Analysing Death of a Salesman

We’re still at a relatively early stage of our study of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman in Year 10, and I recently asked my class to use the first few questions from the ‘Keeping Track’ section at the back of our edition of the text as as the basis for writing about the play so far. We’ve had a couple of sessions where our reading of the text has been interspersed by some written tasks where I’ve been trying to get them to do close textual analysis, focusing on the significance of details such as the particular vocabulary Miller has chosen.

This weekend I received an email from one of my students, reading, in part:

I do not understand question 3 which asks “How does Willy explain his state of mind?” because he has a unstable state of mind doesn’t he? But he doesn’t actually explain it all he does it talk to people who aren’t there but he isn’t explaining anything. But the only thing I have found in the text that he describes is the scenery when he is driving but that isn’t to do with his mind set it just shows that he likes the outdoor life just as much as Biff does it is just that he has too much pride to work on a ranch and instead works as a really crap salesman.

This seemed to me a classic case of a student who has spotted something important and relevant in the text, but is just struggling to see how to make it ‘fit’ the particular task set. My constant refrain is that success in English (or indeed any academic discipline (or indeed, dare I say it, in life itself)) depends on making connections. I put the emphasis on making. Not just finding connections as if they should already be there, and make themselves obvious, but making connections: a creative process over which you can have control.

So, my reply went as follows:

Good to hear from you.

How about:

WILLY: I’m tired to the death. (The flute has faded away. He sits on the bed beside her, a little numb.) I couldn’t make it. I just couldn’t make it, Linda.

and

WILLY: No, it’s me, it’s me. Suddenly I realize I’m goin’ sixty miles an hour and I don’t remember the last five minutes. I’m

I can’t seem to — keep my mind to it.

and

WILLY (with wonder): I was driving along, you understand? And I was fine. I was even observing the scenery. You can imagine, me looking at scenery, on the road every week of my life. But it’s so beautiful up there, Linda, the trees are so thick, and the sun is warm. I opened the windshield and just let the warm air bathe over me. And then all of a sudden I’m goin’ off the road! I’m tellin’ya, I absolutely forgot I was driving. If I’d’ve  gone the other way over the white line I might’ve killed somebody. So I went on again — and five minutes later I’m  dreamin’ again, and I nearly… (He presses two fingers against his eyes.) I have such thoughts, I have such strange thoughts.

And why do you say that when he describes the scenery as he is driving , “that isn’t to do with his mindset”? Where does it come from, if not from his mind? (or rather, from the mind of the character as created by Miller) And if it comes from his mind, then might it not be one way that he uses to ‘explain’ his state of mind to Linda? And by which Miller can ‘explain’ his state of mind to the audience? What might it suggest about his ‘state of mind’ that he feels the desire to “just let the warm air bathe over me”? What about his choice of the verb ‘observing’, (following the adverb ‘even’ – what does that imply?), and the impact of its contrast with the verb ‘looking’ (how is that different from ‘observing’?) when linked to the adverbial phrases “on the road, every week of my life”?
Hopefully you can begin now to find a way of doing the more subtle and detailed analysis that will make an even more skilled reader than you already are.
Perhaps other readers will also find something to provoke thought on how to delve into detail when analysing the play. I hope so. Perhaps you could add any answers you may have to those questions in the comments section?
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43 Responses to Analysing Death of a Salesman

  1. Alex Pollard says:

    🙂

  2. Lewis Adams says:

    Can you see this?

  3. Nathan Hepworth says:

    It’s good! =)

    • Mr Heald says:

      Thank you! Now, that’s the last flippant comment I’m approving – let’s go with the serious thinking, please.

  4. aaronbarrowman says:

    Does Willy actually have bipolar?

    • Mr Heald says:

      I assume you mean bipolar disorder?

      If he did, how would you know?

      • maxibon123 says:

        We know Willy has mood swings as he says ‘I can see them goddamit’ very frustrated and then a couple of lines down he then says ‘have we got any cheese’.This shows Willy is very confused.However I believe Willy is very emotional at the current time because of his suicidal attempts and his mood swings could just be linked.

      • aaronbarrowman says:

        Yes I did mean the disorder. If he did you’d be able to tell because he would constantly chaning moods. In a sense he does but the only reason that he does is when he goes into one of his rememberings. So I’m confused because he is happy in the past but in he present upset and thinking suicidle thoughts. Even when the past and present run along side each other.

        • Mr Heald says:

          I think there is a danger that looking for things like a specific medical diagnosis for a character can be a bit of a red herring unless the author gives very clear evidence in favour. Surely it’s enough for us to know that Willy is unstable enough psychologically as to eventually take his own life, and that this is interspersed with episodes of happiness, even euphoria. I suppose bipolar disorder is indeed one condition with those kind of symptoms, but I don’t feel qualified enough to make a diagnosis!

    • maxmcclellan14 says:

      I still feel Bipolar is a very over exaggerated view on Willys condition and just because of his mood swings doesnt mean he has a disease he may just be overworked and tired physically and mentally.
      By Max and Danny 😉

  5. Will Price says:

    Willy explains his state of mind with ‘wonder’. This wonder could link to wander, which is what his mind does whilst driving his car. He loses concentration and becomes intoxicated by things that are of lesser importance such as the trees and the wind. This is similar to his ‘flashbacks’ with Ben in which it is of utmost importance to him but may be of no relevance to other characters.

    • Zach says:

      Perhaps this wonder is what causes his dream like imaginings and the fact he can’t distinguish between reality his imaginings and his dreams and plans. Maybe even wanting to stay in his dream like state all the time leading to his depresing nature.

      • Will Price says:

        Also, his dreams and imaginings could link to how he sees Biff as a failure, when in fact, he is actually sort of successful in his own way.

    • Lewis Adams says:

      Good point there Will but how does ‘Wonder’ link to ‘Wander’ even though they share a similar name?

      • Eilish, Amy and Sarah (Team Work) says:

        same

      • Will Price says:

        Nearly same word innit fam.

      • Will Price says:

        Seriously, I thought that the two words connotate with each other because:
        wondering of the mind (looking at matters of little or no relevance)
        wandering of the mind (letting the mind switch between different thoughts).

        • Mr Heald says:

          I suspect, too, that in an American accent (AmE) the two words are even closer to being homophones than in British English (BrE).

          • lewisthabeast101 says:

            Yeah, that makes much more sense but am I right to presume that that is because the book was written for Americans, not for the British?

          • Mr Heald says:

            Remember to refer to it as a play rather than a book. Miller is American, and his characters are American, so naturally they would have American accents. It seems fairly unlikely to me that there was a conscious and deliberate link between the two words, but that isn’t to say it’s not a connection worth making. I don’t think, however, that it would be convincing to say something like “Miller used the verbs ‘wonder’ and ‘wander’ because it was written for an American audience and the words would sound similar to them.” I think he used those words primarily because he wanted to say what those words mean! However, I think it would be effective to write something like: “There is a phonetic similarity between the verbs ‘wonder’ and ‘wander’, particular in an American accent, that may draw the audience’s attention to a possible semantic connection between them, in that ‘wondering’ of the mind (looking at matters of little or no relevance) is similar in some ways to ‘wandering’ of the mind (letting the mind switch between different thoughts)”. Notice that I used Will’s comment there and put it into a sentence that could easily be used in a high-grade essay.

      • “Wonder” links “Wander” because Willy speaks with wonder and he did wander in the car.

  6. Daniel says:

    Why do you think Linda idolises Willy so much,even though he often snaps at her at her and criticises her decisions?

    • maxmcclellan14 says:

      Love is a strong bond they cannot be torn apart that easily just over silly, meaningless arguments

      • Mr Heald says:

        We could do with a ‘like’ button! I think that’s a fairly pertinent response, but it maybe doesn’t deal with the connotations of the word ‘idolises’. Do you think that Linda does ‘idolise’ Willy?

  7. By ‘observing’, does Miller mean that Willy does not just see the scenery but watches it, learns from it and feels a part of it???

    • Charlie says:

      Or could Miller possibly mean that Willy pays a close attention to detail to the scenery and makes a mental note of what he is observing?

    • Zach says:

      It seems as if Willy wants to part of it but cant like he cant fulfill his own dream- ‘The American Dream’. Miller use Willy to mention flowers and trees and nature in general alot throught the text perhaps this is his dream to be outdoor. actually quite like biffs desire to be outside. Maybe Willy’s dreams are closer to Biff’s then they originally seem

  8. Eilish, Amy and Sarah (Team Work) says:

    Willy explains his state of mind by after explaining about his incident in car saying ‘i have such thoughts, i have such strange thoughts’. As Willy himself admits to having “strange thoughts” it shows that he knows himself that something is wrong. The adjective ‘strange’ lets the reader know that what he is thinking about aren’t just normal day to day thoughts but weird and unusual ones.

  9. Olivia says:

    Willy explains his state of mind as being ‘tired to the death’ which suggests it is the fact he has to travel far for his work which seems to be leaving him both mentally and physically exhausted. However, Willy doesn’t seem to be able to figure out what could cause him to be ‘tired to the death’ and that he cannot remember the last 5 minutes. He says that he cannot seem to keep his ‘mind to it’ which suggests he may have something on his mind which is bothering him, as he seems to be having trouble focusing on the road, and seems to be losing concentration very easily. He goes on to say he ‘was fine’ which makes us wonder what happens so suddenly to make him forget he was driving. Willy goes on to say he has ‘such strange thoughts’ which turn out to play a major part in the play along with his state of mind. His ‘strange thoughts’ appear to be the cause of his driving problems, these ‘thoughts’ seem to link to the various hallucinations he has throughout the play.

  10. Jasmine West says:

    In my opinion, Willy’s mind is conflicting with itself. On the one hand, whenever he’s driving near the beauiful scenery, it causes the car to ‘go off onto the shoulder’ because Willy keeps getting distracted. However, on the other hand, he seems tired by his state of mind, he repeatedly continues swerving off the road because of his incapability to focus on more than one subject (this could then be linked to the confusion he suffers in the play between past and present). This is shown when he ‘presses two fingers against his eyes’ after describing his enjoyable experience and his statement upon entry “I’m tired to death.”
    In my opinion, I think that a posibility as to why Willy’s state of mind resulted in this way could be because he suffered an experience which caused him to go through concurrences and create conflicts in his conscience.

    Nevertheless, it is clear that not even Will undestands his own thoughts. He himself is surprised about the fact he observed the scenery and this is shown by the use of ‘even’ in the statement “I was even observing the scenery.” This suggests that on his way to work this is not something he usually does therefore, it is change in his usual behaviour.

    Overall, I think like the scenery, there are small factors which cause subtle changes in Willy’s personality but whether this is in a good or bad way, is open to interpretation.

  11. Tomiwa says:

    Miller’s character Willy Loman has been shown as quite unsure about himself, we know this because when he starts to describe his observation of the scenary he asks Linda, “You understand?” as in a way to ensure what he is saying makes sense and for reassurance from his wife. This is probably because he realises his thoughts are strange and his actions (of pressing two fingers against his eyes as if he is wiping tears away) whilst he recognises his thoughts are strange shows he himself is concerned about it. This supports the idea that Linda is there to be his “foundation and support” and reassure him on his thoughts and to make sure that his dreams do not conflict with his reality.
    🙂

    • Will Price says:

      He also seems to be not only unsure or uncertain of himself, he is maybe also insecure of his own faults and failures, shown by how he takes it out of Biff.

  12. cburnett82 says:

    If will was ‘observing’ the scenery surely he wasnt concerntraiting on the road? So he would have gone off the road? If this is the case why does Linda insist on taking the blame off Willy? Why doesn’t she just tell him straight? Is it because shes scared of him?

  13. lewisthabeast101 says:

    If we want to ask a question on the book, do we have to start a new blog or just comment under this one all the time?

  14. kellie says:

    Number 11 analysis

    11.HAPPY [enthralled]: That’s what I dream about Biff. Sometimes I wanna just rip my clothes off in the middle of the store and outbox that goddamned merchandise manager. I mean I can outbox, outlift and outrun anybody in that store, and I have to take orders from those petty, common sons of bitches till I can’t stand it anymore
    In my opinion happy has bottled up his anger… resulting in him out bursting in an implausible comment “ I wanna just rip my clothes off in the middle of the store and outbox that god damn merchandise manager.” This is unrealistic; happy is just letting his anger out because in actual fact, he most likely wouldn’t pursue those actions. It also implies his extreme dislike to his manager… this may mean he doesn’t like being controlled or in an environment where he is told what to do. As he retaliates by insulting his co-workers “I have to take orders from those petty, common sons of bitches” The adjective he uses ‘petty’ implies his co-workers are pedantic and fussy… however the way he’s over-confident “outbox, outlift and outrun” this suggests he is hypocritical as the triplet of repetitive verbs, all have the same prefix ‘out’. Which in the context is used to mean ‘to do better than’ or rather to ‘out do’. This in its self is very concise and well accumulated making him hypercritical.
    The way miller articulates the word ‘common’ represents how biff seems to think he is of higher class than his collaborators. However the novel is about him and his family being an average American family in the 1950’s.
    In addition, the way he is big headed about his skills and degrades other people’s abilities suggests to me he is not proud of what he’s accomplished in his life, and he feels like he has to big himself up when telling people he has to work for others. The xoxoxoxoxoxoxo finish later

    The word ‘orders’ symbolises to me an environment of imprisonment.

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