Opening scene through scene in Howard’s office
When Willy awakes the next morning, Biff and Happy have already left, Biff to see Bill Oliver and Happy to mull over the “Florida idea” and go to work. Willy, in high spirits with the prospect of the “Florida idea,” mentions that he would like to get some seeds and plant a small garden in the yard. Linda, pleased with her husband’s hopeful mood, points out that there is not enough sun. Willy replies that they will have to get a house in the country. Linda reminds Willy to ask his boss, Howard, for a non-traveling job as well as an advance to pay the insurance premium. They have one last payment on both the refrigerator and the house, and they have just finished paying for the car. Linda informs Willy that Biff and Happy want to take him to dinner at Frank’s Chop House at six o’clock. As Willy departs, moved and excited by his sons’ dinner invitation, he notices a stocking that Linda is mending and, guilt-ridden with the latent memory of his adultery with The Woman, admonishes her to throw the stocking away.
Willy timidly enters Howard’s office. Howard is playing with a wire recorder he has just purchased for dictation. He plays the recorded voices of his family: his cloyingly enthusiastic children (a whistling daughter and a son who recites the state capitals in alphabetical order) and his shy wife. As Willy tries to express admiration, Howard repeatedly shushes him. Willy asks for a non-traveling job at $65 a week. Howard replies that there is no opening available. He looks for his lighter. Willy finds it and hands it to him, unconsciously ignoring, in his nervous and pathetically humble distraction, his own advice never to handle or tend to objects in a superior’s office, since that is the responsibility of “office boys.” Willy keeps lowering his salary request, explaining his financial situation in unusually candid detail, but Howard remains resistant. Howard keeps calling him “kid” and assumes a condescending tone despite his younger age and Willy’s reminders that he helped Howard’s father name him.
I realized that selling was the greatest career a man could want.See Important Quotations Explained
Desperate, Willy tries to relate an anecdote about Dave Singleman, an eighty-four-year-old salesman who phoned his buyers and made his sales without ever leaving his hotel room. After he died the noble “death of a salesman” that eludes Willy, hundreds of salesmen and buyers attended his funeral. Willy reveals that his acquaintance with this venerable paragon of salesmanship convinced him to become a salesman himself rather than join his brother, Ben, on his newly purchased plot of timberland in Alaska. Singleman’s dignified success and graceful, respected position as an older man deluded Willy into believing that “selling was the greatest career a man could want” because of its limitless potential and its honorable nature. Willy laments the loss of friendship and personality in the business, and he complains that no one knows him anymore. An uninterested Howard leaves the office to attend to other people, and he returns when Willy begins shouting frantically after accidentally switching on the wire recorder. Eventually, Willy becomes so distraught that Howard informs him that he does not want Willy to represent his company anymore. Howard essentially fires Willy, with the vague implication of reemployment after a period of “rest.” He suggests that Willy turn to his sons (who he understandably assumes are successful given Willy’s loud bragging) for financial support, but Willy is horrified at the thought of depending on his children and reversing the expected familial roles. He is far too proud to admit defeat, and Howard must insist repeatedly on the cessation of Willy’s employment before it sinks in.
Biff’s decision to seek a business loan raises Willy’s spirits, and the way in which Willy expresses his optimism is quite revealing. The first thing Willy thinks about is planting a garden in his yard; he then muses to Linda that they should buy a house in the country, so that he could build guesthouses for Biff and Happy when they have families of their own. These hopeful plans seem to illustrate how ill-suited Willy is to his profession, as it stifles his natural inclinations. Indeed, the competitive, hyper-capitalist world of sales seems no more appropriate for Willy than for Biff. Willy seems happiest when he dreams of building things with his own hands, and when his instincts in this direction surface, he seems whole again, able to see a glimmer of truth in himself and his abilities.
Willy’s wistful fantasy of living in the forests of Alaska strengthens the implication that he chose the wrong profession. He does not seem to like living in an urban setting. However, his fascination with the frontier is also intimately connected to his obsession with the American Dream. In nineteenth-century America, the concept of the intrepid explorer entering the unknown, uncharted wilderness and striking gold was deeply imbedded in the national consciousness. With the postwar surge of consumerism in America, this “wilderness” became the bustling market of consumer goods, and the capitalist replaced the pioneer as the American hero. These new intrepid explorers plunged into the jungle of business transactions in order to find a niche to exploit. Ben, whose success involved a literal jungle in Africa, represents one version of the frontier narrative. Dave Singleman represents another. Willy chose to follow Singleman’s path, convinced that it was the modern version and future of the American Dream of success through hard work.
While Willy’s dissatisfaction with his life seems due in part to choosing a profession that conflicts with his interests, it seems also due in part to comparing all aspects, professional and private alike, of his own life to those of a mythic standard. He fails to realize that Ben’s wealth is the result of a blind stroke of luck rather than a long-deserved reward for hard work and personal merit. Similarly, Willy misses the tragic aspect of Singleman’s story of success—that Singleman was still working at the age of eighty-four and died on the job. Mourning for him was limited to the sphere of salesmen and train passengers who happened to be there at his death—the ephemeral world of transience, travel, and money, as opposed to the meaningful realm of loved ones.
Willy’s humiliating interview with Howard sheds some light on his advice for Biff’s interview with Oliver. This advice clearly has its roots in Willy’s relationship with his boss. Despite being much younger than Willy, Howard patronizes Willy by repeatedly calling him “kid.” Willy proves entirely subservient to Howard, as evidenced by the fact that he picks up Howard’s lighter and hands it to him, unable to follow his own advice about such office boy jobs.
Willy’s repeated reminders to Howard that he helped his father name Howard illustrate his psychological reliance on outmoded and insubstantial concepts of chivalry and nobility. Like his emphasis on being “well liked,” Willy’s harping upon the honor of bestowing Howard’s name—one can draw a parallel between this naming and the sanctity and dignity of medieval concepts of christening and the dubbing of knights—is anachronistically incompatible with the reality of the modern business world.
Willy seems to transfer his familial anxieties to his professional life. His brother and father did not like him enough to stay, so he endeavors to be “well liked” in his profession. He heard the story of Dave Singleman’s success and exaggerated it to heroic, mythical proportions. Hundreds of people attended Singleman’s funeral—obviously, he was a man who was “well liked.” Dave Singleman’s story hooked Willy as the key to emotional and psychological fulfillment. However, the inappropriateness of Willy’s ideals reveals itself in his lament about the loss of friendship and camaraderie in his profession. Willy fantasizes about such things, and he used to tell his sons about all of his friends in various cities; as Willy’s hard experience evidences, however, such camaraderie belongs only to the realm of his delusion.