Subversive Nature of Language in Death of a Salesman

There are many things in Death of a Salesman which deserve the attention of readers. Of all these things the language is the single most important aspect that deserves the attention of the reader. The language of dialogue in Death of a Salesman assumes vital importance. The nature of language in Death of a Salesman has to be dwelt on extensively.

Arthur Miller (1915-2005)

Miller's language in Death of a Salesman is vernacular. His characters in this play are all from the working-class background. Unlike the characters of noble background in the classical tragedies, Miller's characters in Death of a Salesman speak in a vernacular language. Colloquial and informal languages have become the emerging language of modern tragedies. Almost all the characters in Death of a Salesman speak in a vernacular language full of colloquial and slang words. By allowing his characters to speak in such language Arthur Miller has actually intended to subvert the established convention of the classical tragedies.

The kind of language Arthur Miller's has used in Death of a Salesman is not poetic, is not in keeping with the generic convention of a tragedy. His language is typically the language of modern tragedy. Moreover, the kind of language Miller's characters speak in the play appears to be exactly the language they speak in their real life. This shows that Miller is at home in the art of giving natural language to his characters for conversation and utterance.

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. For example:

Biff: "I'm mixed up very bad. Maybe I ought get married. Maybe I ought get stuck into something." This is a 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 the 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 dust 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 spring time". 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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