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

We learn from Linda that Willy has just lost his salary, after 36 years with the company. For five weeks now he has been on a straight commission, like a beginner. When Biff and Happy express indignation, Linda cuts them short: "Are they any worse than his sons?" She claims that the boys were glad to see their father when he was supporting them, making money, but now, like the company, they have no use for him. His old contacts are dead or retired, he drives 700 miles each way and doesn't make a cent-so no wonder he talks to himself. He borrows $50 a week from their neighbor Charley (now we understand why Willy resents Charley so much) and pretends to Linda that he earned the money.

"How long can that go on?" Linda asks. At 63 years old he has worked all his life to make ends meet for children "he loved better than his life" who no longer appreciate him. He's exhausted: "a small man can be just as exhausted as a great man," she asserts.

NOTE:
This line is possibly one of the most important in the play, and Arthur Miller defended this idea in his essay "Tragedy and the Common Man." Previous definitions of tragic drama claimed that only heroes having "rank or nobility of character" were worthy of having plays written about them. But today, unlike in ancient Greek or Shakespearean times, kings and queens are less relevant to us. Miller claims that the "underlying fear of being displaced... from our chosen image of what and who we are in this world... is as strong, and perhaps stronger, than it ever was." Miller believes that all of us can identify with the struggles of a modern character: "...the tragic feeling is evoked when we are in the presence of a character who is ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure one thing-his sense of personal dignity."


Linda is holding nothing back now. She calls Happy "a philandering bum" and asks Biff "What happened to the love you had for him?" But now it's Biff's turn to lay some cards on the table. He reminds his mother that Willy threw him out of the house. She has never understood why, but Biff will say darkly only, "Because I know he's a fake and he doesn't like anybody around who knows!" Angrily Biff adds that he'll stay in this city, which he hates, and give his father half his salary. What more do you want?

What Linda says next brings the boys to shocked attention. "He's dying, Biff." She has heard from the car insurance inspector that a series of "accidents" in the last year were really Willy's attempts to kill himself. A witness had seen him deliberately drive off a small bridge. And then Linda has found a rubber tube in the basement and a new valve on the gas pipe-apparatus that would allow Willy to asphyxiate himself by breathing gas. She has not had the nerve to confront Willy about these things; she feels it would be an insult to his pride. But every day she fears for his life.

NOTE:
Why doesn't she confront her husband with the evidence? Doesn't she want to save him from this terrible action? Of course she does. But Willy is a strong character. To discuss suicide with him would be to discuss failure, and that is what Willy can't face. We must keep in mind something else: Linda, too, hates to admit that Willy is not all he longs to be. She's as committed to the fantasy of success as he is. We'll see that at the moment when he might have gone to Alaska with Ben, Linda urged Willy to think of his "good position" at home.

Feeling guilty, Biff promises to make a new start in business, even though he feels he's not cut out for it. He will try once again to be what Willy wants him to be. Just try to please people, advises his brother, especially the people you work for.

The thought of flattering superiors is too much for Biff. He exclaims, "They've laughed at Dad for years, and you know why? Because we don't belong in this nuthouse of a city! We should be mixing cement on some open plain, oror carpenters."

Willy comes in. The boys now see him with new eyes, knowing that he is considering suicide. They watch him nervously, and treat him with kid gloves. Scornfully Willy says, "Even your grandfather [the flute player] was better than a carpenter. You never grew up."

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