Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 645
The crucial action of “Death of a Traveling Salesman” takes place in the mind of the protagonist, a shoe company representative, in the last hours of his life. Feverish and weak, R. J. Bowman has sought shelter in the home of a simple country couple. His initial misperceptions about them eventually give way to a recognition that they possess some vital knowledge about life, knowledge that he has been denied.
Bowman has been a traveling salesperson for fourteen years, living alone in hotels as he drives from one city to the next with his sample case of shoes. As the story begins, he has recently recovered from a serious case of influenza, during which he was cared for by a hotel doctor and a trained nurse. Although he had believed himself to be cured, Bowman finds himself oddly tired and anxious during his first day back at work. By midday, he has lost his accustomed road, and finds to his horror that he has driven his car to the edge of a ravine. He is able to get out before the car topples over. To his surprise, the car does not crash but is caught by a tangle of vine leaves and sinks to the ground unharmed.
As Bowman begins to walk toward the only house in view, he feels his heart beat rapidly and wildly, so much so that he has difficulty thinking or speaking. He feels better after he has entered the house and has been seated in the cool living room. He finds himself uneasy, however, with the taciturn woman of the house. She is a big woman, still and slow-moving; Bowman estimates her age to be about fifty. He is relieved when she refers to Sonny, who will be able to help him pull his car out of the ditch. In fact, Sonny is able to do so with the help of his mule. While Bowman and the woman wait for the powerful young man to complete his task, Bowman feels a surge of unaccustomed emotion. He interprets his pounding heart as a protest against the lack of love in his life, as a plea that his empty heart should be filled with love. Somehow, he imagines, these people know more than he does about the meaning of life. He wonders what secret they shelter.
Prompted both by his fascination with the life of these country people and by his own fatigue, Bowman asks if he may spend the night there. Permitted to do so, he observes more of the habits of his hosts. They obtain their fire by going to a distant neighbor and carrying back a burning stick. They make their own illegal whiskey and bury the jug in the yard. As they sit down to eat dinner, Bowman makes a startling discovery: The woman is not fifty, as he had thought, but young, the same age as Sonny; Sonny is her husband, not her son as he had supposed. Finally, the reasons for her large, shapeless body and ponderous movements becomes clear: She is pregnant. Bowman is stunned to realize that this couple’s secret is simply the possession of a fulfilled marriage.
Trying to sleep before the fire later that night, he listens attentively to the many sounds of a country night. As he hears the couple breathing in the next room, he wishes that he could trade places with Sonny and be the father of the baby soon to be born. Something propels him then to leave the house and return to his car. First, however, he empties his billfold and leaves the money under a table lamp. Then, running out to the car, he feels an explosion in his chest; he covers his heart to muffle the loud noise that seems to be coming from within. Bowman has arrived at the moment of his death.
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