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Free Study Guide-Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller-Free Online Booknotes
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ACT II

Notes

This act is filled with contrasts and pathos. Willy begins his day filled with hope, for Biff has gone to see Oliver, and Willy is certain great things will come from the meeting. He is so positive that he decides he will go out and get some seeds to plant for the yard and talk to Howard about a transfer from New England to New York. The first hint that Willy's day will not go well comes when his wife reminds him about the payments that are due - on the car, the refrigerator, and the house. Willy ironically responds, that "they time them so when you finally paid for them, they're used up." Although he is talking about the appliances and the car, this, in essence, also describes Willy's life. When he has paid his debts, he is used up and worthless, easily discarded by the company and his sons.

It is appropriate that when Willy is happy he wants to plant some seeds that will grow into plants. There is in Willy a strong need to create something, to leave something material behind. Just as he wants to plant seeds, he wants to plant ideas of success in the minds of his sons. Unfortunately, everything Willy plants does not seem to bloom, even though Willy cannot accept this fact. He still believes he will have flowers in the back yard, and he still believes his sons will be successful.

Willy first goes to his boss' office to ask for the transfer to New York. In order for his request to be honored, Willy desperately tries to prove to Howard that he has been a good salesman in the past; he even lies about how much he has made, because Willy cannot distinguish truth from illusion. When Howard contradicts the amount, Willy argues with him and gets angry. Howard responds by firing Willy, asking him to return his sales cases. The pathos of Willy's situation is summarized in his comment: "You can't eat the orange and throw the peel away. A man is not a piece of fruit." But Howard, as a businessman, has squeezed out all of Willy's juices and has now permanently discarded him; he is no longer of use to the company, no matter how long he has worked for them.


There are two important things to notice about the scene with Howard. One is the description that Willy gives of the successful salesman who died at the age of eighty-four. Willy is impressed with the fact that many of his clients came to the man's funeral, indicating that Singleman was extremely popular. In truth, Singleman is the image of what Willy would like to be - a financially successful and well-liked salesman. Unfortunately, Willy is never to obtain this dream; at the end of the play, Willy dies penniless, and the audience sees that no one attends his funeral.

Additionally, in the scene with Howard, Willy is trapped by his own lies and illusions. He has always bragged to Howard about how wonderful and successful his sons are. Howard, therefore, has no qualms about firing Willy, for he is sure that his sons will be able to take care of their father. He even suggests to Willy that he should turn to his sons for help. Of course, neither Biff nor Happy is able to support Willy.

After he is fired, Willy goes into his fantasy world, where his dead brother Ben offers him a job. In the illusion, Linda interferes and reminds Willy that he is sure to make partner in his present job in New York. Of course, the audience realizes that Willy has probably repeatedly told Linda that he was going to be offered a partnership in the future. This illusion is particularly ironic, being juxtaposed next to his having been fired from the company that was to have made him a partner. Willy's exclamation to Ben that he is going to conquer the world is equally ironic.

His next illusion is to remember the day of Biff's great football game. Everyone is rushing to the game when Charley comes in, wondering where everyone is going in such a hurry. Willy is upset that his friend does not remember that it is Biff's big day. Charley laughs at Willy about making the game so important and asks him when he is going to grow up. In contrast to the practical, rational Charley, Willy does seem particularly childish and immature.

Facing the real world of his financial problems, Willy actually heads to Charley's office to see if he can borrow some more money from his friend. As Willy waits outside the office, talking to himself, Bernard, Biff's old friend and Charley's son, emerges, carrying tennis rackets and heading towards some private courts to play. He is the picture of success, and a sharp contrast to Biff. As a youth, Biff was the popular one - a successful athlete and a handsome boy; as an adult, however, he has turned into a drifter, unable to hold down a job. Now it is Bernard who is successful; he is a well-known lawyer who has enough financial security to play tennis during a business day. Bernard wants to know from Willy what has happened to Biff. As soon as Bernard mentions Biff's trip to Boston, Willy yells at him and accuses him of putting the blame on him. This is Willy's defense mechanism for his guilt over the Boston fiasco, which will be detailed in a flashback later in the act.

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