Willy Loman's relationship with his brother Ben is developed as a motif throughout the play, culminating in Willy's final hallucinatory conversation with him shortly before commiting suicide. The news of Ben's death in Act I can be interpreted as an inciting incident in that it pushes Willy into memories of the past, emphasizing Willy's dire situation in contrast with Ben's wild success. Ben's demeanor as he materializes onstage, the figment of Willy's imagination, is significant:
He is a stolid man, in his sixties, with a mustache and an authoritative air. He is utterly certain of his destiny, and there is an aura of far places about him.
Ben's "authoritative air" and his being "utterly certain of his destiny" mock Willy's own emotional state and lack of success after years of hard work. News of Ben's death reminds Willy of the passage of time and how very little he has achieved, with time running out.
In Arthur Miller's play, Death of a Salesman, there is a great deal of significance in the fact that Willy's brother, Ben, is dead.
What the reader may first notice is that Willy often has conversations with his dead brother. Discussions consist of shared memories of growing up (insights into Willy's psyche), accomplishments Ben experienced in life, Willy's overwhelming sense of failure for not having followed his brother's path, worries over his job, and concerns for the future of his sons—in conversations that may or may not have taken place in the past.
As long as Ben was alive, it seems that Willy—whose grip on reality is shaky at best—could always imagine a better life for himself. He now feels connected to someone who is willing to listen to him (unlike his boss who has no time for this "old-timer"). Ben's "listening" also represents a sense that someone cares for Willy, and that this companion encourages and understands him. Once again, we cannot be certain if this was the relationship that really existed in the past, or if this has just come to pass after his brother's passing.
Whereas Ben personifies all that is possible in a man's life, and Willy sees his life as a failure, Ben's presence now (after he has died) may well provide a sense of foreshadowing for the play's end: how can we hope for Willy to rise above the burdens of his life when the most functional relationship he has is with a dead brother?