Study Guide

Death of a Salesman Lies and Deceit

By Arthur Miller

Lies and Deceit

Act One
Linda Loman

WILLY: Oh, I’ll knock ‘em dead next week. I’ll go to Hartford. I’m very well liked in Hartford. You know, the trouble is, Linda, people don’t seem to take to me.

[They move onto the forestage]

LINDA: Oh, don’t be foolish.

WILLY: I know it when I walk in. They seem to laugh at me.

LINDA: Why? Why would they laugh at you? Don’t talk that way, Willy.

[Willy moves to the edge of the stage. Linda goes into the kitchen and starts to darn stockings.]

WILLY: I don’t know the reason for it, but they just pass me by. I’m not noticed. (Act 1)

Willy contradicts himself by saying that he is both well-liked and ignored, suggesting that he frequently deceives himself about his success. However, the truth seems to always be just under the surface. This tortures him and eventually drives him insane— literally.

LINDA: I’m just wondering if Oliver will remember him. You think he might?

WILLY [coming out of the bathroom in his pajamas]: Remember him? What’s the matter with you, you crazy? If he’d stayed with Oliver he’d be on top by now! Wait’ll Oliver gets a look at him. You don’t know the average caliber any more. The average young man today—[he’s getting into bed]—is got a caliber of zero. Greatest thing in the world for him was to bum around. (Act 1)

Willy's statements function only to boost his and Linda's morale as they completely deny the reality that Biff was merely a shipping clerk when he worked for Oliver. Do you think Linda buys this? Is she as immersed in Willy's self-deception as she appears?

LINDA: How’d the Chevy run?

WILLY: Chevrolet, Linda, is the greatest car ever built.

[…]

LINDA: No, they did a wonderful job. Then you owe Frank for the carburetor.

WILLY: I’m not going to pay that man! That goddamn Chevrolet, they ought to prohibit the manufacture of that car! (Act 1)

Stepping out of the myths he's created about himself and realizing his true financial situation, Willy immediately expresses a complete change of opinion about his car. This helps to show just how flimsy Willy's idea and assertions can be.

Biff Loman

BIFF: I guess so. I know something about it and—

WILLY: He knows something about it! You know sporting goods better than Spalding for God’s sake! How much is he giving you?

BIFF: I don’t know, I didn’t even see him yet, but—

WILLY: Then what’re you talkin’ about?

BIFF [getting angry]: Well, all I said was I’m gonna see him, that’s all! (Act 1)

Willy deceives himself into believing that Biff has already sealed a deal that his son has not yet even acted on. Willy's self-deception eventually drives Biff to lash out at his father.

BIFF: I guess so. I know something about it and— 

WILLY: He knows something about it! You know sporting goods better than Spalding for God’s sake! (Act 1)

Willy is deceiving himself yet again. You're probably not surprised. Here, he is attempting to convince Biff that, because Biff was a high school football star, he knows more about sporting goods than professionals in the industry. Umm, not so much, Willy.

Willy Loman

WILLY: That’s just what I mean, Bernard can get the best marks in school, y’understand, but when he gets out in the business world, y’understand, you are going to be five times ahead of him. That’s why I thank Almighty God you’re both built like Adonises. Because the man who makes an appearance in the business world, the man who creates personal interest, is the man who gets ahead. Be liked and you will never want. You take me, for instance. I never have to wait in line to see a buyer. "Willy Loman is here!" That’s all they have to know and I go right through.

[…]

WILLY: A hundred and twenty dollars! My God, if business doesn’t pick up I don’t know what I’m gonna do! (Act 1)

While Willy continues see himself as successful and well-liked, reality occasionally forces him to acknowledge his financial problems. It's hard to ignore it when you just don't have enough money to pay for what you need.

WILLY [turning to Ben]: Business is bad, it’s murderous. But not for me, of course. (Act 1)

Willy continually lies outright in order to try and impress Ben and make himself feel better. We wonder if Ben believes any of this— probably not. We're guessing that part of the reason that Willy isn't all that well-liked is because most people can see right through him.

Ben

BEN: And good luck with your—what do you do?

WILLY: Selling.

BEN: Yes. Well… [He raises his hand in a farewell to all.]

WILLY: No, Ben. I don’t want you to think… [He takes Ben’s arm to show him.] It’s Brooklyn, I know, but we hunt too.

BEN: Really, now.

WILLY: Oh, sure, there’s snakes and rabbits and—that’s why I moved out here. Why, Biff can fell any one of these trees in no time! Boys! Go right over to where they’re building the apartment house and get some sand. We’re gonna rebuild the entire front stoop right now! Watch this, Ben! (Act 1)

Desperate to impress Ben, Willy lies through his teeth and begins to believe what he is saying. How often do people really go hunting in Brooklyn? Notice too, that he encourages his boys to steal from the construction site next door so that he can show how manly he and his sons are. By encouraging them to live dishonestly, Willy undermines the moral character of his sons.

Act Two
Happy Loman

HAPPY: His name is Biff. You might’ve heard of him. Great football player.

GIRL: Really? What team?

HAPPY: Are you familiar with football?

GIRL: No. I’m afraid I’m not.

HAPPY: Biff is a quarterback with the New York Giants.

GIRL: Well, that’s nice, isn’t it? [She drinks]

HAPPY: Good health.

GIRL: I’m happy to meet you.

HAPPY: That’s my name. Hap. It’s really Harold, but at West Point they called me Happy.

GIRL [now really impressed]: Oh, I see. How do you do? (Act 2)

Happy shamelessly boosts his own self-esteem and deceives the girl the same way he deceives himself. In many ways, he really is a lot like his father. Could this be part of the reason Willy seems to gravitate more toward Biff than Happy? Is hanging around Happy too much like looking in a mirror?

HAPPY: No, it’s a little celebration. My brother is—I think he pulled off a big deal today. I think we’re going into business together.

STANLEY: Great! That’s the best for you. Because a family business, you know what I mean?—that’s the best. (Act 2)

Happy deceives himself into thinking that he and Biff already have a major success to celebrate. Much like his father, he chooses to exaggerate and bend the truth to try to impress people.

HAPPY: What the hell!

WILLY: Tell me what happened!

Biff [to Happy]: I can’t talk to him!

[A single trumpet note jars the ear. The light of green leaves stains the house, which holds the air of night and a dream. Young Bernard enters and knocks on the door of the house.] (Act 2)

Willy is only able to cope with the reality the Biff lays before him by escaping entirely into his delusions. The increasing harshness of his life is causing him to sink deeper and deeper into his own dream world.

Biff Loman

BIFF [to Happy]: The man don’t know who we are! The man is gonna know! [To Willy]: We never told the truth for ten minutes in this house!

HAPPY: We always told the truth!

BIFF [turning on him]: You big blow, are you the assistant buyer? You’re one of the two assistants to the assistant aren’t you?

HAPPY: We’ll I’m practically—

BIFF: You’re practically full of it! We all are! And I’m through with it. [To Willy]: Now hear this Willy, this is me. (Act 2)

Biff desperately struggles to demand truth amid the chronic deception that his family maintains. He takes a stand against all the lies, leading to tragic consequences.

BIFF [crying, broken]: Will you let me go, for Christ’s sake? Will you take that phony dream and burn it before something happens?

[. . .]

WILLY: Oh, Biff! [staring wildly] He cried! Cried to me. [He is chocking with his love, and now cries out his promise] That boy—that boy is going to be magnificent! (Act 2)

Despite Biff's admission that he is a failure, Willy convinces himself that Biff will still make it big. Willy follows this delusion to his death, killing himself in order to help his son. Does this death bring some sympathy for Willy? Does he die a hero of some sort? Or is it just the logical end to a life of deception?

BIFF: He walked away. I saw him for one minute. I got so mad I could’ve torn the walls down! How the hell did I ever get the idea I was a salesman there? I even believed myself that I’d been a salesman for him! And then he gave me one look and—I realized what a ridiculous lie my whole life has been. We’ve been talking in a dream for fifteen years. I was a shipping clerk. (Act 2)

Biff is angry not at having deceived others, but at having deceived himself. The humiliation at Oliver's office is a breaking point for him. After this experience, he seems determined to not deceive himself again.

BIFF: Let’s talk quietly and get down to the facts, huh?

WILLY [as though Biff had been interrupting]: Well, what’s happened? It’s great news, Biff. Did he take you into his office or’d you talk in the waiting room?

BIFF: Well he came in, see, and—

WILLY [with a big smile]: What’d he say? Betcha he threw his arm around you.

BIFF: Well, he kinda—

WILLY: He’s a fine man. [To Happy] Very hard man to see, y’know.

HAPPY [agreeing]: Oh, I know.

WILLY [to Biff]: Is that where you had the drinks?

BIFF: Yeah, he gave me a couple of—no, no!

HAPPY [cutting in]: He told him my Florida idea. (Act 2)

Between Willy's ceaseless interjections and Happy's lies on his behalf, Biff begins to fall back into the family's cycle of deception. Before long, though, reality is bound to break through.

Charley

WILLY: [the last to leave, turning to Charley]: I don’t think that was funny, Charley. This is the greatest day of his life.

CHARLEY: Willy, when are you going to grow up?

WILLY: Yeah, heh? When this game is over, you’ll be laughing out of the other side of your face. They’ll be calling him another Red Grange. Twenty-five thousand a year. (Act 2)

Willy's detachment from reality causes him to massively exaggerate the significance of Biff's high school football career. He feels the need to take any small success and blow it up into epic proportions.

Willy Loman

WILLY: I’m definitely going to get one. Because lots of time I’m on the road, and I think to myself, what I must be missing on the radio!

HOWARD: Don’t you have a radio in the car?

WILLY: Well, yeah, but who ever thinks of turning it on? (Act 2)

Willy comes off looking like a fool when he attempts to lie in order to impress Howard and soothe his own insecurities. Ironically, his constant need to lie in order to make himself well-liked is probably a big part of the reason that people don't really like him.

WILLY: In 1928 I had a big year. I averaged a hundred and seventy dollars a week in commissions.

HOWARD: Now Willy, you never averaged—

WILLY: I averaged a hundred and seventy dollars a week in the year of 1928! (Act 2)

Willy has himself utterly convinced that he is incredible at his job, despite the obvious reality of his poor salesmanship. Howard doesn't seem to buy any of it, though. Willy's transparently deceitful nature may be part of what costs him his job in this scene.

Ben

LINDA: You’re doing well enough, Willy!

BEN [to Linda]: Enough for what, my dear?

LINDA [frightened of Ben and angry at him]: Don’t say those things to him! Enough to be happy right here, right now. [To Willy, while Ben laughs] Why must everybody conquer the world? You’re well liked and the boys love you and someday—[to Ben]—why, old man Wagner told him just the other day that if he keeps it up he’ll be a member of the firm, didn’t he, Willy? (Act 2)

Linda defends Willy by losing herself in an unrealistic characterization of their lives and of Willy's potential at the sales firm. Is she defending her husband here? Or is she trying to keep him from disappearing with Ben?

Bernard

WILLY: Well, Bill Oliver—very big sporting-goods man—he wants Biff very badly. Called him in from the West, Long distance, carte blanche, special deliveries. Your friends have their own private tennis court?

BERNARD: You still with the old firm, Willy?

[…]

BERNARD: What is it Willy?

WILLY [small and alone]: What-what’s the secret?

BERNARD: What secret?

WILLY: How—how did you? Why didn’t he ever catch on?

BERNARD: I wouldn’t know that, Willy.

WILLY [confidentially, desperately]: You were his friend, his boyhood friend. There’s something I don’t understand about it. His life ended after that Ebbets Field game. From the age of seventeen nothing good ever happened to him. (Act 2)

To impress Bernard, Willy attempts to present Biff as a successful man. Bernard knows Willy and Biff too well, though. He doesn't really seem to buy any of Willy's deceptions.