Flashbacks and imaginary conversations with his deceased brother Ben are central to the character of Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman. Willy is at the end of his line, professionally, mentally and physically. He is emotionally exhausted from a lifetime of driving around New York and New England representing the company for which he works, and which is now run by the condescending son of the man who founded it and who hired Willy many years ago. Miller’s play is about the demise of a human being who chased the American Dream all of his life only to struggle with the reality of his failures – failures represented by the status of his two grown sons, Biff and Happy. Early in Death of Salesman, Willy newly returned from yet another frustrating sales trip, reflects back on happier times, when his sons were young and he was not yet the burned-out failure he has since become. The following passage from Act I of Miller’s play includes quotes that will become more important as the story progresses:
BIFF: Where’d you go this time, Dad? Gee we were lonesome for you.
WILLY (pleased, puts an arm around each boy and they come down to the apron): Lonesome, heh?
BIFF: Missed you every minute.
WILLY: Don’t say? Tell you a secret, boys. Don’t breathe it to a soul. Someday I’ll have my own business, and I’ll never have to leave home any more.
HAPPY: Like Uncle Charley, heh?
WILLY: Bigger than Uncle Charley! Because Charley is not — liked. He’s liked, but he’s not — well liked.
BIFF: Where’d you go this time, Dad?
WILLY: Well, I got on the road, and I went north to Providence. Met the Mayor.
BIFF: The Mayor of Providence!
WILLY: He was sitting in the hotel lobby.
BIFF: What’d he say?
WILLY: He said, »Morning!« And I said, »You got a fine city here, Mayor. And then he had coffee with me.
There are three statements in the above flashback scene that resonate with those familiar with Miller’s play. The first is Willy’s comment that his neighbor and “friend,” Charley, who is a highly successful businessman, whose son is a successful lawyer, and who loans Willy money to help him pay his bills, is “not well liked.” Willy is obsessed with the notion of being well-liked. To him, it is the most important attribute a human can possess.
The second statement is Willy’s declaration that he will someday have his own business and never have to travel again. This is important in examining Willy’s failures as a salesman. He has grown old without attaining the goals he has set for himself, and can only, as a quote discussed later will illuminate, comfort himself in having been well-liked. The third comment is Willy’s description of his encounter with the mayor of Providence. Willy tells his young sons this story to further impress upon them the importance of their father, however false the assertion.
Another flashback crucial to the play’s narrative involves Biff’s discovery of his father’s affair with a woman in Boston. Biff surprises Willy at the hotel his father uses when traveling only to surprised, and emotionally devastated, by what he discovers:
The Woman enters, laughing. Willy follows her. She is in a black slip; he is buttoning his shirt. Raw, sensuous music accompanies their speech)
WILLY: Will you stop laughing? Will you stop?
THE WOMAN: Aren’t you going to answer the door? He’ll wake the whole hotel.
WILLY: I’m not expecting anybody.
THE WOMAN: Whyn’t you have another drink, honey, and stop being so damn self-centered?
WILLY: I’m so lonely.
THE WOMAN: You know you ruined me, Willy? From now on, whenever you come to the office, I’ll see that you go right through to the buyers. No waiting at my desk anymore, Willy. You ruined me.
WILLY: That’s nice of you to say that.
THE WOMAN: Gee, you are self-centered! Why so sad? You are the saddest, self-centeredest soul I ever did see-saw. (She laughs kisses her.). Come on inside, drummer boy. It’s silly to be dressing in the middle of the night. (As knocking is heard.) Aren’t you going to answer the door?
WILLY: They’re knocking on the wrong door.
THE WOMAN: But I felt the knocking. And he heard us talking in here. Maybe the hotel’s on fire!
WILLY (his terror rising): It’s a mistake.
THE WOMAN: Then tell him to go away!
WILLY: There’s nobody there.
THE WOMAN: It’s getting on my nerves, Willy. There’s somebody standing out there and it’s getting on my nerves!
WILLY (pushing her away from him): All right, stay in the bathroom here, and don’t come out. . . (The knocking is heard again. He takes a few steps away from her, and she vanishes into the wing. The light follows him, and now he is facing Young Biff, who carries a suitcase. Biff steps toward him. The music is gone.)
BIFF: Why didn’t you answer?
WILLY: Biff! What are you doing in Boston?
BIFF: Why didn’t you answer? I’ve been knocking for five minutes, I called you on the phone...
WILLY: I just heard you. I was in the bathroom and had the door shut. Did anything happen home?
BIFF: Dad — I let you down.
Biff is, as has been established, a serious underachiever. He is in his mid-30s and has moved back in with his parents and brother because he has failed to succeed in the real world. He dreams of working on a ranch in the west, but knows that such a life represents a major disappointment to his father. The discovery of the woman in Willy’s hotel room will lead to Biff’s emotional and professional demise, as this figure of authority who unceasingly preached morals and conduct is proven a hypocrite to his oldest son.
These are two important flashbacks in Miller’s play. In addition, as noted above, Willy’s imaginary conversations with his dead brother Ben also play an important role. Ben was a successful entrepreneur who urged Willy to go into business with him. Willy lives everyday now with the regret that he turned down that offer, and he blames his long-suffering wife Linda for that ultimately disastrous decision. In a conversation with Ben, Willy reveals the extent of his self-delusion regarding the mark he will leave in the world. Referring again to Willy’s emphasis on being well-liked, he ruminates on a plan to kill himself so that Linda can collect the life insurance and pay-off the mortgage:
WILLY (now assured, with rising power): Oh, Ben, that’s the whole beauty of it! I see it like a diamond, shining in the dark, hard and rough, that I can pick up and touch in my hand. Not like — like an appointment! This would not be another damned-fool appointment, Ben, and it changes all the aspects. Because he thinks I’m nothing, see, and so he spites me. But the funeral... (Straightening up.) Ben, that funeral will be massive! They’ll come from Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire! All the oldtimers with the strange license plates — that boy will be thunderstruck, Ben, because he never realized — I am known! Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey — I am known, Ben, and he’ll see it with his eyes once and for all. He’ll see what I am, Ben! He’s in for a shock, that boy!
In the end, of course, Willy’s funeral is attended only by Linda, Biff, Happy, Charley, and Charley’s son, Bernard. There are no representatives of the company for which he worked, and no former clients from New England. The loneliness of the funeral is highlighted by Linda’s sorrowful acknowledgement that Willy’s life was not well-lived. In the following exchange with Charley at the funeral, Linda laments the absence of attendees from Willy’s life:
LINDA: Why didn’t anybody come?
CHARLEY: It was a very nice funeral.
LINDA: But where are all the people he knew? Maybe they blame him.
CHARLEY: Naa. It’s a rough world, Linda. They wouldn’t blame him.
This passage is not a flashback or product of any character’s imagination. It serves to illuminate the relevance of the earlier flashbacks and imaginary conversations that have occurred throughout Death of a Salesman. In the end, Willy achieved a life’s goal – paying off the mortgage – only at the expense of his own miserable existence.