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In the first act, the reader is introduced to the Loman family. Willy lives most of his life in a world of illusion in which he romanticizes his past, and his family does nothing to stop him. Although his illusions have been with him all his life, the problem is that now, in his later years, Willy is having trouble distinguishing between past and present, appearance and reality. In the opening scene, Willy comes home and tells Linda he has been driving with the windshield open. When she suggests that they take a ride later with the windshield open, he says windshields are no longer made to open. He has earlier confused his present car with his old 1928 Chevy, in which the windshields did open. The period around 1928 seems to be the last happy time in Willy's life; it was the time when Biff was a high school senior and the captain and star of the football team.
It quickly becomes apparent in this first act that Willy's personal philosophy of life deals entirely with superficial values; he is concerned with appearance rather than substance. He believes the most important things in the world, in both social and business environments, are to be well liked and attractive; unfortunately, he has also taught his sons these values, and they are seen espousing them as their own. Willy also feels nostalgic for the olden days, when everyone lived on a farm. In the city, he always complains of feeling "boxed in" and tells Linda that "nothing will grow here." As life begins to close in on Willy, this idea is symbolically portrayed in Willy's inability to get anything to grow in his back yard. The image of Willy trying to plant seeds that never spring to life is symbolic of the failure of the American Dream to come to fruition for Willy and most other working class people. Hard work and dedication do not bring Willy success; instead, he finds himself in old age to be poor, out of work, and dissatisfied with life.
As he wanders in and out of illusions, Willy often contradicts himself. For instance, Willy says of Biff, "The trouble is he's lazy. Biff is a lazy bum!" Yet, later, he says, "There's one thing about Biff--he is not lazy." In a fleeting moment of reality, Willy truthfully criticizes Biff, but he returns to his illusions that "personal attractiveness" is all a man needs to succeed. In his illusory world, nothing is wrong with Biff. Happy and Biff also live in a world of illusion. Biff casually mentions to Happy that he stole some basketballs from Oliver, trying to insert reality into the world of the Loman fantasies. Happy tries to overlook the dishonesty and tells Biff that Oliver always thought highly of Biff. In a later flashback, Willy remembers Biff saying that he "borrowed" a football from the locker room; Happy states the reality that Biff has stolen the ball and is sure to get in trouble. Willy brushes off the dishonesty by saying the coach would probably be proud of Biff for taking the initiative to practice. Later, Willy actually sends his sons out to steal lumber, in order to impress Ben. Willy's lack of morality on the issue of honesty greatly affects Biff and his ability to hold a job.
Like Willy, Happy also lies to himself about his work and about his appearance; he constantly tells his father that he is successfully losing weight, improving his attractiveness. He also erroneously believes that as soon as the merchandise manager dies, he will become the new manager. It is doubtful, however, that such a promotion would make Happy happy. He says that he already has everything he wants, an apartment, a car, and women, and he still feels lonely. Biff is obviously a lonely idealist as well. He believes that all the Loman problems can be fixed by simply working outdoors where they will have the freedom to whistle when they want.
In Act 1, Miller explores the relationship between the son and the father. Biff feels that he can never communicate with Willy, and this feeling mounts until the climax of the play when Biff tries to force reality upon his dad. Biff has difficulty with the way that Willy treats his mother. He also has problems with Willy's world of illusions. In truth, the fact that Willy has always excused his son for his behavior is a real problem for Biff, for he has developed no backbone. In later acts, it is revealed that Biff has lost every job because of stealing. In fact, Biff actually goes to jail for theft. In spite of Biff's many problems, Willy is obviously very partial to him. Happy constantly stands in the shadow of his elder brother, unnoticed and craving the attention of his father.