The three literary works: Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller; Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night by Dylan Thomas; and After Apple Picking by Robert Frost; all deal with the theme presence of death and reveal different perspectives death by different types of people. In these three works, the protagonists or simply the characters in the work reveal their perspective on the inevitability of death as well as the causes of death. All three works have the common theme, death and old age, and show how different lifestyles lead to different attitudes to eternal sleep. Additionally, in the two poems, the style of writing reveals the author’s viewpoints and causes of certain deaths. Moreover, Marxist criticism is examined in Death of a Salesman to reveal the effect of class and society on an individual’s demise.
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According to Dylan Thomas, there are four different types of men who are worth the acknowledgement: wise men; good men; wild men; and grave men. Thomas wrote “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” for his dying father, describing the different perspectives of four types of men who have lived life in their own ways. These four men all have their own viewpoint of death according to their own nature and lifestyle. Additionally, as well as the opinions of the four types of men, the poem reveals the speaker’s opinion on death and how it should be dealt with.
Wise men, the first of the four types of men described in “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” know and accept the inevitability of death. “Though wise men at their end know dark is right” (Abcarian, Klotz, and Cohen 1217). These wise men are probably scholars or philosophers with knowledge, which is why they accept death. This line explains that even though wise men know death is expected, they fight death because they have much more to offer to the world. With the use of the word ‘though,’ the speaker “indicates that their knowledge has not prepared them to accept the reality of death” (Napierkowski 52), even though intellectually, they know the unavoidability of death. Also, because their words had no effect on the foolish, the wise fight against death to the very end, so they know they have done everything they could to make the world a better place.
Good men, people that have lived life with good morals and ethics, at their death, see that their good deeds did not change anything. “Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright” (Abcarian, Klotz, and Cohen 1217). In this line, the last wave reveals a double meaning: the men themselves being the last wave, being the last to near death; and the men waving good bye to the ones they are leaving behind. Additionally, ‘crying’ has a double meaning as well; it can be interpreted as speaking out or as weeping and mourning (Napierkowski 52). These men fight against death because they want their good deeds to have change in the world and shine brightly like “rays of sunlight reflected by countless nipples on the green bay” (Harrison 1).
Wild men, who live life to the fullest, do not realize that they will die one day. The speaker states that wild men enjoy life however, when death approaches, they realize too late that their lives have been full of sorrow and grief. “Wild men, who caught and sang the sun in flight” (Abcarian, Klotz, and Cohen 1217). This image of catching the sun in flight shows the readers that wild men are careless and shows the image of lively men who try to accomplish impossible feats. Consequently, because they are wild and careless, they are irresponsible and do not take account of their days (Harrison 2).
Grave men are serious and understanding men that near death with physical blindness. Ironically, although they are blind, they see with tremendous insight and intuition; they mentally have a better vision on death than those with sight. “Taken literally, these are men of the grave, which is exactly what all of these men are about to become” (Harrison 2) These men know that death is the final step to life and before this final step they have to do everything in their power to take advantage of the time life has given them. Moreover, even though these men are physically blind, they have energy and vigor in their eyes, as opposed to those who are young but have no life in their eyes. Because these men are serious, they are cautious with every step they take in their lives and try to live safe lives until death arrives.
From the speaker’s explanation of these four men and the poem as a whole, the speaker’s perspective of the inevitability of death is revealed. Since the poem was written for Thomas’ dying father, the viewpoint of the speaker can be observed as the viewpoint of the poet. In every stanza of the poem, the speaker states that one should fight against and resist death. Although the speaker is well aware of the unavoidability of death, he also implies that one should not be so eager to accept death, because death is the end; this is shown through the four types of men and their reactions to death according to what they have achieved and done in life. Also, in Thomas’ case, because it was extremely difficult for him to watch his once strong father so weak and meek, he wanted to see his father act with vigor for the last time, whether it was to curse or to bless him.
In “After Apple Picking” by Robert Frost, the speaker, who is overtired from harvesting apples, seems to have an accepting view on death. There are many different interpretations of this poem, yet most of these interpretations lead to the theme death. Firstly, the apples can be seen as things, experiences, or achievements the speaker came across during his lifetime. Consequently, the unfiled barrels resemble dreams the speaker could not achieve. This act of reminiscing on his life achievements hints that the speaker is old and ready to go into eternal sleep. Additionally, it is clear that the speaker is accepting of death because he says he is drowsing off, which discloses a sense of fading into death and getting ready to pass away.
Furthermore, another interpretation of the poem is death through fatigue. Unlike the previous interpretation, this one takes the poem literally, seeing the speaker as a man who is tired after his harvest.
Regardless of the many interpretations that can be applied to “After Apple Picking,” the speaker’s fatigue and exhaustion saturate the poem. The ladder and the barrel are left by the tree, a few apples remain on the branch, but the speaker decisively declares that he is finished picking apples. He then says that the hint of winter’s sleep is coning on. (Constantakis 5)
The man dreams of an impossible harvest of “ten thousand thousand fruit” (Abcarian, Klotz, and Cohen 1194) and after picking all the apples his strength allowed him to, he became overtired and overworked to the point where it could kill him. Although there are more apples to be picked, the speaker chooses not to pick anymore apples, regardless of whether the great harvest that he desired was achieved or not. After the tiring harvest, the only thing the speaker wants is rest, whether it be an endless sleep or a normal human sleep.
Similarly, another interpretation deals with sleep and its metaphor of death. Almost through the entire poem, the speaker talks about sleeping, dreaming, or drowsing off. In any literary work, sleep is a strong metaphor for death and the speaker purposely mentions the woodchuck and hibernation to leave the readers with ambiguity on whether he will live or die. “This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is. Were he not gone, The woodchuck could say whether it’s like his Long sleep, as I describe its coming on, Or just some human sleep” (Abcarian, Klotz, and Cohen 1194). In these last five lines of the poem, sleep is mentioned four times and the speaker is wondering whether the form of sleeping that he’s going to take will be like the sleep of a woodchuck, meaning hibernation, or just a normal human sleep. If he were to have a regular human sleep, he would wake the next day and live another day of harvesting; however, if he were to hibernate, which carries strong connotations of death, he would never wake again. The speaker leaves the readers wondering to emphasize the theme of death he is trying to convey through sleep.
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In the play, Death of a Salesman, the protagonist, Willy Loman, struggles with thoughts of suicide due to different issues with his life. One of the causes for his death is Willy’s failure as a father figure of the household. Willy always wanted his sons to look up to him and admire him, which made him set unrealistic goals for his sales, just like how the speaker in “After Apple Picking” set an unrealistic goal for his harvest. However, he is unable to meet these goals because his ways of making sales are outdated and ends up lying to his family about his sales to keep his dignity. Towards the end of the play, Willy feels the only way for him to provide for his sons is to commit suicide and get the life insurance check so his sons could start a business.
Additionally, another cause for Willy’s demise is his failure to distinguish between what is real and what he wishes were real. Throughout the play, it is clear that Willy has a fragile grip on reality; he has flashbacks of the past, and has conversations with his deceased brother, Ben. “Willy’s mind is full of delusions about his own abilities and accomplishments and the abilities and accomplishments of his sons” (Galens and Spampinato 67). Willy believes his skills are suffice for him to succeed in the sales business, however he fails to realize that businesses now look for men with training and knowledge on the product they are promoting, rather than skills of talking. Willy also tries to embellish Happy’s previous job of a shipping clerk by telling himself that Happy was a salesman. This reveals that Willy cannot deal with reality, which leads to his ultimate fall, letting him escape from the truth.
Moreover, Willy’s fatigue leads to his death, similar to the fatigue of the speaker of “After Apple Picking.” At an old age of sixty-three, Willy is tired from all his years of being a traveling salesman and wants to get a job where he can be stationed in one place. His exhaustion is evident through the way Willy drives and through his old age. “No, I’ve driven with him. He sees all right. He just doesn’t keep his mind on it. I drove into the city with him last week. He stops at a green light and then it turns red and he goes” (Abcarian, Klotz, and Cohen 1239). Willy’s tiredness has affected his ability to concentrate on the road, which hints at Willy’s demise because careless driving can take a man’s life instantly. Because of his fatigue, Willy decides to finally go through with his suicide for eternal rest.
Although Willy is an old man, he seems to fit none of the descriptions of the types of men described in “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” As explained earlier, since the four men were the types of men the speaker believed deserved the acknowledgement, Willy is not worth feeling sympathy for. Also, although he commits suicide for what he believes are the right reasons, the act of suicide itself is morally wrong, and completely contradicts the views of the speaker from the poem. The speaker reasons that one should fight death, however Willy distinctively looks for different ways to commit suicide. These two contrasting perspectives on life and death show that different lifestyles lead to different ways of thinking; one may lead to fighting against death and one may lead to committing suicide.
As well as the content, the form and style of writing expose the theme death in the two poems previously examined. In “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” the speaker deliberately repeats the lines “Rage, rage against the dying of the light” and “Do not go gentle into that good night” (Abcarian, Klotz, and Cohen 1217) to emphasize his view on death; through this repetition, the poem becomes more powerful in its meaning and delivery. Also, by using a rhyme scheme that consists of only two different sounds, the speaker successfully stresses the rhyme words, such as light, bright, sight, and night, which all direct to the theme of death.
Also in “After Apple Picking,” the speaker’s exhaustion is revealed through the rhyme and rhythm. The poem is written in iambic pentameter, however, not all the lines are in iambic pentameter. Some of the lines are cut off and “by breaking up this rhythm, the poem becomes somewhat more informal and conversational” (Constantakis 6). The rhyme and rhythm “deteriorates increasingly as the poem reaches its conclusion” (Constantakis 9). This deterioration and break resemble the speakers weakening throughout the poem, and the style of writing itself discloses the speaker’s fatigue. Also, this decline hints at the form of sleep the speaker is going to take, possibly a deathly sleep.
Finally, it is obvious that Death of a Salesman deals with a Marxist interpretation; this is shown through both Willy’s failure as a salesman and Charlie’s success as a businessman. Marxist criticism of this play shows that one of Willy’s reasons for suicide is his financial standings. Willy firmly believes in the American Dream, however when the play takes place, it is nearly twenty years after the whole phenomenon of Henry Ford and the assembly line. Willy is destined to fail because the idea of the American Dream is outdated and mythical. Also, Charlie, who is the exact antithesis of Willy, achieving success made Willy realize that his ways were wrong; this feeling of defeat and failure gave Willy thoughts of suicide. As stated before, Willy’s failure to support his family economically led to his final demise; he decided to commit suicide for money, to get the life insurance payment.
In conclusion, the theme of death is apparent in many different literary works, such as Robert Frost’s “After Apple Picking,” Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. These three works show how different lifestyles would lead to different types of death, whether it is a death by choice or an acceptance of death. Thomas shows the different attitudes of the four old men, the wise, the good, the wild, and the grave, to show how their individual lives have prepared them for death. Also, Frost uses different interpretations to show how death can be present in different ways. Lastly, through the protagonist, Miller conveys the different reasons why a person would choose death as a last resort and shows although suicide is morally wrong, it may be the ultimate choice that could behoove the loved ones of that individual.
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