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

It is Happy who suddenly asks, "The only thing is-what can you make out there?" Who cares, counters Biff, if you have peace of mind? Here is the essence of the difference between the brothers. Happy is caught in the system: "I gotta show some of those pompous, self-important executives over there that Hap Loman can make the grade." With pride he boasts about the gorgeous girls he takes out. He confesses that his latest conquest is engaged to one of the executives in the store-a pattern he's been getting into. He "ruins" them and then goes to their weddings. "Maybe I just have an overdeveloped sense of competition or something."

NOTE:
Notice how Happy uses the word "competition." Competition is what drives Willy onward, and what Biff is trying to escape from. It tempts Happy to seduce women he doesn't want, to take bribes to get business, and then to justify himself with phrases like, "...everybody around me is so false that I'm constantly lowering my ideals." Here is a restatement of one of the themes of the play: the betrayal of ideals. When Happy can't achieve his goal of being a big shot at work, he feels cheated. The American dream is out of his reach so he himself resorts to cheating.

Biff has an idea how he could get some money to buy a ranch. In high school he had worked for a businessman named Bill Oliver. When he quit, Biff remembers, Oliver said, "If you ever need anything, come to me." Now he decides to ask Oliver to lend him $10,000 to get started out West.


Like many incidents in this play, this first mention of Oliver gives a different version than later references. Our impression of Biff's relationship with Oliver changes within a few lines when Biff says, "I wonder if Oliver still thinks I stole that carton of basketballs." This is a revealing question. He probably did steal them, but has always denied it, even to himself. All the Lomans have a remarkable ability to revise events in a light favorable to themselves.

Biff and Happy's middle of the night chat is interrupted by Willy talking loudly in the kitchen. He is reliving a scene from the past in which Biff is waxing ("Simonizing") the car. Hearing this, Biff, who is already upset, gets angry. Happy pleads with him not to leave home again, and to have a heart-to-heart talk with their father, but Biff can only express disgust that Willy would shout aloud his memories with no regard for their mother. What self-respecting person would allow himself to lose control like this? Biff doesn't realize that Willy is at his wits' end. As he gets into bed, Biff says to himself, "That selfish, stupid..."

NOTE:
By the time the light has faded on their bedroom, stage lights have gradually come up on Willy downstairs in the kitchen. Light and music are our key signals for scenes changing. In this instance the orange silhouettes of the apartment houses are fading above the roof, symbolizing the fading away of the present and Willy's troubles. Though Willy is eating a snack, his mind is far away, in the past. A light effect suggesting sun shining through the leaves of overhanging trees fills the stage, turning it into an outdoor area-the backyard. This leaf pattern always announces the scenes of Willy in the past at home. The sound of the flute reinforces the feeling of warmth and hopefulness associated with the past.

At first we hear only one side of the conversation. Willy is imagining his boys polishing the family car. He tells them to use newspaper on the windows, chamois cloth on the hubcaps. Biff is polishing the car so carefully because he has a date, so we assume he's about sixteen, just old enough to drive. We hear Willy cautioning him not to waste his time on girls, but to pay attention to schoolwork. We see Willy at first smiling at an empty kitchen chair, but gradually he begins to look through the wall of the kitchen. His focus shifts to the area outside the house. Willy says that as soon as the boys have finished walking the car, he has a surprise for them.

Offstage we hear Biff's voice: "Whatta ya got, Dad?" But Willy won't tell them until they've finished the car, saying, "Never leave a job till you're finished-remember that." (Knowing what we know about Willy's unhappiness in his job in the present, this line has a ring of painful double meaning for us.)

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