Act I (Loman Home, Present Day):
Willy tells Happy that he nearly hit a kid in Yonkers. Willy wonders why he didn't go to Alaska with his brother Ben, because the man was a genius: success incarnate. Ben ended up with diamond mines: he walked into a jungle and came out rich at the age of twenty-one. Happy tells Willy that he should retire. Charley enters. As Willy and Charley play cards, Charley offers Willy a job, which insults him. Willy asks Charley why Biff is going back to Texas, but Charley tells him to let Biff go. Willy talks about the ceiling he put up in the living room, but refuses to give any details. When Charley wonders how he could put up a ceiling, Willy shouts at him that a man who can't handle tools is not a man, and calls Charley disgusting.
Uncle Ben enters, a stolid man in his sixties with a mustache and an authoritative air. Willy tells Ben that he is getting awfully tired, but since Charley cannot see Ben, Willy tells him that for a second Charley reminded him of his brother Ben, who died several weeks ago in Africa. Ben asks Willy if their mother is living with him, but Willy said that she died a long time ago. Charley, who cannot see Ben, wonders what Willy is talking about. Finally Charley becomes unnerved and leaves.
If Charley and Bernard are the symbols of tangible material success in Death of a Salesman, Willy's older brother Ben symbolizes the broadest reaches of success, which are intangible and practically imaginary. Whether Ben is a Horatio Alger figure, a character whose history is to be taken literally, is disputable; some aspects of his biography are so romanticized and absurdly grandiose that it is likely that the information that Miller gives concerning Ben is filtered through Willy Loman's imagination. When Ben appears in the play, it is only as a representation of Willy's imagination. For Willy, Ben represents fantastic success gained through intangible luck rather than through the boredom of steady dedication and hard work; Ben has gained what Willy always wanted but never could achieve.
The encounter between Charley and Willy illustrates that Willy feels some jealousy toward his friend for his success. Willy offers advice to Charley at every opportunity in an attempt to assert some dominance over him. He interprets a man as a person who can handle tools well, returning to a physical definition of manhood in comparison to monetary or status-based definitions that would assert Charley's superiority.
Likewise, Charley seems to realize Willy's envy, and behaves tentatively toward his friend. Although he does injure Willy's pride by offering him a job, Charley does so tentatively, for he has great pity for Willy that he knows he must mask. Charley does, however, give the most sound advice to Willy, advising him to let Biff do what he pleases and leave for Texas.