Information taken from: http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/salesman/context.html

Link to a copy of the play here

…To me the tragedy of Willy Loman is that he gave his life, or sold it, in order to justify the waste of it. It is the tragedy of a man who did believe that he alone was not meeting the qualifications laid down for mankind by those clean-shaven frontiersmen who inhabit the peaks of broadcasting and advertising offices. From those forests of canned goods high up near the sky, he heard the thundering command to succeed as it ricocheted down the newspaper-lined canyons of his city, heard not a human voice, but a wind of a voice to which no human can reply in kind, except to stare into the mirror at a failure.
Arthur Miller, “The ‘Salesman’ Has a Birthday,” The New York Times, February 5, 1950

Key Facts

full title · Death of a Salesman: Certain Private Conversations in Two Acts and a Requiem
author · Arthur Miller
type of work · Play
genre · Tragedy, social commentary, family drama
language · English (with emphasis on middle-class American lingo)
time and place written · Six weeks in 1948, in a shed in Connecticut
date of first publication · 1949
original publisher · The Viking Press
climax · The scene in Frank’s Chop House and Biff’s final confrontation with Willy at home
protagonists · Willy Loman, Biff Loman
antagonists · Biff Loman, Willy Loman, the American Dream
setting (time) · “Today,” that is, the present; either the late 1940s or the time period in which the play is being produced, with “daydreams” into Willy’s past; all of the action takes place during a twenty-four-hour period between Monday night and Tuesday night, except the “Requiem,” which takes place, presumably, a few days after Willy’s funeral
setting (place) · According to the stage directions, “Willy Loman’s house and yard [in Brooklyn] and . . . various places he visits in . . . New York and Boston”
falling action · The “Requiem” section, although the play is not really structured as a classical drama
tense · Present
foreshadowing · Willy’s flute theme foreshadows the revelation of his father’s occupation and abandonment; Willy’s preoccupation with Linda’s stockings foreshadows his affair with The Woman; Willy’s automobile accident before the start of Act I foreshadows his death at the end of Act II
tone · The tone of Miller’s stage directions and dialogue ranges from sincere to parodying, but, in general, the treatment is tender, though at times brutally honest, toward Willy’s plight
themes · The American Dream; abandonment; betrayal
motifs · Mythic figures; the American West; Alaska; the African jungle
symbols · Seeds; diamonds; Linda’s and The Woman’s stockings; the rubber hose


Characters
Willy Loman - An insecure, self-deluded traveling salesman. Willy believes wholeheartedly in the American Dream of easy success and wealth, but he never achieves it. Nor do his sons fulfill his hope that they will succeed where he has failed. When Willy’s illusions begin to fail under the pressing realities of his life, his mental health begins to unravel. The overwhelming tensions caused by this disparity, as well as those caused by the societal imperatives that drive Willy, form the essential conflict of Death of a Salesman.

Biff Loman - Willy’s thirty-four-year-old elder son. Biff led a charmed life in high school as a football star with scholarship prospects, good male friends, and fawning female admirers. He failed math, however, and did not have enough credits to graduate. Since then, his kleptomania has gotten him fired from every job that he has held. Biff represents Willy’s vulnerable, poetic, tragic side. He cannot ignore his instincts, which tell him to abandon Willy’s paralyzing dreams and move out West to work with his hands. He ultimately fails to reconcile his life with Willy’s expectations of him.

Linda Loman - Willy’s loyal, loving wife. Linda suffers through Willy’s grandiose dreams and self-delusions. Occasionally, she seems to be taken in by Willy’s self-deluded hopes for future glory and success, but at other times, she seems far more realistic and less fragile than her husband. She has nurtured the family through all of Willy’s misguided attempts at success, and her emotional strength and perseverance support Willy until his collapse.

Happy Loman - Willy’s thirty-two-year-old younger son. Happy has lived in Biff’s shadow all of his life, but he compensates by nurturing his relentless sex drive and professional ambition. Happy represents Willy’s sense of self-importance, ambition, and blind servitude to societal expectations. Although he works as an assistant to an assistant buyer in a department store, Happy presents himself as supremely important. Additionally, he practices bad business ethics and sleeps with the girlfriends of his superiors.

Charley - Willy’s next-door neighbor. Charley owns a successful business and his son, Bernard, is a wealthy, important lawyer. Willy is jealous of Charley’s success. Charley gives Willy money to pay his bills, and Willy reveals at one point, choking back tears, that Charley is his only friend.

Bernard - Bernard is Charley’s son and an important, successful lawyer. Although Willy used to mock Bernard for studying hard, Bernard always loved Willy’s sons dearly and regarded Biff as a hero. Bernard’s success is difficult for Willy to accept because his own sons’ lives do not measure up.

Ben - Willy’s wealthy older brother. Ben has recently died and appears only in Willy’s “daydreams.” Willy regards Ben as a symbol of the success that he so desperately craves for himself and his sons.

The Woman - Willy’s mistress when Happy and Biff were in high school. The Woman’s attention and admiration boost Willy’s fragile ego. When Biff catches Willy in his hotel room with The Woman, he loses faith in his father, and his dream of passing math and going to college dies.

Howard Wagner - Willy’s boss. Howard inherited the company from his father, whom Willy regarded as “a masterful man” and “a prince.” Though much younger than Willy, Howard treats Willy with condescension and eventually fires him, despite Willy’s wounded assertions that he named Howard at his birth.

Stanley - A waiter at Frank’s Chop House. Stanley and Happy seem to be friends, or at least acquaintances, and they banter about and ogle Miss Forsythe together before Biff and Willy arrive at the restaurant.

Miss Forsythe and Letta - Two young women whom Happy and Biff meet at Frank’s Chop House. It seems likely that Miss Forsythe and Letta are prostitutes, judging from Happy’s repeated comments about their moral character and the fact that they are “on call.”

Jenny - Charley’s secretary.

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Themes

The American Dream
Willy believes wholeheartedly in what he considers the promise of the American Dream—that a “well liked” and “personally attractive” man in business will indubitably and deservedly acquire the material comforts offered by modern American life. Oddly, his fixation with the superficial qualities of attractiveness and likeability is at odds with a more gritty, more rewarding understanding of the American Dream that identifies hard work without complaint as the key to success. Willy’s interpretation of likeability is superficial—he childishly dislikes Bernard because he considers Bernard a nerd. Willy’s blind faith in his stunted version of the American Dream leads to his rapid psychological decline when he is unable to accept the disparity between the Dream and his own life.

Abandonment
Willy’s life charts a course from one abandonment to the next, leaving him in greater despair each time. Willy’s father leaves him and Ben when Willy is very young, leaving Willy neither a tangible (money) nor an intangible (history) legacy. Ben eventually departs for Alaska, leaving Willy to lose himself in a warped vision of the American Dream. Likely a result of these early experiences, Willy develops a fear of abandonment, which makes him want his family to conform to the American Dream. His efforts to raise perfect sons, however, reflect his inability to understand reality. The young Biff, whom Willy considers the embodiment of promise, drops Willy and Willy’s zealous ambitions for him when he finds out about Willy’s adultery. Biff’s ongoing inability to succeed in business furthers his estrangement from Willy. When, at Frank’s Chop House, Willy finally believes that Biff is on the cusp of greatness, Biff shatters Willy’s illusions and, along with Happy, abandons the deluded, babbling Willy in the washroom.

Betrayal
Willy’s primary obsession throughout the play is what he considers to be Biff’s betrayal of his ambitions for him. Willy believes that he has every right to expect Biff to fulfill the promise inherent in him. When Biff walks out on Willy’s ambitions for him, Willy takes this rejection as a personal affront (he associates it with “insult” and “spite”). Willy, after all, is a salesman, and Biff’s ego-crushing rebuff ultimately reflects Willy’s inability to sell him on the American Dream—the product in which Willy himself believes most faithfully. Willy assumes that Biff’s betrayal stems from Biff’s discovery of Willy’s affair with The Woman—a betrayal of Linda’s love. Whereas Willy feels that Biff has betrayed him, Biff feels that Willy, a “phony little fake,” has betrayed him with his unending stream of ego-stroking lies.

Motifs

Mythic Figures
Willy’s tendency to mythologize people contributes to his deluded understanding of the world. He speaks of Dave Singleman as a legend and imagines that his death must have been beautifully noble. Willy compares Biff and Happy to the mythic Greek figures Adonis and Hercules because he believes that his sons are pinnacles of “personal attractiveness” and power through “well liked”-ness; to him, they seem the very incarnation of the American Dream.
Willy’s mythologizing proves quite nearsighted, however. Willy fails to realize the hopelessness of Singleman’s lonely, on-the-job, on-the-road death. Trying to achieve what he considers to be Singleman’s heroic status, Willy commits himself to a pathetic death and meaningless legacy (even if Willy’s life insurance policy ends up paying off, Biff wants nothing to do with Willy’s ambition for him). Similarly, neither Biff nor Happy ends up leading an ideal, godlike life; while Happy does believe in the American Dream, it seems likely that he will end up no better off than the decidedly ungodlike Willy.

The American West, Alaska, and the African Jungle
These regions represent the potential of instinct to Biff and Willy. Willy’s father found success in Alaska and his brother, Ben, became rich in Africa; these exotic locales, especially when compared to Willy’s banal Brooklyn neighborhood, crystallize how Willy’s obsession with the commercial world of the city has trapped him in an unpleasant reality. Whereas Alaska and the African jungle symbolize Willy’s failure, the American West, on the other hand, symbolizes Biff’s potential. Biff realizes that he has been content only when working on farms, out in the open. His westward escape from both Willy’s delusions and the commercial world of the eastern United States suggests a nineteenth-century pioneer mentality—Biff, unlike Willy, recognizes the importance of the individual.

Symbols

Seeds
Seeds represent for Willy the opportunity to prove the worth of his labor, both as a salesman and a father. His desperate, nocturnal attempt to grow vegetables signifies his shame about barely being able to put food on the table and having nothing to leave his children when he passes. Willy feels that he has worked hard but fears that he will not be able to help his offspring any more than his own abandoning father helped him. The seeds also symbolize Willy’s sense of failure with Biff. Despite the American Dream’s formula for success, which Willy considers infallible, Willy’s efforts to cultivate and nurture Biff went awry. Realizing that his all-American football star has turned into a lazy bum, Willy takes Biff’s failure and lack of ambition as a reflection of his abilities as a father.

Diamonds
To Willy, diamonds represent tangible wealth and, hence, both validation of one’s labor (and life) and the ability to pass material goods on to one’s offspring, two things that Willy desperately craves. Correlatively, diamonds, the discovery of which made Ben a fortune, symbolize Willy’s failure as a salesman. Despite Willy’s belief in the American Dream, a belief unwavering to the extent that he passed up the opportunity to go with Ben to Alaska, the Dream’s promise of financial security has eluded Willy. At the end of the play, Ben encourages Willy to enter the “jungle” finally and retrieve this elusive diamond—that is, to kill himself for insurance money in order to make his life meaningful.

Linda’s and The Woman’s Stockings
Willy’s strange obsession with the condition of Linda’s stockings foreshadows his later flashback to Biff’s discovery of him and The Woman in their Boston hotel room. The teenage Biff accuses Willy of giving away Linda’s stockings to The Woman. Stockings assume a metaphorical weight as the symbol of betrayal and sexual infidelity. New stockings are important for both Willy’s pride in being financially successful and thus able to provide for his family and for Willy’s ability to ease his guilt about, and suppress the memory of, his betrayal of Linda and Biff.

The Rubber Hose
The rubber hose is a stage prop that reminds the audience of Willy’s desperate attempts at suicide. He has apparently attempted to kill himself by inhaling gas, which is, ironically, the very substance essential to one of the most basic elements with which he must equip his home for his family’s health and comfort—heat. Literal death by inhaling gas parallels the metaphorical death that Willy feels in his struggle to afford such a basic necessity.