Archive for the ‘Arthur Miller’ Category


Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is not a poem.

But I wanted to write about it because 1) so many schools doing the WJEC board do it for A Level 2) I am nostalgically looking over the notes I made for it when I did my A Level and 3) people often assume that the prose passages in plays do not require the kind of analysis and close-reading you would give to a poem.

You can tear apart prose as much as you would a poem. Be just as creative with it. Even stage directions are falling over themselves to hand you good essay points. Especially Miller’s stage directions.

I want to look at the very end of Death of a Salesman – Linda’s farewell speech to Willy. It is tragic, despairing – but ambiguous. Is it happy or sad? I don’t know! Let us see, shall we!

“Linda: I’ll be with you in a minute. Go on, Charley. (He hesitates.) I want to, just for a minute. I never had a chance to say good-bye.

Charley moves away, followed by Happy. Biff remains a slight distance up and left of Linda. She sits there, summoning herself. The flute begins, not far away, playing behind her speech.

Linda: Forgive me, dear. I can’t cry. I don’t know what it is, but I can’t cry. I don’t understand it. Why did you ever do that? Help me, Willy, I can’t cry. It seems to me that you’re just on another trip. I keep expecting you, Willy, dear, I can’t cry. Why did you do it? I search and search and I search, and I can’t understand it, Willy. I made the last payment on the house today. Today, dear. And there’ll be nobody home. (A sob rises in her throat.) We’re free and clear. (Sobbing more fully, released.) We’re free. (Biff comes slowly towards her). We’re free… We’re free.”

So the Loman family are at Willy’s funeral. And nobody has turned up. This passage is often interpreted as a final note from Miller on the frustrating, and endless disappointment of life in a capitalist society – on the brutal pointlessness of Willy’s death, and the emptiness he has left behind. But there is something equally uplifting about this final speech, and it can be found in very small touches.

  1. Look at words like “summoning” and “released” in the stage directions. Combine this with the ethereal sound of the flute in the background, the word “free”, and that ellipsis (the ‘…’) right at the end. They make this conclusion strangely spiritual – definitely not the feel of everything that has come before.
  2. The flute: this music keeps drifting on stage at significant points during the play. It opens the play, described as “small and fine, telling of grass and trees and the horizon.” It is immediately something otherworldly, transcending the ugly tower-blocks that form the backdrop to the play. It speaks of dreams not yet realised; a sad reminder of the distant world outside the Loman family. But it is not completely hopeless. At other points in the play, it appears when Willy recalls a happy memory. Therefore there is always a kind of sweet sadness attached to the sound of the flute, and it is that tension that is reproduced here at the end: Linda’s regret at losing Willy mingled with a sense of freedom that the burden of loving, and pitying, and caring for Willy, has evaporated. 
  3. In this way, “summoning” and “released” are fitting descriptions for Linda here. ‘Summoning herself’ is Linda attempting to gain self-control, but ‘summoning’ can easily suggest the summoning of spirits – of a ghostly Willy figure that Linda must let go of. Here is the crunch of the passage – the final confrontation with an invisible, but tangible Willy figure, and the friction this creates. This  forms the top of the speech, where Linda insists, again and again, on her inability to cry. We are “free and clear” she says, where ‘clear’ is a financial term referring to the final payment on the house. But then the passage slips quietly into a new mood. Linda drops the word ‘clear’, and suddenly they are simply ‘free’. The ‘we’ seems no longer to include Willy, but instead the new Loman unit – Linda, Biff and Happy – however disjointed a unit they may remain. And now the tears come easily! She is “released.” Willy’s death could be seen as solving more problems than he is given credit for.
  4. If you ever see an ellipsis in ANYTHING I would jump straight on it. Why would a writer need to use three full stops in a row? It’s got past an editor for a reason. Ellipses create space. They really stretch out and open up a sentence. “We’re free… we’re free.” It’s like it marks the passing of Willy, easing away gently.  Or it’s a breath – of relief, or of satisfaction.

Look! So many possibilities! Who knows what the real answer is!

Also the 1985 film of Death of a Salesman with Dustin Hoffman playing Willy is good. It’s all over YouTube.

Curtain. x


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