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Death of a Salesman Meaning
Hey sorry, I was in my own little world there for a second. I love devices. I’m a gadget girl by nature. The Blackberry, the iPod, all that stuff is so cool, little mechanical devices. But today we are going to talk about a different kind of device, a literary device. Now it might not be fun, like one of this, but it’s fun in its own little naughty English way. So today we’re going to talk about F, F, and I. Flashback, foreshadowing and irony. So put all your gadgets away, let’s get going and talk about some literary devices.
Think back to the very first episode when we talked about plot. And how difficult it was because Willy kept going in and out of reality. He would be there one second, and then 20 years behind us and some weird memory. Well that’s called flashback and it’s used all the time in this play. Let’s look at a definition for it.
A flashback is when an earlier episode, conversation or event, is inserted into the sequence of events. Remember I told you earlier that’s why sometimes the plot is so hard to follow. It’s not linear, it’s back and forth, it’s all over the place.
Often the flash backs are presented as a memory of a narrator or of another character. That’s certainly the case. All the flash backs we have in this scenario, in this entire play, come from Willy’s perspective. Now that’s important because we really need to remember, when we see these things through his eyes, is that the way it really happened or is this his recollection of the thing happen.
So there are tonnes of examples, of flashbacks in this play. I’m going to look first at an example. If you’ve got the same book that I do, check out pages 28 and 29. So Willy, it says he’s gradually addressing a point off stage. So he's kind of looking away, not focused on something that’s right there for him. He says, “I’ve been wondering why you polished the car so careful, huh! Don’t leave the hub cups boys. Happy using this papers on the windows, it’s the easiest thing show him how to do it Biff."
So we’re having this idea that he is instructing the boys on how to wash the car, they’re a little bit older here. However then, just a paragraph or two later, we have young Biff, and young Happy appearing from the direction that he was talking. They’re much younger than the Biff and the Happy that he was just talking too. After that we spring back into the future.
So it’s weird, they’re always connecting someway, and that’s what making it even more confusing. So really for example, we have Willy alone in the kitchen at the very beginning. And he’s going back and forth. He’s thinking about these different things. And then the passage that I just read, we started with a car from the present, we went to the past, and then eventually this passage is getting into a gift that’s in the back seat, of a car at a later on time.
So these flashbacks are all connected, but in a way that gets really confusing. Which makes us wonder why would Arthur Miller take the time to do this. Remember I always say in literature, it’s not a coincidence, it’s not an accident. So why would he do this? Why would he be confusing?
Willy’s flashbacks first of all, are going to provide background to understand the story. If we didn’t see the flashback about the time that Biff came in, and basically surprised him, when he was with his mistress, we wouldn’t have any idea what Biff’s issues are. What causes him to be a kleptomaniac, and what makes him so angry at his father. So it gives us really important information that we have no other way to see. Remember in a play, as opposed to a book, we don’t usually have that narrator who is telling us things like that. We have to see them, flashbacks actually are a great way to do that.
Willy’s flashbacks also function as an escape from reality. It’s almost like he’s coping mechanism. When he can’t deal with whatever is happening if there is something unpleasant going on in present day, he has the tendency to kind off lose himself in his memories. And it takes him away from whatever is so bad in real life.
I also like the suggestion that Willy has flashbacks, is almost a narcotic. He becomes more and more dependent on them and by the end of the book, it’s really all he has. He is almost addicted to it. And they become deadly in the sense that it leads him to commit suicide. But I think probably the biggest thing that Arthur Miller is doing with the use of flashback hereh is that he is actually trying to confuse us. And I know that sounds really strange, you would think an author wants to be clear and to the point. But if we are trying to get into the shoes of Willy Loman, shouldn’t we be confused?
He can’t distinguish his life from his fantasy life. And honestly, sometimes we can’t either. So I actually think it’s a really clear thing for the author to do. When we become confused, and we’re like wait, is this now, is this then? We’re doing the exact same thing that Willy has to do every single day.
One of the coolest things about foreshadowing, is that it's your chance to play literary detective. So you’re going to take your literary magnifying glass, and kind of examine the work. You’re going to be looking for different hints of things that are going to be happening later on. You’ll see what I mean in just a second. Let’s talk about what it is first.
Foreshadowing is the author’s use of clues. So I wasn’t being totally bizarre, when I had out my detective magnifying glass here. The author is going to use these clues to hint at something that will be happening later on in the story.
Now, foreshadowing can be broad. It can be really general and easy understandable, like immediately we'll understand what’s happening right there. But it can also be really subtle. Have you ever seen a movie before, and you’re like why did that just happen? And then, by the end of the movie, you’re like, "Oh now that makes so much more sense.: Well that a lot of the times is foreshadowing. It’s kind of showing us these little hints and clues about something that’s going to happen later, but we might not understand it, so we’ve actually seen the whole thing.
Let me give you an example. This is from the very beginning of Romeo and Juliet, which I’m hoping you guys have all read before. “Two households both alike in dignity, in fair Verona, where we lay our scene. From ancient grudge break to new mutiny, where civil blood makes civil hands unclean. From forth the fatal loins of these two foes a pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life.”
Spoiler alert, hopefully you know this is about Romeo and Juliet, but at the end of the play, they killed themselves. This is the very beginning of the play. When they talk about the star-crossed lovers, taking their life, that’s definitely going to be some really broad easy to understand foreshadowing. We don’t know how it’s going to happen, but it’s really clear that it is going to happen. So when we’re talking about death of the salesman, can you think of any instance of foreshadowing in this play?
I’m going to give you a second, so kind of think through some of the things that we’ve talked about so far. Let’s start with the title. That’s a pretty glaring one right there, The Death of a Salesman. Well this play is literally about the things that are leading up to Willy Loman’s death. So it is the death of a salesman, that’s really what the story is actually about. That one is a little bit heavy-handed. Let’s look at this one now.
In Act I, we have Willy talking about this car accidents he’s had, where he is driving and he is having trouble concentrating. They are kind of a well known fact, how it refers to when later when he asks did you crack up again? This is actually foreshadowing to the way that Willy ends up dying. Remember, at the very end of the play, right before the requiem, we hear him drive off and that the music gets all crazy, and there is the squeal of breaks. And the inference there is that, he has gone ahead and killed himself by having this car accident. Well when we hear about the previous car accidents in Act I, and other places, this is foreshadowing about what’s going to come.
So foreshadowing, you might not understand it, as you’re reading it the first time. But you do get that aha moment at the end. If you’ve seen the movie The Six Sense, with Bruce Willis, well first of all, if you haven’t seen it, it’s a great movie and you should check it out. And there is a little bit of a spoiler alert here too, so plug your ears if you haven’t seen it. But that’s a great example of foreshadowing and that when you find out at the end of the movie, that Bruce Willis' character is actually dead, you can go back and see tons of foreshadowing. And you’re like why couldn’t I tell that before? Because this happened and this happened. Those are actually all examples of literary device. So go figure, you wanted to go rent a DVD from blockbuster and now you can back it up. So mum can say that you’re studying foreshadow and other literary devices. So I’ve got your back on that one, you should go rent it and tell them I said so.
The last literary device I want to talk about for this episode, is irony. Now here is one of my huge pet peeves. It’s really completely misunderstood by like 90% of the people in the world. People say, “Oh that’s really ironic" all the time. And they really mean it’s funny, or it’s silly, or it’s coincidental, it’s not ironic. So I’m going to trust you, once you have this knowledge, that you can really politely correct everybody who misuses it, and the world would be a much better place.
So let’s check out what irony is. Irony is the difference between what appears to be and what actually is. There are three types of irony; verbal, situational and dramatic. So if you don’t feel like this makes a lot of sense to you, as we break each of this down, it’s going to become a lot more clear, so hang in there.
The first one we’re going to talk about is verbal irony. This is when a character says one thing, but is suggesting or intending basically to reference the opposite. This is very similar to sarcasm but they’re not always exactly interchangeable. Verbal irony is implied, whereas, if I’m being sarcastic it’s pretty harsh and direct and I’m going to say it right to you. You’re going to know exactly what I mean. Verbal irony is a little bit more subtle.
Here is an example. Let's say that we check out this picture and I say, "Oh what a lovely day for a picnic." Well there are some crazy like storm, dust ball, cloud action happening here, clearly it’s not a great day for a picnic. And that’s how verbal irony is. You can see here how it’s related to sarcasm.
Let’s look at an example of verbal irony from our book, Death of a Salesman. When Willy is talking about Charley, he comments kind of just offhand. He says, “Great athlete!” And you know what? We know that he’s like a supper nerd and he’s bookish. Willy also says between him and his son Bernard, they can’t hammer a nail. So we know that’s not where their strengths are, that they’re the academic sort. They‘re not hands-on, and they’re not athletic. So that’s an example of verbal irony.
The next one we are going to do is dramatic irony. Now, dramatic irony is the contrast between what the character things to be true, and what we as the audience know to be true. With dramatic irony, the meaning intended by a character's words or actions, is the opposite of the situation. Is that a little unclear? Let's try an example.
In Romeo and Juliet, the audience knows that Juliet has taken this sleeping portion that she got from the flyer. And then when Romeo comes in and sees her dead, well he sees her "dead". This is the point where he commits suicide. And it’s kind of at that moment, if you’re at the movies and you know there is always one person who is like, “Oh no don’t go in there, he’s in there.” Yeah it's kind of that moment. We as the audience know that something wrong, or we know something that the character on screen doesn’t know. We want to help them out, we want to shout to Romeo, “Hey she’s just a sleep,” but it wouldn’t be the great Shakespearean work if we could do that.
How does this happen in Death of a Salesman? The first one, Bill Oliver will not see Biff-we know this, but Willy does not. So remember the big dinner scene, Biff is really trying to work up the courage to tell his dad about the fact that he’s meeting with Bill Oliver was a complete bust. And Willy is blah blah blah, on and on, Biff is really trying to interject and tell his dad what went on. We know that, the audience knows that, Willy doesn’t know what happened. Willy refuses to kind of give Biff even the chance to tell him. And then he is talking about the fact that he got fired. And again, the audience is still like “Wait don’t say that right now, don’t do that right now.” But Willy is prattling on and on. We know about the fact that Biff’s meeting was a failure and he doesn’t.
Another example of dramatic irony, is the fact that Willy makes this claim that he’s vital in New England. We certainly know that that's not true, Willy is not vital anywhere and that’s kind of a problem in the whole play.
The last type of irony is Situational Irony. This is the contrast between what happens and what was expected to happen. Now what’s interesting here, is that we might see this to be unfair, or unfortunate, or really sad. This is unfortunate but actually I think this one is a little bit funny. When John Hinckley went with his attempt to try and assassinate president Ronald Reagan, he shot at him and none of his bullets hit the president. However, one of the bullets bounced off the bullet proof material, and that bullet went into Ronald Reagan. So it’s not funny but in a way, it’s a little bit humorous, because the thing that was supposed to protect him, was actually the thing that harmed him and you know he believed in everything. So it’s okay to have a little giggle at it.
Now what about how does this occur in Salesman? Well Willy dies, hoping to enrich Biff’s life with the Insurance policy. However, his suicide is really only going to hurt Biff more, not to mention there’s the whole question of whether his family is actually going to receive the insurance money or not. Remember, with the suicide, if the insurance company knows that’s what happened, they are not going to cash in that policy. So it’s definitely situational irony and that’s when we will definitely say, well that’s extremely unfortunate.
So I hope you got all that. It can get a little bit confusing. And remember what I said, most people misuse this idea of irony a lot, saying things like, “Oh that’s so ironic.” In fact there is a song by Alanis Morissette called Ironic. I’ve linked to it in your bonus material section, because about half the things she talks about in the song, that she says you know a little too ironic, they’re not actually ironic at all. So I’ve also linked a correction that that somebody put online. For different ways that the lyrics to the song, could be edited and rewritten, so that all the things truly were ironic. So you can see it’s not just me who has an issue with this, it's a wide spread problem and I want you to help me out in trying to fix it.
In case you were busy trying to catch up on episodes of True Blood, and wondering about vampires existing in real life. here is the gist of what you missed. We talked about literary devices foreshadowing, flashback and irony. We’re going to kind of continue with the devices in the next episode, when we’d start talking about symbols. So let’s get inside out of this sunshine and check out symbolism in this work.