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Free Barron's Booknotes-Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller-Free Book Notes
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LANGUAGE / AUTHOR'S STYLE

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. Listen to Biff: "I'm mixed up very bad. Maybe I oughta get married. Maybe I oughta get stuck into something." This is 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 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 dast 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 springtime." 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.

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