When Willy wakes the next morning, Biff and Happy have already gone, and Linda tells Willy that Biff is on his way to see Bill Oliver. Excited by the prospects of the "Florida idea," Willy tells Linda that he wants to buy some seeds and plant a garden in the back yard. Linda is overjoyed at Willy's high spirits, but laughingly reminds him that their yard doesn't get enough sun to support a garden. Willy jokes that they'll just have to get a country house.
Willy's desire to plant seeds at this hopeful moment symbolizes a number of things. It shows his desire to reconnect with nature, his need to create something tangible, and his dream of raising thriving sons. Linda's laughing response hints that Willy's hopes will go unfulfilled, but Willy just responds with even more grandiose dreams.
Linda then reminds Willy to ask Howard Wagner for a salaried non-traveling position in New York. She also tells him to ask for an advance to cover their last payment on their twenty-five year home mortgage, as well as payments on their refrigerator and Willy's life insurance premium. He agrees.
Willy's dreams can never withstand his financial reality. Yet notice that he and Linda have almost succeeded in one aspect of the American Dream—home ownership. Yet Willy seems uninterested. He's already dreaming of more.
Before Willy leaves, Linda tells him that the boys want to take him to a fancy dinner at Frank's Chop House, a steak restaurant in Manhattan. Willy is elated, but just then notices a stocking in Linda's hand. He tells her not to mend stockings, at least not while he's around.
A fancy dinner with his sons is a dream come true for Willy—a sign that his sons, and therefore he, are successful. But the repetition of Willy and Linda's stocking conversation hints that Willy hasn't dealt with shame or consequences of his infidelity.
Right after Willy leaves, Linda answers a phone call from Biff. She tells him what she thinks is good news: that the rubber hose Willy attached to the gas heater is gone, implying that he took it away himself. She is disappointed to hear that Biff was the one who removed it the night before.
In the presence of Willy's infectious good mood, Linda had allowed herself a dream of her own: that Willy has given up suicide.
Willy arrives at Howard Wagner's office, and timidly enters. Howard is playing with a wire recorder he bought for dictation, but has been using to record his own family. He makes Willy listen to his daughter whistling, his son reciting state capitals, and his shy wife refusing to talk. Willy tries to praise the device, but Howard shushes him. Howard then tells Willy he should get one of the recorders, as they only cost a hundred and fifty dollars. Willy promises to do just that.
The wealthy Howard doesn't respect Willy—shushing Willy just as Willy shushed Linda. He is more interested in his toy than in Willy, and doesn't realize, or care, that what he paid for that toy would lift Willy and his family out of financial trouble. Willy, meanwhile, continues to sell himself as a successful man.
When Howard gets around to asking why Willy isn't in Boston, Willy explains that he doesn't want to travel anymore. He asks Howard for a salaried job at the New York office for $65 a week. Howard says no position is available, and looks for his lighter. Willy finds the lighter and hands it to Howard, and, growing desperate, reminds Howard that he helped name him. Willy lowers his salary requirement to fifty dollars a week, but Howard reiterates that there's no position.
Howard inherited his position from his father, who built his company in part on Willy's labor. But Howard sees as outdated the system of loyalty and personal connections in which Willy has put total faith. When Willy hands Howard the lighter, he breaks his own advice to Biff about never handing anything to Oliver.
Willy tells a story of a salesman who inspired him, Dave Singleman. Dave sold until he was eighty-four, going into hotel rooms and contacting buyers by phone. He died "the death of a salesman," alone in a train compartment, but was mourned by hundreds of salesmen and buyers. As a young man, Willy had wanted to go to Alaska and try to strike it rich like his father and brother, but Dave's success and respected position convinced Willy that selling was honorable, full of potential, and "the greatest career a man could want." He complains to Howard that there is no friendship or respect in the business anymore.
Willy's choice of role model shows that he has absorbed the wrong values from the American Dream. Rather than having family and friends at his funeral, Singleman, whose name hints at how alone he was, died at work and was mourned only by business contacts. Singleman is the epitome of Willy's desire to be "well liked," which is more superficial than either being loved or doing something you love.
Willy continues to mention Howard's father and lowers his salary requirement, but Howard is uninterested. He leaves his office to speak with some other employees, telling Willy him to pull himself together in the meantime. Willy, alone, begins to speak to the late Frank Wagner, the former owner of the company and Howard's father, but accidentally turns on the tape recorder, filling the room with the voice of Howard's son. He anxiously shouts for Howard to come back and turn it off.
In Willy's time of need, Howard abandons him. Willy's inability to use the recorder symbolizes how the world has past him by. When he accidentally turns on the recorder while he's speaking with his memory of Frank in Howard's office, Willy is surrounded by three generations of Wagners, all of whom have been or will be more successful than he and his children.
Howard comes back in and unplugs the tape recorder. He tells Willy that he is no longer welcome to represent the company in Boston. Referring to Willy, his elder, by the term "kid," Howard tells Willy to take a long rest and let his sons support him. Willy refuses out of pride, but as Howard continues to insist it eventually dawns on Willy that he is being fired.
Willy's exaggerations have caught up with him, as Howard believes that Biff and Happy are far more successful than they actually are. Howard's disrespectful use of the word "kid" implies that he, like Willy, equates wealth with personal worth.
Howard leaves, and Willy slips into a memory in which Ben is offering him an opportunity to come to Alaska to manage a tract of timberland. Before Willy can accept, Linda appears and tells Ben that Willy is on track to become a member of the firm, so he can't take the offered job. Ben asks Willy whether he can reach out and touch his success. Willy responds by pointing to his son, Biff, who plays football and is about to go to college. He tells Ben that what's important isn't what you do, but being liked by people, and that this quality is as tangible as timber.
Willy and Ben are arguing from different belief systems. Ben, like the old time barons of industry who built their wealth through coal, steel, or railroads, believes that wealth is a physical thing that you can build and touch. Willy, in contrast, has invested his effort in his sons and in his own personality and business relationships.
Now in a new memory, Bernard enters as the Loman family is preparing to go to Biff's football game. He asks to carry Biff's helmet, but Happy insists on carrying that. Biff allows Bernard to carry his shoulder pads. Charley enters and jokes with Willy about the game, trying to deflate Willy's excessive expectations about the game. Willy becomes angry and accuses Charley of thinking he's better than everyone else.
Willy's sense of success as a combination of personality, luck and glory is evident in the emphasis he places on Biff's success on the football field rather than in the classroom. Charley's view is more realistic. Willy's anger at Charley indicates that he senses that Charley is right.
Bernard, now grown, is waiting in the reception room outside Charley's office. Charley's secretary, Jenny, comes in to ask Bernard to deal with Willy, who has come to see Charley but is still lost in his memory, arguing with Charley about the football game. Bernard, a lawyer, speaks with Willy, and in the course of conversation mentions that he has a case in Washington, D.C. Willy replies that Biff is also working on a big deal. Willy suddenly becomes upset, and asks Bernard why Biff never accomplished anything after the big football game when he was 17.
Bernard and Willy are at opposite points in their lives. Yet, in spite of all the memories Willy has already relived, he is unable to see why Bernard, the careful student, has become a success while Biff has not lived up to the potential Willy saw in him. Willy can't see that Biff's failure resulted from the values that Willy instilled in him.
The two of them agree that Biff's life derailed after he failed math. Bernard recalls that Biff had been determined to go to summer school and make up the class. But then Biff took a trip to Boston to see Willy, and when he returned he didn't go to summer school, burned his University of Virginia sneakers, and fought with Bernard, ending their friendship. Bernard asks Willy what happened in Boston. Willy becomes defensive, claims that nothing happened, and says he isn't to blame for Biff's failure.
Biff failed math because Willy helped instill in him the sense that football and popularity was important, while school was not. But after failing math, Biff was determined to atone for his failure, to rededicate himself and actually work for success. Then he visited Willy in Boston, and gave up. So whatever happened in Boston, which Willy refuses to discuss, must be crucial.
Just then, Charley comes out of his office and hands Bernard a goodbye gift, a bottle of bourbon. He tells Willy that Bernard is going to argue a case in front of the Supreme Court. Willy, impressed and jealous, can't believe that Bernard hadn't told him.
Bernard's reticence about a major accomplishment directly contrasts Willy's constant bragging about superfluous or illusory successes.
Bernard leaves, and Willy follows Charley into his office. Charley starts to count out the usual fifty dollars, but Willy sheepishly asks for a hundred and ten because of all his payments due. Charley wonders why Willy won't just take his job offer, which would allow Willy to make fifty dollars a week. Willy is still too proud to take it, and says he already has a job. Then he breaks down and tells Charley that Howard has just fired him, and repeats his philosophy that to be successful, a man must be impressive and well-liked. Charley asks, rhetorically, if anyone would have liked J.P. Morgan if he wasn't rich.
Charley is much more attuned than Willy to the demands of the modern business world, which is a capitalistic rather than a chivalrous system, more interested in profits than heroes. Though he reiterates his offer of help, Willy can't bring himself to give up his identity as a salesman or independent provider. Willy insists on being a hero, even if only in his own mind, by refusing all help.
Charley gives Willy the money to pay his life insurance premium. Willy muses that he has ended up worth more dead than alive, but Charley angrily refutes this. Willy tells Charley, "you're my only friend," and leaves Charley's office on the verge of tears.
Willy sees success as measured in money and material things. This logic leads him to measure his own life purely in financial terms. It's also important that even though Willy has always seen Charley as inferior or a competitor, Charley is still there to support Willy in his time of need (despite Charley not liking him much personally), and this is the only time Willy acknowledges that.
At Frank's Chop House, Happy banters with Stanley, a waiter he knows. When Biff arrives, Happy is flirting with an attractive girl, Miss Forsythe. She claims to be a cover model, while Happy says that he is a champagne salesman. Happy introduces Biff as a quarterback for the New York Giants. He asks Miss Forsythe, who it seems likely is a call girl, if she can continue to chat, and possibly call a friend. She agrees and goes off to make a call.
Happy has always idolized Willy, in part because Willy always paid more attention to Biff. Happy has so internalized Willy's lessons about being liked that he thinks nothing of lying to seem more important than he is. He also seems to think little of women, a reflection of Willy's lack of respect for Linda.
Once she is gone, Biff tells Happy that he waited in Bill Oliver's waiting room for six hours. When Oliver finally came out, he gave Biff one look and walked away. Apparently, Oliver didn't remember Biff at all. Biff wonders how he had ever come to think that he had been a salesman for Oliver. In fact, he had just been a shipping clerk, but somehow Willy's exaggerations had convinced him and everyone else in the family that he was actually a salesman. Humiliated after Oliver failed to recognize him, Biff snuck into Oliver's office, stole his fountain pen and fled the building.
Willy literally warps his children's view of the world, with the result that they are ultimately humiliated when they come face to face with reality. Years earlier, Biff stole a crate of basketballs from Oliver. Now he steals a pen. This repetition indicates that Biff is stuck in the same self-destructive cycle that led him to fail math and then decide not to try to pass the class.
Biff tells Happy that he wants to confess all this to Willy, so that their father will know that Biff is not the man that Willy takes him for. Happy advises Biff that it would be better to lie, and to tell Willy that Oliver is thinking the offer over then wait until Willy eventually forgets about it. This way, Happy says, Willy will have something to look forward to.
Willy arrives. Biff begins, hesitantly, to tell him what happened. But before he can say much, Willy reveals that he's been fired, and needs some good news for their mother. Happy begins to go along with Willy's assumptions about the Oliver meeting, but Biff continues to try to tell his father what really happened when he tried to meet with Oliver.
Biff now realizes that the inflated dreams all the Lomans have shared are destructive, and wants to share this epiphany with his father. Willy, however, prefers his illusions to the hard look at himself that Biff offers.
Willy remembers a young Bernard knocking on Linda's door, telling her that Biff has flunked math. Distracted by this memory, Willy ignores Biff's confession and instead tells Biff, out of the blue, that he shouldn't blame Willy for his failures, since it was Biff who failed math. Not knowing what to make of this, Biff shows Willy the stolen pen as proof of what he did. He and Happy are frightened by Willy's delusional behavior.
Willy tries to hide from the truth that Biff is telling him. Willy focuses on Biff's failing math as the source of his troubles because Willy himself refuses to take any responsibility for Biff's failure.
Trying to calm Willy down, Biff falls back on Happy's strategy and lies: he tells Willy that Oliver is going to lend them the money. Willy tells Biff to go back to see Oliver tomorrow, but Biff now says that he's ashamed to go back, having stolen the pen and also, long ago, having stolen some basketballs. Willy accuses him of not wanting to be anything, and Biff retorts that he has already swallowed his pride and gone back to Oliver on behalf of Willy.
In spite of the revelation Biff has had—that he will never be a rising star in the business world and doesn't want to be, that he is instead a "low man" like his father—his love and pity for Willy manifests itself here as complicity in the fantasy Willy wants them to share.
Miss Forsythe returns, now with a friend, Letta. Willy, in a daze, wanders off to the restroom. Biff berates Happy for not caring enough about Willy. He pulls the rubber hose that he found in the cellar from his pocket and puts it on the table, saying in no uncertain terms that Willy is going to kill himself. He rushes out of the restaurant, upset. Happy hurriedly pays their bill and, embarrassed, tells the girls that Willy isn't really his father, "just a guy." Happy ushers the girls out of the restaurant and after Biff, with Willy still alone in the restroom.
By putting a rubber hose on the dinner table, Biff is bringing an ugly truth to light that they can no longer afford to ignore. By denying his relation to Willy, Happy reveals himself as a person capable of rejecting any truth that does not suit his convenience—the ultimate salesman. Willy, whose delusions caused him to abandon his sons, is now abandoned by his sons.
Alone in the restroom, Willy relives the memory of being surprised by Biff while he was with The Woman in a hotel room in Boston. The memory begins as Willy and The Woman hear a knock on the door. Willy makes The Woman hide in the bathroom while he opens the door. Biff enters, ashamed, and tells his father that he has just flunked math. He begs Willy to persuade his math teacher to let him pass.
Finally what happened in Boston is revealed. When Willy blames Biff for failing math, he is trying to duck the responsibility for Biff finding him with The Woman. The young Biff in this scene still doesn't believe in hard work. He wants Willy to step in and save him, rather than having to do any actual work in math.
Trying to get Biff out of the room, Willy pushes him toward the door and agrees to drive back immediately and speak to the teacher. When Biff imitates the teacher's lisp, The Woman laughs from the bathroom. She then emerges from the bathroom, wearing only a black slip negligee. Willy pushes her out into the hall, telling Biff that she is an acquaintance of his, a buyer, and that her room was being painted so she had to take a shower in his. The Woman demands a box of stockings before she leaves. Biff begins to cry. Willy makes a host of excuses before admitting that he was lonely. He promises to talk to the math teacher, but Biff shouts that no one would listen to a "phony little fake" and announces that, anyway, he's decided not to retake math or go to college. He condemns Willy for giving Linda's stockings to his mistress, then runs from the room as Willy cries out after him, ordering him to come back.
Desperate to keep The Woman a secret, to continue to sell himself as a hero, Willy agrees to try to help Biff slide by without working. This leads Biff to mock the teacher, which causes The Woman to reveal herself—just as reality will always ultimately reveal itself in the face of lies. When The Woman does appear, Biff realizes that the man he'd admired and believed in was a lie, "a phony." How could Willy be a hero when he cheats on his wife because of loneliness and steals from his own family to give gifts to his mistress. For Willy, the stockings come to represent his failure. For Biff, they represent the falseness of his father's American Dream.
Willy emerges from his memory, still in the restroom, as Stanley shakes him. He tells Willy that his sons have gone. Willy tries to give Stanley a tip of a dollar, but Stanley slips the bill back into Willy's pocket without Willy noticing.
Stanley is like a surrogate son in this scene. When Willy attempts to tip him, Willy is preserving the last vestiges of his old role as provider to his sons, who have just abandoned him.
Willy asks Stanley if he knows where he can find a store that sells carrot and pea seeds. Stanley tells him where to go, and Willy hurries off, frantically explaining that he has to move quickly because he doesn't "have a thing in the ground."
Biff and Happy return home later that night. Happy has brought a bouquet of roses for Linda, but she angrily throws them to the floor. She asks Biff if he cares whether Willy lives or dies, and accuses Happy of spending all his time with "lousy rotten whores." She accuses them of abandoning Willy at the restaurant and demands that both of them pack immediately and get out of the house. Happy denies having abandoned Willy at all, but Biff admits that it is true and describes himself as "scum." Overcome by guilt, Biff searches the house for Willy, who, Linda finally tells Biff, is outside obsessively trying to plant seeds despite the darkness.
Linda reveals that she sees the truth about her sons, even if Willy can't. Perhaps she also knows the truth about Willy, but her love for Willy is more important to her than that knowledge. It is therefore ironic that Willy values money and material things more than Linda's love for him. Happy continues to try to lie to make his life easier. Biff, in contrast, has begun to confront the ugly aspects of his personality.
In the garden, Willy is talking with Ben, and mentions the $20,000 dollar life insurance policy his family will be entitled to when he is dead. Ben argues that the company may not honor the policy, but Willy scoffs at this idea, saying that the company must honor the policy because he has paid all the premiums. He adds that Biff will see how important he is from the number of people at his funeral. Ben counters that his family will think of him as a coward.
One of the tragedies of the play is that, despite the fact that the capitalist American system has betrayed Willy, he continues to believe in it. He continues to think that if he is well-liked and honors his commitments that he and his family will be taken care of. Ben knows better, but Willy as usual avoids facing the truth.
Biff enters and takes the hoe out of Willy's hand. He tells Willy that he is leaving and won't be around to fight with Willy any more. They go inside. Willy is still clinging to the notion that Biff has an appointment scheduled with Oliver. Biff says he is going to leave and not keep in touch, so Willy won't have to worry about him anymore. Willy responds fiercely that Biff is throwing his life away out of spite.
Biff is willing to drop out of Willy's life, and remain a failure in Willy's eyes, in order to spare both of them from being dragged down by the impossible expectations that Willy has always placed on him. Biff sees this as an act of love, but Willy sees it as abandonment.
Biff puts the rubber hose in front of Willy, demanding that he answer to it. He tells Willy that he won't be a hero if he commits suicide, and accuses everyone in the house, including himself, of maintaining delusions. He charges Happy with making his job title sound more important than it is, and admits that he has gotten fired from every job he has held since high school for stealing. He reveals that for three months he was out of touch he was actually in jail in Kansas City for stealing a suit. He says that all his life he has been too inflated with the self-importance Willy instilled in him to be honest or take orders from anyone.
Biff is saying that Willy's unrealistic ambitions for him were what made it impossible to be a functioning member of the world. The values of personal magnetism and blind ambition that Willy instilled in him proved insufficient to catapult Biff to the top, but because he was unable to settle for anything but the top he always felt resentful against the world, which fueled his thievery. Like Ben, he tells Willy that suicide is a cowardly escape, not the act of a hero.
Biff continues, saying that what he really loves in this world is to be outdoors, and "the work and the food and the time to sit and smoke." He tells Willy that he just wants to know himself, and for Willy to know himself. He says that they are both unimportant men, and should stop deluding themselves that they are destined for leadership or greatness. He tells Willy to throw his false, dangerous dreams away. Sobbing, Biff goes upstairs to bed.
Biff's revelations through the course of the play have led him to value the things he loves rather than some external, artificial expectation of success. He sees that the American Dream doesn't have to be about success, it can be about valuing what you have, and he desperately tries to make Willy see the same thing.
Willy, suddenly in better spirits, comments that Biff must really like him to cry over him as he did. Linda and Happy assure Willy that Biff has always loved him.
Willy, avoiding the significance of Biff's words, latches onto Biff's tears to convince himself of how well-liked he is. Happy and Linda enable him.
Happy goes upstairs. Linda follows soon after. Willy promises to also come upstairs soon. Alone, now, Ben appears to him, and Willy assures Ben that Biff will be magnificent one day, once he has twenty thousand dollars in his pocket. The phantom of Ben urges Willy to come into the jungle, and disappears. Willy says goodbye to the house, and gives Biff advice about life in the terms of a football game. Linda calls down to Willy, telling him to come to bed. In response, the car growl to life and drive away, as Linda, Biff, and Happy rush downstairs,.
Alone onstage with the ghost of the brother who abandoned Willy in search of wealth, Willy chooses to abandon his family in search of wealth: the payout of his life insurance policy. Willy's warped sense of the American Dream, his focus on money as the only measure of success, makes him value himself not as a loving father or husband but rather in purely monetary terms.