects him when Biff fights with him, defends him to her sons who think he’s going crazy, and she respects him enough to pretend she doesn’t know that he’s trying to kill himself and that he’s lost his salary. Linda tries to protect Willy from himself, but her efforts are in vain.

Biff Loman: Willy’s oldest son. Biff is Willy’s pride and joy. As the oldest son, Biff is the personification of all of Willy’s dreams, and as a teenager, he worshipped his father. Biff was everything Willy wanted him to be -- star athlete, popular with the girls, well liked all around. Willy ignored his petty thefts because he was a hometown hero. Being well liked wasn’t enough to help Biff graduate from high school; failing his math class was the beginning of his adult failures, and his inability to hold a job. When Biff went to Boston to tell his father that he wasn’t graduating, and ask him to talk to his Math teacher, he found Willy with another woman. This crushed Biff’s image of his father; Willy’s successful life has been only been a lie. Their relationship falls apart. As an adult, Biff drifted from job to job, a failure in Willy’s eyes; after Biff comes home and ruins another opportunity at success, he realizes that his life has been a lie; he no longer wants to try to become something he‘s not. Biff does not want to end up like his father.

Happy Loman: Willy’s youngest son. Happy was often ignored by his parents while growing up. Growing up in Biff’s shadow, Happy was always vying for Willy’s attention, but never really got it. As an adult, Willy and Linda seem to brush him off in much the same way they did when he was younger. Although Hap grows up to become more financially successful than his older brother, his father still focuses his attention only on Biff. Hap is a salesman who seduces the fiancees of store executives and takes bribes from manufacturers. He has his own apartment, car, and plenty of women, and yet he is still unhappy. He insists on fighting his way through the business world as a way to honor Willy, even though he may never go further than his current position as an assistant’s assistant.

Charley: Willy’s neighbor and long-time friend. Charley is a businessman who has lived next door to Willy for a long time. Although Willy is condescending to him, Charley is willing to help Willy through a rough spot. When Willy loses his salary, Charley loans him money every week so that Linda won’t know what’s happened. Charley offers Willy a job, but Willy is too proud to take it. Charley is an honest man who warns Willy about the consequences of his boys’ behavior: stealing supplies from construction sites, etc. Willy thinks Charley is ignorant because he is not well liked. Charley turns out to be the only friend Willy has.

Ben Loman: Willy’s older brother. Ben left the family to search for his father in Alaska when Willy was almost four. Ben ended up in Africa and got rich off of the diamond mines by the time he was twenty-one. He only visited Willy twice (briefly) on his way to and from Alaska. He encouraged Willy to keep teaching the boys to steal and to be fearless, but acts condescending towards Willy, because he is an unsuccessful salesman. Willy remembers Ben as a missed opportunity because Willy didn’t go to Alaska with him. Ben is a symbol of all that Willy could have been but missed out on.

Minor Characters

Bernard: Charley’s son. Bernard is the nerdy neighbor who helped Biff study and gave him the answers on tests. Bernard kept warning Biff that he wouldn’t graduate if he didn’t study for his math test, but Biff and Willy both ignored him and made fun of him for being nerdy. Willy insisted that because Bernard was not well liked, he would not do well for himself when he grew up. But when Willy runs into Bernard as an adult, Bernard is a successful lawyer who is arguing a case before the Supreme Court, while Biff, who was well liked, is a bum.

The Woman: Willy’s out-of-town mistress. The Woman was a secretary for a store that Willy sold to, and she would put him through to see the buyers. Willy bought her silk stockings when he saw her, and seeing Linda mending her own because it is too expensive to buy a new pair, racks Willy with the guilt of his infidelity. It was after Biff discovered Willy with the Woman, that Willy and his son grew apart. Willy’s infidelity to his mother crushed Biff, and after realizing his dad was a fake, Biff gave up on summer school and the University of Virginia.

Howard Wagner: Willy’s boss. Wagner was the son of Willy’s original employer, and because he does not have a position for him in New York, Willy had to drive to New England. He later demotes Willy, who must work strictly on commission like a beginning salesman. Willy goes to Wagner to request a salaried position in New York, and Wagner fires him.

Bill Oliver: One of Biff’s old employers. Biff believes he was a salesman for Oliver a long time ago, but he quit because Oliver suspected that he stole a carton of basketballs. When he left, Biff claims that Oliver told him to come see him if he ever needed anything, and so years later, Biff expects that Oliver will loan him ten thousand dollars to start a sporting goods store. When Biff meets with him, Oliver doesn’t even remember Biff because Biff was only a shipping clerk, and Biff, unable to control himself, steals Oliver’s fountain pen and runs out of the office. It is this moment that makes him realize his whole life has been a fraud.

Willy’s Father: Willy’s father made and sold flutes across the country; he would take his family with him when he traveled by wagon to sell his flutes. One day he abandoned them and went to Alaska. Ben, Willy’s older brother, went after him, but ended up in Africa. Willy feels as if he’s missed out on a great deal because he never talked to his father. He makes his father into a myth of courage and success and measures himself against those imagined standards, but always seems to fall short.

Dave Singleman: Dave Singleman was an 84-year-old traveling salesman who made sales from his hotel room because he was so well known and well liked. When he died, buyers and salesman from all over New England attended his funeral. This is the life Willy wishes for. Singleman was his inspiration for being a salesman and this dream was the reason he went into sales and didn‘t leave for Alaska when his brother urged him to.

The Girls: The girls are two women (one a covergirl) Hap picked up at Frank’s Chop House, where he and Biff took Willy for dinner. While Willy was in the restroom, Biff took off and Hap and the girls followed him, leaving Willy alone and abandoned in the restaurant. Linda considered the boys abandoning their father at the restaurant the final straw, and when they came home, she told them both to leave and not to come back.

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