Death of A Salesman: Novel Summary: Act 1, Scene 1

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Miller begins his play with a bedtime dialogue between Willy and his wife, Linda.  Willy, an aging salesman, has just returned late from a business trip.  Linda is very concerned, asking her husband if he had a car accident.  Willy tiredly explains that indeed he did have a close call with his car, veering off the road on two occasions while enjoying the scenery.  Though at first Linda thinks that it's a problem with the vehicle, eventually she attributes Willy's driving problems to his exhausted mind.  When Willy explains that he's just been on vacation, she asserts, "But you didn't rest your mind. Your mind is overactive, and the mind is what counts, dear."
Miller uses this scene to show Willy's confusion.  The aging salesman is unable to assess his situation or come to any rational conclusion as to what to do to remedy his failures.  He blames his financial problems in part on Howard, the new owner of Willy's company and son of the former owner.  According to Willy, Howard doesn't appreciate his ability the way his father did.  Despite these setbacks, however, he still believes in his ability and value as a salesman.  When explaining why they can't leave the crowded city to live in New York, Willy tells his wife, "I'm the New England man.  I'm vital in New England."
Willy's second major problem addressed in this scene is his troubled relationship with his son, Biff.  It seems Biff, who is grown up but now at home again for an extended visit after spending several years out west, hasn't found financial success or even a decent paying job.  Willy (who wishes for the success of his sons in part because he hasn't found success himself) blames Biff's laziness for these problems.  Yet only a few lines later, Willy contradicts himself, maintaining that Biff is a very hard worker.  "There's one thing about Biff-he'