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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)

Willy has overheard more than that. "And who in the business world thinks I'm crazy?" We hold our breath: how will Willy respond to this bold statement of his failure? No one in this family speaks honestly until he's absolutely forced to, and here is Willy stumbling onto Biff's true feelings.

But Willy's ego, the lie he unfailingly carries with him, bounces back. Go to any department store in Boston, he sneers to Biff. "Call out the name Willy Loman and see what happens! Big shot!"

Biff is teetering between fear of upsetting his father and anger at the "fake." When Willy asks him why he's always insulting him, Biff's at the boiling point. It has become clear to him that he can't be around his father without fighting, so he'd better just go away forever. He tells his father he's leaving early tomorrow.

But Happy has another idea in mind, and without consulting Biff he adds, "He's going to see Bill Oliver, Pop." All of a sudden Biff is in an awkward position. That wasn't what he meant about "leaving." Should he say so? Or should he make a supreme effort after all, and try to do what would please his father?

He decides on the second choice. He wants Oliver to set him up in a sporting goods business, he says. His father asks how much Oliver will give him, but he says he hasn't even gone to see him yet.

Willy: Ah, you're counting your chickens again

Biff: Oh, Jesus, I'm going to sleep!

Willy: Don't you curse in this house!

Biff: Since when did you get so clean?

Biff is hinting at something. Remember when he told his mother Willy is a fake? Biff is harboring some kind of secret about his father, and it is poisoning his entire relationship with him. When you find out something upsetting about a person whom you love, especially a parent, it's hard to treat him the same way afterward. Willy is not far wrong to say Biff is always insulting him.

To break up the impending fight, Happy interrupts with another idea. Excitedly he describes it: he and Biff will sell a line of sporting goods, the Loman Line. They will form two teams and have sports competitions to advertise the goods. It wouldn't be like business; instead it would re-create the old family closeness and utilize their athletic skills.

We realize that Happy is using Biff's own tactics: a sales pitch for teaming up together. It works. Biff is enthusiastic. And Willy is ecstatic. He starts giving Biff advice on how to make the best of the interview with Bill Oliver: dress conservatively, talk as little as possible, don't make jokes. Is this the same Willy Loman talking? He is really warming to the picture of the interview. "Start off with a couple of your good stories to lighten things up. It's not what you say, it's how you say it-because personality always wins the day." Willy's true philosophy goes against even his own best advice.

As they are building this fantasy, we can see Linda brightening with renewed hope that maybe things will be right after all. But each time she adds a word of encouragement, Willy cruelly tells her to stop interrupting. Finally Biff can't stand it anymore, to see his father, whom he doesn't respect, abusing his mother, who humbly takes it. When at last he bursts out, "Stop yelling at her!" Willy suddenly goes quiet, looking beaten and guilty, and leaves the room.

Begging him to say goodnight nicely to his father, saying "It takes so little to make him happy," Linda hurries out after Willy. As the boys start talking again about the Oliver scheme, they get excited and go up to Willy. They say an awkward goodnight, Willy repeating his grandiose advice: "If anything falls off the desk while you're talking to him... don't pick it up. They have office boys for that."

As Biff leaves the room, Willy is recalling the great football game at Ebbets Field when Biff in his gold uniform led his team to the city championship. A Hercules, Willy calls him.

Might this be the time, Linda wonders, to ask something that has been on her mind since her talk with Biff? "Willy dear, what has he got against you?" But he brushes her aside. "I'm so tired. Don't talk any more." Do you think he knows what she is referring to? Or is he really too tired to focus?

We see Biff go to the gas heater, which is now glowing behind the kitchen with blue light. He takes the piece of rubber tubing Willy has hidden behind it. With a look of horror on his face, he goes upstairs to his room.

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