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

Suddenly Howard realizes that Willy is supposed to be in Boston. "What're you doing here?" he asks. This is Willy's big moment. Bravely he announces, "I've come to the decision that I'd rather not travel any more." He asks Howard for a spot here in New York, and a $65-a-week salary. Each time Howard tries to interrupt, Willy keeps on talking, finally saying, "Speaking frankly and between the two of us, y'know-I'm just a little tired."

There isn't a place for him in the New York store, Howard says. Most of the company's business is sales to other stores by traveling salesmen, and "you're a road man, Willy." Willy is desperate and won't take no for an answer. He's been with the firm since Howard's father was a young man and Howard himself was a newborn baby, Willy reminds him. Howard is looking for his lighter, and Willy hands it to him-just the kind of gesture he advised his son Biff to avoid during his interview. When Howard maintains there's no opening for him here, Willy drops his price to $50.

"But where am I going to put you, kid?" Notice that a man half his age is calling Willy by the derogatory term, "kid," which shows how little respect Howard has for the older man. Willy asks him point-blank if he thinks he can't do his job:

Willy: Look, it isn't a question of whether I can sell merchandise, is it?

Howard: No, but it's a business, kid, and everybody's gotta pull his own weight.

What Howard is really saying is yes, you don't do a good job.

Willy is getting angry, and he uses his final ammunition, the thing that means most to him: the story of his life. He tells of wanting to go to Alaska, but being inspired instead by an old and well-respected salesman called Dave Singleman, who could pick up the phone and do his business without stirring from his hotel. When he died-"the death of a salesman"- in the smoking car on the train to Boston-his funeral was attended by hundreds of his business associates.


Willy winds up his plea passionately with what amounts to his philosophy of life: "In those days there was personality in it, Howard. There was respect, and comradeship, and gratitude in it. Today, it's all cut and dried, and there's no chance for bringing friendship to bear-or personality. You see what I mean? They don't know me any more."

Restless and uninterested-or perhaps embarrassed-Howard has not looked at Willy during his story, but now he picks up on Willy's last line about not being known by the buyers anymore. "That's just the thing, Willy," he starts, but Willy is not to be distracted from what he wants. He lowers his bid to $40, but still Howard says no. At this, Willy again brings up Howard's father, but even the mention of this authority figure seems to have no effect on Howard, who starts to leave, saying he has to see some people.

Willy has become panic-stricken as he sees his last chance slipping away. His voice rising, he stops Howard: "I'm talking about your father! There were promises made across this desk! You mustn't tell me you've got people to see-I put thirty-four years into this firm, Howard, and now I can't pay my insurance! You can't eat the orange and throw the peel away-a man is not a piece of fruit!"

Willy tries to tell him that in 1928 he averaged $170 a week, but Howard doesn't believe him, tells him to pull himself together, and leaves. Stunned, Willy realizes he's been yelling at his boss. He leans on the desk, the same desk Howard's father, Frank, used to occupy. As he speaks in his imagination to Frank, he accidentally bumps into the wire-recorder. A childish voice starts repeating the state capitals in alphabetical order. The babble of the wire-recorder parallels the babble in Willy's mind. He calls out frantically to Howard, who rushes back in and unplugs the machine. Willy's composure has cracked; he presses his hands to his eyes and says he needs a cup of coffee. He feels defeated, and his only aim now is to maintain his dignity and get out of the room. He'll keep traveling, he concedes; he'll go to Boston. But Howard has something to say:

Howard: I don't want you to represent us. I've been meaning to tell you for a long time now.

Willy: Howard, are you firing me?

Howard: I think you need a good long rest, Willy.

Howard tells Willy to come back "when you feel better" and maybe they can "work something out." But they both know that will never happen and that Willy is being fired for good. Willy protests that he has to earn money. Ask your sons to help you out, suggests Howard: "This is no time for false pride." But of course Howard has hit on one of the major characteristics of Willy's personality. To tell Willy not to have false pride is like telling him to stop breathing. His sons are busy on a "very big deal" says Willy, and anyway he can't impose on them like a "cripple." Let me go to Boston, he begs, grasping Howard's arm. With effort Howard keeps his temper, ordering Willy to get hold of himself and then go home.

Alone for a moment Willy stares exhausted into space. Music is heard. Ben comes in and Willy relives a scene from the past, when Ben was on his way back from Alaska. He has bought timberland, needs someone to manage it, and offers Willy the job. Linda as her younger self comes in. She doesn't like Ben, she thinks he's ignored them all these years only to appear suddenly and stir up trouble. Last time he praised the boys for fighting and stealing, and unsettled Willy with talk of making a fortune in the wilderness. Now here he is back again, trying to lure them away from their Life here.

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