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Death of a Salesman - Act 1 and 2

Key Concepts:

Terms in this set (26)

Ben is Willy's adventurous and lucky older brother. Of course, he's dead, so he only appears in the play as a character in Willy's troubled imagination. Willy totally idolizes Ben because he was an adventurer who escaped the world of business and got rich quick by finding diamonds in the African jungle.

One of Willy's lifelong regrets is that he didn't go with his brother to Alaska. Unlike Willy, Ben was able to take a risk and stray from the world of fierce ambition and competition. Willy interprets Ben's good fortune as undeniable proof that his dreams of making it big are realistic.

Willy also associates Ben with knowledge and self-awareness, qualities that he himself is severely lacking. Willy always wants advice, and Ben gives it. Of course, it's frequently not very good advice, and, actually and is usually the product of Willy's own imagination.

In his imagined conversations with his brother, Willy pries him for information about their father, about how he succeeded financially, and for advice about parenting Biff and Happy. It's hard to talk about Ben and his responses to these pleas, since he is either a memory of the past or a figment of the imagination. And, with Willy's complete lack of credibility, it's hard to tell even these apart.

But one thing we can take as true with reasonable confidence is the scene where Ben fights Biff. Ben wins, but only by cheating, informing the boy that that's the only way to win. There's some sketchiness surrounding his success in Africa (we're thinking he wasn't just handed the diamonds and sent along his way). He even says, in Willy's imaginings, "The jungle is dark but full of diamonds." That's big stuff right there.

Considering Ben's self-serving nature and amoral proclivities, the word "dark" connotes more than just shadows under the trees. We're not going so far as to say words like "evil" or "Darth Vader," but Ben's success is certainly blemished by his apparent use of cheating to get what he wants.
Willy goes to Charley's office to borrow money meets Bernard, Charley offers him a job and Willy is again furious at the 'insult'. Willy sees Biff's admission as a sign that Biff likes him and decides to leave him the money he will be 'magnificent'. Willy is amazed to see that Bernard has done so well for himself. He is surprised to know that Bernard is a lawyer, that he has a case pending in D.C., and that he knows people who own their own tennis court in their houses. When Willy tries to embellish Biff in front of Bernard, he finds no other choice but to, sort of, give up. Hence, in an act of complete humbleness, Willy asks Bernard

Willy: What- what's the secret?

Bernard: What secret, Willy?

Willy: How- how did you? Why didn't he ever catch on?

Here is when the most important conversation in the play occurs. Both, Willy and Bernard agree that, after that one Ebbet's Field game, Biff ends up flunking Math, and ruining his chances for college, unless he goes to Summer school. It is then when Biff starts his deep disconnect with the rest of the world. Bernard tells Willy that, after Biff flunked Math in High School, Biff was more than willing to go to Summer school and re-do the class. However, right after Biff visits Willy in New England, everything in Biff's life changes. Willy is shocked to hear this revelation.

This is when we find out exactly what happened that day: Biff had gone to New England to vent with his father the fact that he flunked Math, only to realize that his Dad was there with a mistress. The image of "The Willy Loman" that had fed his ego is now, officially, dead. In turn, Biff's own self-perception dies with it as well. After all, he is just a creation of his father's own missing ego. Hence, the encounter with Willy and the mistress is the triggering event that ruins and changes Biff's life, for good.