In Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller sculps a realist image of the American Dream. A clear mirror to psychological trauma and mental apparatuses to deal with it.
The most obvious instance of literal symbolism emerges from his work with Howard Wagner in Act II. In the office, Willy is confronted with fleeting images of the future: a novel office, technological innovation, and a modernized recorder. Armed only with his own conventional tactics of business, Willy fully rejects the onset of new business by physically trying to escape the machine, shouting for help.
Followed by his immediate firing, the scene reifies a strong foundation for the symbols of rejection to come. Similarly, Miller cultivates trees as another symbol to grow Willy’s characterization. In his own yard, Willy is unable to grow the trees that he once worshipped because of overshadowing buildings. Thus, Willy becomes “trapped in a society which prevents him establishing anything to outlast himself” (Parker, 1966, p. 146).
Both the recorder and the trees exfoliate the layers of Miller’s characterization of Willy; a paragon of the past, he quickly becomes forgotten in the dust by his material world. The impact of losing his grasp on the material realm is commensurate with his own mental fitness as Parker (1966) continues that these symbolic detachments “are an equivalent to the clamorous subconscious of which he has also lost control” (p. 147). This explains his frantic and irrational behavior with his society as although he is increasingly alone, Willy himself, when talking about his work, contextualizes that “The competition is maddening” (Miller, 1996, p. 7). The obvious material world’s rejection of Willy clearly elucidates his own psychological behaviour.
However, a more figurative yet direct symbolism casts itself on Willy.Figurative and archetypal symbolism also divulge that theme of abandonment is a sine qua non for Willy’s psychologically motivated actions. For example, throughout the play, more of Willy’s past is uncovered. Willy reveals in the exposition that “Dad left when I was such a baby and I never had a chance to talk to him and I still feel-kind of temporary about myself” (Miller, 1996, p. 29). Being no stranger to abandonment, he inadvertently projects this onto his own son. Instead of tending to his son’s needs, Willy declares prominently that “I’m vital in New England” (Miller, 1996, p. 5), accentuating his disillusionment from reality and disfigured priorities for his family and self.
Because of this, it is particularly impactful when Willy perceives that he has lost his son, Biff. Paradoxically, this benefits Biff as Otten (1999) adds, “he can only be freed by Willy.” Beyond signaling the tear in his relationship with the rest of the family, it also underlines that Willy serves as a toxin within his own family sphere.
Furthermore, Miller uses the names of the characters as additional symbols for Willy’s trajectory.