Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The American Dream
Willy believes wholeheartedly in what he considers the promise of the American Dream—that a “well liked” and “personally attractive” man in business will indubitably and deservedly acquire the material comforts offered by modern American life. Oddly, his fixation with the superficial qualities of attractiveness and likeability is at odds with a more gritty, more rewarding understanding of the American Dream that identifies hard work without complaint as the key to success. Willy’s interpretation of likeability is superficial—he childishly dislikes Bernard because he considers Bernard a nerd. Willy’s blind faith in his stunted version of the American Dream leads to his rapid psychological decline when he is unable to accept the disparity between the Dream and his own life.
Willy’s life charts a course from one abandonment to the next, leaving him in greater despair each time. Willy’s father leaves him and Ben when Willy is very young, leaving Willy neither a tangible (money) nor an intangible (history) legacy. Ben eventually departs for Alaska, leaving Willy to lose himself in a warped vision of the American Dream. Likely a result of these early experiences, Willy develops a fear of abandonment, which makes him want his family to conform to the American Dream. His efforts to raise perfect sons, however, reflect his inability to understand reality. The young Biff, whom Willy considers the embodiment of promise, drops Willy and Willy’s zealous ambitions for him when he finds out about Willy’s adultery. Biff’s ongoing inability to succeed in business furthers his estrangement from Willy. When, at Frank’s Chop House, Willy finally believes that Biff is on the cusp of greatness, Biff shatters Willy’s illusions and, along with Happy, abandons the deluded, babbling Willy in the washroom.
Willy’s primary obsession throughout the play is what he considers to be Biff’s betrayal of his ambitions for him. Willy believes that he has every right to expect Biff to fulfill the promise inherent in him. When Biff walks out on Willy’s ambitions for him, Willy takes this rejection as a personal affront (he associates it with “insult” and “spite”). Willy, after all, is a salesman, and Biff’s ego-crushing rebuff ultimately reflects Willy’s inability to sell him on the American Dream—the product in which Willy himself believes most faithfully. Willy assumes that Biff’s betrayal stems from Biff’s discovery of Willy’s affair with The Woman—a betrayal of Linda’s love. Whereas Willy feels that Biff has betrayed him, Biff feels that Willy, a “phony little fake,” has betrayed him with his unending stream of ego-stroking lies.
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The Death of a Salesman is a play written by Arthur Miller. It tells the story of the life and death of the lead character, Willy Loman, a salesman by profession. It is also filled with different symbolisms which imply something beyond the tangible world. In this particular play, the author permits his audience to witness both the past and the present as they happen simultaneously in the life of the protagonist.
In this way, the audience learns what actually transpired in the life of Willy in the objective sense. At the same time, they also see the way the protagonist subjectively views the events in his life. The contrast that it presents renders the story captivating. There is a subjective reality in the novel (Abbotson 7). It is manifested in the manner the audience sees both the truth as the protagonist sees it and the truth as it really is.
The different symbolisms in the story have an impact on its meaning as well as on the characters portrayed. The apartment buildings towers over the Loman residence. These tall structures in contrast to the small house of the Lomans signify the protagonist lack of success (Sterling 9).
The house where Willy and his family live is also transparent. Such transparency indicates the futility of the American dream as well as the failure of the protagonist, who falsely claims that the house is well built and that there are no more cracks that may be found on it anymore. Their house can be seen through, just as Willy’s eldest son, Biff ultimately sees through his father.
Moreover, the refrigerator in the household frequently breaks down. The apartments buildings dwarf the protagonist’s house, making him the “lo man” in their neighborhood, a person who has witnessed other people rise while he has not (Sterling 10).
The protagonist’s lack of stature is repeatedly stressed throughout the story. The claustrophobic effect of the towering apartment buildings implies his worthlessness. Moreover, it implies the idea that business and development appear to have overtaken him.
Since the apartment buildings stands too close and quite tall, the sunlight fails to pass through (2.8). This suggests the absence of light or enlightenment for the protagonist and his family. For this reason, the characters do not seem to know who they are in reality.
In the absence of the sun or a successful son, the protagonist feels barren and therefore tries to replant once more or to try all over again. Willy’s desire to plant new seeds shows his frustration over his eldest son, to whom he has built upon all of his hopes. Moreover, the symbol of the pair of stockings is vital. It represents the guilt and infidelity of the protagonist (Sterling 11).
What the Diamonds symbolize
Success is symbolized by the diamonds in the story. The diamonds were found by Ben in the jungle (Griffin 42). Willy then received a diamond watch fob from him. In order to pay for a course of his eldest son, Willy had to pawn the watch (Murphy 141).
Willy’s action here symbolizes his attempt to pass on the success to his eldest son. His attempt to take his own life and his action of leaving money to his eldest son are done to achieve the similar end. Willy envisions that his eldest son can realize success through the insurance money he will ultimately leave behind.
As far as Willy is concerned, diamonds are symbolical of a wealth that is tangible. For that reason, diamonds serve not only as a warrant of a man’s work and life, for that matter, but also of a man’s ability to pass down material possessions onto his children. Those are the things that the protagonist desperately longs for all his life.
Ben found a fortune in the discovery of the diamonds. The jungle where the diamonds where found and the darkness of the place may be regarded as a representation of death. Nonetheless, in relation to Ben, it is symbolical of the industrial marketplace (Griffin 54). On the other hand, for Willy, the diamonds signifies his failure in his profession.
Willy was eluded by the promise of financial security in spite of his faith in the American Dream, a conviction so firm that he even let go of his chance to visit Alaska. Toward the end of the story, he is encouraged by Ben to ultimately break into the jungle and redeem his elusive diamond (Breitkopf 6). This would mean taking his own life to secure the insurance money he can receive and use it to make give a meaning to his otherwise worthless existence.
What the Seeds symbolize
Willy’s chance to prove his worth as a father and as a man is symbolized by the seeds in the story. The nocturnal and desperate effort he displayed in planting vegetables in the garden represents his shame with regard to his insufficient ability to provide for his family (2.8). This act also symbolizes his lack of material wealth to pass on to his offspring when his time comes.
He believes that he has labored quite hard. However, he dreads that he may not be able to provide his children any greater help than what his own father has given him. The seeds also serve to represent his sense of failure in raising his eldest son.
Notwithstanding the foolproof formula of success that the American Dream suggests, he failed in his efforts to bring up and cultivate his eldest son. Later on, Willy came towards a realization that his eldest son’s lack of ambition and failure in life mirrors his ability to perform his role as a father.
What the Stockings symbolize
The affair of Willy with another woman is symbolized by the stockings. There were several instances when Linda was seen repairing her stockings (1.3). On the other hand, Willy even gave his mistress a new pair of stockings (1.3). Similarly, he does not give his love to the one who is supposed to receive it.
He gives his love to his mistress when he is supposed to give it to no one other than Linda. Consumed by his guilt, he orders Linda to stop repairing her stockings whenever he catches her doing so.
The stockings also represent material possession. In this light, Willy believes that he cannot afford for his wife a new pair of stockings. On the contrary, Linda is more pragmatic than her husband. Rather than, throwing them away, Linda hides them instead. She acknowledges the fact that she cannot afford to waste the stockings or anything for that matter.
The unusual obsession of the protagonist over his wife’s stockings foretells his eventual flashback wherein his eldest son discovers his affair. Biff, who was then a teenager, accuses his father of giving away his mother’s stockings to the mistress. The pair of stockings bears a metaphorical weight as a representation of sexual infidelity and betrayal.
The new pair of stockings is crucial not just for Willy’s pride for being a success in terms of financial wealth and therefore having the necessary power to support his family. It is also crucial for his ability to lessen the guilt that he feels toward, and keep back the memory of his betrayal of his wife and son.
What the woods or jungle symbolize
Life, most importantly, the risks involved in it are symbolized by the jungle or woods in the story. The character who does not hesitate to take risks in his life is Ben. Literally, he entered the jungle with the intention of realizing his dreams.
In this way, he gained control of his own life. On the other hand, the protagonist is afraid and is actually losing his grip onto his life. When he lost his job, Willy told his sons that the woods are on fire (2.2). Moreover, Ben tells Willy that even while the jungle is dark, he must nonetheless enter into it (2.8).
What the Garden symbolizes
The protagonist’s desire to afford for his family a good life is symbolized by the garden in the story. Prior to the building of the apartment blocks, the produce from Willy’s garden grow in abundance. However the physical development in their neighborhood altered the case of his garden.
The protagonist is attempting to cultivate something for his family. For instance, he wanted to become successful so that he can very well provide for them. Willy was almost a success in doing this.
However, he eventually failed to transform is dream into reality. Toward the end of the story, one of the last things he did prior to his demise is to plant seeds in his garden. It is indeed, a futile attempt. Success, for Willy is something he most desperately craves but never possessed.
What the Brand Names and the Car symbolize
The use of brand names in the story, such as Studebaker, Hastings, Simonize, and Chevrolet aids in heightening the realism of the story (1.3). These brands regarded as status symbols also signify the material success that the protagonist craves for and how it eventually proves to be hollow. Willy is deceived into believing that the possession of these things is tantamount to success.
Perhaps the most suggestive symbol presented in the story is that of the car. Community and family pride are symbolized in the weekend excursions and polishing. Still, the car also signifies the instrument by which the protagonist earns a living. Just like the car, Willy also comes to the point when he wears out (Otten 54).
What the Rubber Hose symbolizes
The appearance of the rubber hose calls to mind the desperate attempt of the protagonist to take his own life. He tried to commit suicide by inhaling gas (2.8). Ironically, gas represents one of the most important elements needed to produce heat which is something essential for the comfort and health of his family. Death, in the literal sense achieved by means of inhaling gas is comparable to the metaphorical death that the protagonist feels in his efforts to provide a basic necessity for his family.
The theme of death is directly related to the symbolism represented by the rubber hose in the story. Willy’s attempt to inhale gas to kill him self denotes his intention of escaping the realities of his existence. He tries to escape the difficulties of losing his job and his failure to realize success.
Deception and grief is also signified by the rubber hose. Willy’s wife is bewildered over the supposed purpose of the rubber hose when she found it inside their house (2.1). The deceiving nature of the rubber hose is manifested the moment Biff asked his father about it and the latter denies its existence (2.1).
What the tape recorder symbolizes
The change in the protagonist’s life by means of the advancement in technology is symbolized by the tape recorder. Likewise, it symbolizes the end of his career as a salesman. The moment Howard, his boss presented the tape recorder to him, it seems that Howard is more interested in the technology and sound of the equipment than on his employee who is trying to stay on the job (2.2).
Unfortunately, the services that Willy can offer is not longer needed on the job. He is then fired by his boss. Nonetheless, Willy also had his faults. He does not welcome change and would rather dwell on the past. The scene where the protagonist is left alone with the equipment and unable to turn it off foretells his reluctance to change (2.2).
He still believes and would not want to change his old formula for success. However, in his job, what matters is whom you know and not what you know. He is not up-to-date with the latest in technology or even in business. Nonetheless, he never lost hope. He wanted to leave something behind for his family when his time comes. This intention is signified by his act of planting seeds in the garden.
What the downward movements imply
The words down, falling, and fall as well as the movement they suggest repeatedly appears in the story. They stress the downfall of the protagonist and his family. The term “beaten down” is used to describe the protagonist (1.6). Willy is also described to fall down in the bed with his mistress at one point in the story.
He fell on his knees when his eldest son discovered his affair with another woman. Biff, his eldest son ran down eleven flights of stairs after stealing a pen from the office of Oliver. Ultimately, his wife dropped flowers down his grave as he was finally laid to rest (2.9).
He wanted to leave something behind to his eldest son. In his fantasy, he wanted his eldest son to be a successful man. Willy’s act of planting seeds in the garden symbolizes his dream for Biff. However, Willy is destined to fail despite his actions. He began to plant seeds in the garden in the evening, the time of day where there is no light from the sun (Griffin 54).
Obviously, the planted seeds need sunlight in order to grow. Furthermore, large apartment buildings started to rise around their home suggesting a sense of confinement (Bigsby 117). As stressed earlier, Willy’s planting of the seeds is a futile act. Nonetheless, the protagonist is persistent on his efforts to seek pardon and reconciliation. The aforementioned symbols represent the protagonist’s failed dreams as well as his reluctance to change, thus his inability to live his life in the now.
The story is filled with symbols which when carefully scrutinized allows the audience to decipher the messages that the author seeks to convey. The symbols also help the audience to better understand the characters portrayed.
The story repeatedly stresses the failure of the man who is not exactly as successful as he claims to be. Willy misspends his meager salary by purchasing a new pair of stockings for his mistress. Such action develops into further disappointments including his inability to support his family.
The protagonist attempts to raise his eldest son in resemblance of him. He wanted Biff to be hard working and ambitious like him. However, when his eldest son grew to become otherwise, Willy takes on the blame. After interpreting the hidden meanings behind identified symbols in the story, the audience can find it easer to understand the personality of the characters portrayed. The protagonist, Willy Loman, is an ambitious man. However, he is a failure in two of his most important roles in life – that of a husband to Linda and a father to Biff and Happy.
The symbolism throughout the story is presented on contrasts (Murphy 7). It is built on the everyday and the ordinary contrasted against the distant and the impossible. It is likewise built on the blissful camaraderie of the days gone by with the lonely, disturbing present. Similarly, the symbolism in the story is built on fantasy with reality as well as on the selfish law of the jungle with love.
Recollections of the Loman residence prior to the development in their neighborhood are that of a happy past. At present, with apartment buildings closing in, it is not possible to plant anything in the yard. Nonetheless, the protagonist still attempts to do so on his last day. The image of Willy carrying a flashlight in the evening, planting lettuce, beet, and carrot seeds in the barren land, encapsulates the senselessness of the life he lived as well as the heritage he leaves behind as his “seed.”
The jungle, diamonds, timberlands, and frontiers represent the things beyond your reach. On the other hand, the refrigerator and the car among other things signify Willy’s daily struggles and frustrations in life. The picture of the life-giving water in the tank is placed in contrast to the symbol of suicide which his wife discovers, the black rubber pipe with an attachment that fits the gas pipe of the heater.
The characters in the story act and sound like normal people, dealing with common domestic as well as social concerns. Still, the flashback dream sequences of the protagonist as well as the ever more apparent symbolism in the story’s clever objection to accepted social expectations also meet the requirements of an expressionistic work, which does not portray real life so much as subjective representation of life.
The story presents a portrait of a man who managed to strike an emotional chord which continues to resound. Willy Loman is a man of his time. However, to a certain extent, he is also timeless. He has fascinated audiences the world over and continues to fascinate them until now.
Abbotson, Susan C.W. Student Companion to Arthur Miller. Santa Barbara, California: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2000.
Bigsby, C.W.E. Arthur Miller: A Critical Study. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
Breitkopf, Sarah. Willy Loman in Miller’s “Death of a Salesman”: An Analysis of Character Portrayal. Munich: GRIN Verlag, 2008.
Griffin, Alice. Understanding Arthur Miller. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1996.
Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. New York: Penguin, 1998.
Murphy, Brenda. Miller, Death of a Salesman. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Otten, Terry. The temptation of innocence in the dramas of Arthur Miller. Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 2002.
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Sterling, Eric J. Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. New York: Rodopi, 2008.
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Symbolisms in the Death of a Salesman
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