Act I (Loman Home, Present Day):
Ben leaves, but Willy still speaks to him as Linda enters. Willy wonders what happened to the diamond watch fob that Ben gave to him when he came from Africa. Linda reminds him that he pawned it to pay for Biff's radio correspondence course. Biff and Happy come downstairs in their pajamas, and ask Linda how long Willy has been talking to himself. Linda says that this has been going on for years. Linda says that she would have told Biff, if he had an address where he could be reached. She also says that Willy is at his worst when Biff comes home, and asks Biff why they are so hateful to one another. Biff claims that he is trying to change.
Linda asks if he thinks about Willy. She says that if Biff has no feelings for his father, then he has no feeling for her either. Linda says that Willy is the dearest man in the world to her, and she won't have anyone making him feel unwanted. Biff tells her to stop making excuses for Willy because he never had an ounce of respect for her. Happy tells Biff not to call their father crazy. Biff says that Willy has no character. She tells him that Willy never made a lot of money, and that he is not the finest character, but he is a human being and "attention must be paid" to him.
Linda recounts the indignities that Willy has suffered, such as having to borrow money from Charley, and she calls Happy a philanderer. Biff wants to stay with his parents and promises not to fight with Willy. Biff says that Willy threw him out before because his father is a fake who does not like anybody who knows the truth about him. Linda says that Willy is dying and that he's been trying to kill himself. When Willy had his car accident in February, a woman saw that he deliberately smashed into the bridge railing to drive his car into the river. Willy has also tried to use the gas line to kill himself. Biff apologizes to Linda and promises to stay and try to become a success. Happy tells Biff that he never tries to please people in business, and that he whistles in the elevator.
Willy enters and tells Biff that he never grew up, and that Bernard does not whistle in the elevator. Biff says that Willy does whistle, however. Biff tells Willy that he's going to see Bill Oliver tomorrow to talk about the sporting good business. Happy says that the beauty of the plan is that it would be like they were playing ball again. Willy says that it is personality that wins the day. After the boys leave, Linda worries that Oliver won't remember Biff. Willy says that if Biff had stayed with Oliver he'd be on top now. Willy reminisces about Biff's ball game at Ebbets Field. He promises that the next day, he'll ask Harold if he can work in New York.
Biff finds Willy's rubber tubing behind the heater, and is horrified.
Miller, who returns to the present reality of the play in this segment, definitively establishes that the "flashbacks" occur in the context of Willy Loman's imagination and are a symptom of a larger dementia. Linda attributes her husband's hallucinations to Biff's presence, likely a sign that Biff reminds Willy of his failures as a father and as a businessman. However, the aspect of Willy's dementia that Miller focuses on during this segment of the play is the effect which it has on Linda. She has been the one to deal with Willy's erratic behavior alone, and doing so has made her age considerably. She is her husband's only defender, even when this role threatens to further exacerbate the conflicts that her family faces.
Miller deals with the indignities that Willy has suffered largely in terms of their effect on Linda. Since her existence and identity depend entirely on her husband, she staunchly defends him even when she realizes that he does not deserve to be defended. When she tells Biff that he cannot love her if he does not love Willy, Linda essentially chooses her husband over her children. She does this largely out of a strong feeling of duty toward Willy, for she knows that she is the only person who shows any concern for whether he lives or dies. Significantly, she centers her defense of Willy on his status as a human being and not his role as a father or husband. In these respects, Linda thus admits Willy's failures but nevertheless still maintains that "attention must be paid" to him. This declaration is significant in its construction; Linda declares that someone must regard Willy, but does not specify anybody in particular, thus avoiding a particular accusation of her sons. She condemns society in general for the ill treatment of her husband. As shown by Linda's condemnation of Happy's philandering and Biff's immaturity, Linda has few qualms about confronting her sons, yet when she demands attention for her husband she does not lay the blame only on them.
However, as Miller ennobles Linda as the long-suffering and devoted wife, he nevertheless shows Willy Loman to be undeserving of the respect and admiration Linda accords him. Biff emphasizes the fact that Willy has no sense of character and no respect for Linda, while hints about her physical appearance emphasize that Linda has aged considerably because of her demanding husband.
The final segment of the first act serves as a turning point for Biff, who realizes that he must "apply himself" as his parents have demanded of him. This revelation comes when Linda reveals that Willy has attempted suicide, finally focusing on the severity of his plight. Willy's suicide attempts are the mark of a failed man, but, more importantly, show the disparity between his aspirations and his actual achievements.
Biff's idea of a sporting goods business with his brother demonstrates the various character flaws of Biff and his father. It continues the family emphasis on appearance and personality over substance and achievement. Biff places his aspirations for success on Bill Oliver just as his father depended on Frank Wagner; Linda rightly worries about this, thinking that Bill Oliver may not remember Biff. Finally, the idea of the sporting goods business emphasizes the immaturity of Biff and Happy; both men want to work in sporting goods as an attempt to relive their youth and high school athletic glory. Even Willy himself sees this as an opportunity for himself and his sons to regain what they had lost decades before.