The boys’ confrontation with Linda, Biff’s final confrontation with Willy, and Willy’s decision to take a late-night drive
Biff and Happy return home later that night with a bouquet of roses for Linda. She knocks the roses to the ground and shouts at them to pack and never come back. Happy claims that Willy had a great time at dinner. Linda calls her sons a variety of names and accuses them of abandoning their sick father in a restaurant bathroom. Happy, incredulous and defensive, denies everything, but Biff accepts the judgment and wholeheartedly endorses his own degradation and status as “scum of the earth.” After searching the house for Willy, Biff hears him outside, and Linda explains that he is maniacally planting a garden regardless of the darkness. Outside, Willy discusses a guaranteed $20,000 proposition with Ben. Ben warns that the insurance company might not honor the policy. Willy retorts that since he has always paid the premium, the company cannot refuse. He says that Biff will realize how important he is once he sees the number of people who attend his funeral. Ben warns that Biff will call him a coward and hate him. Willy is, of course, contemplating suicide, which would allow his family to cash in on his life insurance policy.
Why am I trying to become what I don’t want to be . . .
Biff tells Willy that he is leaving for good and that he will not keep in touch. Biff wants Willy to forget him. Willy curses his son and declares that Biff is throwing his life away and blaming his failures on him out of spite. Biff confronts Willy with the rubber hose. Biff states that he has stolen himself out of every job since high school and that during the three-month period when he was completely out of touch with his family he was, in fact, in prison for stealing a suit. He reproaches Willy for having filled him with so much hot air about how important he, Biff, was that he was unable to take orders from anyone. Further, he accuses the family of never telling the truth “for ten minutes in this house.” He exposes Happy’s exaggeration of his position—Happy is not the assistant buyer, as he claims, but rather one of two assistants to the assistant buyer—and he says that he does not want to do anything but work in the open air. Biff is determined to know who he is and for his father to know likewise who he is. He urges Willy to accept their own commonness—they are both “a dime a dozen,” not destined for leadership or worthy of prizes. Crying and exhausted, Biff trudges upstairs to bed. Suddenly happy, Willy mutters that Biff must like him because he cried, and his own delusions of his son’s success are restored in light of this meager proof. Linda and Happy tell him that Biff has always loved him, and even Happy seems genuinely moved by the encounter. Everyone retires to bed, except Willy. He urges Linda to sleep and promises that he will join her soon. Willy converses with Ben, predicting that Biff will go far with $20,000 in his pocket. Suddenly, Willy realizes he is alone; Ben has disappeared. Linda calls from upstairs for him to come to bed, but he does not. Happy and Biff listen. They hear the car start and speed away.
Willy’s final confrontation with Biff exposes the essential gridlock of their relationship. Biff wants Willy to forget him as a useless bum. Once Willy finally lets go of him, Biff can be free to be himself and lead his life without having to carry the weight of his father’s dreams. But Willy cannot let go of the myth around which he has built his life. He has no hopes of achieving the American Dream himself, so he has transferred his hopes to Biff. Fulfilling Biff’s request would involve discarding his dreams and ambitions forever and admitting that he has long believed in the American Dream for naught. Each man is struggling with the other in a desperate battle for his own identity.
During the confrontation, Biff makes no attempt to blame anyone for the course that his life has taken. He doesn’t even mention the affair with The Woman, which Willy imagines as the sole reason for his son’s lack of material success. After so many years, Biff doesn’t consider his disillusionment a function of either Willy’s adultery or the inherent foolishness of Willy’s ambitions. Ironically, Biff blames Willy’s fantastic success in selling him on the American Dream of easy success as the reason for his failure to hold a steady job. Biff’s faith in Willy’s dreams is the real reason that he could not advance in the business world. He could not start from the bottom and work his way up because he believed that success would magically descend upon him at any moment, regardless of his own efforts or ambitions.
Willy’s happy reaction to Biff’s frustrated tears demonstrates that Willy has again missed an opportunity to take refuge in the love of his family. He responds to Biff’s tears as material evidence that Biff “likes” him. Linda corrects him with the words “loves you.” Willy’s failure to recognize the anguished love offered to him by his family is crucial to the climax of his tortured day. Because Willy has long conflated successful salesmanship with being well liked, one can even argue that Willy’s imagining that Biff likes him boosts his confidence in his ability to sell and thus perversely enables his final sale—his life.
In Willy’s mind, his imminent suicide takes on epic proportions. Not only does it validate his salesmanship, as argued above, but it also renders him a martyr, since he believes that the insurance money from his sacrifice will allow Biff to fulfill the American Dream. Additionally, Ben’s final mantra of “The jungle is dark, but full of diamonds” turns Willy’s suicide into a metaphorical moral struggle. Suicide, for Willy, constitutes both a final ambition to realize the Dream and the ultimate selfless act of giving to his sons. According to Ben, the noble death that Willy seeks is “not like an appointment at all” but like a “diamond . . . rough and hard to the touch.” In the absence of any true self-knowledge, Willy is able, at least, to achieve a tangible result with his suicide. In this way, Willy does experience a sort of revelation: he understands that the product he sells is himself and that his final sale is his own life. Through the imaginary advice of Ben, Willy ultimately believes his earlier assertion to Charley that “after all the highways, and the trains, and the appointments, and the years, you end up worth more dead than alive.”