Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1327
Part 4 covers the action up to the end of Act I.
The flashback involving Ben has ended, leaving Willy alone when Linda comes looking for him. In a dreamy state, still thinking of Ben, Willy has headed out of the house to take a short walk despite the late hour. Woken up by Willy’s loud, imagined conversation with Ben moments ago, Biff and Happy now come downstairs to talk with their mother about Willy. Surprised by the severity of Willy’s hallucinations, Biff asks why his mother had not told him of Willy’s condition. Linda responds that Willy’s disturbed state stems partly from Biff’s failure to write Willy, to reconcile their differences, and to settle into a career.
When Biff implies that he is worried about Linda, she announces that he cannot care about her without expressing equal concern for his father. Almost crying, she says, “I won’t have anyone making [Willy] feel unwanted and low and blue….I know he’s not easy to get along with – nobody knows that better than me.” Biff protests that Willy has “never had an ounce of respect” for Linda, but she insists on the need to treat Willy with kindness. “I don’t say he’s a great man,” Linda argues, “but he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid.”
She explains that Willy’s company recently forced him to work on commission, rather than for a salary, and that his old business friends have died or retired, leaving him with few friendly customers. Linda makes a long speech revealing that Willy is too proud to tell her that he now borrows $50 a week from Charley without telling her. After listening to his mother, Biff agrees to live at home and help support the family. He refuses, however, to reconcile with Willy, maintaining that the reason Willy originally threw him out of the house was “Because I know he’s a fake.” Biff, though, declines to explain what he means by this comment.
Trying to impress upon Biff the seriousness of Willy’s predicament, Linda discloses to Biff and Hap that their father has been trying to kill himself. According to an insurance inspector, Willy’s several recent car accidents have been deliberate attempts to injure himself; furthermore, Linda believes Willy may kill himself with gas from the heater using a hidden rubber pipe she recently discovered. The shock of this news scares Biff: “I’ve been remiss. I know that, Mom. But now I’ll stay, and I swear to you, I’ll apply myself.”
Just as Biff is again having doubts about his ability to adjust to the business world, Willy returns from his walk and hears enough of Biff’s griping to become angry with him again. Biff and Willy become frustrated with each other, but when Biff threatens to leave for good, Hap tells Willy that Biff plans to see Bill Oliver tomorrow. Seeing Willy’s interest, Biff plays along and soon he and Hap have concocted the idea that Biff will ask Oliver for a loan to start a line of Loman brothers sporting goods, marketed through exhibition games that Biff and Hap will organize and play. The idea thrills Willy, who is convinced – in his characteristic salesman’s optimism – that it “is a one-million-dollar idea” that will end Biff’s problems. “I see great things for you kids,” Willy tells Biff and Hap, “I think your troubles are over.” Linda also begins to think the family’s difficulties may turn around.
In his enthusiasm, Willy starts rattling off advice to Biff about how to act and what to wear when he asks Oliver for the loan. Willy warns Biff not to tell Oliver jokes or use a boyish word like “Gee,” but also not to be too modest because “it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it – because personality always wins the day.” Biff says little until Willy scolds Linda for interrupting his words of advice. Biff furiously tells his father to “stop yelling at her!” Apparently shamed, Willy’s mood deflates, and he heads to his bedroom. Disappointed that Biff has made Willy unhappy again, Linda and Hap convince Biff to come upstairs and revive Willy’s spirits before he falls asleep. Even before Biff enters Willy’s bedroom, though, we see Willy already talking animatedly again about his confidence in Biff.
Willy’s praise continues as Biff leaves the room. While Biff sits downstage smoking a cigarette, Willy and Linda reminisce with each other about Biff’s glory days as a high school football player. As we hear their words, we see Biff remove the rubber pipe from behind the gas heater; holding it in his hand, he looks horrified and gazes up toward Willy’s room, then heads up the stairs carrying the pipe.
In this section of the play, the audience sees how Linda has had to endure Willy’s behavior and Biff’s sullen anger at his father. Linda has been caught between Willy and Biff, trying to sympathize with both her husband and her son. Biff has not realized the way his resentment of Willy has caused Linda pain. Biff notices only Willy’s shortcomings, Linda explains, and fails to remember how Willy has been a caring, protective, hard-working father.
Linda’s several long speeches in this section reveal why she should not be described as a mindless, overly docile housewife. She manages the household finances; she deals with Willy’s unpredictable moods; and she detects when Willy tries to conceal things from her (such as the money from Charley and the hidden rubber pipe). Furthermore, she acknowledges that “Willy is not easy to get along with.” Within the Loman family, Linda is perhaps the most rational person. However, because of her gentle personality and because women of her day were not encouraged to be assertive, Linda rarely expresses any anger toward Willy or her sons. Her kind nature is momentarily interrupted when she scolds Biff and admits that getting along with Willy can be difficult; nevertheless, her temporary frustration actually signals her wish that the family can be happy and unified once again. Her tendency to hope for the best, in this sense, participates in Willy’s unwillingness to face problems realistically. Although Death of a Salesman and Linda herself call so much attention to Willy’s dignity as an ordinary “human being,” we can also see Linda as someone very much like Willy – not a “great” person but still deserving of respect.
At this point in the play, it is difficult to know what to think about Biff’s contention that Willy is a “fake.” Although the audience may have considered Willy irritating at times, Biff refuses to say exactly why he calls Willy a fake and why Willy originally threw him out the house. Throughout this scene, Biff behaves somewhat childishly; his complaints about office jobs and about Willy are reasonable but also express a fair amount of selfishness and self-pity.
Willy’s moods – like Biff’s – change several times in this scene. Although Willy is hopeful again as he goes to bed, we must now question if the new possibility of Biff and Hap’s business is enough to keep Willy from killing himself. Biff and Hap’s business idea was created on the spur of the moment in order to please Willy, and so we must wonder what the consequences will be if Bill Oliver does not grant Biff the loan. That seems to be exactly what Biff wonders as he removes the rubber pipe from behind the heater: if I fail one more time, what will happen to my father? Willy and Linda’s fond memory of Biff’s glory days as a high school football player only place more pressure on Biff to live up to his long-faded success.
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