Act 2, Part 1: Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1555

New Character:
Howard Wagner: Willy’s boss

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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 accept Willy’s offer, Howard fires him, telling him “I think you need a good long rest, Willy.”

Willy is stunned. When he tells Howard that he must earn money, Howard suggests that Willy’s sons support him. Willy admits that Biff and Hap are “working on a very big deal,” but adds “I can’t throw myself on my sons. I’m not a cripple!” Howard does not give in. Asking Willy to return the company’s sample cases, Howard leaves the office as he says to Willy, “Pull yourself together, kid, there’s people outside.”

Analysis
With the new day, Linda and Willy have renewed hopes. By this point in the play, though, the audience might wonder if – considering the many past disappointments of the Lomans – they should be more cautious. When Willy announces that he will try to plant a garden in the yard, Miller means that once again Willy will try to plant seeds of hope and change. Linda reminds Willy, though, that “not enough sun gets back there. Nothing’ll grow anymore”; with these lines, Miller seems to say that Willy’s hope is misplaced and futile – his wish for a better life stands little chance of coming true. The wish has little chance not only because Willy might be a “fake,” but because the world has little sympathy for an ordinary person like Willy. Although the American dream invites people to believe that a better life is within their grasp, even Willy’s decades of hard work may not be enough to ensure a stable living.

Willy and Linda’s bills remind us that they are struggling to make ends meet. While the end of house payments is a bright spot, bills will keep coming. And when Willy sees Linda’s stockings, he is reminded that not only has he had trouble making money to buy Linda new stockings, but he has cheated on her by having an affair with another woman.

Willy’s behavior in Howard’s office should remind the audience of how Willy told Biff not to behave when visiting Bill Oliver. Willy counseled Biff not to be timid, but Willy is timid, asking Howard for $65 a week then $50 and finally $40; and when Howard looks for a cigarette lighter, Willy hands it to him, even though Willy had told Biff not to do small, demeaning things like pick up a fallen package when trying to assert oneself with a boss. Throughout this scene, Howard calls Willy “kid,” even though Howard is only Biff’s age. Calling Willy “kid” shows Howard’s lack of respect for Willy.

Howard signifies the success and privilege that neither Willy nor his own son Biff has had. Howard suggests that Willy buy a wire recorder, but Willy could never afford the $150 it costs. Similarly, unlike Howard, Willy does not have a maid who could turn on the recorder in the middle of the day. Instead, Willy has a wife, Linda, who must do all of the household chores herself. Thus, Howard’s family reminds us of the happiness and prosperity Willy once hoped would be his own. Moreover, Howard contrasts starkly with Biff, who has neither a family nor a job at this advanced stage in his life.

When he recounts his admiration for Dave Singleman, Willy describes someone who mastered the “personality” of selling. Willy has not had the same success, partially because his old buyers have retired and partially because Willy’s personality may not be extremely likable. The image of Dave Singleman’s well-attended funeral is important because it differs so much from the image of a sad Willy contemplating a solitary suicide rather than life.

As Willy is fired, we see him become increasingly desperate. He really does seem like “a little boat looking for a harbor,” as Linda described him. By firing Willy, Howard implies that not only is Willy a bad salesman but also that his personality is an embarrassment to the company. Throughout his life, Willy felt sure that his personality would bring him business success, but it has not. Willy’s failure can be blamed on his own annoying behavior and arrogance (remember his mean attitude toward Bernard and Charley, as well as how he cheated on his wife and how he permitted Biff to cheat at school). However, Willy should not bear all the blame for his failure, the play seems to say. Despite Willy’s faults, he has endured many years on the road as a salesman and has made barely enough money to get by. Howard’s excuse that “business is business” sounds awfully cold-hearted, since it equates Willy’s value as a human being with his ability to make money for the company. The play indirectly proposes that Willy’s failure cannot be blamed entirely on him as an individual. American culture – especially the way it equates money with a person’s value – is also responsible for Willy’s lack of enduring beliefs and for abandoning him in his time of need. Somehow the competitive “laws of business” fail to ensure the humane treatment of all citizens.

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Act 1, Part 4: Summary and Analysis

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Act 2, Part 2: Summary and Analysis