Death of a Salesman | Study Guide

Arthur Miller

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Death of a Salesman | Act 1, Section 3 | Summary

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Summary

Willy experiences his first memory flashback with his boys and then with Linda.

Already talking to himself in the background, Willy now comes into view in a flashback.

He gave advice to his sons about women as they washed the car. Biff presented his father with a new football, one that he stole from the locker room. Willy's initial disapproval turned to admiration of his son's ambition.

The boys discussed a future trip together as well as the upcoming big football game, in which Biff later played a starring role. Biff and his father were eager to impress one another, and the family's hopes ran high that Biff would attend the University of Virginia. Bernard entered and raised the question about whether Biff would be able to graduate because of his poor grade in math.

When Linda entered, the couple discussed Willy's commission, the family's finances, and the money they owed on several of their appliances. Willy's optimism faded as he privately told his wife that people laughed at him and did not like him. Linda praised Willy for being the "handsomest man in the world" just as the laugh of an unknown woman is heard offstage.

Analysis

The tone of Willy's memory is initially happy as he looks back on his time with his sons and his dreams for his own and their futures. However, by the end of this section, he is full of doubt and disillusionment because he does not believe he is well liked. Fluctuating between self-promotion and despair, Willy is unable to make peace with who he really is.

Willy hints at the American Dream again when he describes the road trip he and his sons will take together sometime when it will "be open sesame for all of us ... I have friends," suggesting that connections with important friends will open doors to the American Dream for Willy and his sons. He also holds tightly to the hope that his son Biff will go to an important university and earn a name for himself. Yet as the phrase "open sesame" indicates, these dreams are illusions.

The incident with the stolen ball reveals some cracks in Willy's moral code. Instead of playing the fatherly role and disciplining Biff, he embraces the notion that the rules do not apply to Biff because he is special and has the kind of ambition that makes a person successful. Willy makes similar exceptions for himself, as seen when his affair is revealed.

In this section of the play, the line between truth and lies continues to be murky. Is Willy always reliable when he speaks about his success, or is he spinning the truth to his own advantage? Willy adjusts the truth when he discusses his income with Linda, first suggesting that he is making a higher commission than he really is. It is only after further discussion that it becomes clear that they are struggling to make ends meet.

This section also reveals more about Willy's idea that being liked and having a good reputation are the keys to success. He explains that "the man who makes an appearance ... is the man who gets ahead" and brags that people up and down New England know who Willy Loman is.

Although Willy embraces an American Dream that promotes progress, he appears unable to accept some elements of a changing world. For example, the technological advances of the car and refrigerator cause him frustration and distress, revealing an ongoing cycle of consumption and repair. Like so much of the American Dream, the notion of deep satisfaction that stems from progress may be an illusion.

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