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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)

Suddenly a new character enters Willy's imagination: his older brother Ben, dapper with an umbrella and suitcase. Willy speaks to Ben, and hearing the name, Charley asks, "Did you call me Ben?" Willy makes the excuse that Charley reminds him of Ben, whom they learned had died recently. For a few minutes things get very mixed up as Willy tries to listen to both Ben in his mind and Charley in the room at the same time. Charley finally asks several times In frustration, "What're you talkin' about?" To cover up his own odd behavior and because he feels on the defensive, Willy accuses Charley of cheating in the card game. Charley slams the door in a huff, leaving Willy free to enter completely into the new scene with Ben.

Ben has come to invite Willy to make a new start in Alaska. Willy was only three when his brother left home to seek his fortune and ended up in Africa with investments in diamond mines. He hasn't seen Ben since. Now Ben is here for a few minutes before catching a train for Alaska.

All the hopes of a lifetime seem to Willy to be wrapped up in his successful brother. Ben is a stranger but Willy has made him into a hero. Having no one to advise him, Willy relies on his imagined concept of Ben to encourage him when he feels insecure. We see Ben as he looks through Willy's eyes: worldly, fabulously rich, sure of what he wants and how to get it. He is a kind of puppet or cartoon of Willy's dreams, not a fully developed character in the play. The same is true of Linda as a young woman and of the high school-aged boys. They exist in the imagined scenes only as Willy perceives them to be.

Young Linda has come in, and the teen-age boys. They gather around Ben as he tells about his father, a wanderer whom Willy barely remembers. He played the flute, Ben says, and sold the flutes he made from town to town. He was "a very great and a very wild-hearted man"- a true salesman. (We see now why it is so appropriate for the music that represents something pure in Willy to be flute music.)

Willy boasts that he's bringing up the boys to be "rugged, well liked, all-around." Ben invites Biff to box with him, then trips him, saying, "Never fight fair with a stranger, boy. You'll never get out of the jungle that way." (Is this an honorable motto? Do we agree with it? Willy seems to. Stealing or lying seem to be acceptable in his code, if he can twist them around to suit his cause.) Eager to show Ben how handy his boys are, he sends them running to the nearby construction site of an apartment building to steal some sand to make a new front step.

Charley comes over, looking youthful and rather silly in a pair of knickers. He warns that the watchman at the building will call the cops if the boys don't stop stealing materials. Willy justifies their thefts:

Willy: I gave them hell, understand. But I got a couple of fearless characters there.

Charley: Willy, the jails are full of fearless characters.

Ben: (clapping Willy on the back, with a laugh at Charley) And the stock exchange, friend!

We can view Charley's and Ben's reactions as the two battling sides of Willy's conscience.

The next few minutes are a whirlwind. Bernard runs in saying the watchman's chasing Biff. Linda is upset by Ben's sudden visit. Charley is upset about sales in his business being so bad. Willy is in a panic at the prospect of Ben leaving so soon, and in a tumble of words he confesses that although he has "a fine position here" (a lie), he stills feels "kind of temporary about myself." How should he bring up his boys, he cries out. Willy hangs on every word as Ben, leaving, assures him he's doing a first-rate job. The highest authority in Willy's world has spoken, and it's enough for Willy. "I was right! I was right! I was right!" he shouts until Linda, in her nightgown and robe of the present, hurries in to find him.

Linda tries to soothe him, but he's shaken by the emotion of his memory. He shuffles off in his bedroom slippers to take a walk, unable to cope with the sudden shift back to the present.

Biff and Happy come downstairs. For the first time they all talk honestly about Willy.

Happy: I never heard him so loud, Mom.

Linda: Well, come around more often; you'll hear him.

Biff: Why didn't you ever write me about this Mom?

Linda: How would I write to you? For over three months you had no address.

Linda explains that Willy is worse when Biff is around, perhaps because he can't open up to him. She gently accuses Biff of not having "any feeling" for his father. Pay respect to your father, she says, or don't come home anymore.

The sound of Willy offstage calling his name from deep in one of his memories infuriates Biff. He tells his mother to stop making excuses for Willy, who often treated her badly through the years. Happy starts to object, but Biff cuts him off saying, "He's got no character." Linda defends him. "He's not the finest character that ever lived. But he's a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid."

What is the terrible thing that is happening to Willy? Is it just that he is losing his bearings? Or is it that he is becoming so tormented by his confusions and failures that he can no longer face his life?

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