Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1849
Part 6 covers the action up to the end of Act II.
After Biff leaves the house with Linda, we see Willy alone on stage. Blue light covers the stage, indicating night time. With a flashlight, a hoe, and several packets of seeds, Willy begins to plant his garden. Ben appears and listens to Willy describe his “proposition,” one that would leave $20,000 to Linda, who Willy says has suffered. (Today, that $20,000 would be equivalent to roughly $250,000.) The “proposition” implied is Willy’s suicide, which would leave Linda the large amount of insurance money. Ben warns Willy that the insurance company might not pay if Willy’s death were a suicide, but Willy remains confident that Linda would receive the money because he worked hard for years to meet the insurance payments.
Ben suggests that the proposition is also a cowardly solution to Willy’s problems; however, Ben does agree with Willy that $20,000 is a significant amount of money. Willy adds that actual money is better than an appointment, implying that mere “appointments” cannot ensure success. Encouraged by Ben’s response, Willy describes how a large funeral attended by all of Willy’s business friends would impress Biff and win his sympathy: “Because he thinks I’m nothing, see, and so he spites me. But the funeral – Ben, that funeral will be massive!” When Ben replies that Biff will consider Willy a coward, Willy becomes worried again: “Why, why can’t I give him something and not have him hate me?”
Ben drifts offstage as Biff appears. Biff tells Willy he wants to say good-bye because he has decided to leave and not return. Willy refuses to go inside the house with Biff because he does not wish to see Linda, but he then quickly enters the house when Biff confesses, “This isn’t your fault; it’s me, I’m a bum.” Inside the house Linda and, eventually, Hap are also present. Willy becomes angry when Biff insists he has no real appointment with Bill Oliver tomorrow. Willy refuses to take the blame for any future regret Biff will feel for ruining his own life merely to spite Willy. Biff becomes furious that Willy believes he is acting out of spite. Biff pulls out the rubber pipe, calls Willy a phony, and promises no pity for him if Willy commits suicide. Caught, Willy must listen as Biff attributes his own failures largely to Willy: “I never got anywhere because you blew me so full of hot air I could never stand taking orders from anybody!”
After stealing Oliver’s pen, Biff explains, he realized that pursuing success through a business career was making him into someone he did not want to be. Refusing to accept Biff’s idea that both of them are just ordinary, forgettable people, Willy bursts out, “I am Willy Loman, and you are Biff Loman!” Biff persists, “Pop, I’m nothing! I’m nothing, Pop. Can’t you understand that? There’s no spite in it any more. I’m just what I am, that’s all…. Will you let me go, for Christ’s sake? Will you take that phony dream and burn it before something happens?” Holding on to Willy, Biff begins to sob and then goes upstairs. Surprised by Biff’s expression of affection, Willy’s mood changes. Convinced that Biff does not actually spite him but likes him, Willy declares, “That boy – that boy is going to be magnificent!” Unnoticed by the Lomans, Ben replies, “Yes, outstanding, with twenty thousand dollars behind him.”
Linda wants Willy to come to bed immediately, but he promises to come upstairs shortly. Alone with Ben again, Willy marvels at how Biff has always loved him and will “worship” him after receiving the $20,000. The money will even put Biff “ahead of Bernard again,” Willy tells Ben; Ben agrees, calling it “a perfect proposition all around.” Outside the house, now, Willy looks back and begins speaking as if he were once again giving Biff football advice and reminding him of the important people who would be watching the game.
Suddenly unable to find Ben, Willy becomes visibly nervous. Linda fearfully calls his name from inside the house; we see Biff and Hap listen for an answer. Willy rushes off the stage and soon a car is heard starting and speeding away. Music that has been getting increasingly louder and more intense now crashes down and slow, sorrowful music begins. With sad expressions, Biff and Hap dress and descend to the kitchen. Charley and the adult Bernard enter. Linda enters from the living room in dark clothes of mourning, carrying a bunch of roses. The “leaves of day” appear, suggesting the passage of time. Moving through the wall-line of the kitchen, the characters leave the house and stand in front of a grave. Linda kneels.
In this section of the play, the seeds Willy plants are equated with the $20,000 he intends to give his family by committing suicide. Both the seeds and the money should bring a harvest in the future; the seeds will become full grown vegetables and the money will enable Linda and Biff to live respectable, comfortable lives. Willy is certain that the insurance company will pay, but we must doubt that it actually will; Willy’s certainty strikes us as simply one more example of his wishful thinking and his failure to honestly face the facts of his life. He may have worked hard to pay for the insurance policy, but he should know by now that businesses – even insurance companies – rarely make decisions based on emotions such as loyalty. More importantly, perhaps, loyalty would not be extended to someone who has purposely attempted fraud.
Willy thinks a large, fancy funeral – like Dave Singleman’s – will impress Biff, but when Biff confronts Willy with the rubber pipe, we see that Biff may indeed consider Willy a coward for killing himself. Biff expresses his rage over the “hot air” and phoniness that made him a dissatisfied, fake person. Clearly, Biff does feel disgust for Willy, but his decision to leave the house does not appear designed to spite Willy. Biff blames Willy for many of his (Biff’s) failures, but Biff also accepts responsibility for them. Willy’s affair with the Boston woman may have been the specific event that originally alerted Biff to Willy’s dishonesty and arrogance, but Biff does not mention that revelation now, even though it has certainly had a deeply demoralizing and defeating effect on Biff’s outlook and self-regard. Additionally, Biff may refrain from reference to the affair out of respect for his mother’s feelings. Biff may have intentionally or unintentionally offended Willy by not pursuing summer school or a business career, but Biff’s failure in all aspects of life has definitely not been deliberate and should not be considered a way of spiting Willy. Biff’s disappointment in Willy and in himself stems from a whole life of conceit, self-deception, and defeat.
Although Willy has become frustrated with the empty promise of “appointments,” he still attempts to maintain the fiction that Biff has an appointment with Bill Oliver. When Biff begins to cry, Willy finally perceives Biff’s love for him. However, that perception only causes Willy to return to his old, misguided optimism: “That boy – that boy is going to be magnificent!” Furthermore, Willy’s confidence that Biff will “worship” him once the insurance money arrives restores his selfish sense of competition: Biff will soon move “ahead of Bernard again.” We realize Willy has not understood Biff’s message; Willy continues to blow hot air, especially when he begins talking about football and the need to impress important people.
In this section of the play, Ben eventually encourages Willy to kill himself, calling it “a perfect proposition all around.” Willy imagines Ben’s presence merely to receive approval to kill himself. If Willy can believe that the older and supposedly wiser Ben would approve of the “proposition,” then Willy can carry it out. Ben’s presence assures Willy that $20,000 really represents something more dependable than anything else he can give his family. In addition to doubting that the money will be paid or that suicide will earn Biff’s respect, we must wonder if there will be enough money to take care of both Linda and Biff. One moment Willy wants to give the money to Linda, and the next moment he wants to give it to Biff. Although $20,000 was worth much more in the 1940s than it is today, we cannot help but wonder if it would run out, leaving Linda and Biff where they were before Willy died.
The loud music that crashes down signals Willy’s death: he has intentionally crashed his car. Willy probably chose to crash the car rather than breathe gas from the heater in the hope that the insurance company would consider the crash an accident and still pay the $20,000. However, Linda previously stated that the insurance company already suspected Willy of trying to kill himself; therefore, we know there is little possibility the insurance will honor the policy and pay. According to Willy’s own conception of strong, brave manhood, suicide may indeed be a cowardly act. However, if we consider Willy as someone who has become truly confused and overwhelmed, then we may have some pity or sympathy for him, as Linda did when she called him “a little boat looking for a harbor.”
Even though suicide may be a way of cowardly quitting, Willy’s assertion that “I am Willy Loman, and you are Biff Loman!” reveals an admirable refusal to believe he is an insignificant person, a failure, a nobody. If we decide not to hate Willy or think of him as a fool, then we must somehow recognize the value of his sense of hope and belief in himself. Arthur Miller has described Willy’s death as the tragedy of a common man, implying that Willy is a victim of his own stubborn desire to be loved as well as a victim of larger forces beyond his control. It becomes difficult to value Willy’s hope and self-confidence when we see how they contributed to his death; however, it becomes somewhat less difficult when we know that his misguided belief in himself originally comes from a tendency in American culture sometimes to value superficial “personality” over hard work and integrity. While people like Charley and Bernard have earned the benefits of honest, hard work, Willy has suffered from his own self-deception as well as from the competitive business practices that finally care very little for individuals.
The end of this scene – which is the end of Act II – moves smoothly into the short final scene Miller calls the “Requiem.” Willy’s car crashes, but instead of leaving the house to find the accident, everyone slowly leaves the house – moving through the wall-line to indicate the passage of time – to attend Willy’s funeral; clearly, a few days have passed between the crash and when Linda kneels in front of Willy’s grave.
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