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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EngLangList (weekly)

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EngLangList (weekly)

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Writing about poetry – can you be wrong?

An interesting discussion touching on this issue cropped up on an English teacher’s online forum I participate in recently. The post I wrote piecing it together is a bit long for here, perhaps, so you can click here if you’re interested enough to read more.

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GCSE Poetry Exam – Covering all the Bases

Do you struggle to remember what sort of things you should be writing about poems in the exam? Well the number one thing is that you should write about what your answer to the question is. As I tell my classes until they’re sick of hearing it, ‘Answer the question, the whole question and nothing but the question.’

But in answering the question, you need to show WHY yours is  a reasonable answer, by referring a to a full range of things to do with language, form, structure, issues and ideas.

English teacher colleagues are incredibly creative and come up with all sorts of mnemonics to help their students remember what they need to consider to make sure they are addressing all the assessment objectives.

Maybe you could remember like this:

“S – ubject matter
P – purpose
E – motion
C – raftsmanship – > SLIMS ( Sounds Language Imagery Movement Structure)
S – summary

SPECS & SLIMS – v easy to remember”

or like this:

“You can use your own writing hand as a visual aid in the exam:

Thumb = subject of the poem – what is actually “there under your thumb” ? Storyline etc etc [Jab down with the thumb on the copy of the text, to reinforce the point]
Index finger = theme(s) – what might the poem be “pointing to” that goes beyond the basic content ? [Use the finger as a pointer away from the copy of the text, to reinforce]

You can suggest that it might be worth thinking about the “pinch factor” at this point – is the poet in any way using the relationship between the immediate content and wider implications to “get a hold of the reader” [demonstrated by thumb and index finger pinching together, to reinforce]

Middle finger = organisation/structure; you have to think of this finger as representing the central column supporting a building.
(This is just a starter to a potentially huge topic of course: how it starts; how it ends; stanza structure; rhyme scheme; lineation etc etc)
Ring finger = language use (the one your English teacher is so obviously “in love with”) detailed analysis of register; word-choice; imagery etc etc etc
Little finger = effect (crook the pinkie in the way social snobs are supposed to drink a cup of tea to show that they are upper class) what is the poet trying to achieve overall in terms of effect on the reader, and how far has this worked in your case ?

Subject
Theme
Organisation
Language
Effect
also spells “STOLE” if that’s any help.”

or like this:

“I use ASTRIDE:

A ttitude – poet to reader and poet to subject
S ubject Matter/Structure
T heme
R hythm/Rhyme
I magery
D iction
E ffect on reader”

or like this:

“I use TRIED

Theme
Rhyme / rhythm
Images
Emotion
Diction

The idea is that they have TRIED in the exam – of course some change it to Tired because they’ve had enough of poetry by then!…..”

or like this:

“We use Flirt which is memorable for the students in the exam…

F orm
L anguage
I magery
R hyme/ rhythm
T one”

or like this:

“I say this to my students…or something to this effect. I’m pretty sure in this order (doing it from memory):

Read the poem
Read it again – what do you think it’s about? What’s the big picture?
Who is speaking? Who are they speaking to?
Look at the language – what words does the poet use to convey meaning?
Look at the structure – how does this add to the meaning?
Personal response – how does it make you feel? “

But however you remember, make sure you do remember, but DON’T just follow a rigid formula. Have the confidence to respond to the particular poems and the specific question in your own unique way.

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Using Sources & Compiling a Bibliography

A properly referenced bibliography is a compulsory requirement for your coursework to be accepted. Therefore, can you make sure you that you keep careful records of everything that you read and refer to so that you can cite it correctly in your coursework. Guidance on using sources is available in a document that you should already have seen that is linked from the coursework guidelines document mentioned in the previous post (direct link here: http://www2.ofqual.gov.uk/files/2009-12-24-plagiarism-students.pdf).

There are a number of useful online tools for maintaining a bibliography with correct referencing style. One that uses the Harvard system of referencing recommended in the Ofqual guide is: http://www.citethisforme.com/ There are other online tools that include the ability to search directly from within the tool, and add search results directly to the bibliography include http://www.bibme.org/ and http://easybib.com/ You may find it useful to search from directly within such a tool, as they tend to throw up more focussed results than Google which needs a bit more careful sifting to sort the wheat from the chaff.

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