WILLY [stopping the incipient argument, to Happy]: Sure, he’s gotta practice with a regulation ball, doesn’t he? [To Biff] Coach’ll probably congratulate you on your initiative!
BIFF: Oh, he keeps congratulating my initiative all the time, pop.
WILLY: That’s because he likes you. If somebody else took that ball there’d be an uproar. So what’s the report, boys, what’s the report? (Act 1)
Willy elevates being well-liked over all virtues when he suggests that Biff can get away with stealing because of his popularity. In the end, Biff's tendency to steal constantly stands in the way of his path to success.
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 a gap between his hopes and the reality of his life. If he measures being successful by how popular he is, it looks like he might just be a total flop.
WILLY: Don’t be so modest. You always started too low. Walk in with a big laugh. Don’t look worried. Start off with a couple of good stories to lighten things up. It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it—because personality always wins the day. (Act 1)
Willy, who ironically considers himself an expert on being well-liked, believes that personality is what matters most. Once again it's not like this is totally untrue. A good personality is probably a really valuable thing for a salesman to have.
WILLY: You and Hap and I, and I’ll show you all the towns. America is full of beautiful towns and fine, upstanding people. And they know me, boys, they know me up and down New England. The finest people. And when I bring you fellas up, there’ll be open sesame for all of us, 'cause one thing, boys: I have friends. I can park my car in any street in New England, and the cops protect it like their own. This summer, heh? (Act 1)
Despite evidence that Willy has few friends and is unsuccessful, he insists he's revered because of his fierce belief in the importance of popularity. While it's easy to criticize Willy for this belief, he does have something of a point. People who are well-liked do seem to have certain advantages—doors tend to open a little more easily for people with good reputations. Unfortunately for Willy, though, he's not one of those people.
WILLY: Bernard is not well liked, is he?
BIFF: He’s liked, but he’s not well liked.
HAPPY: That’s right, Pop.
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. (Act 1)
Willy's self congratulation and assertion that sheer popularity matters above all else is ironic in the context of Bernard's business success and Biff's failure. It shows that Willy's idea of what helps to make a person successful just might not match up with reality. Biff has nowhere near the reputation that Bernard does.
HAPPY: I bet he’d back you. 'Cause he thought highly of you, Biff. I mean, they all do. You’re well liked, Biff. That’s why I say to come back here, and we both have the apartment. And I’m tellin’ you, Biff, any babe you want… (Act 1)
Happy really is like Willy Jr. Just like his dad, Happy draws a direct link between popularity and success. Also like his dad, Happy is a little loose with the ladies.
WILLY: Don’t say? Tell you a secret, boys. Don’t breathe it to a soul. Someday I’ll have my own business, and I’ll never have to leave home any more.
HAPPY: Like Uncle Charley, heh?
WILLYL Bigger than Uncle Charley! Because Charley is not—liked. He’s liked, but he’s not–-well liked. (Act 1)
Willy indicates his belief that being well-liked is the most important quality to achieving success. He thinks it's impossible for someone to succeed without a gang of friends around them. We have to wonder if Charley, whom Willy criticizes in the quote above, is really as unpopular as Willy makes him out to be.
BIFF: He’s off salary. My God, working on commission!
HAPPY: Well, let’s face it: he’s no hot-shot selling man. Except that sometimes, you have to admit, he’s a sweet personality. (Act 1)
Yep, it looks like Willy's "sweet personality" hasn't really served him that well. He's been demoted at work and is even soon to be fired. Happy's comments may suggest that he is no longer convinced that personality is as central to success as he previously thought. But we wonder: if Willy was actually as popular as he says he is, would it have made a difference?
WILLY [continuing over Happy’s line]: They laugh at me, heh? Go to Filene’s, go to the Hub, go to Slattery’s. Boston. Call out the name Willy Loman and see what happens! Big shot!
BIFF: All right, Pop.
BIFF: All right! (Act 1)
Willy's insistence that he is well-known and well-liked reflects his increasing blindness to reality. To his family, associates, and definitely the audience, the fact that he is unpopular is totally clear by now.
BERNARD: If he doesn’t buckle down, he’ll flunk math! [He goes off].
LINDA: He’s right, Willy, you’ve gotta—
WILLY: [exploding at her]: There’s nothing the matter with him! You want him to be a worm like Bernard? He’s got spirit, personality… (Act 1)
Willy's emphasis on reputation blinds him to the reality of Biff's academic problems. By constantly making excuses for his favorite son, Willy inadvertently stands in the way of Biff's success. Biff's reputation will only take him so far if he can't even pass high school.
WILLY: Biff Loman is lost. In the greatest country in the world a young man with such—personal attractiveness, gets lost. And such a hard worker. There’s one thing about Biff—he’s not lazy.
WILLY [with pity and resolve]: I’ll see him in the morning; I’ll have a nice talk with him. I’ll get him a job selling. He could be big in no time. My God! Remember how they used to follow him around in high school? When he smiled at one of them their faces lit up. When he walked down the street… [He loses himself in reminiscences.] (Act 1)
Willy's reflections suggest complete faith in the notion that popularity and personal attractiveness bring success. The fact that Biff's life hasn't amounted to much, despite him being so popular in high school, is truly hard for Willy to understand. It just doesn't fit into his idea of the world.
WILLY: Without a penny to his name, three great Universities are begging for him, and from there the sky’s the limit, because it’s not what you do, Ben, it’s who you know and the smile on your face. It’s contacts, Ben, contacts! The whole wealth of Alaska passes over the lunch table at the Commodore hotel, and that’s the wonder, the wonder of this country, that a man can end with diamonds here on the basis of being liked! (Act 2)
Willy desperately asserts that being well-liked is enough to get you concrete wealth—yet this is clearly untrue in the context of the play. Instead, the play seems to suggest that hard work and daring will get you rewards. Is this totally true, though? Willy does have a point. Even today a lot of people do make a lot of money in just the way he describes above.
WILLY: 'Cause what could be more satisfying than to be able to go, at the age of eighty-four, into twenty or thirty different cities, and pick up a phone, and be remembered and loved and helped by so many different people? Do you know? When he died—and by the way he died the death of a salesman, in his in his green velvet slippers in the smoker of New York, New Haven and Hartford, going into Boston—when he died, hundreds of salesmen and buyers were at his funeral. Things were sad on a lotta trains for months after that. (Act 2)
Willy idolizes Dave Singleman's death because to Willy, being widely known and widely mourned is evidence of a successful life. To Willy, a grand, well-attended funeral is the greatest achievement a person can have. He ultimately seems more concerned about what people think of what he does than what he actually achieves himself.
WILLY: I’ve always tried to think otherwise, I guess. I always felt that if a man was impressive, and well liked, that nothing—
CHARLEY: Why must everybody like you? Who liked J.P. Morgan? Was he impressive? In a Turkish bath he’d look like a butcher. But with his pockets on he was very well liked. (Act 2)
Charley is a pretty realistic guy. He tries to make Willy see that being well-liked isn't as important to success as Willy thinks it is. Of course, Willy refuses to see the truth of this.
LINDA: His blue suit. He’s so handsome in that suit. He could be a—anything in that suit! (Act 2)
Linda's fixation on Biff's physical appearance as the source of his success denies the importance of other qualities and virtues. The play seems to suggest that, if Biff's parents had spent more time grooming his character, then he might actually have the respect and reputation needed to make it in the world.