Act I (Loman Home, Past):
While Willy talks with Ben, Linda (as a younger woman) enters. Willy asks Ben where his father is, but Ben says that he didn't find his father in Alaska, for he never made it there. Ben claims he had a very faulty view of geography and ended up in Africa instead of Alaska. Willy was only three years, eleven months old when Ben left. Young Biff and Happy enter, and Willy introduces them to Uncle Ben, a "great man." Ben boasts that their father was a very great man, an inventor who could make more money in a week than another man could make in a lifetime. Willy shows Biff to Ben, and says that he's bringing up Biff to be like their father. Biff and Ben start to spar; Ben trips Biff, then tells him never to fight fair with a stranger, because he will never get out of the jungle that way. Ben leaves, wishing Willy good luck on whatever he does.
Charley returns, and reprimands Willy for letting his kids steal lumber from the nearby building that is being refurbished. Willy says that he reprimanded them, but that he has a "couple of fearless characters" as his children. Charley tells him that the jails are full of fearless characters, but Ben says that so is the stock exchange. Bernard enters and says that the watchman is chasing Biff, but Willy says that he is not stealing anything. Willy says that he will stop by on his way back to Africa, but Willy begs him to stay and talk. Willy worries that he's not teaching his sons the right kind of knowledge. Ben repeats that when he walked into the jungle he was seventeen, and when he walked out he was twenty-one and fantastically rich.
Once again, Miller shifts the setting of the play to previous years in a seemingly imaginary scene that contrasts Willy's failed aspirations with the supposedly great accomplishments of his brother Ben. Willy deals almost entirely in superlatives. Ben is a legendary man who, out of pure luck, ended up the owner of a diamond mine. Ben, who exists as an extension of Willy's imagination, speaks of their father in similar terms, as a "great man" and an inventor. These boasts are exaggerations meant to emphasize Willy's feelings of inadequacy in comparison to his brother and father. Willy even pathetically attempts to justify life in Brooklyn as a life comparable to that in the outdoors. This familial history provides a neat complement to Willy's relationship with Biff; just as Biff feels himself a failure in his father's eyes, Willy perceives himself to be inadequate in comparison to his father and brother.
The second appearance of Young Biff and Young Happy reinforces the values that Willy has instilled in his sons. Happy once again brags about losing weight, showing his focus on physical appearance and athleticism, while Biff steals from the nearby construction site. For Willy, stealing is merely an extension of a capitalist mindset; he makes no distinction between the fearless character in jail and the fearless character in the stock exchange. This demonstrates the insufficiencies of Willy's views on success: he attributes success to luck or immorality and cannot see the virtues of hard work and discipline as shown by Charley and Bernard. Willy can conceive of success as a mantra by Ben or the result of fearless daring, but he cannot imagine that hard work and dedication are critical to the formula. Willy's business values inform his instructions to his sons, while their instructions from Willy inform their behavior in the business world.