Academic journal article The Arthur Miller Journal

"Life Is a Casting Off" in Death of a Salesman

Academic journal article The Arthur Miller Journal

"Life Is a Casting Off" in Death of a Salesman

Article excerpt

Though not as tragic a figure as her husband Willy, Linda Loman is given two of the most memorable statements in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. The play's signature quote, "Attention must be paid" (56), has become a familiar tagline for writers and editorialists, but "Life is a casting off" (15) carries that "aphoristic authority" that Miller said Willy sometimes needs to hear ("Salesman at Fifty" 272) and, as he said of a different scene, lends to the play "shadings of veracity" to which more attention should be paid.1 Like most of the play's insights, Linda's comment is rooted in the realistic routines of the Lomans' life. It is directly linked to the recurring motif of her needlework-her repairing of the lining in Willy's jacket and especially the mending of her stockings-which captures her frugality and sense of domestic responsibility. As Susan Abbotson notes, sewing conveys Linda's persistent desire to unify the family; "she is the main reason why this family has managed to stay together; hence her depiction as a mender who tries to mend everything from stockings to people" (53). Bert Cardullo includes Linda's "casting off" remark among his examples of the play's best diction, "first-generation Brooklyn Jewish-the kind of English that not only is spoken with a muscular, guttural, sing-songy Brooklyn accent, but that also retains the poetic imagery, forceful expression, and ritualistic repetition of Yiddish" (584)^ For Walter Albert Davis, her comment also serves as a psychological defense "designed to protect herself from awareness of their shared disorder. Whenever Willy becomes the knight of the negative-'Work a lifetime to pay off a house. You finally own it, and there's nobody to live in it'-and is in danger of casting off his role, Linda flies into abstraction to deliver herself from his possible defeat. 'Dear, life is a casting off.' . . . [She is] safely ensconced in transcendental commonplaces" (109). And Arthur K. Oberg sees the metaphor as a somber declaration of the finality of life: "When Willy protests that 'you can't eat the orange and throw the peel away-a man is not a piece of fruit!' . . . , he ironically confirms Linda's early adage that 'life is a casting off.' . . . In context, Linda's words sounded only like readily available consolation, but the brute honesty behind them becomes clear in the remark of Loman's uttered later in the play" (75).

However, the phrase "casting off" reveals additional thematic and emotional threads in the play, especially when considered in the context of Linda's needlework. The OED records that one definition of "to cast off" is a knitting term meaning "To take the work off the wires, closing the loops and forming a selvedge." Also known as "binding off," it is the "closing of stitches at [the] end of work" (Stanfield and Griffiths 158), or, as the American Heritage Dictionary defines it, "To make the last row of stitches in knitting." Because casting off can be done only as part of the finishing of a knitted item, Linda's comment suggests not merely the idea of a regretted and inevitable loss but, ironically, the more affirmative sense of a completed project or an accomplished task. Mending what is worn symbolizes both her realization of weakness and failure and her tireless determination to renew whatever has become outworn in her family's possessions and lives. Linda's remark speaks to her resilience, a quality praised more often by Miller than by many of her critics.3

While the mechanical repetitiveness of her sewing might hint at the "iron repression of her exceptions to Willy's behavior" (12), it also conveys her desire to mend her family in a way that demonstrates just how attention should be paid, not through Happy's sleazy bravado or Biff's anguished recriminations but through the performance of the mundane chores essential for any functioning family. In a house of constantly talking men, Linda is the only one who actually accomplishes the daily tasks she sets for herself; that her efforts fail to achieve the family unity she seeks does not negate her unflagging effort. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.