He's liked... but not well-liked.
—Willy Loman, Death of a Salesman
Once upon a time, playwright Arthur Miller (some time husband of Marilyn Monroe) set out to disprove one of the fundamental theories about the Tragic Hero -- specifically, that the Tragic Hero must be royalty, nobility, or some other type of great man who has far to fall (which he does) and much to lose (which, again, he does). Miller intended to write a play with an Every Man, a low man, as the Tragic Hero. He may instead have created an entirely different archetype, the "pathetic hero". Either way, in doing so, he wrote what is often considered the greatest American play.
Willy Loman is an aging, washed-up salesman obsessed with the concept of greatness and convinced that being liked is the most important thing. Biff is his younger but equally washed-up son, once a high school sports hero with a bright future, now a perennially unemployed loser. The play follows the family's attempts to make one last grab at the American Dream.
It's a very stagy play, since it's from Willy's dreamy, hallucination-and-flashback-ridden perspective. They managed to turn it into a very faithful, satisfactory movie, with Dustin Hoffman as Willy and John Malkovich as Biff.
- The All-American Boy: Biff as a kid. As he grows up, not so much.
- Always Someone Better: Uncle Ben is this to Willy; he seems to symbolize "greatness" that way.
- American Dream: Deconstructed as the pursuit of this is ultimately what leads to Willy and his sons' failures. In the end, Biff rejects the American Dream, convinced that it will only lead him to ruin.
- Anachronic Order: The past and present get put in a blender, and set to puree. There aren't even any scene changes between them, just sepia-toned or other lighting switching on. This is probably because Willy is starting to go insane.
- Also, the actors stop caring about the walls in flashbacks.
- An Aesop: You don't have to follow the American Dream, just find something you want to do and be good at it.
- Anti-Hero: Willy Loman, on the Sliding Scale of Anti-Heroes, is a shining example of a Type I.
- Broken Pedestal: Biff idolized his father, until he found out that he's cheating on his wife.
- Butt Monkey: Willy, and by extension, the average working man everywhere. See: This Loser Is You.
- Calling the Old Man Out: Biff has essentially been doing this non-stop, deliberately (if subconsciously) striving to disappoint his father.
- Casanova: Happy is an inveterate womanizer. He's certainly not above calling on call girls.
- Catch Phrase: (several characters have them, in various permutations)
Uncle Ben: "When I walked into the jungle I was seventeen, and when I walked out I was twenty-one. *laughs* And by God, I was rich!"
- Completely Missing the Point: The lesson Happy takes from events is not the lesson he should have taken.
- Downer Ending: Willy dies, the rest of the Loman family continues its proud tradition of sucking at life.
- Hope Spot: Biff gets out like his Uncle Ben before him.
- Dramatically Missing the Point: Happy, thinking he can just do better than his father at this career.
- Driven to Suicide: Willy.
- The Dutiful Son: Happy tries to be, but as Willy, Linda, and Biff all note, he's far more interested in being a "philandering bum."
- Exactly What It Says on the Tin: It's about the events leading up to the death of a salesman.
- Fatal Flaw: Willy is in love with a dream and never recognizes that it doesn't match up to reality. He obsesses over irrelevancies and his own (prominent, but ultimately meaningless) flaws rather than the false promises of society that lead him to where he is.
- Flashback Effects: The stage instructions explain how Willy's imagination works on stage.
"Whenever the action is in the present the actors observe the imaginary wall-lines, entering the house only through its door at the left. But in the scenes of the past these boundaries are broken and characters enter or leave a room by stepping 'through' a wall onto the fore-stage."
- Foregone Conclusion: Willy's a salesman. Guess what? He dies.
- Some readers, however, expect the title to be a metaphor, or otherwise consider it too obvious of a giveaway, so they will get mad if you ruin the surprise.
- Future Loser: Young Biff
- Glory Days: Willy is always hearkening back to his. They were probably not as glorious as he remembers now, though.
- The Hero Dies: Durrr...
- Heroic BSOD: Young Biff has one when he catches Willy cheating on Linda.
- Hollywood Nerd: Bernard.
- I Coulda Been a Contender: Willy is convinced that he could have been running the New York office if his old boss hadn't died.
- Immediate Self Contradiction: Willy Loman falls prey to this trope, calling Biff a "lazy bum" and then later saying "There's one thing about Biff—he's not lazy."
- I Resemble That Remark: After Linda tells Willy he has to control his temper with Biff.
Willy: When the hell did I lose my temper? I simply asked him if he was making any money. Is that a criticism?
- Jaded Washout: Willy Loman
- Jerk Jock: Young Biff.
- Know When to Fold'Em: Willy doesn't. He's really not cut out to be a salesman at all and would have had a far better life as a construction tradesman. On the other hand, this is the lesson that Biff learns by the end of the play.
- Leitmotif: The stage directions specify a flute tune at the start of flashbacks as part of Painting the Medium.
- Lonely Funeral: For Willy. He was liked... but not well-liked.
- Meaningful Name: People frequently interpret Loman as "low man", but actually Miller took the name from The Testament of Dr. Mabuse: "What the name really means to me is a terror-stricken man calling into the void for help that will never come."
- Willy's "hero" is salesman "Dave Singleman" who devotes his whole life to selling, living and dying a single man.
- Subverted with "Happy" who never does seem to be truly happy.
- The Mistress
- No Name Given: Willy's mistress is only called "The Woman".
- Not Now, Kiddo: Bernard, warning Biff that he needs to study and getting brushed off by Willy.
- Only Sane Woman: Linda is by far the most stable of the play's characters. Biff is as well, but to a lesser extent as he's still Desperately Looking for a Purpose In Life.
- Parental Favoritism: Willy has a tendency to ignore Happy -- Biff is the one his hopes are invested in.
- Popular Is Dumb: Unpopular but studious Bernard becomes successful, but popularity-obsessed Willy and Biff fail in the real world.
- Pride: Willy cannot accept the idea that he, and more importantly Biff, are not great men but just average Joes.
- Proper Lady: Linda is Willy's Housewife and tries to be supportive.
- Stepford Smiler: Happy (hence the name).
- Stocking Filler: The Woman.
You promised me stockings, Willy!
- Stupid Sacrifice: Willy is repeatedly offered a different job by his neighbor Charlie but always stubbornly refuses.
- This Loser Is You
- Title Drop: According to Willy, Dave Singleman "died the death of a salesman".
- Tragic Dream: The whole point of the play.
- Tragic Hero: Unlike a Tragic Hero, Willy Loman is a "pathetic hero" because he learns nothing from his ordeal or mistakes, maintaining his belief in the power of popularity to the end, nor does his death somehow make life better for those he leaves behind (as his hallucination of his dead brother tells him, they won't honor his insurance policy in the case of a suicide). But because of the play's popularity, it took Miller years of defending his success in creating a Tragic Hero out of the common man to admit he failed with Willy Loman and that Biff really should have been the protagonist (especially since he does learn something).
- Unconfessed Unemployment: Willy has a hard time admitting to his wife he's out of a job.
- The Unfavorite: Happy Loman.
- "Well Done, Son" Guy: Young Biff but he loses faith in his father, and in life, when he catches Willy in an affair.
- Wham! Line: "Pop, I'm a dime a dozen and so are you!"
- Who's Laughing Now?: Bernard is, once he becomes a successful high-flying lawyer. Willy Loman, who once looked down on him, comes crawling to him for help.
- Averted in that Bernard is not cruel or condescending, and gives Willy advice.
- Yank the Dog's Chain: For just a moment, it looks like Biff is going to get a job and sort out his life. But no.
- This turns out for the best though, since it helps him realize what he wants in life and not be trapped in a delusion like Willy.
- Your Cheating Heart