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.

Advertisements

The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo

February 15, 2012

Cover of The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo

Cover of The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo

Nine years have passed since Paula Huntley published her superb memoir, The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo.  Narrated in journal format, Huntley’s book records her experiences in 2000-2001, just one year after NATO troops drove Serbian forces out of Kosova.   Naturally, after a decade of civil war, most Kosovarans had suffered all the horrors that go with urban warfare and displacement, and when the shooting stopped, many Kosovarans found themselves homeless and jobless, and everyone found that the educational and legal systems had suffered the same battering.  So when Paula Huntley and Ed Villmoare chose to come to Pristina, they did not come as mere observers.  Instead, they came to help, Paula by teaching English as a second language to Albanian students, Ed by working through the American Bar Association to help Kosova to rebuild its legal system.

Paula Huntley

Paula Huntley, author of The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo (Source: Ms. Huntley's website--click image to view)

Having just re-read this inspiring book, I must applaud the way Paula and Ed came to help.  Eschewing know-it-all posturing, they couched their offer to help in compassion for those who had suffered so much and in full awareness of their own limitations.  Describing Ed’s need to “do something” in response to the wide-spread agony, Paula records her doubt that “Ed really believes he can do anything of great significance here.  He is a man of few illusions.  But he is also a man of character and compassion.  He can’t just do nothing” (29).  Similarly, three months into her teaching, Paula wonders if she has “really [done] anything to help” (129).

Ed Villmoare, Paula Huntley's husband

Ed Villmoare, Paula Huntley's husband (Source: Ms. Huntley's website--click image to view)

They also came to help as partners and peers with the Kosovarans, fully expecting to learn as much as they teach and to receive as much as they give.  This respectful stance, their doubts about effectiveness notwithstanding, earned Huntley and Villmoare the trust they would need to help Kosovarans build a future on a foundation of justice and learning

We can see that earned trust in the stories that Kosovarans come to share with Paula and Ed.  In working with his legal assistant Blerta, for instance, Ed hears the story of her mother’s gang-rape, a war crime that has silenced her mother permanently (179).  Similarly, in teaching stories such as Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour,” Paula engages Ermina and other students in eager discussions of marriage as a relationship shared by “equal partners,” not by a jailer-husband and his prisoner-wife, too often the case, says Ermina, in Pristina (183).

By starting her book club in her Pristina home, Paula also used Ernest Hemingway’s stories to generate more discussions on the power of language to assert human dignity and to effect positive change for Kosova.  In reading Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, for example, Paula and her student-guests reflected on the old man’s wisdom: “It is better to be lucky.  But I would rather be exact.  Then when luck comes you are ready.”  Naturally, this quote led to discussion of the old man’s tremendous suffering as he battles the great fish, then, thanks to the sharks, his failure to bring the great fish to the dock.  But once again, the old man’s words—“a man can be destroyed but not defeated”—helped her students to realize that the old man had not been defeated, that, in Paula’s words, he had “won self-respect and the renewed respect of the villagers.  He maintained his dignity and showed courage in the face of overwhelming adversity” (167).

First meeting of The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo

First meeting of The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo (Source: Ms. Huntley's website--click image to view)

With such courage placed within reach through language, Paula’s students began to think of “overcoming” their Kosovaran  “adversity” as a realistic goal, particularly if, like the old man, they became “ready,” a condition made possible by education and a willingness to use their “new words” (204).  Without these new words to “express their fears, frustrations, angers, desires, and ambitions in ways other than violence,” Paula concludes, Kosovarans can have no hope for the future (150).  Neither can we.

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.