Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller

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Act 2, Part 1: Summary and Analysis

New Character:
Howard Wagner: Willy’s boss

Summary
Part I covers the action from the beginning of Act II until Howard Wagner says to Willy, “Pull yourself together, kid, there’s people outside.”

The act opens with bright, cheerful music as Linda sees Willy off to work. Both of them are in high spirits, feeling confident that Biff will receive the loan from Bill Oliver today. Linda tells Willy that Biff’s “whole attitude seemed to be hopeful” when he left the house earlier in the morning. “He’s heading for a change,” replies Willy, who then remarks that he may buy some seeds tonight to plant a garden in the backyard.

Rather than starting on a sales trip today, Willy intends to go to his company’s main office in the city and finally ask his boss, Howard, for a new, non-traveling job. Knowing that Biff’s luck might improve has given Willy new determination, too. However, Willy’s mood sours again when Linda reminds him to ask Howard for an advance in pay; several bills must be paid – the insurance premium, the car repair, the refrigerator, and the house payment. After this house payment, though, Willy and Linda will own their house outright, ending 25 years of payments. Willy is heartened by that thought and Linda’s news that he must meet Biff and Hap for dinner in the city: “Biff came to me this morning, Willy, and he said, ‘Tell Dad, we want to blow him to a big meal.’ Be there six o’clock. You and your boys are going to have dinner.” The expectation is that at the dinner Biff will announce that he received the loan and that Willy will announce that he has a better job. As Willy leaves the house, he sees a pair of Linda’s stockings and demands that she stop mending them because “it gets me nervous.” After Willy has left, Linda receives a telephone call from Biff, who wants to make sure Linda told Willy about dinner. Before the conversation ends, Linda reminds Biff to “be sweet to [Willy] tonight, dear. Be loving to him. Because he’s only a little boat looking for a harbor.”

The scene then switches to Howard Wagner’s office, where Willy is trying to ask for a new job. Howard, many years younger than Willy, is busy playing with a “wire recorder” – in other words, a tape recorder, which was a relatively new invention at that time. Howard enthusiastically plays recordings of his daughter whistling, his son reciting state capitals, and his wife shyly wondering what to say to the machine. Howard encourages Willy to buy a recorder, suggesting that it can be used to record radio programs. “Supposing you wanna hear Jack Benny[’s radio program], see?” he says. “But you can’t be home at that hour. So you tell the maid to turn the radio on when Jack Benny comes on, and [the recorder] automatically goes on with the radio.”

Eventually, Willy manages to tell Howard that he’s tired and would prefer not to travel anymore. Howard answers that there are no openings to be a salesman in the store. “[W]here am I going to put you, kid?” he asks Willy. When Howard states “you gotta admit, business is business,” Willy launches into a long story about how he began as a traveling salesman very young in life. His inspiration, Willy says, came from watching the way an older salesman, Dave Singleman, could at age 84 make sales with a simple phone call. When Singleman died, hundreds of buyers and salesmen came to his funeral. Such friendship and gratitude, though, is not possible now, says Willy, because all the “personality” has been taken out of the business.

Howard does not change his mind. Willy becomes insistent and reminds Howard that Willy has worked for the company since before Howard was born, back when Howard’s father owned the company. Howard still does not budge, and when he leaves the room Willy realizes that he has been yelling at Howard. When Howard returns, Willy feels ashamed; Willy states he will go to Boston and continue to be a traveling salesman. Rather than...

(The entire section is 1,555 words.)