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6. Act I – "I don’t know what to do about him"
About this Lecture
In this module, we read through the next part of Act I, in which Biff and Happy finish their conversation and go to sleep, and Willy has the first of his ‘time-slips’, thinking about when Biff and Happy were younger (pp. 13-21). In particular, we think about: (i) the kind of woman Biff and Happy would like to meet (“Somebody with character, with resistance! Like Mom, y’know?”); (ii) Biff’s attempts to borrow money; (iii) Biff and Happy’s reaction to their father’s worrying behaviour and how it compares to their mother’s reaction; (iv) the first ‘time-slip’ in the play, in which Willy’s memory of Biff and Happy as younger men is acted out on stage; (v) the relationship between Willy and Biff, and the extent to which the breakdown of that relationship represents failure more generally; (vi) the character of Bernard (who we see on stage) and the teacher, Mr Birnbaum (who we don’t); (vii) Willy’s philosophy of life (“Be liked and you will never want”) and the extent to which the events of his (and his sons’) life bear out its truth.
In this nineteen-part course, Professor John McRae (University of Nottingham) explores Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. We begin with a broad introduction to the historical, literary and cultural context, before going through the play scene-by-scene, providing close reading and detailed analysis, with commentary on character, plot, themes and motifs, language, symbolism, and more.
Note: Page numbers are based on the Penguin edition of the play (1998, ed. Christopher Bigsby). Students using a different version of the play may encounter slight differences in both text and page numbers.
John McRae is Special Professor of Language in Literature Studies and Teaching Associate in the School of English at Nottingham University, and holds Visiting Professorships in China, Malaysia, Spain and the USA. He is co-author of The Routledge History of Literature in English with Ron Carter, and also wrote The Language of Poetry, Literature with a Small 'l' and the first critical edition of Teleny by Oscar Wilde and others.
Cite this Lecture
McRae, J. (2021, January 22). Miller: Death of a Salesman - Act I – "I don’t know what to do about him" [Video]. MASSOLIT. https://www.massolit.io/courses/miller-death-of-a-salesman-mcrae/act-i-i-don-t-know-what-to-do-about-him
McRae, John. "Miller: Death of a Salesman – Act I – "I don’t know what to do about him"." MASSOLIT, uploaded by MASSOLIT, 22 Jan 2021, https://www.massolit.io/courses/miller-death-of-a-salesman-mcrae/act-i-i-don-t-know-what-to-do-about-him