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Free Barron's Booknotes-Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller-Free Book Notes
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THE CHARACTERS (continued)


Bernard comes into the play in an episode Willy is imagining, and Willy exaggerates what the young Bernard was like. A bookworm, spending little time outdoors, he is several times mockingly called "an anemic" by Willy and his boys. Both Bernard's behavior and the Lomans' making fun of him provide much of the humor in the first act. Later, in the present, Willy wonders how such a pathetic excuse for a kid could become the self-possessed lawyer of the present.

Even in the first-act caricature, however, we note the qualities that will permit Bernard to build a career. He works hard at his studies. As much as he admires Biff, he can't go along with his friend's stealing and cheating. But he never turns his back on Biff when they're students, and tries to help him with his schoolwork.

In the present Bernard has developed a promising career, has a wife and two sons, and keeps a friendly relationship with his father in which both are self-sufficient. He hasn't forgotten how promising Biff was, though, and we feel that he still honestly wishes Biff well. He tries to tell Willy that he would help Biff by leaving him alone.


Ben, Willy's older brother, whom he scarcely knew, is completely an imagined figure in the play. Willy tells Charley that he recently learned that Ben has died, so we know when Ben walks into the scene with Charley that he is an apparition Willy has summoned in his anguished search to understand his life.

From the moment we see Ben he turns out to be a highly idealized figure, for Willy's memory turns him into a god. Willy says about him, "There was the only man I ever met who knew the answers." Ben is an imposing-looking man dressed in sophisticated clothes and projecting great authority. He is fearless and ruthless and enjoys his success enormously, constantly chuckling over it. He has an air of always thinking about secret and important things. He fathered seven sons.

For Willy, Ben is a "man who had all the luck." Even his mistakes become profitable. Ben tells about how he left to find their father in Alaska when Willy was three or four. However, "I had a very faulty view of geography, William. I discovered after a few days that I was heading due south, so instead of Alaska, I ended up in Africa.... [W]hen I was
seventeen I walked into the jungle, and when I was twenty-one I walked out. And by God I was rich."

So Ben personifies ideal success, the realization of the wildest dreams a man might have. In his quest to make some sense of his failed life, Willy views Ben as a guide-an older brother's role-who appears to him every time Willy is most desperate. Ben is the inspiration for the fierce daring Willy sees in committing suicide. Ben encourages him toward this action that will put Willy in control of his life, and allow him to beat the world that beat him.


Howard Wagner is thirty-six and inherited the company from his father. It is extremely difficult for Howard to face up to firing Willy. Whenever Willy tries to bring up business, Howard diverts the conversation with talk about his family. We learn that he is a devoted father and that he is fascinated by gadgets, always taking up the newest fad. Howard is not an insensitive man, but Willy for a long time has not been pulling his weight. We feel that he is somewhat sorry for Willy, but his responsibility is to running a profitable company.


The Woman in Boston exists only in the past, as Ben does. She works at one of the companies to which Willy sells. She is a dignified, middle-aged, single woman who likes Willy because he makes her laugh. She is lonely, just as Willy is when he's on the road and their affair is casual. It's painful for her that she cannot expect anything enduring from the relationship, and looking for some reward, she prizes highly the silk stockings Willy gives her. In the first act Willy is trying to persuade her to stay overnight; in the second act, when Biff discovers them, she is obviously spending the night with Willy. She is embarrassed and humiliated, and in the transitory nature of her relationship with Willy she feels like a "football," as she tells Biff in leaving.


Miss Forsythe and Letta are the women Happy picks up in the restaurant while he and Biff are waiting for Willy. In some commentaries these two characters are described as prostitutes, but they're not. They're young women looking for a good time that evening in the same spirit Happy and Biff are.


Stanley is the young waiter in the restaurant. Early in the sequence we see the joking attentiveness that is the way to better tips. However, Stanley has a compassion worth noting. After Happy and Biff have left their father in the washroom, Stanley is concerned about Willy and helps him to his feet. In gratitude Willy tips him, and Stanley slips the bills back into Willy's coat pocket.


Jenny is Charley's secretary, who has to handle Willy's erratic behavior on his visits to borrow money from Charley. She is relieved when Bernard takes responsibility for Willy while Willy is waiting for Charley.

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