Wednesday, February 04, 2009


a contrapuntal essay

One reason I enjoy teaching literature is because students' insights provide me new ways of thinking about particular works of literature. I've taught Death of a Salesman every semester I've taught a literature course; while I can't say I have a total handle of the play, I would say I feel intimately familiar with the Loman family. Today's discussion focused on the characters, and we discussed Biff, and students brought up whether he is running away from his family, is this justified, etc.

One student suggested that what Biff was doing was quite understandable. He's procrastinating. Under the intense pressures and expectations of his family, he simply escapes, putting off being anything in life. This provided me a new way of thinking about Biff. Perhaps he is not, as George Costanza says, the biggest loser in the history of American literature. Perhaps Biff is simply in moratorium.

Moratorium is a concept developed by Erik Erikson, referring to a period in adolescence or young adulthood when the individual puts off important decisions, escapes from a life of consequences, and enters a period of waiting. When the individual is still searching for his or her identity, moratorium offers a break from serious decisions in life and a chance to find that identity. In Young Man Luther, Erikson suggests that Luther's decision to enter a monastary was his moratorium: he was not ready to become what his father wanted him to become, so he did the only thing he could do to escape being forced into that role.

Willy Loman lived in an idealized world, and he inflated Biff's sense of self and his place in the world. When Biff saw that the ideals were a facade, he escaped. He became a drifter, going westward, roaming about doing nothing in particular, avoiding permanence and serious responsibility. Yet perhaps this state of drifting is simply Biff's extended--but temporary--moratorium, one from which he will eventually return. He may not be a drifter forever, for by the end of the play, he has found himself. At Willy's funeral, Biff is able to honestly say to a still deluded Happy, "I know who I am, kid." Does that mean he's finally recognized that he's a loser, a drifter, a nobody that amounts to nothing? Or does it mean that now that he has achieved self-understanding, self-recognition, he is ready to honestly engage with the world, to leave his moratorium? While I've always thought the former, I suddenly think it is possible it is the latter. Having abandoned Willy's idealized dream, he can now emerge to an authentic life.

In my composition class, we are currently reading several variants of the Cinderella story, as well as various essays about Cinderella. In "'Cinderella' and the Loss of Father-Love," Jacqueline Schectman seems to evoke moratorium to explain "Ashputtle":

"Three times Cinderella ventures out to dance, and three times runs away, to hide once more among the ashes by the hearth. This retreat until the time is right, until the world feels safe enough for love, is part of the connection to the earth Cinderella demonstrates throughout this tale. There is safety in her dirty rags, and she'll hide in them until her doubts and fears release her into life."

And this, too, makes sense to me. One can easily interpret Cinderella's life in ashes as a moratorium, a hiding from the world, a time to find herself before entering a world of consequences.

Now I find myself using psychological theory to understand literature. And yet just a few days ago, I found myself using New Criticism to understand literature in the classroom. Am I so fickle? Well, no--I haven't shifted from New Criticism to Psychoanalytic Criticism. I've used either theory when I found it useful. And frankly, that's how I've always used Literary Theory. I don't typically devote myself to one theoretical approach to literature, but I'm willing to take a la carte from any school of theory where it may suit my purposes. Choosing a particular approach, I think, would be limiting, would close me off from all possibilities in a work of literature. And yet to ignore these theories altogether would also close me off. If I approach a work openly, with awareness of theoretical approaches but limited to none, I can willingly explore the work with multiple perspectives in the same moment. I still want to focus primarily (if not exclusively) on the text itself, and I would want my personal reaction to be a direct engagement with the text. But to understand that text, I don't close myself off to many ways of thinking.

My experiences discussing literature with students illustrates for me the purpose of literary study and literary criticism. Embracing subjectivity and diversity does not require embracing relativism--I don't think all ways of reading are equal. But I don't think the purpose of literature courses is to train all students to read in a uniform, proper way, and I don't think the purpose of literary criticism is to reach a single, correct reading of a work (it's funny how that "proper" reading method is always the way the particular advocate of that method happens to read, and thus the "correct" reading also happens to be the speaker's reading). What I find is that a plurality of voices, a diversity of individuals approaching the text on its own merits, but reading it in their own ways and for their own purposes, provides a wide variety of insights to the text. I don't know that there is a single reading of Biff Loman, but I know that my different students' readings of Biff Loman help me to understand Biff Loman. I don't need to find the reading, and I don't even necessarily need to cling to a reading; what I want is to be aware of multiple readings. And often these readings can coexist within my mind at the same time, not demanding that I reject one for the other.


  1. Thank you for yet another fascinating post. Although I've never done any "organized" thinking about it, I see that the "moritorium" is all around me--in the people I know and the books I read.

    How I envy your students!

  2. Your post resonated with is funny as I have spent much of the weekend reading blogs, seeing time pass in my own moratoria where I feel I should be achieving something or doing something important but I am not.

    Your thoughts on "moratorium" have made me think about my own circumstances and I would like to thank you for sharing the alternative, hopeful interpretation of biff's words.