In Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, what is Willy remembering when his sons overhear him talking to himself? How do they feel about their father's behavior?

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booboosmoosh | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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In Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, when Willy is talking to himself, he is actually having conversations with people in the past (in his mind), or frequently he is speaking to his brother Ben who has been dead for some time.

Willy is losing touch with the real world. Willy obsesses about the past as his reality becomes more fragile.

In this particular part of the play, Biff has been away for a while and has finally come home. He and Happy are in their old room talking, and they can hear Willy talking to himself downstairs. Willy has been taken back to a happier times and in his memory, Biff is waxing the family car and they're talking. Willy says...

You gonna wash the engine, Biff?...Don't get your sweater dirty, Biff!...What a simonizing job! No kiddin', Biff, you got a date? Wonderful!

Happy is familiar with this behavior, but this is the first time Biff has heard it. While Hap shushes him, Biff becomes angry for his mother's sake. At one point, stage direction states "A look of pain crosses Biff's face." Biff says...

Doesn't he know Mom can hear that?...Mom's hearing that!...With her in the house. Brother!...That selfish, stupid...

While Biff is angry and protective of his mother's feelings, Hap seems mildly concerned, but more because Willy's behavior is embarrassing...

Isn't that terrible? Don't leave again, will you? You'll find a job here. You gotta stick around. I don't know what to do about him, it's getting embarrassing...Go to sleep, but talk to him in the morning, will you?

As the scene changes, Willy is back in Biff's high school days, continuing the conversation. The audience is given a flashback to happier days in the family's life, which will be contrasted sharply later in the play with the reality of how the dynamics of the family have drastically changed.

However, for this portion of the play, Willy is introduced as a man who is losing touch with those around him; his son Biff is angered by this behavior (though we may not yet be sure as to why); and, Happy—as we will discover as the play continues—is relatively shallow and more interested in himself than anyone else. Biff is criticized more by his father and mother, but he is the one who actually seems to care more for them than Hap.


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