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Death of a Salesman: Free Study Guide / Summary / Analysis

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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.

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.

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