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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)

But when Biff begs his father to "hold on to the facts tonight," Willy interrupts. Does Biff want to lay facts on the line?

Okay, here's a fact for the boys to digest: he has been fired. Now what good news do they have that he can take home to Linda?

The boys are utterly shocked. Even the disrespect for him that has become habitual lately has not prepared them for this complete shattering of their image of their father. They try to get more information, but he silences them with, "I'm out!"

The stage directions say that he's "driving" his point, which is ironic because "driving" a car is how he lives-and dies. The directions then say Biff is "driven," or pushed, into making up a story to satisfy Willy's terrible demand. The playwright's choice of two forms, active and passive, of the same verb emphasizes the direct effect of Willy's life and dreams on Biff. Incidentally, consider the other uses of the verb "to drive": drive a nail, drive a home run, drive someone into a corner, drive someone crazy, etc.

Biff is being railroaded into a version of his meeting with Oliver that will please the others. In a way the salvation of the family depends on Biff's possibilities in life. But despite their attempts to alter his story, Biff is trying to stick to the facts.

Willy: Very hard man to see, y'know.

Happy: Oh, I know.

Willy: Is that where you had the drinks?

Biff: Yeah, he gave me a couple of-no, no!

He can't go through with the lie. Willy accuses him of not having seen Oliver at all, or of insulting him, and, at a loss how to explain it to Willy's satisfaction, Biff tells him just to "let me out of it" and leave him alone. They are shouting at each other.

Willy: Tell me what happened!

Biff: (to Happy) I can't talk to him!

Other voices start to crowd into Willy's head, as they do when he gets upset. Young Bernard is announcing that Biff flunked math. Willy shouts frantically, "Math, math, math!" frightening the boys in the restaurant who do not see the people Willy's imagination has summoned. Spurred by his father's apparent agitation, Biff tries to take hold of the situation by once and for all stating the truth. But at this important moment Willy is far away. He returns to the present just as Biff finishes his story about stealing Oliver's pen. Willy missed the whole thing.

The voices grow more insistent in Willy's head. A hotel operator is paging him. "I'm not in my room!" Willy shouts, to Biff and Hap's confusion. "I'll make good," Biff promises rashly, trying to hold Willy down as he rises in his seat. "No, no, no!" Willy keeps shouting.

By this time Biff feels that his father is out of his mind and the only thing that will calm him is a big lie about Oliver. He is right. Oliver liked the Florida idea and wants to have lunch with me tomorrow, Biff tells him. The effect is amazing: Willy listens, brightens, and then exults, "You got it! You got it!"

Startled by the instantaneous change and the new expectations this lie commits him to, Biff wavers between sticking to it and backing down. "I'm just telling you this so you'll know that I can still make an impression, Pop. And I'll make good somewhere, but I can't go tomorrow, see?" He adds that he wouldn't be able to explain taking the pen, especially since he had been suspected while he worked for Oliver of taking a carton of basketballs. Willy is thrown back into dejection by Biff's backing down, and hurls his worst insult at him:

Willy: Don't you want to be anything?

Biff: Pop, how can I go back?

The argument rages back and forth, Biff claiming he went to see Oliver in the first place because of Willy, and Willy insisting he go back and meet Oliver for lunch the next day. Finally Biff uses the only words that Willy can understand: "I've got no appointment!" And Willy retreats to the only thing he's sure of: "Are you spiting me?" Willy is especially enraged by Biff because a parallel scene involving Biff is going on in his head at the same time. He is remembering a time in his hotel room when he was lying in bed with The Woman in Boston and someone-Biffwas knocking on the door.

In the midst of Willy's emotional chaos, Miss Forsythe, the girl Happy has asked to arrange a date, arrives at their table with her friend Letta. Introductions are made, and Willy is about to sit down and drink with them all when the voice of The Woman pulls him back to the past. Unable to cope with the realities of the past and the present at the same time, Willy escapes to the washroom.

Biff tells the girls they've just seen a "fine troubled prince." Happy, though, is able to drop all his worries and focus on having a good time. He tries to organize the group for a night on the town. Horrified at Happy's thoughtlessness, Biff accuses his brother-rightly perhaps-of not giving a damn about their father. Biff pulls out of his pocket the rubber hose he has taken from the cellar, tangible evidence that their father is thinking of killing himself. Biff is terribly upset, and reasons that only Happy, who doesn't care about their father, can help Willy: " him... Help me, help me, I can't bear to look at his face!" Totally undone, Biff runs from the restaurant. The girls are confused, but interested. As the three of them rush out after Biff, one of the girls asks, doesn't Hap want to tell his father where he's going? In a final act of callousness, Happy says, as he leaves the restaurant, "No, that's not my father. He's just a guy."

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