Willy’s first daydream to the first appearance of The Woman
Willy is lost in his memories. Suddenly, the memories of his sons’ childhood come alive. Young Biff and Happy wash and wax their father’s car after he has just returned from a sales trip. Biff informs Willy that he “borrowed” a football from the locker room to practice. Willy laughs knowingly. Happy tries to get his father’s attention, but Willy’s preference for Biff is obvious. Willy whispers that he will soon open a bigger business than his successful neighbor Uncle Charley because Charley is not as “well liked” as he is. Charley’s son, Bernard, arrives to beg Biff to study math with him. Biff is close to failing math, which would prevent him from graduating. Willy orders Biff to study. Biff distracts him by showing him that he printed the insignia of the University of Virginia on his sneakers, impressing Willy. Bernard states that the sneakers do not mean Biff will graduate. After Bernard leaves, Willy asks if Bernard is liked. The boys reply that he is liked but not “well liked.” Willy tells them that Bernard may make good grades, but Happy and Biff will be more successful in business because they are “well liked.”
Still in his daydream of fifteen years ago, Willy brags to Linda that he made $1200 in sales that week. Linda quickly figures his commission at over $200. Willy then hedges his estimation. Under questioning, he admits that he grossed only $200. The $70 commission is barely adequate to cover the family’s expenses. In a rare moment of lucidity and self-criticism, Willy moans that he cannot move ahead because people do not seem to like him. Linda tells him that he is successful enough. Willy complains that he talks and jokes too much. He explains that Charley earns respect because he is a man of few words. His jealousy of his neighbor becomes painfully clear. Willy thinks people laugh at him for being too fat; he once punched a man for joking about his “walrus” physique. As Linda assures him that he is the handsomest man ever, Willy replies that she is his best friend in the world. Just as he tells her that he misses her terribly when he is on the road, The Woman’s laughter sounds from the darkness.
One of the most interesting aspects of Death of a Salesman is its fluid treatment of time: past and present flow into one another seamlessly and simultaneously as various stimuli induce in Willy a rambling stream-of-consciousness. It is important to remember that the idyllic past that Willy recalls is one that he reinvents; one should not, therefore, take these seeming flashbacks entirely as truth. The idyllic past functions as an escape from the present reality or a retrospective reconstruction of past events and blunders. Even when he retreats to this idyllic past, however, Willy cannot completely deny his real situation. He retreats into his daydreams not only to escape the present but also to examine the past. He searches for the mistake that he made that frustrated his hopes for fame and fortune and destroyed his relationship with Biff. Willy’s treatment of his life as a story to be edited and rewritten enables him to avoid confronting its depressing reality.
It is important to examine the evolution of Willy’s relationship with his family, as the solid family is one of the most prominent elements of the American Dream. In the present, Willy’s relationship with his family is fraught with tension. In his memories, on the other hand, Willy sees his family as happy and secure. But even Willy’s conception of the past is not as idyllic as it seems on the surface, as his split consciousness, the profound rift in his psyche, shows through. No matter how much he wants to remember his past as all-American and blissful, Willy cannot completely erase the evidence to the contrary. He wants to remember Biff as the bright hope for the future. In the midst of his memories, however, we find that Willy does nothing to discourage Biff’s compulsive thieving habit. In fact, he subtly encourages it by laughing at Biff’s theft of the football.
As an adult, Biff has never held a steady job, and his habitual stealing from employers seems largely to be the reason for this failing. Over the years, Biff and Willy have come to a mutual antagonism. Willy is unable to let go of his commitment to the American Dream, and he places tremendous pressure on Biff to fulfill it for him. Biff feels a deep sense of inadequacy because Willy wants him to pursue a career that conflicts with his natural inclinations and instincts. He would rather work in the open air on a ranch than enter business and make a fortune, and he believes that Willy’s natural inclination is the same, like his father’s before him.
Willy’s relationship with Happy is also less than perfect in Willy’s reconstruction of the past, and it is clear that he favors Biff. Happy tries several times to gain Willy’s attention and approval but fails. The course of Happy’s adult life clearly bears the marks of this favoritism. Happy doesn’t express resentment toward Biff; rather, he emulates the behavior of the high-school-aged Biff. In the past, Willy expressed admiration for Biff’s success with the girls and his ability to get away with theft. As an adult, Happy competes with more successful men by sleeping with their women—he thus performs a sort of theft and achieves sexual prowess.