Commentary by Karen Bernardo
In Eudora Welty’s “Death of a Traveling Salesman,” the protagonist, Bowman, has been off work for some time due to a bad bout of influenza that has damaged his heart. We can read into this that his heart is not in his work, or that his heart is in some way broken. Certainly it is empty and seeking to be filled. He is back on the road before he is fully recovered, and throughout the tale his heart seems to be lurching and clutching, trying to speak. But hearts do not speak, and even if they do, other people do not hear them; for this we need words, and the lonely and alienated salesman has no words for what is wrong with him.
His car inexplicably falls into a ravine, and he goes to the nearest farmhouse for help. The woman there assures him that “Sonny” will help him; he assumes Sonny is her son, but upon closer examination he realizes the woman is not as old as he first thought, and Sonny is her husband. In fact, the woman is pregnant with Sonny’s child. The farm wife is dowdy, frumpy, and prematurely aged—no one that the more cosmopolitan salesman would find attractive—but he recognizes that within her there is life as well as the evidence of having been loved. Within him there is nothing.
He sleeps overnight at their house and leaves in the morning, alone as always; he has been profoundly changed by his meeting with the farm couple, but he has not articulated this to them because he cannot quite understand it himself. What would he like to say? Possibly that he now understands the necessity of love, and of roots; possibly that he needs to reform his life. But he keeps the emotion bottled up inside him, the words unspoken. When he gets back out to his car, back onto the highway which symbolizes his rootless life, the pressure is so great that his heart bursts, and he dies.
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