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

Advice is something Willy gives freely to other people, but also needs himself. In spite of his hearty talk, he is not self-confident, and he wonders if he has brought his boys up right. Because his father left when Willy was a baby, he lacked guidance as a young person, and has always felt "temporary" about himself. Contrast Charley, who never gives or asks for advice from anyone.

Bernard does have one idea why Biff never made it. It wasn't flunking math, as Willy thought. Biff was all ready to enroll in summer school. He went up to New England to find Willy and when he got back he was changed. Did Willy have a talk with him?

Willy, so desperate for advice a moment before, now seems full of resentment. Yes, Biff had come to Boston. So what? He obviously remembers something. Bernard continues. Biff had come back from Boston, had a fist fight with Bernard, and burned up his University of Virginia sneakers, the symbol of his bright future. What happened in Boston? Willy becomes defensive. He feels Bernard is blaming him, even though it was Willy himself who brought it up.

Charley comes into the office, urges Bernard to hurry for the train, and gives him a bottle of bourbon as a going-away present. As he leaves, Bernard tells Willy not to worry, that sometimes things don't work out and "it's better for a man just to walk away." Willy can't. "That's when it's tough," says Bernard.

Willy is astonished to find out from Charley that Bernard is going to argue a case in front of the Supreme Court. "And he didn't even mention it!" Willy muses. Willy wonders how Charley brought up Bernard to be so successful, without even "taking an interest" in him.

Charley's answer tells a lot about his character. "My salvation is that I never took any interest in anything." This is one reason Willy does not respect Charley: he's not a passionate man with grand hopes and manly talents. It's true that Charley is going to survive and Willy is not, but Willy has no respect for Charley's personality: a man who wears silly-looking knickers his wife bought him, who doesn't care what he eats, and who is content to run a small business. Ironically, Charley has achieved everything Willy wants: financial independence, a distinguished son, two grandsons. These achievements madden Willy, and further emphasize his own wrongheadedness.

After Bernard has left, Charley lays $50 on the desk for Willy. He has been giving him $50 a week ever since Willy went on straight commission. With difficulty Willy asks for $110 to pay his insurance. Charley can't understand why Willy will beg from him, so to speak, but won't accept a job from him. Several times he's offered Willy a position-with no traveling-at $50 a week. But Willy insists he has a job, though at the moment that's a lie.

"What kind of a job is a job without pay?" asks Charley, but Willy is immovable. "When the hell are you going to grow up?" continues Charley. That's the thing that makes Willy the angriest-remember Charley said the same thing 14 years earlier, just before the Ebbets Field game?- and Willy's literally mad enough to fight. Of course, Charley isn't interested in fighting. Instead in a kind voice he asks his friend how much money he needs.

This is enough to break Willy's proud reserve, and he confesses that he's been fired-by the baby he named Howard in his father's arms. So what? asks Charley. You can't sell sentimental connections. They don't mean anything. Willy has never wanted to believe this. He has preferred to think that if he was "impressive, and well liked" that success would come naturally.

"Why must everyone like you? Who liked J. P. Morgan?" asks Charley. Still, Willy can't accept a job from him, and Charley, angry at his friend's stubbornness, observes that Willy's been jealous of him all along. After he hands him the extra money, Willy muses that after all the traveling, "the appointments, and the years, you end up worth more dead than alive." He's referring to the only thing he has left, his life insurance policy. He doesn't seem to hear Charley when he says, "Willy, nobody's worth nothin' dead." His parting words are a revelation that Willy is beginning to see some truth: "Charley, you're the only friend I got. Isn't that a remarkable thing?" The lights black out.

The new scene, introduced by loud music, is the restaurant where the boys have arranged to treat their father to dinner. Lights come up on Stanley, a waiter who positions a table for Happy, the first to arrive. Evidently a regular customer, Happy orders a special lobster dish made with champagne because the meal is a special occasion to celebrate the business he and Biff plan to start with Bill Oliver's money.

Suddenly Happy notices an attractive woman (his slang for available women is "strudel," meaning a dessert). He tells Stanley to watch while he gets her to go out with him. The line he uses with her is that he's a champagne salesman and he'd like her to try his brand. Notice the ease with which he spins lies to impress her, a "gift of gab" inherited from his father. He is flirting with her when Biff comes in.

Biff is in an emotional turmoil and is not in the mood to flirt with girls. He wants to know if their father has arrived yet, but Happy is too busy playing his game of conquest to answer. Happy tells her that he went to West Point and Biff is a pro football star. Hap offers the girl to Biff as if he owns her. When Biff says he could never impress such a girl, Happy asks where his old confidence is.

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