Willy’s daydream involving Ben through Willy’s conversation with Charley in his office
After Howard leaves, Willy immerses himself in memories of a visit from Ben. Ben asks Willy to go to Alaska and manage a tract of timberland he has purchased. Linda, slightly afraid of Ben, says that Willy already has a nice job. Ben departs as Willy tries desperately to gain a word of approval from him, comparing the intangible success of the honorable Dave Singleman to the concrete possibilities of timber. Bernard arrives to accompany the Lomans to the big football game at Ebbets Field. He begs Biff to allow him to carry his helmet. Happy snaps and insists on carrying it. Biff generously allows Bernard to carry his shoulder pads. Charley ambles over to tease Willy a little about the immature importance he is placing on the football game, and Willy grows furious.
In the present, the grown-up Bernard is sitting in his father’s reception room when his father’s secretary, Jenny, enters to beg him to deal with Willy. Outside, Willy, still immersed in his memory, argues with an invisible Charley from the past about Biff’s football game. Bernard converses with Willy and mentions that he has a case to argue in Washington, D.C. Willy replies that Biff is working on a very big deal in town. Willy breaks down and asks Bernard why Biff’s life seemed to end after his big football game. Bernard mentions that Biff failed math but was determined to go to summer school and pass. He adds that Biff went to see Willy in Boston, but after he came back, he burned his sneakers with the University of Virginia’s insignia. Attempting a candid conversation with the wounded Willy, Bernard asks him what happened in Boston that changed Biff’s intentions and drained his motivation. Willy becomes angry and resentful and demands to know if Bernard blames him for Biff’s failure. Charley exits his office to say goodbye to Bernard. He mentions that Bernard is arguing a case before the Supreme Court. Willy, simultaneously jealous and proud of Bernard, is astounded that Bernard did not mention it.
In his office, Charley counts out fifty dollars. With difficulty, Willy asks for over a hundred this time to pay his insurance fees. After a moment, Charley states that he has offered Willy a non-traveling job with a weekly salary of fifty dollars and scolds Willy for insulting him. Willy refuses the job again, insisting that he already has one, despite Charley’s reminder that Willy earns no money at his job. Broken, he admits that Howard fired him. Outraged and incredulous, he again mentions that he chose Howard’s name when he was born. Charley replies that Willy cannot sell that sort of thing. Willy retorts that he has always thought the key to success was being well liked. Exasperated, Charley asks who liked J. P. Morgan. He angrily gives Willy the money for his insurance. Willy shuffles out of the office in tears.
Willy’s conversation with Bernard revives Willy’s attempt to understand why Biff never made a material success of his life despite his bright and promising youth. He wants to understand why the “well liked” teenage football player became an insecure man unable to hold a steady job. He assumes there is some secret to success that is not readily apparent. If he were not wearing the rose-colored glasses of the myth of the American Dream, he would see that Charley and his son are successful because of lifelong hard work and not because of the illusions of social popularity and physical appearances.
Biff’s failure in math is symbolic of his failure to live up to his father’s calculated plan for him. Willy believes so blindly in his interpretation of the American Dream that he has constructed a veritable formula by which he expects Biff to achieve success. The unshakeable strength of Willy’s belief in this blueprint for success is evidenced later when he attempts to plant the vegetable seeds. Reading the instructions on the seed packets, Willy mutters, as he measures out the garden plot, “carrots . . . quarter-inch apart. Rows . . . one-foot rows.” He has applied the same regimented approach to the cultivation of his sons. Biff struggles with this formula in the same way that he struggles with the formulas in his textbook.
Charley tries to bring Willy down to earth by explaining that Willy’s fantasies about the way the business world functions conflict with the reality of a consumer economy. Charley refuses to relate to Willy through blustering fantasy; instead, he makes a point of being frank. He states that the bottom line of business is selling and buying, not being liked. Ironically, Charley is the only person to offer Willy a business opportunity on the strength of a personal bond; Howard, in contrast, fires Willy despite the strong friendship that Willy shared with Howard’s father. However, the relationship between Willy and Charley is shaped by an ongoing competition between their respective families, at least from Willy’s point of view. Willy’s rejection of Charley’s job offer stems partly from jealousy of Charley’s success. Additionally, Willy knows that Charley does not like him much—his offer of a job thus fails to conform to Willy’s idealistic notions about business relationships. Willy chooses to reject a well-paying, secure job rather than let go of the myth of the American business world and its ever-receding possibilities for success and redemption.
For Willy, the American Dream has become a kind of Holy Grail—his childish longing for acceptance and material proof of success in an attempt to align his life with a mythic standard has assumed the dimensions of a religious crusade. He places his faith in the elusive American Dream because he seeks salvation, and he blindly expects to achieve material, emotional, and even spiritual satisfaction through “personal attractiveness” and being “well liked.” Willy forces Biff and Happy into the framework of this mythic quest for secular salvation—he even calls them “Adonis” and “Hercules,” envisioning them as legendary figures whose greatness has destined them to succeed in according to the American Dream.