Study Guide

Death of a Salesman Act Two

By Arthur Miller

Act Two

  • Linda and Willy have breakfast in the kitchen. Biff and Happy have left early, and Willy and Linda discuss their sons’ potential.
  • Willy says he wants to buy seeds and grow something. Hmm…
  • Linda, blind to Willy’s work situation, asks her husband to have Howard give him an advance payment. Today is also the day Willy is going to ask Howard for a local, non-traveling job.
  • Linda lets her hubby know that Happy and Biff want to take him to dinner that evening—they’re already planning on celebrating their successes.
  • Now the scene shifts to Howard’s office. Willy tries desperately to start a conversation with him, but Howard insists on demonstrating his new wire recorder and bragging about his wife and kids.
  • Acting subserviently, Willy asks his boss if there’s a place for him in the New York office.
  • Howard tells Willy there’s simply no job for him. Willy literally begs him, and at length, explaining that he’d held Howard in his arms when Howard was a newborn. (Howard’s dad was Willy’s old boss; Howard inherited the company from his father.)
  • Now we get some insight into Willy’s dreams when he tells Howard (who is totally bored) about Dave Singleman, a fantastic salesman. This salesman was so well-liked that when he died, his clients and coworkers mourned him for months. Willy wants to be like Singleman, but can’t seem to get people to like him. He wants Howard to give him another chance.
  • Howard refuses.
  • Willy breaks down.
  • Howard says it would be better if Willy left the firm since he isn’t earning his keep. Willy begs to be allowed to keep his traveling job, offering himself at lower and lower pay rates.
  • Howard refuses and walks out on Willy.
  • Basically, Willy is fired.
  • This situation is so distressing that Willy goes back into his imaginary world.
  • He’s talking with Ben again, asking Ben how he made it big. Ben asks Willy to join him in Alaska.
  • Willy tries to convince imaginary Linda of the scheme, but she insists Willy’s job and life are good enough as they are. Willy feels lost.
  • High school-aged Biff and Happy enter and Willy starts boasting to Ben about how his kids can succeed solely on the basis of being attractive and well-liked.
  • Struck by another wave of self-doubt, Willy begs Ben to stay and help him raise the boys. He feels unsure of himself.
  • More imaginary people enter.
  • Bernard runs onstage as Ben leaves. He wants to carry Biff’s shoulder pads into the clubhouse at Ebbets Fields where Biff, a star football player, is preparing for a game.
  • Willy acts like Biff has just won the Super Bowl, and Charley teases Willy about his enthusiasm. Willy overreacts and tells Charley to shut up.
  • Enough football, we’re back to the real world. We hope you enjoyed the trip.
  • Willy is now outside of Charley’s office, arguing wildly with the people in his mind.
  • Charley’s secretary asks Bernard, who is now a respectable, grown man, to deal with Willy.
  • Bernard starts chatting with Willy. Bernard tells Willy that he’s about to catch a train to Washington D.C. for a case he has. Willy wants to learn more about Bernard’s case, but Bernard avoids telling him what he’s up to.
  • Bernard asks about Biff. Willy vaguely says that Biff’s up to big things.
  • Now Willy cracks. He asks Bernard what the secret to his success is and confesses that Biff isn’t accomplishing anything with his life.
  • Bernard recalls that Biff flunked math his senior year of high school, but intended to take the summer course to make up his credits and go to college on a football scholarship.
  • Before starting summer school, Biff went to visit Willy in Boston, and was completely changed when he came back. Biff burned his favorite shoes (a major sign of angst, we gather), and had a huge fistfight with Bernard.
  • Bernard wants to know what the deal was with all that.
  • Willy is nervous and angry. He defensively says that nothing happened between him and Biff.
  • Charley comes in and tells his son Bernard to hurry to catch his train.
  • Charley tells Willy that Bernard is heading off to argue a case before the Supreme Court. Willy is astounded that Bernard didn’t mention this huge accomplishment himself. Could it be that some people don’t need to talk endlessly about themselves?
  • Charley offers Willy fifty dollars. Willy is appreciative, but asks for more.
  • Now Charley gets down to business. He again offers Willy a job that will pay fifty dollars a week and require no travel. But Willy insists he has a good job. (Meaning he’s really proud and actually has no job at all.)
  • These guys never seem to understand each other. Charley interprets Willy’s pride as a personal insult and Willy takes Charley’s job offer as an attack. The men shout back and forth until Willy breaks down and Charley gives him some more money.
  • Now it’s the end of the day. Remember how everyone was planning on having so much to celebrate? And how the boys were going to take their dad out to dinner? Good.
  • So we’re now at Frank’s Chop House.
  • Happy chats with a waiter named Stanley. They spot a beautiful girl coming into the restaurant and give her the up-down.
  • Happy (the ladies’ man, remember?) shamelessly flirts with her, lying through his teeth about himself and Biff. Apparently, Happy now goes to West Point and Biff plays for the NFL.
  • Biff shows up and wants to talk to Happy. Happy is distracted by a girl; he’s convincing her to bring a friend for a double-date with him and Biff.
  • The girl agrees and leaves to call one of her girlfriends.
  • Biff tells his brother what happened with Oliver: Biff waited six hours to see the man, and when he finally did, Oliver had no idea who Biff was.
  • Biff realized that he’d been living in a fantasy world, imagining (with the help of his dad) that he’d been a salesman for Oliver. In fact, he had only been a no-name shipping clerk.
  • In a fit of rage over the whole (short) meeting, Biff stole Oliver’s fancy fountain pen and ran out of the building.
  • Biff wants to tell Willy about the meeting and make his dad face reality. Happy thinks that’s an awful idea because their dad should only hear good news.
  • Willy then shows up at the restaurantexpecting to hear good news.
  • Biff tries telling his honest story, but is consistently interrupted by Willy's and Happy’s hopeful insistence that everything went wonderfully with Oliver.
  • Biff repeatedly begins to lie like a Loman, but consciously stops himself.
  • Too lateWilly’s back in his visions again, where high school-aged Bernard rushes in to inform Linda that Biff flunked math.
  • Back to reality. Willy hears enough of Biff’s story to realize that Biff stole Oliver’s fountain pen, which was clearly the most exciting bit of the tale.
  • Poor Willy loses it. He keeps repeating, "I’m not here" aloud, imagining that a telephone operator is trying to track him down.
  • Confused and horrified by his father’s behavior, Biff promises to do better.
  • Happy tries to lie on Biff’s behalf and say that everything went well with Oliver. At the same time, Biff tries desperately to hold onto the truth.
  • The hot chick that Happy had been flirting with returns with her friend.
  • Willy continues to have vivid flashbacks, hearing the voices of an operator and a woman.
  • The scene shifts fully into Willy’s flashback. He is dressing and chatting with a woman in a black slip. Yes, that’s the same woman we saw him with before in the stockings episode.
  • As they chat, it becomes evident that she thinks Willy is the cat’s meow. She’s been stroking his ego.
  • We hear repeated knocking on the lovers’ hotel room door.
  • Willy finally agrees to get the door and insists that the woman hide in the bathroom.
  • He opens the door and finds Biff. Extremely worried, Biff explains that he failed math and begs Willy to talk to his teacher.
  • Guilty Willy tries frantically to usher Biff out of the room, but the woman walks out of the bathroom and Biff sees her.
  • Willy’s desperate attempts at a cover-up aren’t working on Biff. Biff may have failed math, but he’s not dumb. He realizes his dad is having an affair and breaks down, screaming at Willy for giving the woman his mom’s stockings.
  • Willy’s mind is now back in reality. But his sons bailed on him, preferring a double-date to their suffering father.
  • Willy pulls himself together and urgently asks Stanley (the waiter) where the nearest seed store is (remember how he wanted to plant things earlier that morning?).

(Click the summary infographic to download.)

  • After their night on the town, Biff and Happy return home to their angry mother.
  • Linda shouts at Biff and Happy for ditching Willy at the restaurant for some stupid girls. Biff demands to see Willy, but she won’t let him.
  • Biff finds his dad out back on his hands and knees planting seeds. He’s talking aloud to himself.
  • Back in Willy’s tormented mind, Willy is having a conversation with Ben. Willy still wants Biff to make it big. Because there is no financial support from Oliver, Willy feels killing himself is the only option. That way, Biff can have the $20,000 life insurance payout. He’s sure his son could use that money to set up a successful business.
  • Ben tells Willy it’s a cowardly idea.
  • Imagining his own funeral with a horde of mourners, Willy tells Ben it will teach Biff once and for all how well-known and liked Willy is.
  • The scene shifts back to reality. Things are not looking so good.
  • Biff stands over his father, says good-bye, announces he’s leaving for good, and openly takes the blame for his own inability to make something of himself.
  • Biff and Willy enter the kitchen, where Linda is waiting. Unwilling to react to Biff’s attempts to say good-bye, Willy keeps asking about Oliver (which is just about the worst possible topic).
  • Now the emotions really come out. Willy accuses Biff of being spiteful; they argue aggressively.
  • Biff whips out the piping that his father tried to kill himself with. Willy denies the suicide attempt while Biff accuses him of trying to be a martyr.
  • Biff lays all of his feelings out in the open. He says that the family is always lying to themselves. Sick of lying, Biff screams that he’s stolen from every employer since high school and has even served jail time.

(Click the summary infographic to download.)

  • Biff has had some serious epiphanies: he says that Willy taught him to be so arrogant that he could never take direction from an employer. He adds that he’s finished with trying to be something (something = business man) he never wanted to be in the first place.
  • No longer willing to pretend, Biff demands that Willy stop expecting him to accomplish the impossible.
  • Biff is by now sobbing. (Who wouldn’t be?)
  • Willy, astounded at Biff’s emotional explosion, finally realizes that Biff loves him and wants his approval.
  • Yay, everything is great!
  • No, wait, everything is not great. Love, it turns out, is not all. Willy still hears Ben (in his mind), urging him to come find diamonds.
  • With diamonds (diamonds = life insurance policy) on the brain, Willy refuses to come up to bed and remains absorbed in his visions and love for his son.
  • Willy understands that his son loves him, but can’t stop dreaming about Biff making it big.
  • He converses again with Ben, who this time tells him that "the jungle is dark but full of diamonds."
  • He jumps up and runs out of the house.
  • Linda and Biff shout after him, realizing that he has sped off in the car.
  • They hear the car crash.
  • Willy has killed himself.

(Click the summary infographic to download.)

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