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Free Barron's Booknotes-Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller-Free Book Notes
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THE STORY

ACT I

Willy Loman, a traveling salesman, returns home unexpectedly to his little house in Brooklyn one night. As he appears, we hear a flute, "small and fine, telling of grass and trees and the horizon."

NOTE:
Observe the surprising presence of a flute, an instrument often associated with nature and the woods, in this urban setting. We'll see the growing significance of this instrument.

Willy carries his sample cases into the kitchen, sighing as he puts them down. He is exhausted. Not expecting him home, his wife Linda is worried and calls out to him. Willy attempts to reassure her, but as he enters the bedroom the flute fades and he says, "I'm tired to the death." He had driven only a short distance on his way to New England when he began to daydream and had trouble keeping the car on the road, so he had to turn back. Linda urges him to ask for a spot in the company's headquarters in New York. He says he will.

Their two grown sons are asleep in their old room upstairs. Biff, the older one, returned that morning from working on a farm in the West. He has been working at seasonal farm jobs-this one for $28 a week, which at age 34 feels humiliating-for many years. Father and son had had a fight when Willy asked Biff if he was making any money. Willy is still upset about the fight, though Linda, the peacemaker, takes Biff's side, saying he has to "find himself." "Not finding yourself at the age of thirty-four is a disgrace!" Willy explodes.


NOTE:
The tension between father and favorite son is evident: dollars and cents mean less to the son than to the father. This clash in values is classic, isn't it?

"Biff is a lazy bum!" Willy complains, but he betrays contradictory feelings a moment later when he says, "In the greatest country in the world a young man with such-personal attractiveness, gets lost. And such a hard worker.

There's one thing about Biff-he's not lazy." This contradiction seems funny to us (the author intended it to get a laugh) but in addition we have learned in the first few lines of the play that there is a conflict between Biff and Willy, and also within Willy himself. We have already seen that Willy is full of exhaustion and disappointment, and that's not what he had expected from life. As a young person you have a dream of how your life will be when you grow up. Willy's was to be a highly successful businessman. But his time is now running out, he has failed to reach his goal, and he wants his son to fulfill his dreams. He loves his son, and he tries to make him into something he's not.

Willy recalls the time when there were elm trees and a garden in the back yard. Now he feels boxed in by new adjacent apartment houses, and longs for space and natural surroundings.

NOTE:
Willy seems to feel choked by urban life as it takes over the neighborhood. Nature symbolizes freedom for him, and the expression of his natural self and his longings. Remember the sound of the flute was "telling of grass and trees" when it introduced Willy; the flute will return throughout the play at the times Willy comes closest to his true nature. We'll see the image of trees again later, too, for example when Willy says in a crisis, "The woods are burning, boys!" Willy's life has gotten far away from the things that he is good at, like working with his hands or planting a garden. The time is gone when all his dreams were seeds waiting to flower.

Linda promises a drive in the country on Sunday with the windshield open. Willy corrects her, saying that the windshield doesn't open on the new car. When she protests that he just said he was driving with it open, he realizes that all day he has been imagining a car he had nearly twenty years before. It becomes clear to us-and to Willy-that he is increasingly lost in the past. It must be terrible for him not to be able to tell past from present. Shaken, Willy goes down to the kitchen to get something to eat.

Upstairs Biff and Happy have been awakened by their parents' voices. Happy is staying over at home after taking Biff on a date. Both are immediately worried, because lately they have been noticing Willy's strange behavior. Imagine how it would feel to have your father start talking to himself. You would be nervous and embarrassed. Biff tries to find excuses for their father's bad driving, but Happy, who has driven with him, says Willy just doesn't pay attention.

Happy: ...He stops at a green light and then it turns red and he goes. He laughs.

Biff: Maybe he's color-blind.

Happy: Pop? Why he's got the finest eye for color in the business. You know that.

Willy has trained his sons well-in the end everything relates to business. Even personal characteristics are valued in terms of their usefulness.

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