Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1770
Essential Passage 1: Act 1
BEN: [glancing at his watch]: I have an appointment in Ketchikan Tuesday week.
WILLY: No, Ben! Please tell about Dad. I want my boys to hear. I want them to know the kind of stock they spring from. All I remember is a man with a big beard, and I was in Mamma’s lap, sitting around a fire, and some kind of high music.
BEN: His flute. He played the flute.
WILLY: Sure, the flute, that’s right!
[New music is heard, a high, rollicking tune.]
BEN: Father was a very great and a very wild-hearted man. We would start in Boston, and he’d toss the whole family into the wagon, and then he’d drive the team right across the country; through Ohio, and Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, and all the Western states. And we’d stop in the towns and sell the flutes that he’d made on the way. Great inventor, Father. With one gadget he made more in a week than a man like you could make in a lifetime.
WILLY: That’s just the way I’m bringing them up, Ben—rugged, well liked, all-around.
Willy Loman is unable to sleep after returning from the road, having barely missed another accident. Deciding to forego his sales trip, he comes back home, despite the fact that money is tight. Both his boys are staying at the house, with Biff back from the West. Biff and Willy continually have arguments whenever he is home, and Linda, Willy’s wife, worries about Willy’s health. Willy, however, worries about his status as a salesman, as well as the lack of success his sons, especially Biff, seem to have in life. He remembers a conversation, perhaps never having really happened, with his brother, Ben. Ben had achieved phenomenal success as a young man, first in Alaska and then in Africa, selling diamonds. Willy asks Ben to tell him about the father he never knew. Ben relates the success that their father was—a great inventor, a great father, a great salesman. Willy, in admiration of both Ben and his father, states that this is how he wants to bring up his two boys (now both in their thirties).
Essential Passage 2: Act 1
BIFF [starting to go after WILLY]: What the hell is the matter with him? [HAPPY stops him.]
LINDA: Don’t—don’t go near him!
BIFF: Stop making excuses for him! He always, always wiped the floor with you. Never had an ounce of respect for you.
HAPPY: He’s always had respect for—
BIFF: What the hell do you know about it?
HAPPY [surlily]: Just don’t call him crazy!
BIFF: He’s got no character—Charley wouldn’t do this. Not in his own house—spewing out that vomit from his mind.
HAPPY: Charley never had to cope with what he’s got to.
BIFF: People are worse off than Willy Loman. Believe me, I’ve seen them!
LINDA: Then make Charley your father, Biff. You can’t do that, can you? I don’t say he’s a great man. Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person....
Willy, sleepless and talking to himself, has awakened his wife, Linda, as well as his sons, Biff and Happy. As usual with Biff at home, an argument has broken out. There is an undercurrent of disgust in Biff’s relationship with his father, and he cannot help its coming out. Linda, however, resents that Biff does not appreciate Willy the way she does. Linda loves and admires her husband, seeing things that her boys somehow miss. Yet Biff resents how Willy is treating Linda, knowing that Willy had an affair with a woman in Boston, something that Biff discovered at the end of his high school career. Since that time, Biff has lost all respect for his father and does not see how his mother can continue to support him. Linda, however, sees not what Willy can become, but what is happening to him, and she is afraid for her husband. She knows that Willy is fading fast and is desperate that Biff see him as she sees him. Somewhere, somehow, people must see Willy Loman as the kind of man that she knows.
Essential Passage 3: Act 2
BEN: It’s called a cowardly thing, William.
WILLY: Why? Does it take more guts to stand here the rest of my life ringing up a zero?
BEN [yielding]: That’s a point, William. [He moves, thinking, turns.] And twenty thousand—that is something one can feel with the hand, it is there.
WILLY [now assured, with rising power.]: Oh, Ben, that’s the whole beauty of it! I see it like a diamond, shining in the dark, hard and rough, that I can pick up and touch in my hand. Not like—like an appointment! This would not be another damned-fool appointment, Ben, and it changes all the aspects. Because he thinks I’m nothing, see, and so he spites me. But the funeral—[Straightening up] Ben, that funeral will be massive! They’ll come from Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire! All the old-timers with the strange license plates—that boy will be thunderstruck, Ben, because he never realized—I am known! Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey—I am known, Ben, and he’ll see it with his eyes once and for all. He’ll see what I am, Ben! He’s in for a shock, that boy!
Willy is at the end of a day that has seen his dreams dashed. Fired from his job, he also learns of Biff’s failure to get the loan he had been counting on to start his own business. He has alienated everyone but his wife, and has come to a fateful decision. He realizes that he is worth more dead than alive, that the lives of those he loves would be greatly improved if he were gone. He thinks of the twenty-thousand-dollar life insurance policy he has, and how much that money would mean to Biff as well as to Linda. He imagines a conversation with his successful, long-dead brother, Ben. Ben tries to talk Willy out of suicide, arguing that it is the coward’s way out. Willy disagrees. He believes that it is more cowardly to remain where he is, bringing everyone down with him, when the money from the insurance would solve so many of their problems. Plus he sees a measure of revenge in his death: at last Biff would see how much Willy is appreciated. He fantasizes about the size of his funeral, when all his customers would come to pay homage to Willy Loman as a great salesman.
Analysis of Essential Passages
Willy Loman is presented as a typical salesman of the postwar period, a time when success was viewed as within easy reach of every American. Willy, however, has failed. His finances are on the verge of ruin, he has been cut back at work from salary to commission, and his sons are distant and unsuccessful in their own lives. The reasons for his failure are unclear, and he habitually refuses to see failure, imagining himself more successful and more liked than he actually is.
His father, who was not around when Willy was growing up, is depicted as the perfect salesman and family man. An inventor as well as a salesman, he travelled the country accompanied by his family, achieving great success. Ben remembers him better than does Willy, and relates to his brother what a great man he was. Ben himself has copied that success, becoming wealthy from diamonds at the age of twenty-one. This success, however, has eluded Willy for some reason, as it is eluding Biff and Happy as well. The biblical concept, “The sins of the father are visited upon the children even unto the fourth generation,” does not seem to apply equally to success. Whatever talent or gift the elder Loman possessed, it did not fall to Willy as it did to Ben. Yet whatever “sin” Willy committed, it is indeed descending to his sons in equal measure. Biff, in thinking that Bill Oliver would remember him and like him well enough to lend him money to start up his own business, is as self-deluded as Willy. Both do not match up to the opinion they have of themselves. It is perhaps this vision of Biff turning into his father that causes Willy to take the fateful step of committing suicide: he wants to give Biff a chance to overcome the “sins of the father.”
Linda is the only person, including Willy himself, who honestly believes in Willy as he truly is. Although she readily admits that her husband is not a “great man,” she sees his vulnerability and the dream that he has been chasing his whole life. Her dream is to make others see him as she sees him, though she knows this is probably a fruitless task. Despite her private misgivings, she will not stand by and watch Biff tear him down. If she must make a choice between her husband and her son, and so it appears she must, she chooses her husband. She drives out both boys to protect Willy, knowing that he is rapidly losing his grip on his will to live. Out of desperation, seeing death approaching without hope of restraint, she orders Biff and Happy out of the house, hoping that by some means she can hang on to Willy just a little bit longer.
When Willy decides to end his life (something that he has tried to do several times before), he is still lost in a delusion that he is more popular than he actually is. Fantasizing of the crowds of people at his funeral, he does not realize that very few people will actually attend. Ben calls suicide a cowardly act, though Willy believes it is more cowardly to continue to live. As a salesman his focus has long been on the bottom line and the dollar sign. At the end, that is all he amounts to—the sum of money that will come at his death. All is to be sacrificed for the dollar, even life itself.
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