Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1134
Bernard: meek, younger acquaintance of Biff and Happy who helps Biff study math
Part 2 covers the action up to Willy’s line, “Good work, Biff.”
After Willy has wandered into the living room, where although unseen, he can occasionally be heard talking to himself, the scene shifts to Biff and Happy, talking to each other in their childhood bedroom. Biff is now 34, two years older than Hap. Hap tells Biff he is worried about their father’s absent-mindedness, but the conversation quickly turns to reminiscences about the brothers’ youthful sexual prowess with women. Biff moves their discussion back to the subject of their father, prompting Hap to reveal that it is Biff’s general unsettledness and lack of career to which Willy constantly returns when talking to himself. Biff tries to explain to Hap that he could not bear slowly working his way up in a career as a salesman or shipping clerk, but that neither has his latest job as a farmhand in Texas given him any sense of a stable future. Biff says, “Maybe I oughta get stuck into something. Maybe that’s my trouble. I’m like a boy. I’m not married, I’m not in business, I just – I’m like a boy.”
Hap, whose low-level job is the kind Biff has fled, admits that he, too, is lonely and bored, despite a decent salary and the possibility for eventual promotion. Biff suggests they escape their present situations and buy a farm out West. Hap declines the offer and states, “I gotta show some of those pompous, self-important executives over there that Hap Loman can make the grade.” Boredom and an empty sense of competition, he confesses, have contributed to a series of unsatisfying affairs with the girlfriends of executives in his company. Acknowledging his dishonesty, as well as the pleasure he derives from it, he likens his behavior to his inability to refrain from accepting bribes at work. Before the brothers fall asleep again, Biff announces that he intends to ask for a loan from Bill Oliver, for whom he worked years ago; Biff wonders for a moment, though, whether Oliver will remember or ever knew that Biff stole a carton of basketballs from him.
Biff and Hap hear Willy mumbling to himself downstairs as they go back to sleep. On stage, the light fades away from the brothers and focuses on Willy in the kitchen. The set changes to let the audience know a flashback is occurring: the surrounding apartment buildings disappear, green leaves appear, and cheerful music plays. Willy seems to speak to Biff and Hap, but no one is visible. Eventually, Biff and Hap enter as teenagers. Biff wears a sweater with a large “S” and carries a football; Hap carries the pail and rags that the boys have just used to wash the car. Willy, just returned from a sales trip, is in good spirits and gives his sons a punching bag as a gift. Biff, we learn, has borrowed the football from school without the coach’s permission. Without scolding him, Willy tells him to return it and proceeds in his enthusiastic mood to tell Biff and Hap of his great success and popularity as a salesman.
The conversation is interrupted when the young Bernard enters, dressed in knickers, to tell Biff he should be studying with him today. After he warns Biff that flunking the upcoming test will prevent him from graduating high school, Willy tells Biff to go study. Before Biff goes, Willy dismisses Bernard as an “anemic,” and, scoffing at his timidity and studiousness, remarks to his own sons that “the man who makes an appearance in the business world, the man who creates personal interest, is the man who gets ahead.”
This segment of the play works in a reverse order of sorts: the audience listens to the bedroom conversation between Biff and Hap and then through the flashback sees the childhood that led the brothers to their present states in life. In the stage directions to the bedroom conversation, Miller tells the reader that both men are athletically built, but Biff “bears a worn air.” Happy, like Biff, is “lost” but in a different way. Hap seems more content, less defeated, and “sexuality is like a visible color on him.”
As Biff recounts his dissatisfaction with mundane office jobs, the reader feels some sympathy with him; perhaps Willy’s frustration with Biff is in fact unreasonable. That sympathy becomes more complicated, however, as we learn that Biff has not been able or willing to hold any job, and that he intends to request a loan from a man from whom he once stole. Although Hap, too, seems very likable at first – a simple, happy person as his name would indicate – we begin to doubt his integrity, as well. His unwillingness to stop preying on the fiancees and girlfriends of his bosses and to quit taking bribes suggests how he possesses a hollow competitiveness; that competitive drive will lead not to his fulfillment but merely to a need to grasp for more unrewarding, short-lived pleasures. Despite their questionable behavior, though, Biff and Hap manage to convince themselves and, perhaps, the audience, that change may be possible, and that their flaws are not insurmountable.
Miller orchestrates the flashback to Biff and Hap’s teenage years through Willy’s delusional ramblings in the kitchen. Willy talks himself and the audience right back into the past, which is confirmed when we see the young Biff and Hap. This whole flashback episode, then, may be a figment of Willy’s imagination. In the episode, we see the Loman family during happier days. Willy loves his sons and they adore him. Willy’s confidence in himself as a salesman and in the future success of his sons, however, cannot help but strike the reader as a little pretentious, as well as unfounded.
Willy likes to talk, especially about himself, and places more importance on “appearance” and personality than honesty and studying. For Willy, “success” is connected to a particular type of athletic, virile manhood, one represented by his sons’ interest in football and boxing. When Willy calls Bernard an “anemic” and says he is “liked but not well liked,” Willy mocks Bernard for being unmanly. Miller tells us that Bernard is “earnest and loyal, a worried boy”; we must reconsider the wisdom of Willy’s disapproval of Bernard, though, once we remember how Biff and Happy have not necessarily met their father’s standard of “success” as adults. After seeing this flashback, the audience must wonder about the Lomans’ less-than-pleasant circumstances in the present: Have Willy, Biff, and Hap been unlucky, or can they blame only themselves for their growing disillusionment? Is there a middle ground between those two possibilities?
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