One of my favorite high school lessons was on a strange moment in Death of a Salesman, when Willy admonishes his wife for offering him “whipped” cheese upon his return home from work. I used this detail as a way in to my unit on the play, especially as a way to model close reading, advertisement analysis, and understanding the historical background for the dramatic text.
Here are the materials I used, starting with the plan itself (Note that I did indeed bring artificial cheese in to the class):
Objective: Students will analyze the significance of the symbol of “whipped cheese,” relating it to the larger themes of technological development in post-war America.
Students will be able to define alienation and relate it to the symbolism used in the opening scene of Death of a Salesman.
Aim: Why does Willy say “How can they whip cheese?” What message can we draw out of this detail, both in the text and in our lives today?
Print outs of cheez whiz ad and tupperware ads
Technology time line/page on women’s work opportunities in 50’s (Both blocks (C has other homework but should read this as well – they have two days).
Handout (front and back) with quotes on cheez whiz (One easy, one hard)
-As students work on warm up, circulate and mark in their HW assignments. (With Roster) – They should have annotations (10 pt.), chart and paragraph (15 points)
I. Warm up: read and respond to handout from The Observer. Write response in new notebooks.
II. Share responses and re-read the quote by Willy.
III. Ask students to share initial reactions to Willy thus far. What has he been complaining about? How do he and Linda interact? (Students should refer to HW for this). Ask students to notice the breaks in his speech…
What does Willy say about his son Biff? (Biff works on a farm…)
IV: Possible interpretations of the cheese comment and hist. Background: In the 50’s, women were largely expected to be homemakers first. However, there were technological advances that were presented as innovations for female homemakers, things that made their lives more enjoyable, freer.
-read handout on top of technology timeline
-Look at and discuss impressions of images
-Read closely the cheez whiz ad.
Note that one ad said “Cheez whiz changes everything” (making leftover broccoli appeal to the dad…)
(Insert another part for Block B: quotes from Biff and Happy about farm v. Workplace. Biff says “goddamit, I’m lonely” — business success and alienation)
IV. B – Define alienation.
V. Partner work: Read the paragraph from a critical essay on this play. The paragraph focuses on the cheese detail. What is the paragraph saying? You may want to use a dictionary to paraphrase this piece with your partner.
VI. Closing: in notebook, respond with your own opinion from today’s class. Go back and find one quote from the text (play, paragraph, or both) and explain why you think Miller included the detail of cheez whiz. What does it tell us about the society in which the Loman’s live, and Willy’s response to it?