Marxist Theory and Death of a Salesman

March 12, 2012

Our second class moved from Karl Marx’ central claim about capitalism, that the exploitive “bourgeoisie” dominated and suppressed the “proletariat,” to a glance at the impact of that nineteenth-century economic theory on twentieth-century literary criticism, especially the idea that great writers jar readers out of their willful blindness to the hegemonic tyrannies of capitalist culture (Abrams, Glossary, 155-61).

Arthur Miller in 1952, photo by Sam Falk, The New York Times

Arthur Miller in 1952, photo by Sam Falk (Source: The New York Times)

Having sketched this theoretical background, I reminded the students that Arthur Miller’s Salesman came to the American stage in 1949, just two decades after the Great Depression, the horrific economic and cultural upheaval that exposed the destructive side of unbridled capitalism and challenged the myth of the American Dream, the idea that hard work always yields personal and economic success; many viewers, therefore, saw Miller’s play as America’s proletarian tragedy.  Stressing these last two words, I challenged my students to think for themselves, to decide to what extent the play reflects Marxist ideology, to what extent it challenges the Marxist critique of capitalism, and to what extent it the play qualifies as a tragedy.

Noting Miller’s passionate belief that an ordinary man or woman could qualify as a tragic character, I referred the students to the first topic on their assignment sheet, which provides the classical definition of “tragedy” and asks them to write an essay on the extent to which they agree with the author about Willy’s tragic stature:

Critic M. H. Abrams defines “tragic hero” as a noble character with intelligence and compassion, a good man or woman who commits an error in judgment that harms those he/she loves and, ultimately, leads to his/her exile or death.  This “error in judgment”—the Greeks called it “hamartia”—grows from a tragic flaw, usually rooted in pride (hubris).  Eventually, when it’s too late, the tragic hero recognizes and accepts his responsibility for the error.  Because the hero’s goodness and flaw twine inextricably together, readers and viewers experience “catharsis” in response to the hero’s inevitable fall.  This catharsis or purge consists of two emotions: we pity the hero because he meant well; we fear his fallen condition, recognizing that we can make the same kinds of mistakes.  Paradoxically, the hero’s crushing defeat, though profoundly sad, uplifts us, causing us to recognize our capacities for loving self-sacrifice as well as for error.  What about Willy Loman?  Can a failed salesman who complains about his “goddam arch supports” (2329) qualify as a tragic hero?  Support your views with close analysis of action from the play, including appropriate quotations.

First edition cover of Miller's Death of a Salesman (Source: Wikipedia)

“Well, what about it?” I asked.  “Even though Biff at one point calls his father a ‘prince,’ Miller of course concedes that Willy lacks the aristocratic pedigree of the traditional tragic character—Prince Hamlet, King Lear, Oedipus Rex—but Willy otherwise qualifies, Miller insists, as a great-hearted man whose blunders crush those he loves but who uplifts us with his capacity to love self-sacrificially.  How about those of you who journaled on this question?  Will you share your thoughts?”

Kadrije quickly volunteered and proceeded to read a full-page entry, complete with quoted key phrases, arguing that Willy deserves our compassion for being “tired to death” but not our respect.  Unlike tragic characters, she said, Willy never succeeds, never reaches a pinnacle of achievement, and therefore cannot be said to fall.  He also fails to acknowledge, she continued, that his teachings to the boys have been “all wrong” and destructive.  Blerta disagreed, saying that both his blunders and his death give him tragic dignity because of the immensity of his love.

Having emphatically praised these candid, thoughtful responses, I asked if anyone else would read his or her preliminary comments of one on the other three topics, which invite papers on Willy’s wife Linda, on models of business men in the play, or on Biff and Happy, the troubled sons of Willy and Linda:

  1. Willy credits Linda with being his “foundation and support” (2331).  Do you agree?  Has her love for Willy been constructive?  Destructive?  Both?
  2. Training his sons to become businessmen, Willy proclaims that if they are “well liked” they will “never want” (2339).  Focusing on Willy, Charley, and Bernard, discuss Willy’s formula for success.  Does the play imply another route to success?
  3. After Biff and Happy desert their father in the restaurant, Linda calls them a “pair of animals” who never loved their father (2384).  To what extent do you agree with Linda?
Philip Seymour Hoffman as Willy Loman

Philip Seymour Hoffman as Willy Loman in Broadway revival of Miller's Salesman, opening 15 March 2012; photo by Brigitte Lacome for New York Magazine (Source: The Economist)

Happily, more enthusiastic responses followed.  First, Xhemile read her entry, which supported Kadrije’s view of Willy, condemning particularly his lack of integrity as both husband and father; she then praised Biff, who finally acknowledges the truth about all their failures and tries to save Willy with his sobbing plea to let go of his “phony dream” that the “well liked” succeed.  Bierta next read her entry on Linda, conceding that she deeply loves Willy but insisting that her misguided support of Willy’s fictions makes his suicide inevitable, particularly after she refuses to confront him with the nipple he has placed on the gas pipe.

Encouraged by all these responses and the students’ willingness to read aloud, I reiterated my praise and asked them, for the next session, to commit to a topic and come to class with a rough draft.  Looks like I’m in for some good reading.


Our first discussion in Twentieth-Century American Literature focused on feminist approaches to Susan Glaspell’s one-act play “Trifles” (1916), Zora Neale Hurston’s story “Sweat” (1926), and Jhumpa Lahiri’s story “Sexy” (1999).  We began by reviewing the feminist case against the patriarchal order and for ‘a literature of their own.’  By the end of the session, students eagerly shared their journaling on “Trifles” and “Sweat,” but first we talked about “Sexy.”  The results follow.

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When I asked what they learned about Lahiri in the introduction, one student noted her British birth, her Bengali ancestry, and her American PhD, facts suggesting that by century’s end women and non-whites had emerged as strong voices in the worlds of literature and academe.  After praising this apt answer, I asked for their initial impressions of Lahiri’s main character Miranda, as she learns from her friend Laxmi that her cousin’s husband shamelessly pursues an affair.  Another student volunteered Miranda’s conventional response, “It sounds awful” (3250), and, without any prompting, also mentioned the irony that Miranda offers this response while thinking of her upcoming date with Dev, her lover, another woman’s husband.

Delighted by these quick, insightful responses, I next asked for their take on Dev and the nature of his affair with Miranda.  “Does he seem romantic,” I asked, “as ‘sexy’ as he finds Miranda?”  This question, to my further delight, generated a barrage of comments on Dev’s seeming tenderness—the hand-holding, the ear-whispering, the pining phone messages, the flowers, the kissing at the movies (3253).  But when I asked what Mary Ellmann might say about Dev and Miranda’s behavior, the answers shifted to Dev’s cynical marketing techniques—the “flamingo pink shirt,” the missing wedding ring, his eye-rolling hint that his wife will be in India “for a few weeks,” his whining about being “lonely” (3252-53)—all suggesting a ‘love’ that has more to do with Miranda’s “sexy” long legs than with real tenderness (3253-54).  Another student also guessed that Mary Ellman would express dismay over Miranda enjoying herself as Dev “propped her feet on top of his shoulders,” pinned her to the bed, and claimed passionately that “he couldn’t get enough of her” (3250), a clear image of phallic domination.

“If Miranda enjoys the affair,” I next asked, “why does she dump Dev at the end?”  This prompt led to the students taking over the discussion, just as I had hoped, stressing the powerful impact that seven-year-old Rohin has on his sitter, Miranda, as this son of Laxmi’s cousin describes his philandering father and abandoned mother.  In making this case for Miranda’s epiphany, students wisely stressed the details Lahiri provides—Rohin’s  dark, “haggard” eyes, his description of his mother’s “puffiness,” her hours of crying, his definition of “sexy,” based on his father’s actions: “It means loving someone you don’t know” (3261, 3263).  All these details, students said, reveal the devastating impact on wives and children caused by every affair.  Realizing not only the pain of the boy and his mother but also her complicity in Dev’s cruel charade, Miranda, students concluded, takes a sisterly, feminist stance—“it wasn’t fair…to his wife”—and breaks off the affair (3264).

Not a bad start!

A Red Coffee House

February 6, 2012

Three more inches of snow fell last night, warming us up to near zero.  The morning brought little improvement in the weather, but I enjoyed my snug new office in the English Language and Literature Department, pictured here.  Colleagues at Mississippi State, as you pack up for our temporary home, Howell Hall, eat your hearts out!

My Office, English Language & Literature Department, UP

My Office, English Language & Literature Department, UP

My office again

My office again

Returning to the dorm in the afternoon, I prepared some lessons on American “modernism” and the work of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams.  Taking a break, I walked out on my balcony and saw this frozen scene filled with persistent life.  My photo does little justice to the magnificent flocks of blackbirds, and the ‘poem’ below does even less justice to Dr. Williams*.  But I couldn’t resist.

so much depends

a red coffee

warmed with

beside the black bird

Click here to read Dr. Williams’ poem, “The Red Wheelbarrow”

From Mulliqi and Miller to the American Corner

January 31-February 1, 2012

National Theatre of Kosova

National Theatre of Kosova

On Monday night Dave McTier and I visited the National Theatre, braving temperatures near zero F to do so. Though we had hoped to see Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, we learned on arrival that we had been misinformed about the schedule. Instead, we saw a piece by a local intellectual, Haqif Mulliqi. Never having received a program, I can’t report the title of the play, but I can say that the audience loved it, laughing heartily throughout. I loved it, too, even though my nascent Albanian skills proved no match for the rapid dialogue and rather loud musical motifs. The four characters, three middle-aged men and a young woman, seemed adrift, homeless, lugging huge valises constantly about the street. Yet they all showed a zest for life—for vigorous debate, for sexual passion, for patriotism, for friendship, and most of all for laughter. The actors, just like the characters they played, had great fun, embracing one another and thumbing their noses at hard times.

Having thawed out by Tuesday morning—temperatures had fallen below zero by the end of the play and dropped to -8 over night—I spent the day mainly inside, revisiting Willy Loman, a character who could have used the good company I saw on stage last night. As I thought about ways of using Marxist critical theory to help my students understand Willy, I realized that I have always seen the failed Salesman as more than a proletariat victim of capitalist hegemony, that I continue to buy Arthur Miller’s claim that a low-man can attain tragic dignity, so long as we can see, however “wrong” his American dream, that he suffers for the woman and the sons he has hurt but intended—in living and in dying—to love.

Fakulteti i Filologjisë (Faculty [College] of Philology)

Fakulteti i Filologjisë (College of Philology)

Today, February 1, I met Professor Lindita Rugova at the Fakulteti i Filologjisë (Faculty [College] of Philology) at the University of Pristina. Lindita serves as vice dean and teaches in the Departamenti i Gjuhë dhe Letërsi Angleze (Department of English Language and Literature), where I will teach.

My Classroom, in Fakulteti i Filologjisë

My Classroom, in Fakulteti i Filologjisë

Kindly spending two hours with me, Lindita showed me my office and the classroom where I will teach; she also introduced me to Dean Osman Gashi, to the Head of English Language and Literature, Professor Shykrane Germizaj, and to several other colleagues whose names I have yet to master. Though I slipped and slid on ice en route to the university, I could not have asked for a warmer reception.

Then from 2:30-5:00, Dave McTier and I took a cab to the US Embassy, where we received security and medical briefings and learned about the vast array of cultural opportunities available throughout Pristina, including the National Theatre, described above. We also learned more about the “American Corner,” where Fulbrighters and other Americans meet with students, citizens, and tourists for formal presentations and informal discussions on all aspects of American culture. Naturally, I’ll blog about these Kosovaran and American events in the months to come. Expect to hear, too, about Jennifer Washeleski, Aferdita Krasniq, Paul Engelstad, Eileen Drummond, Chuck Harrison, and Svetlana Breca, the US Embassy officers who coordinate such events and who provide briefings and on-going support for visiting professors like Dave and me.

Feminist Theory, Flexibility, and a Trip to the Mall

January 30, 2012

In preparing for this teaching adventure, I completed all readings and drew up my syllabi before leaving MSU, but today I began preparing class sessions, which begin February 15.

Of course, my syllabi notwithstanding, flexibility will be key.  I won’t know until I meet my students exactly what they need or how far they have progressed as MA students.  The first unit in my 20th-century American lit class will, I hope, allow for such flexibility.

For the first nine weeks, the students will explore a single broad theme, “Marriage, Family, and the American Dream,” a theme that will give continuity to their work and facilitate comparative analysis.  To sharpen that thematic focus, the first week will feature feminist theory applied to Susan Glaspell’s one-act play Trifles, to Zora Neale Hurston’s short story “Sweat,” and to Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story “Sexy.”

If it turns out that students already have a good grounding in early feminists and theorists such as Wollstonecraft, Fuller, Woolf, Beauvoir, Ellman, and Showalter, then we can jump right into these three works, which span the century: 1916 for Glaspell, 1926 for Hurston, 1999 for Lahiri.  On the other hand, if the students lack this theoretical background, then I will introduce the feminist critique of the patriarchal order and its oppression and suppression of women, and I will sketch gynocriticism as a framework for evaluating works written by women.

Either way, these works will help experienced readers review feminist theories and reading strategies, or provide more inexperienced students access to female characters who suffer physical and psychic battering or sexual objectification, yet who overcome brutish husbands or hypocritical lovers with their intelligence and strength.

Their triumphs over the patriarchal order also involve breaking laws or ignoring social mores, so we should have some interesting class discussions accounting for our sympathy and admiration for characters that conventional patriarchs might label as criminals or sluts.  To help students to discover the ambiguity surrounding each woman’s situation and their own ambivalence in responding to the women’s actions, I will rely on journaling prompts as homework and on small group work so that students may arrive inductively at their feminist insights.

After spending the morning planning approaches to this great stuff, I set out with Dave McTier to enjoy the sun and to visit Albi Mall (see gallery below).  I enjoyed the sun but much prefer the old markets all over town to the glitz of the mall.

**Click on the first picture to scroll through the gallery in a larger format.

Contentment…and Gaps

January 29, 2012

I can’t recall the last time I felt so content, the product of a good sleep, a satisfying meal, and a sense of mission.

My severe-looking bed turns out to be quite comfortable, and with two wool blankets I stayed plenty warm.

Look, Ma--I made my bed!

Look, Ma--I made my bed!

After rising at 5:00, I fired up the hot-water pot, drank coffee, and read from Bron Taylor’s Dark Green Religion: Nature, Spirituality, and the Planetary Future, a book that celebrates Thoreau but actually relates in powerful ways to much of the 20th-century American literature I will read with my students. Think of Willy Loman longing for a garden to plant, or Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim finding some peace in a world of fire-bombings in his Buddha-like discovery of the simultaneity of every moment. More on this later.

Then breakfast: cranberry juice and yogurt (both chilled on my balcony) as well as a tomato, a banana, a chunk of cheese, and an even chunkier slice of bread. Such basic food satisfies deeply, and I’m certain that the pleasure comes as much from touch as from taste and smell.

My ‘mission’? To teach my Kosovaran students American literature by helping them to grow as writers and researchers, yes, but—even more fundamentally—to teach myself to listen and to lose myself in others’ stories.

But my rich experiences here come at a heavy price: my separation from Judy and from all the people and critters I love. Skyping helps, but I know that days will come when the mission fails and even electronics can’t bridge the gap between here and home.