In Death of a Salesman, what does Willy Loman mean when he says, "Don't leave the hubcaps, boys. Get the chamois to the hubcaps."

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

When Wily tells the boys to ensure they clean the hubcaps, it might be more of a symbolic representation of the relationship dynamic is between he and his kids.  On one hand, Wily is not the best father.  He does not seem able to give advice to them in preventing them from their own mistakes in life, and certainly with his own errors, has not established being a role model to them.  There is little in way of actual instruction that father can give to sons.  Yet, this one act of cleaning a car is something that he is able to relay to them.  The fascinating with materialism and material objects is something that allows him to “connect” in a bizarre way with the boys.  The very idea that there is a connection made of a “thing” reflects much in the relationship he has with them.  They sons and father can seem to bond over little else.  Cleaning the car is one of the few moments where they actually “look like” a  family.  The more materialist critique of this would be how Wily painstakingly cleans his car.  This might be a reflection of a middle class preoccupation with “things” where wealth is attached.  The fact that he tells them to make sure the hubcaps are clean, almost to the point where there can be little filth present shows an obsession with things that reflect wealth . In this light, it resembles a modern Marxist commodity fetishism where “objects” have value.  Nothing else does.  These things have value and that is reflected in their meticulous need to be clean and precise in their presentation.  The significance of this is that nothing else from a moral, professional, or subjective viewpoint is clean.  There is no “emotional chamois” which can clean up the messiness of his own life.  Yet, the hubcaps on the car need to be detailed.  Either one can presume that this statement is a way for him to assert some level of control of his own life which is spiraling out of it, or it’s a reflection of misplaced priorities.

Michael Otis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Willy Loman, failed travelling salesman, arrives home exhausted from a truncated sales trip. Also at home is his wife, Linda, and his two sons, Biff and Happy, reunited after the former's lengthy self-imposed exile in the western U.S. In their bedroom, Biff and Happy listen, offended, as their father talks to himself in the kitchen below about events of the past. Then a remarkable shift in the timeline takes place. The playwright transports the audience to Willy Loman's memory, giving it substance and narrative voice: It is an idyllic time. Willy, basking in the glow of doting sons and a loving wife, has just returned home from a fabulously lucrative sales trip. He instructs his boys to polish his car until it gleams: "Don't leave the hubcaps. Get the chamois [soft cloth] to the hubcaps." In the time shift, the car represents both Willy's profession - he drives a car for a living -, and his quest for the dream of affluence. But especially in his boys' ritual polishing, it represents the family of the self-made man and his valiant sons. However, Willy's car has a symbolic polarity. At one pole, located in Willy's time shift, it represents success, but in the present it represents failure and loss of control. Later in Act 1, Willy cries to Biff and Happy: "For Christ's sake, I couldn't get past Yonkers today! Where are you guys, where are you? The woods are burning! I can't drive a car!"