As the play opens, Willy Loman, who has been a traveling salesman for 35 years, returns home after having just left for a sales trip to New England. He tells his wife Linda that he can no longer go on the road because he cannot keep his mind on driving. At the same time, his elder son Biff is visiting the Brooklyn home after being away for many years. Willy reminisces about Biff’s potential, 14 years earlier, when he was playing high school football and being offered athletic scholarships by numerous university teams. When we meet Biff, he is discussing future job prospects with his younger brother Happy.
Biff considers going to see Bill Oliver, a man for whom he had worked many years earlier, and asking him for a loan to get started in a sporting goods business. Biff and Happy tell Willy of this plan, and he gets very excited with the idea. He emphasizes that Oliver really liked Biff and we begin to see Willy’s fixation with the idea that one only needs personal attractiveness to be successful in the business world. In fact, Willy decides that he too will see his boss the following day and ask for a New York position rather than a traveling job.
The first day ends with the bright hope that Willy, Biff and Happy will achieve their goals for the following day. The three of them plan to meet for dinner after they have been to their respective meetings. Unfortunately, Willy is not successful in his meeting with Howard Wagner, his current boss and son of the deceased owner. In fact, Howard fires Willy because he believes the elder salesman is doing the firm harm. Willy is crestfallen and goes to see his old friend and neighbor, Charley. Charley loans Willy enough money to pay his life insurance premium.
Charley offers Willy a job, but Willy cannot bring himself to accept it. While at Charley’s office, Willy meets Bernard, Charley’s son, who has become a very successful lawyer. Bernard wonder’s why Biff lost his initiative 14 years ago. This angers Willy and causes him to reflect on the past. Biff and Happy meet in the restaurant for dinner. Biff explains that he has had some important realizations about himself. Apparently, Oliver kept him waiting all day and then could not remember who Biff was.
Biff was so upset by this turn of events that he stole Oliver’s fountain pen. This leads him to reconsider all of his previous jobs, most of which he lost because he stole from his employers. Willy arrives at the restaurant and tells Biff that he has been fired. When Biff begins to tell Willy that he stole Oliver’s pen and has been a failure all his life, Willy refuses to listen and retreats to the wash room. Biff leaves the restaurant and asks Happy to make sure Willy is all right, but Happy rejects Willy and departs with two girls he has picked up.
When Biff arrives home later in that evening, Linda is furious with him for deserting his father. Willy is in the backyard planting seeds and holding an imaginary conversation with his dead brother, Ben, who had been a very successful man. In the end, Willy commits suicide. He dies in a car accident, an attempt to leave his life insurance money to his sons, so that they could succeed in life. He hoped that he could give something to them so that they would not turn out to be failures like him.