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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)

The scene from the past takes over, accompanied by "raw, sensuous music." Someone is knocking on the door of Willy and The Woman's room. It's a mistake, insists Willy, terrified; someone has the wrong door. But fearing the worst, he pushes The Woman into the bathroom, cautioning her three times not to come out.

Young Biff is at the door. He has come to Boston to ask his father to talk the math teacher into raising his grade from 61 to a passing 65 so he can graduate. Biff has confidence that his father's powers of persuasion can turn any disaster into success. Sure, says Willy, I'll go home with you right now. Biff is relieved, and confesses that the math teacher hates him because he overheard Biff make fun of his lisp to entertain the class. Father and son laugh at the joke, but before Willy can hustle Biff out of the room, The Woman joins the laughter and comes out of the bathroom in her slip. Naturally Biff is horrified. Though Willy makes excuses-there's a party in her room, her room is being painted-Biff realizes that his father is having an affair. He is deeply shocked.

Though he is trying to push her out the door in her underwear, the offended woman won't go until Willy gives her the stockings he promised her. This is the final outrage for Biff, who senses how intimate a gift this is. Assuming a brisk manner after the woman has gone, Willy tries to gloss over the crisis, alternately pleading and ordering Biff not to cry. But all the boy's determination and trust are gone. The teacher won't listen to you, Biff says, and I'm not going to college.


NOTE:
More upsetting even than Biff's disappointment about his own plans is his disillusionment about his father's character. He has surely known all along that Willy exaggerates, but he never suspected that his fabrications covered ignoble deeds like this one. Biff has always been carried along on the crest of his father's fantasies, and now as his image of Willy comes crashing down, his image of himself is shattered, too.

Willy is stern with Biff, but Biff is inconsolable. His weeping pierces Willy to the heart. Willy explains that the woman means nothing to him, he was just lonely, but Biff's reply shows that he sees only Willy's betrayal: "You gave her Mama's stockings!"

NOTE:
Stockings are a symbol in this play. Thrifty people mended their stockings with special silk thread. It was Linda's mending her stocking that brought back the memory to Willy of the woman in the hotel. He can't stand to see Linda mending stockings because it makes him feel guilty about his affair.

When sixteen-year-old Biff recovers from crying, only anger and scorn are left for his father. Calling him a liar, fake, and phony, he leaves with his suitcase. Willy, who has knelt down to comfort Biff, is left on his knees, and that is where we see him when the lights and music bring us back to the restaurant.

Stanley helps Willy to his feet and brushes him off. He slips the tip Willy has given him back into Willy's coat, explaining that Happy has already paid him. Willy hurries out. Suddenly he feels the need to buy some seeds and plant a garden.

We hear the flute as the lights come up on the kitchen. The boys have arrived home with roses to try to pacify the anger they know their mother will have for them. She knocks the roses to the floor and tells them exactly what she thinks of them: that they don't care if their father lives or dies, that there's no stranger they would desert in such a time of trouble, and that they are to get out and not come back.

Happy simply denies all the accusations, lying blatantly that Willy "had a swell time with us." But Linda isn't even looking at him. As usual, Biff is the center of attention and Happy is on the periphery. When Linda orders him to pick the flowers up off the floor-"I'm not your maid any more"- Happy refuses and goes upstairs.

Stooping to pick up the flowers, Biff admits everything: "Now you hit it on the nose! The scum of the earth, and you're looking at him!" He may have acted like a "louse," he persists, but before he gets out of the house he has to talk to Willy. Against Linda's wishes, he goes outside to find his father.

Willy is planting seeds by flashlight and having a conversation with Ben who, as we know, appears when Willy needs advice. They are discussing a business deal that will make $20,000 for Biff. It is, of course, Willy's notion of killing himself to cash in on his life insurance policy: the final sale of his last resource, his own life.

NOTE:
Willy seems eager and optimistic about the proposition. The prospect of setting Biff up financially has far more meaning to him than continuing to live a life that he now sees will never be what he dreamed of for himself. He is now completely transferring that dream onto his son. Unfortunately, it's the very dream Biff resents and rejects. The idea of making $20,000 appeals to Willy because it's the kind of deal he's always longed to swing. It's not an "appointment," that intangible, uncertain arrangement he's been dependent on all his life. This is "guaranteed, gilt-edged," a concrete profit he can see "like a diamond, shining in the dark."

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