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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)

NOTE:
Like his father, Happy idealizes the golden years of adolescence and promise, when Biff seemed a hero with the world at his feet. It makes Happy uncomfortable to see Biff depressed. If the truth isn't pleasant, Happy, like Willy, varnishes and paints it until it satisfies him. Escaping from uncomfortable truths and putting on an impressive act are his specialties. Now, in the restaurant, Happy can't resist practicing his art, as we will see.

Determined to shake Biff out of what seems to be his nervousness, Happy asks the girl to join them for the evening, and to find a friend. She goes to make a phone call to arrange it. But after she leaves the table Biff quickly tells his brother to cut out the nonsense and listen to what has happened to him. "It's been the strangest day I ever went through."

Biff had waited all day to see his former employer, Mr. Oliver, sending his name in with no success. Naturally Biff by then was beside himself with frustration. At five o'clock Oliver walked out of his office and went home: "...he gave me one look and-I realized what a ridiculous lie my whole life has been!" Biff's realization was that he and his family have chosen to believe that instead of a shipping clerk he was a salesman for Oliver.

NOTE:
Even Biff himself was convinced of this revised version of events. Exaggeration or revision of past events is a habit with the Lomans. Because they manage to see the past in such glorious terms, they have high expectations of the future. Biff has decided that he must tell his father tonight that he's not the hero Willy's always claimed he was. He wants to end the cycle of revisionism and exaggeration that continually sets standards too high for him to meet. Watch for the dramatic tension of this scene in the restaurant, as Biff's need for truth and Willy's need for fantasy collide.


When Oliver left his office, Biff was full of anger and humiliation at everyone, including himself. "I could've torn the walls down!" he says to Happy, but instead he went into the office and stole Oliver's expensive fountain pen, and ran eleven flights down to the street. Now he's decided to tell this to Willy. No, says Hap, tell him something nice even if you have to make it up: string the story along and it will gradually fade away until Willy's forgotten about it. However, Biff knows perfectly well that Willy never forgets, and, if he tells a lie, "it'll go on forever." Happy is quite right when he says, "Dad is never so happy as when he's looking forward to something!"

NOTE:
When Willy's looking forward to something he is counting on it happening his way. When his hopes involve his son's future, this puts unbearable pressure on Biff. Biff feels he's worthless, and that Willy is worthless, too. For years every time he has come home he has felt Willy "mocked" him because he wasn't the prince he was supposed to be. In return, Biff sneered at Willy's efforts to pretend that everything is rosy and glamorous. Willy calls this negative attitude "spite." To spite someone is to treat him or her maliciously for no reason. Is Biff "spiting" Willy? Does Biff have a reason to have turned against his father? Keep these questions in mind in the next few scenes.

Willy arrives at the restaurant. Biff orders double Scotches all around, and admits to having had a few already. How did it go with Oliver, Willy asks Biff. They're both smiling-Willy encouragingly, Biff reassuringly because he has bad news. Slowly Biff starts to tell about his experience. "Terrific, Pop," Happy interjects, trying to tilt the balance from negative to positive. But Biff persists that as he waited for Oliver he realized some "facts" about his life. Unable to refrain from blaming Willy, he says,

Biff: Who was it, Pop? Who ever said I was a salesman with Oliver?

Willy: Well, you were.

Biff: No, Dad, I was a shipping clerk.

Willy: But you were practically-NOTE: It's a habit in the Loman family to say "practically" this or "almost" that. It's the way they've rewritten the past. This is what Biff is now rejecting as he tries to make a clean start on the basis of who he is instead of who Willy wants him to be. Listen for the key repetitions of "practically" and "almost."

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