LINDA: I’m—I’m ashamed to. How can I mention it to him? Every day I go down and take away that little rubber pipe. But when he comes home, I put it back where it was. How can I insult him that way? I don’t know what to do. I live from day to day boys. I tell you, I know every thought in his mind. It sounds so old-fashioned and silly, but I tell you he’s put his whole life into you and you’ve turned your backs on him. [She is bent over the chair, weeping, her head in her hands]. Biff, I swear to God! Biff, his life is in your hands! (Act 1)
Linda feels that her sons have betrayed their father by turning their backs on him. Here, she insinuates that that betrayal is a big part of what has driven Willy to contemplate suicide.
BIFF: Because I know he’s a fake and he doesn’t like anybody around who knows!
LINDA: Why a fake? In what way? What do you mean?
BIFF: Just don’t lay it all at my feet. It’s between me and him—that’s all I have to say. (Act 1)
Biff feels betrayed by his father's affair, but refuses to tell Linda. Does he do this out of loyalty to his father, or is he just trying to protect Linda from the truth? Is he, in a way, betraying his mother by not telling her the truth of his father's infidelity?
WILLY [noticing her mending]: What’s that?
LINDA: Just mending my stockings. They’re so expensive!
WILLY [angrily, taking them from her]: I won’t have you mending stockings in this house! Now throw them out!
[Linda puts the stockings in her pocket] (Act 1)
Willy lashes out at Linda about her mending stockings because it reminds him of his affair and betrayal of her. We wonder if Linda ever suspected Willy's betrayal. What do you think? Are there any clues in the play that hint at this?
WILLY: How can he find himself on a farm? Is that a life? A farmhand? In the beginning, when he was young, I thought, well, a young man, it’s good for him to tramp around, take a lot of different jobs. But it’s more than ten years now and he has yet to make thirty-five dollars a week!
LINDA: He’s finding himself, Willy.
WILLY: Not finding yourself at the age of thirty-four is a disgrace! (Act 1)
Willy considers Biff's failure in business as a betrayal of his expectations. It is ironic, however, that, throughout the play, Willy seems to long for just the sort of simpler lifestyle that his son has created for himself. Could it be that Willy's feelings of betrayal are in some ways linked to feelings of jealousy toward his son?
WILLY: Charley, I’m strapped. I’m strapped. I don’t know what to do. I was just fired.
CHARLEY: Howard fired you?
WILLY: That snotnose. Imagine that? I named him. I named him Howard.
CHARLEY: Willy, when’re you gonna realize that them things don’t mean anything? You named him Howard, but you can’t sell that. The only thing you got in this world is what you can sell. And the funny thing is that you’re a salesman, and you don’t know that. (Act 2)
Charley questions Willy's insistence that Howard's actions were a betrayal. He tries to get Willy to understand the harsh realities of capitalism.
WILLY: Don’t you want to be anything?
BIFF: Pop, how can I go back?
WILLY: You don’t want to be anything, is that what’s behind it?
WILLY: Are you spiting me?
BIFF: Don’t take it that way! Goddamnit!
WILLY [strikes Biff and falters away from the table]: You rotten little louse! Are you spiting me? (Act 2)
Willy perceives Biff's business failure as a personal betrayal, an attempt to punish him for his earlier love affair. Willy's guilt over his affair leads him to make lots irrational and damaging decisions.
WILLY: She’s nothing to me, Biff. I was lonely, I was terribly lonely.
BIFF: You—you gave her Mama’s stockings! [His tears break through and he rises to go] (Act 2)
Unable to fully lash out at his father, Biff focuses his anger on the stockings. The stockings are used as a symbol of betrayal throughout the play.
BIFF: There’ll be no pity for you, you hear it? No pity!
WILLY [To Linda]: You hear the spite!
BIFF: No, you’re going to hear the truth—what you are and what I am!
LINDA: Stop it!
WILLY: Spite! (Act 2)
Willy's accusation that Biff is spiting him stems from his knowledge that his son felt betrayed by his affair.
BIFF: Exactly what is it you want from me?
WILLY: I want you to know on the train, in the mountains, in the valleys, wherever you go that you cut down your life in spite.
BIFF: No, no!
WILLY: Spite, spite is the word of your undoing! And when you’re down and out remember what did it. When you’re rotting somewhere beside the railroad tracks, remember, and don’t you dare blame it on me! (Act 2)
Willy assumes that Biff's betrayal of his expectations is intended as a punishment for his betrayal of Biff's trust when Willy had an affair. Here, Willy tries desperately to separate himself from his own guilt about both Biff's failure in life and the reality of his infidelity.