I just finished Death of a Salesman again. For me, Death of a Salesman is like It’s a Wonderful Life turned on its head. Imagine George Bailey really did jump off the bridge, with no angel to come to his rescue and no friends to come to his aid. That’s Death of a Salesman. Sounds depressing, I know, but for me Willy Loman has just as much appeal as George Bailey, it’s just that his story ends tragically. Too simple a comparison? I don’t think so.
People may think that Death of a Salesman is just another one of those depressing stories you study in English class where someone dies (and if you’re thinking I’m giving anything away here, you’re obviously not paying attention to the title). Well, it is one of those stories that people study in English class where someone dies, but even so, I believe that this is one of the few literary deaths that has a point.
Sometimes death in books makes me want to bang my head against the wall. Maybe this is why I dislike Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet. All the pointless death. Literature is swimming in death, such as in Huxley’s Brave New World; John Knowles’s A Separate Peace; Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Some “good” deaths, in my opinion, are Sidney Carton in Tale of Two Cities, Beth in Little Women. all the deaths since the fourth Harry Potter book. But Oedipus Rex is worse than death. Oedipus doesn’t die, but in his case, death would have been a mercy.
And movies are not immune to this either, a la Legend of the Fall. I’m on the fence about Dead Poets Society. It’s inspiring up to a point, and it does have that whole “Carpe diem” thing going for it, but then you have this character’s suicide to deal with, which is kind of like finding a fly in your soup. It ruins the whole thing. But Titanic, with all its death--and Jack Dawson’s in particular--is good. And a direct descendant of Romeo and Juliet would be the musical West Side Story. Like Romeo and Juliet, I can’t get myself to like it as much as other musicals, but I’ve come to understand the emotional impact of the death, so I’ve learned to tolerate it. On the other hand, the musical Carousel begins with a death, and it lends a more serious tone to the story, but I like it in this case.
I think what I’m trying to get at is the difference between sad and depressing. Sad is good. Sad can be therapeutic, moving, thought-provoking, all those good things. However, depressing, especially when it’s touted as art, is awful. Depression, in every sense, is pointless. Sad is when you care that the characters have lived or died at all. Depressing is when you feel like you’ve wasted your time caring about them. Like Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird. You care about him all the more because how and why he dies is pointless, but the death itself isn’t pointless period. Death, really, has nothing to do with it. So I’ll restate my thesis: It’s not death in art that annoys me, it’s depression. A story can be depressing without anybody dying, and someone can die in a story without it being depressing. It’s a very thin line. I’ve had to endure a lot of depressing to get through my English classes. For instance, I had to study A Separate Peace twice when I switched high schools. Ugh. Oedipus Rex in high school and college, Ernest Hemingway (enough said), Brave New World, and, of course, Shakespeare.
But, you argue, not everything has a silver lining or happily ever afters. It’s just how it is. To which I answer, pessimism is just as effective as depression.
What is the point of all this? Maybe it was to point out that Willy Loman’s demise is not depressing, but sad, and that distinction matters. Perhaps it is to say that, although not everything must end in ‘happily ever after,’ art exists to appeal to our higher natures, not to exalt our baser ones. Death of a Salesman doesn’t end happily, but you care about Willy. He was optimistic to a fault, but it’s also what makes you care about him. Or perhaps what I’m suggesting is that if Death of a Salesman had ended happily, it would have made a great Christmas story.