Subversive Nature of Language in Death of a SalesmanThere are many things in Death of a Salesman which deserve the attention of readers. Of all these things the language is the single most important aspect that deserves the attention of the reader. The language of dialogue in Death of a Salesman assumes vital importance. The nature of language in Death of a Salesman has to be dwelt on extensively.
Arthur Miller (1915-2005)
Miller's language in Death of a Salesman is vernacular. His characters in this play are all from the working-class background. Unlike the characters of noble background in the classical tragedies, Miller's characters in Death of a Salesman speak in a vernacular language. Colloquial and informal languages have become the emerging language of modern tragedies. Almost all the characters in Death of a Salesman speak in a vernacular language full of colloquial and slang words. By allowing his characters to speak in such language Arthur Miller has actually intended to subvert the established convention of the classical tragedies.
The kind of language Arthur Miller's has used in Death of a Salesman is not poetic, is not in keeping with the generic convention of a tragedy. His language is typically the language of modern tragedy. Moreover, the kind of language Miller's characters speak in the play appears to be exactly the language they speak in their real life. This shows that Miller is at home in the art of giving natural language to his characters for conversation and utterance.
Miller has an infallible ear for natural dialogue. To Miller a person's background matters, so he makes his characters speak in a true to life style, or vernacular. Their language reflects all the directness, humor and pain of working-class people. For example:
Biff: "I'm mixed up very bad. Maybe I ought get married. Maybe I ought get stuck into something." This is a matter of fact, vocabulary, full of bad grammar, slang, and casual, sloppy pronunciation. Yet Biff is instinctively going right to the heart of his confusion.
A play usually shows its characters at the peak of some change or crisis, and Death of a Salesman does this to the fullest measure. A family that has never been very direct or honest, in trouble financially and emotionally is suddenly thrown together after several years, and the things they say to each other are explosive and full of meaning. Because this family has always fooled itself with lies and exaggerations, readers must be alert to the contradictions, to people not saying what they mean. The pauses, too, seem significant, and the things they don't say.
At moments the characters seem almost poetic in the intensity of their emotions. In the special circumstances of disaster they are moved to phrase their thoughts more formally than they otherwise might, as when Charley, standing at Willy's grave, says, " Nobody dust blame this man."
The times when characters are most agitated are when they use metaphors, or poetic comparisons. For example, in Act I, when Linda is accusing Biff of shiftlessness, she says, "A man is not a bird, to come and go with the spring time". In Act II, when she is begging Biff on the phone to help his father, she says, "Be loving to him. Because he's only a little boat looking for a harbor." A few pages later when Willy is desperately demanding a New York job from Howard, he says, "You can't eat the orange and throw the peel away- a man is not a piece of fruit". In times of emotional intensity, a metaphor is often the most graphic or vivid way to illustrate a point.
Arthur Miller's skill in blending ordinary and poetic speech is one of the reasons this play is a modern classic. It touches a universal nerve of realism and poignancy. Indeed, a great many people wrote to Miller that their own lives had been revealed in the play.
Death of a Salesman Study Center
Disturbed Gender Relation and Dysfunctional Family in Death of a Salesman
The Suicidal Causes of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman
Twentieth Century Tragedy Reflected in Death of a Salesman
Death of a Salesman as a Play about American Tragedy
And when I saw that, I realized that selling was the greatest career a man could want. ’Cause what could be more satisfying than to be able to go, at the age of eighty-four, into twenty or thirty different cities, and pick up a phone, and be remembered and loved and helped by so many different people?
Willy poses this question to Howard Wagner in Act II, in Howard’s office. He is discussing how he decided to become a salesman after meeting Dave Singleman, the mythic salesman who died the noble “death of a salesman” that Willy himself covets. His admiration of Singleman’s prolonged success illustrates his obsession with being well liked. He fathoms having people “remember” and “love” him as the ultimate satisfaction, because such warmth from business contacts would validate him in a way that his family’s love does not. In so highly esteeming Singleman and deeming his on-the-job death as dignified, respectable, and graceful, Willy fails to see the human side of Singleman, much as he fails to see his own human side. He envisions Singleman as a happy man but ignores the fact that Singleman was still working at age eighty-four and might likely have experienced the same financial difficulties and consequent pressures and misery as Willy.
I saw the things that I love in this world. The work and the food and the time to sit and smoke. And I looked at the pen and I thought, what the hell am I grabbing this for? Why am I trying to become what I don’t want to be . . . when all I want is out there, waiting for me the minute I say I know who I am.
Biff’s explanation to his father during the climax of their final confrontation in Act II helps him articulate the revelation of his true identity, even though Willy cannot possibly understand. Biff is confident and somewhat comfortable with the knowledge that he is “a dime a dozen,” as this escape from his father’s delusions allows him to follow his instincts and align his life with his own dreams. Whereas Willy cannot comprehend any notion of individual identity outside of the confines of the material success and “well liked”-ness promised by the American Dream, Biff realizes that he can be happy only outside these confines. Though his attempt to cure Willy’s delusions fails, Biff frees himself from Willy’s expectations for him. He sees the stupidity of stealing the pen and renounces the commercial world, content to enjoy the simple necessities of life.
A diamond is hard and rough to the touch.
Ben’s final mantra of “The jungle is dark, but full of diamonds” in Act II turns Willy’s suicide into a moral struggle and a matter of commerce. His final act, according to Ben, is “not like an appointment at all” but like a “diamond . . . rough and hard to the touch.” As opposed to the fruitless, emotionally ruinous meetings that Willy has had with Howard Wagner and Charley, his death, Ben suggests, will actually yield something concrete for Willy and his family. Willy latches onto this appealing idea, relieved to be able finally to prove himself a success in business. Additionally, he is certain that with the $20,000 from his life insurance policy, Biff will at last fulfill the expectations that he, Willy, has long held for him. The diamond stands as a tangible reminder of the material success that Willy’s salesman job could not offer him and the missed opportunity of material success with Ben. In selling himself for the metaphorical diamond of $20,000, Willy bears out his earlier assertion to Charley that “after all the highways, and the trains, and the appointments, and the years, you end up worth more dead than alive.”
Nothing’s planted. I don’t have a thing in the ground.
After the climax in Frank’s Chop House, in Act II, Willy, talking to Stanley, suddenly fixates on buying seeds to plant a garden in his diminutive, dark backyard because he does not have “a thing in the ground.” The garden functions as a last-ditch substitute for Willy’s failed career and Biff’s dissipated ambition. Willy realizes, at least metaphorically, that he has no tangible proof of his life’s work. While he is planting the seeds and conversing with Ben, he worries that “a man can’t go out the way he came in,” that he has to “add up to something.” His preoccupation with material evidence of success belies his very profession, which necessitates the ability to sell one’s own, intangible image. The seeds symbolize Willy’s failure in other ways as well. The fact that Willy uses gardening as a metaphor for success and failure indicates that he subconsciously acknowledges that his chosen profession is a poor choice, given his natural inclinations. Though his figurative roots are in sales (Ben claims that their father was a successful salesman), Willy never blossomed into the Dave Singleman figure that he idolizes.
He’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine . . . A salesman is got to dream, boy.
Charley’s speech in the requiem about the nature of the salesman’s dreams eulogizes Willy as a victim of his difficult profession. His poetic assessment of sales defends Willy’s death, attributing to Willy’s work the sort of mythic quality that Willy himself always envisioned about it. Charley likens the salesman to a heroic, courageous sailor, “out there in the blue,” with nothing to guide him and powerful forces against which to contend. Charley also points out the great disparity between the enormity of the salesman’s task and the piddling tools with which he is equipped: Willy had only the insubstantial smile on his face and shine of his shoe with which to sell himself. Failure faded Willy’s smile and smudged his shoe, which made it even more difficult to sell himself. Lacking confidence in his image and thus “finished” psychologically, Willy still had to go out and give it his best, because “a salesman is got to dream.” Charley’s sympathy reveals itself in this remark—he understands that Willy didn’t simply feel compelled to sell; rather, Willy failed even to recognize that he had any choice in life.