Arthur Miller includes several memorable symbols in ”Death of a Salesman,” his play about the tragic life of Willy Loman.
These symbols add additional layers of meaning to the narrative and often serve to underscore the play’s main themes.
Willy Loman’s Dreams
Most people experience disappointments in their lives at some point, but most people are able to overcome obstacles that stand in the way of their dreams. Willy Loman’s dreams, however, set him up for failure. His mistaken ideas about the American Dream lead to tragedy, not only for Willy, but for his family, as well.
The Play’s Themes
The American Dream is the dominant theme, or main idea, in Death of a Salesman.
Willy Loman’s notions of the American Dream equate success with being well-liked. Likeability is an important quality for a salesman like Willy, yet he is unable to achieve the success he desires. His neighbor Charley, in contrast, is able to establish a comfortable living through hard work.Charley’s son Bernard has grown up to become a successful attorney, while Willy’s sons – reared on the idea that being liked is all that matters – have not found professional success. The Lomans’ ideas about the American Dream leave out one critical component: hard work.The American Dream has betrayed Willy, and betrayal is another significant theme in the play. Willy betrays his wife Linda with a woman in a hotel; Biff’s discovery of the affair is a turning point in his life, for it leads him to think of his father as a phony.
Willy has made much of Biff’s status as a high school gridiron hero, and he wants Biff to live up to the potential he has shown as a young man. Willy understands that Biff has simply given up after learning of his betrayal of Linda. Willy says to Biff, ”I want you to know, on the train, in the mountains, in the valleys, wherever you go, that you cut down your life for spite!”
The symbols that appear in Death of a Salesman add a deeper context to the play and highlight many of the play’s themes.Willy Loman is a dreamer, and he plants seeds in his backyard, hoping to provide for his family. The seeds represent potential, much like Willy’s appointments. Both represent Willy’s attempts to provide, yet neither the seeds Willy plants nor the appointments with the buyers are guaranteed to yield anything of value.Willy mentions the refrigerator, a material possession that appears built to self-destruct by the time the owner finishes paying for it.
Willy resents the refrigerator, which has required a belt replacement already. Linda also mentions the revolving credit monthly payments for the vacuum cleaner and washing machine. Willy is in over his head, and the monthly payments make it appear that the Lomans will never be ”free and clear.” These symbols of materialism fail to satisfy, and they actually create additional problems as the Lomans struggle to make the payments.When Linda Loman mends her stockings, Willy is reminded of his betrayal of her with a woman in a hotel.
He brings the woman stockings as a gift, and Willy becomes angry when he sees Linda mending her old hosiery. ”I won’t have you mending stockings in this house! Now throw them out!” Willy says angrily. Besides the guilt Willy feels at the reminder of his affair, Willy also sees the act of mending stockings as a contradiction of his notions of success.
After Biff waits all day to meet with Bill Oliver, he assuages his disappointment by dashing into Oliver’s office and stealing a fountain pen. The pen is representative of the business world, a world Biff knows he will never be able to enter. As such, it is also a symbol of the American Dream. Biff’s theft of the fountain pen also underscores his kleptomania, a practice that causes him to move from job to job.Willy often thinks of his brother Ben who found diamonds in the jungle.
Ben is already dead as the play opens, but he represents success to Willy. As Willy considers committing suicide so his family can collect his life insurance benefits, he comes to see this solution as comparable to the riches represented by Ben’s diamonds.”I see it like a diamond, shining in the dark, hard and rough, that I can pick up and touch in my hand.
Not like – like an appointment!” Willy says, as he considers the tangible benefits of the insurance policy. Ben appears as a hallucination, encouraging Willy to kill himself. ”The jungle is dark but full of diamonds, Willy,” Ben says in the play’s final scene. ”One must go in to fetch a diamond out.” The diamond is one of the most memorable symbols in Death of a Salesman.
Death of a Salesman is the story of Willy Loman and his fruitless pursuit of the American Dream.
Willy’s dream betrays him, and his flawed ideas of success affect his sons as well. Arthur Miller includes many symbols to underscore the play’s main themes. These symbols contribute to the audience’s understanding of Miller’s themes and add memorable elements to the tragic story of Willy Loman.