Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1204
Jenny: Charley’s secretary
Part 3 covers the action up to when Willy says, “Charley, you’re the only friend I got. Isn’t that a remarkable thing?”
The flashback in which Willy challenges Charley to fight has ended, but Willy is still heard talking loudly offstage. The lights come up on a new scene: Bernard, now an adult, and Jenny, Charley’s secretary, in Charley’s office. After being fired, Willy has come to Charley’s office – as he does every week, Jenny tells Bernard. Jenny has work to do and asks Bernard to deal with Willy, who is obviously very disoriented, talking to himself as if he were in the flashback of Part 2. As Willy enters, he seems to flirt with Jenny; however, pathos fills the moment when Jenny asks, “How’ve you been feeling?” and Willy responds, “Not much any more,” indicating his emotional numbness. Willy then becomes polite and formal when he notices Bernard. As an adult, Bernard now strikes a very impressive figure; he still wears glasses but is mature and self-assured.
Willy is surprised to see Bernard, who is now a lawyer and on his way to Washington, DC, where he will argue a case. Explaining why he has two tennis rackets with him, Bernard states that while in Washington he will play tennis with a friend who has his own tennis court. Impressed with the kind of friends Bernard keeps, Willy boasts that Bill Oliver called Biff back East for a very important deal. However, Willy cannot maintain this deception for long and soon asks Bernard, “Why didn’t [Biff] ever catch on? …. His life ended after that Ebbets Field game. From the age of seventeen nothing good ever happened to him.”
In an attempt to figure out Biff’s lack of motivation and success, Bernard asks Willy if years ago he told Biff not to go to summer school to make up the math class he flunked. Had Biff gone to summer school he would have graduated from high school. Willy responds angrily: “Me? I begged him to go. I ordered him to go!” Willy becomes increasingly defensive as Bernard explains that he remembers Biff planning to go to summer school but then changing his mind after a trip to Boston to see Willy. Upon returning from the trip, Bernard says, Biff burned his own sneakers, the ones on which he had written “University of Virginia,” which was the college Biff had wanted to attend. Biff fought and cried with Bernard for some unexplained reason, which is why Bernard now wants to know “What happened in Boston, Willy?”
Willy denies anything happened and soon Charley walks in and the conversation changes. As Bernard leaves for Washington, Charley says proudly to Willy, “How do like this kid? Gonna argue a case in front of the Supreme Court.” Bernard exits, but Willy is left in awe of Bernard, wondering why Bernard did not mention such important news. Charley replies that Bernard does not have to mention it – “he’s gonna do it.” Trying to return to work, Charley gives Willy $50, but Willy asks him for $110 since he has an insurance payment due.
Charley offers Willy a job working for him at $50 a week, but Willy insists that he already has a job. Charley then asks Willy why his job does not seem to earn him any money. Willy admits Howard fired him today but still cannot understand it; Willy always believed that success would come “if a man was impressive, and well liked.” Charley tries to tell him that business success depends not on being well liked, but on having something to sell, a fact Willy as a salesman should have learned. When Willy refuses again to accept the job, Charley calls him jealous but gives him the insurance money anyway. Willy becomes subdued, thinking aloud that after so many years of work “you end up worth more dead than alive.” Charley responds forcefully, “Willy, nobody’s worth nothin’ dead.”
Meeting the adult Bernard, we see that the meek bookworm whom Willy once called “anemic” has grown up to be more successful and likable than Biff and Hap. Bernard’s affluence and elevated social status reveal themselves in his occupation as a lawyer arguing a case in front of the Supreme Court and in his friend who owns a tennis court. Furthermore, tennis itself – unlike football, which Biff played – seems like a sport for successful, upper-class, sophisticated people.
Throughout this entire section of the play, Willy alternates between asking openly for help, explanations, and advice, and nervously lying (about having a job, about Biff’s success). When Bernard questions Willy about what happened in Boston, we begin to feel that Willy knows something that he will not admit, perhaps not even to himself. Up to this point in the play, we have been inclined to think that Biff’s problems and his distrust of Willy do not stem from one particular event; however, we must now wonder exactly what did take place in Boston, those many years ago when Biff visited Willy after flunking math. We may remember that Boston was where Willy had his affair with The Woman, but at this stage in the play we can only wonder if that affair has any connection to why Biff never went to summer school and also to why Biff gets angriest at his father when he is defending his mother from Willy’s cruelties and verbal abuse.
Charley’s remark – that Bernard does not have to mention something because “he’s going to do it” – reminds us that Willy has always been all talk and no action. Seeing Bernard and Charley’s success alongside Willy and Biff’s lack of success, we realize the way Willy’s desire to be “well liked” has failed him. Furthermore, not even Charley truly likes Willy, since Willy has long looked down on him and even now acts too proud to accept a job from him. Rather than admit the error of over-emphasizing the importance of “personality,” Willy initially lies about his job and about Biff. Willy feels ashamed but has never been able to stop hoping that events would turn around.
However, when Willy says “you end up worth more dead than alive,” we sense his despair rather than the usual optimism. Death, Willy implies, might be equal to or better than facing failure honestly. If we consider Willy’s words less metaphorically, we wonder whether he means that, if he dies, the insurance policy will pay his family more money than he could earn for them while still alive. At this moment, Willy appears to contemplate suicide as a way of solving his problems. Charley seems to detect the seriousness of Willy’s despair. By saying “nobody’s worth nothin’ dead,” Charley implies that death solves nothing; through Charley’s line, Miller may also be reminding us that Willy’s family would not receive life insurance money if Willy’s death were found to be a suicide. As the scene ends, the audience might also detect the way Willy equates friendship with the loaning of money when he tells Charley, “You’re the only friend I got.”
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