Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“Death of a Traveling Salesman” focuses on the last hours of the protagonist, and the story’s style emphasizes the psychological changes of illness. In particular, the imagery used to describe Bowman’s thoughts suggests his unconscious recognition of his approaching death. As the last day of his life progresses, his mind fills with images of comfort, rest, and letting go. For example, early in the story, Bowman remembers his grandmother and wishes that “he could fall into the big feather bed that had been in her room.” Soon afterward, he notices a cloud that “floated there to one side like the bolster on his grandmother’s bed.” When his car goes into the ravine, a tangle of grapevines catches it and “rock[s] it like a grotesque child in a dark cradle.” All these images indicate Bowman’s unconscious readiness for the sleep and shelter he received as a child.

These images of rocking motion and safety carry over even into Bowman’s thoughts about his failing heart. When his heart begins to beat erratically, it surges powerfully and then falls “gently, like acrobats into nets” and is “as quiet as ashes falling.” Bowman’s entire world falls under this gentle spell; even when he drops his bags they seem to “drift in slow bulks gracefully through the air and to cushion themselves on the gray prostrate grass near the doorstep.” His former impatience gives way to a calmer demeanor, and he attributes this to his illness, when...

(The entire section is 480 words.)