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Willy Loman, a traveling salesman, comes home in the middle of the night when he's supposed to be on a business trip. He tells Linda, his wife, that he couldn't keep his mind on driving, and kept going off the road because he was daydreaming. She urges him to ask his boss for a position with the company's headquarters in New York, so he won't have to travel anymore, and he agrees to see his boss the next day. He goes to the kitchen for a snack, and becomes involved in a memory of his son Biff. He has been talking to himself so loudly that he wakes Biff and his brother Happy, who are both there visiting, Biff from the West, and Happy from his own apartment in another part of town.
The boys, now 32 and 34, talk over old times, worry about their father, and scheme about going into business together.
In the scene from Willy's memory, Biff, Happy, and Linda all suddenly appear on stage as they were fifteen years earlier, when the boys were teenagers. Biff, the favorite son, is the high school football captain. He is about to play an important game, and also about to flunk senior math, despite his friend Bernard's help studying. Bookish Bernard is not "well liked" by Biff's standards, and his father Charley, a salesman with his own business, is not "well liked" by Willy's standards. Still, for all his attempts to be "impressive," Willy is not doing well as a salesman, he confesses to Linda. Willy's thoughts shift further back in time to show him dallying with another woman in a hotel room.
Back in the present, Happy comes downstairs to calm his father, but is unsuccessful. The neighbor, Charley, comes in with the same intent, but Willy gets insulted when Charley offers him a job. Meanwhile, invisible to Charley, Willy's older brother Ben has arrived from the past. Willy is trying to have a conversation with two people at once, from different periods of his life, and ends up quarreling with Charley, who leaves. Now completely immersed in the past, Willy shows off his teenaged boys to Ben, who invites him to move to Alaska. But Willy has convinced himself he has possibilities at home.
Returning to the present, Willy leaves the house to go for a walk. The family gathers to discuss his troubled situation. Linda says he is trying to kill himself because after 36 years with the company they have now taken away his salary and he is back on commission like a beginner, and broke because he can't sell anything. His pride is shattered and he's exhausted. Linda criticizes the boys for not respecting their father. Willy comes into the room, and the sons try to cheer him with their plan to open a sporting goods business. Biff will go to Bill Oliver, a former employer, and ask for $10,000 capital. Willy seems enthusiastic and gives advice about the interview. They all say goodnight with a feeling of hopefulness about the next day.
Act II begins the next morning. At breakfast, behaving like his old self, Willy tells Linda he will go into the city and ask for a job in the home office. She reminds him to get an advance because their last mortgage payment is due, and then they will own their home. Willy has put a lot of reconstruction into it and is proud of his carpentry skills. Linda tells him that the boys want to treat him to dinner at a restaurant.
At the office, Willy's young boss, Howard (son of Willy's former boss) is playing a recording of his family on a new office machine. At last, when Willy can get a word in, he asks Howard for a New York position, but is refused even when he drops his request to forty dollars a week. Desperate, he raises his voice to Howard, who tells him to pull himself together and leaves the room. Shaken, Willy accidentally switches on the machine, with so unnerves him that he calls out to Howard to come and turn it off. Howard takes the opportunity to fire Willy, telling him to put away false pride and turn to his sons for support.
Ben reappears from the past, making a final offer to Willy of managing timberland in Alaska. It is Linda, loyal to Willy's unrealistic dream of success in business, who persuades him to turn it down. After Ben leaves, the family goes off to watch Biff play his big football game.
Back in the present again, Willy has somehow made his way to his neighbor Charley's office, where he has been coming every week for a loan so he can pretend to Linda he's making some money. Charley's son Bernard is there, now a lawyer on his way to Washington to try a case. Why did you turn out so well and Biff so poorly? Willy asks. Bernard answers that Biff could have gone to summer school to make up the math course, but instead he went to Boston to see Willy, and when he came back he had "given up his life." What happened in Boston? Bernard wants to know. But Willy becomes defensive about it, and Bernard leaves to catch his train. Charley comes in and gives Willy money. He again offers him a job but Willy refuses, though he does finally break down and admit he's just been fired. Willy dreamily comments that after all the years it's ironic that "you end up worth more dead than alive."
At the restaurant Happy has picked up a girl. Biff arrives in a turmoil because Bill Oliver kept him waiting all day and never did recognize him. During the wait, and then when Oliver looked at him blankly, Biff had realized that for the last fifteen years he and his father and brother have been kidding themselves about who they are. Biff has stolen an expensive fountain pen from Oliver's office and run away. Now he is determined to tell Willy the truth, despite Willy's and Happy's attempts to alter the story. Sensing bad news, Willy slips into the past, and the boys witness him trying to answer all the voices in his head. Unable to cope with the past and the present at the same time, Willy goes into the washroom, and Biff, distraught, rushes from the restaurant followed by Happy with two girls he's picked up. Alone, Willy relives the scene in Boston fifteen years before when Biff discovered him in his hotel room with a woman. That was the moment when Biff decided his father was a "phony little fake."
Back in the present, when Biff and Happy finally get home, Linda brushes aside their feeble excuses about deserting their father and tells them to get out of the house and not come back. Willy is in the back yard planting seeds. He is having a conversation with Ben about a business proposition: cashing in his insurance policy by crashing his car and killing himself.
Biff comes outside to explain to Willy that since he can't seem to be around him without fighting, and he can't make of his life what Willy wants him to, he's going away. They argue. Biff shouts, "I'm not bringing home any prizes any more, and you're going to stop waiting for me to bring them home!" and breaks down in tears. Astonished, Willy realizes that Biff loves him after all, because he "cried to me." Everyone goes to bed except Willy, who, somehow cleansed and absolved by Biff's love, roars off in his car to make the final profit-selling his life-that he is convinced will get Biff on his feet financially. The family and neighbors gather and get ready to go to the funeral.
In the Requiem, the family is at the cemetery. They talk about why Willy died. Biff says, "He had the wrong dreams." Charley replies, "A salesman [has] got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory." And Happy adds, "It's the only dream you can have-to come out number-one man." Linda has the last word: "I can't understand it, Willy. I made the last payment on the house today.... And there'll be nobody home. We're free and clear," she sobs. "We're free...."