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.
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.