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Willy is not realistic about his earnings. He brags to Linda that he made $1200 gross in Boston, but when Linda calculates the commission, he has to admit that he made only $200 gross on the entire trip. Even in his illusion, he cannot face the fact that he is not a good salesman. At times, Linda hints at the reality of their economic straits. She seems to be the one in the family most affected by the reality of their poverty. Yet, she is terribly guilty of allowing Willy to live in his world of illusion. At times when he tries to face reality, Linda places him squarely back into his fantasy world. When Willy tells Linda that people do not seem to like him and laugh at him for talking too much, Linda tells him that he is a wonderful man whom everyone likes. Perhaps Linda contributes to his illusions because she knows there is nothing else to the man.
Willy's infidelities to Linda are revealed early in the play. In a flashback, Biff remembers the time he caught Willy in his hotel room with a strange woman; after the discovery, Biff never fully trusted his father again. As Willy stands before Linda as she mends the holes in her silk stockings, his guilt takes him years back when he stood in a hotel room and gave silk stockings to his lover. Willy responds to his guilt with empty promises, saying he is going to make it all up to Linda.
Linda's character is developed in this first act. She is the traditional wife and mother, staying at home to care for her family. Linda accuses Biff and Happy of being disrespectful to their father and begs them to pay Willy more attention. Though she loves her sons, her husband's interests are her primary concern. In fact, she asks Biff not to come home again unless he learns to respect his father. Linda's speeches in the play often represent Miller's social conscience. Her words of advice to her sons are Miller's words of advice to the younger generation to learn to respect the individual, no matter his or her status in life. It is also a plea for people not to be discarded in their old age .
Part of the American Dream is to one day own one's own business, for the belief is that ownership will make one rich. It is part of the dream of rugged individualism as a means to success. It is not surprising that Willy dreams of owing his own business and has planted this dream in the minds of his sons. Biff wants to borrow the money from Oliver to start his own company and become successful. It is also not surprising that Willy judges his brother, Ben, to be the ideal, the symbol of the American Dream. After all, he walked into the jungle as a young man and emerged a rich gentleman four years later. Of course, Ben is dead and his been dead for a while, indicating that all was not perfect for Willy's brother.
When Willy questions Ben, in an illusion, about his secret for success, the answer is frightening. Ben clearly tells the young Biff that one must never fight fair, especially with a stranger; as a result, he cruelly trips a young, unsuspecting Biff. Willy tries to impress his brother by sending his sons to steal lumber in order to prove that Biff and Happy are fearless boys. The pathetic philosophies of Willy and Ben are probably due in part to their own father, who was a traveling salesman, peddling musical flutes that he made. Although Willy is a salesman like him, he must sell products that belong to others, a step below the salesmanship of his father.
Willy has based his career as a salesman on being well liked. In sales, where a person does not have mastery of a body of knowledge, it is important to be able to please others, to gain their trust to buy a product. Through most of his sales life, Willy has felt successful, not because he has made much money, but because he feels like his customers in New England have liked him. Now he even questions this fact and complains about it to his wife. Reinforcing Willy's world of illusions, Linda assures him that everyone likes Willy. The audience, however, knows this is not true. Biff does not really like his father, and even his friend Charley gets easily irritated with Willy.
It becomes obvious that Willy is jealous of Charley, who is hard working, sincere, and practical. He is also successful in life; but Charley, ironically, is the exact opposite of what Willy believes a man needs to be successful. Charley has no personal attractiveness; he is not adventurous; and he is not well liked. Yet Charley has the financial security that Willy longs for. Out of subconscious, petty jealousy, Willy insults Charley in every scene where they are together; the jealousy also prevents Willy from accepting the job offer from Charley, even though he desperately needs to work.
In the later part of the scene, Bernard is introduced as the opposite of Biff, who is a practical boy and a good student. Not surprisingly, both Biff and Willy laugh at Bernard. Biff says that Bernard is liked but not well liked. Willy discourages Biff from befriending Bernard, for he thinks he is a "worm" and an unpopular, unattractive boy. Later in the play the unattractive Bernard is shown as a successful man, while the physically attractive Biff is a complete failure.
The first act also foreshadows the suicide of the last act. Linda points out that Willy has already made a number of attempts at suicide. She even goes as far as to issue an admonition to Biff, stating that "his life is in your hands." At the end of the first act, Biff responds by taking the rubber hose from the hot water tank as a preventive measure. The irony is that Biff drives his father to suicide by making him realize the emptiness of his life. With further irony, Willy kills himself so that Biff will have a better chance in life.