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Free Barron's Booknotes-Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller-Free Book Notes
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In the morning Biff and Happy are up and gone before Willy wakes. He's slept well for the first time in months. He's in a hopeful mood brought on by the boys' plan to start a business. He'll plant a garden, he tells Linda eagerly, and someday move to the country, raise vegetables and build guest houses for each of the boys to stay in when they visit with their families. (If only he could admit that building and gardening are what he's best at and should have been doing all his life.)

He's going to ask his boss for a New York job. While he's at it, Linda reminds him, ask for an advance of $200 to cover recent bills. Willy complains that just as he gets something like the refrigerator paid for, it wears out.

Willy is caught in a trap we are all familiar with: built-in obsolescence. We are consumers of "essentials" like modern appliances, autos, even houses. Because they are expensive, we pay for them in monthly installments that can stretch out over years. Often by the time they are paid for they are so old they have to be replaced, and the cycle starts again. This is a torment to Willy, whose tiny income is gobbled up each month by the family bills. No wonder Linda is frugal, and darns her stockings. And no wonder every time he sees her doing it, Willy is seized with guilt over having had a mistress, to whom he gave new silk stockings.

It is an important day for several reasons. First, Willy and Linda know that this month's mortgage payment will be the last, and that finally, after 25 years, the house will belong to them. Wrapped up in the house are years of memories-Biff was nine when they moved in-and hours of Willy's own labor remodeling and repairing it.

Second, Willy is confident that he can convince his boss to keep him in the New York office. His positive attitude is catching, and both he and Linda feel exultant. --Willy: I will never get behind a wheel the rest of my life!

Linda: It's changing, Willy, I can feel it changing!

Willy: Beyond a question.

The third cause for excitement is that the boys have invited their father to dinner at a restaurant that evening. Flattered, Willy hurries off to catch the subway into the city to see his boss.

The phone rings. Biff has called to make sure Linda told Willy about their dinner date. She can hardly wait to confide a discovery to him: the rubber hose is gone from behind the water heater. Of course when she learns Biff took it, she's disappointed, but still she feels happy because Willy was "in such high spirits, it was like the old days!" She reminds Biff to make an extra effort to be nice to his father tonight, "Because he's only a little boat looking for a harbor." The metaphor is appropriate: Willy has been exhausted and tossed about by troubles, and his rescue seems to have something to do with Biff. Linda is so sensitive to the importance of Biff's love and respect for Willy that she instinctively puts it in the strongest words she knows: "Biff, you'll save his life." She is not exaggerating, the way most of us do when we use that phrase.

A new scene is set on the other side of the stage as Linda hangs up the phone. Howard Wagner, Willy's young boss, comes out pushing a portable table, the kind used for typewriters. On it is a wire-recording machine, an early version of the tape recorder. As the stage lights fade on Linda and come up on Howard, we can see Willy trying to get Howard's attention.

Howard is playing with his brand new recorder, an invention that in 1949 is not yet widespread in offices. He took it home the night before and recorded himself, his wife, his young son and daughter, and now he is excitedly playing back the recording as Willy tries to get a word in. Each time Willy tries to speak, Howard hushes him, listening to the machine. Finally Howard turns it off, saying he's going to throw out "my camera, and my bandsaw, and all my hobbies" in favor of having fun with this machine.

We are getting a picture of Howard as a successful man with plenty of money, a model family, and the free time to tinker with one expensive gadget after another-you probably know people like that, who take up and drop each fad as it comes along. Willy tries to be enthusiastic about the wire-recorder.

Willy: I think I'll get one myself.

Howard: Sure, they're only a hundred and a half. You can't do without it. Supposing you wanna hear Jack Benny, see? But you can't be home at that hour. So you tell the maid to turn the radio on when Jack Benny comes on, and this automatically goes on with the radio...

Willy doesn't admit to Howard that he doesn't have a maid (and perhaps not even a radio), and that $150 is about the amount of his monthly bills he is struggling so hard to meet. But he plays along with the lie: "I'm definitely going to get one. Because lots of time I'm on the road, and I think to myself, what I must be missing on the radio!" Surprised, Howard asks "Don't you have a radio in the car?" Caught in his own lie, Willy fumbles, "Well, yeah, but who ever thinks of turning it on?"

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