The realities of the daily lives of the Loman family in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman stand in stark contrast to their dreams and ambitions. Linda in particular has learned through years of disappointment and caring for the mercurial Willy and their sons Biff and Happy that the truest expression of her emotions would prove fatal to their ability to coexist. Miller alludes to this in the introductory stage directions he provides before the curtain opens as Willy returns from yet another long, exhausting business trip. He arrives at their home in Brooklyn late at night, after Linda has retired for evening:
“Most often jovial, [Linda] has developed an iron repression of her exceptions to WILLY’s behavior—she more than loves him, she admires him, as though his mercurial nature, his temper, his massive dreams and little cruelties, served her only as sharp reminders of the turbulent longings within him, longings which she shares but lacks the temperament to utter and follow to their end.”
Miller’s description provides an early notice that Linda’s thoughts might not be consistent with her comments to Willy, for whom she has served as a compliant and supportive wife – with the notable exception of her opposition to Willy’s suggestion that he go into business with his brother Ben.
Linda’s unwillingness to speak honestly to Willy is reflected in the following comments in which she asserts a degree of respect for Willy from their sons that may not exist, while Willy’s deception begins to be revealed:
“LINDA: Willy, darling, you’re the handsomest man in the world—
WILLY: Oh, no, Linda.
LINDA: To me you are. [Slight pause.] The handsomest. [From the darkness is heard the laughter of a woman. WILLY doesn’t turn to it, but it continues through LINDA’s lines.] And the boys, Willy. Few men are idolized by their children the way you are.”
While Linda’s inner thoughts are not always reflected in her audible comments, Willy is more blatantly hypocritical, especially to oldest son Biff. Biff, it emerges during the course of the play, discovered Willy having an affair in Boston, coloring their relationship and filling Biff with a deeply felt resentment of his critical father (“I know he’s a fake.”) It is in this context that one views the following passage, in which Willy’s declaration of love for Linda is contrasted with this relationship with his mistress:
WILLY: You’re the best there is, Linda, you’re a pal, you know that? On the road—on the road I want to grab you sometimes and just kiss the life outa you. [The laughter is loud now, and he moves into a brightening area at the left, where THE WOMAN has come from behind the scrim and is standing, putting on her hat, looking into a “mirror” and laughing]”
Biff’s inner thoughts are dominated by his knowledge of Willy’s infidelity. He has kept the secret from Linda, but, during tense conversations, there are hints of that secret. During yet another argument with his father, Biff alludes once again to that secret:
“BIFF: [Starting left for the stairs.] Oh, Jesus, I’m going to sleep!
WILLY: [Calling after him.] Don’t curse in this house!
BIFF: [Turning.] Since when did you get so clean?”
Biff’s rhetorical question is a product of his years conspiring with Willy to continue to conceal from Linda the affair that Linda may very well know about anyway.