Symbolism in the “Death of a Salesman” by Arthur Miller Explicatory Essay
Introduction, use of symbolism in the play, works cited.
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Literary works including novels, short stories, narratives, plays and poems provide the reader with lenses through which he/she can see and understand deeply various cultural, social and political aspects of the society, which seem critical to his/her individual and collective well-being. Literary scholars use various literary devices such as literary motifs, an identifiable rule of thumb, allegory, imagery, symbols, a structure or a convention amongst others in order to bring out themes of their writings vividly (Shmoop 66).
Arthur Miller’s 1949 play titled “Death of a Salesman” qualifies as a fascinating must-read masterpiece and a perfect reflection of the late 1940’s life circumstances of the main protagonist Willy Loman and his family (Shmoop 3). Its subject centers on the diminishing days of a failing sales clerk. Although many literary devices are evident in the play, this paper narrows down to the use of symbolism, as brought forth in the play.
Use of symbolism is common in virtually all forms of literary works. Death of a Salesman has a good share of symbols, which the playwright uses to communicate the themes of his great work creatively. First, Lomans’ home where the play takes place is symbolic. According to Shmoop, Lomans’ landscape where the play seems restricted is narrow symbolizing both mental and physical limitations of the characters (66).
The author contrasts the largely narrow setting of the play with the hugeness of Africa, Alaska, and American West. On the other hand, distant places signify the possibility of something better, freedom and escape (Shmoop 66). For example, Willy Loman’s obsession with faraway lands shows that he prefers a very different livelihood than the one he has now.
In fact, even though Willy himself refers New York City as a land of opportunity and success, his admiration of his brother’s ventures and expeditions in distant lands shows that he is not convinced of his claims (Shmoop 66). Furthermore, Ben, Biff and Happy constantly insists that the Lomans better fit into the physical and hard kinds of work, claims backed by their failure as salespersons.
The seeds that Willy intends to buy and plant are also symbolic. Apparently, Willy seems perpetually troubled by feelings of inadequacy and confusion (Shmoop 66). He appears certainly worried that just like his father before him, he may prove unable to provide for his sons, let alone raising them well and differently from the way that his father brought him up. Therefore, when he talks of nothing planted lamenting that he does not have anything in the ground; it stands out that he only talks about his sons and their future (Shmoop 66).
Willy seems concerned about leaving a legacy after he dies. For that reason, through planting seeds that he constantly insists on buying, he hopes to plant something that will grow and feed his family and others and remain when he dies (Shmoop 66). Interestingly, his planting of seeds also means to make up for his failure as a sales representative. Actually, Willy is better fitting to work with his own hands, to labor, and to farm just like Biff his son.
The stockings, which appear in various episodes in Death of a Salesman, are no more than symbolic. They signify a reminder of the woman Willy with whom he had an affair. This seems to anger him because the affair further prevents him from providing for his family well (Shmoop 66).
Consequently, Willy shouts at his wife Linda because of patching up her stockings in his sight since they easily remind him about the affair. Biff’s anger because of his father’s affair remains also directed into the stockings. Supposedly, they qualify as the cause of his anger.
Diamonds in the Death of a Salesman symbolize tangible wealth. They made Ben rich. Contrary to Willy’s sales work for which he has nothing concrete to show, the diamonds symbolize wholesome, pure material success. The reader sees them as a get-rich-quick short cut that is a solution to all of Lomans’ problems and worries (Shmoop 67).
When Willy considered committing suicide, he perceived himself travelling into the dark jungle to procure diamonds for his son. In fact, at one point in his suicidal thoughts he hears Ben telling him that the place referred to as Jungle in the play even though it is dark is full of diamonds (Shmoop 67).
Tennis Racket in the play which Willy sees when he was talking with Bernard in Charley’s office symbolizes Bernard’s success and Biff’s failure (Shmoop 66).. While in high school, Biff took part in sports while Bernard was a mere spectator, yet he is the one owns the tennis racket contrary to Biff’s and Happy’s hopes that they would make a fortune from selling sports equipment in future.
Based on the expositions made in the paper, it suffices to declare symbolism one of the apparent literary devices used in the Death of a Salesman . They have enabled the playwright to put across his message creatively. They also have assisted the readers to see beyond the text thereby understanding the times and society that the then Lomans lived in.
Shmoop, Tim. Death of a Salesman: Shmoop Literature Guide. Sunnyvale, CA: Shmoop University Inc., 2010.
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IvyPanda. (2023, October 31). Symbolism in the "Death of a Salesman" by Arthur Miller. https://ivypanda.com/essays/death-of-a-salesman/
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1. IvyPanda . "Symbolism in the "Death of a Salesman" by Arthur Miller." October 31, 2023. https://ivypanda.com/essays/death-of-a-salesman/.
IvyPanda . "Symbolism in the "Death of a Salesman" by Arthur Miller." October 31, 2023. https://ivypanda.com/essays/death-of-a-salesman/.
IvyPanda . 2023. "Symbolism in the "Death of a Salesman" by Arthur Miller." October 31, 2023. https://ivypanda.com/essays/death-of-a-salesman/.
IvyPanda . (2023) 'Symbolism in the "Death of a Salesman" by Arthur Miller'. 31 October.
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Symbolism in “Death of a Salesman” Play by Arthur Miller
The play “Death of a Salesman” by Arthur Miller is a story of a salesman, Willy, who is trapped by his daydreams. The story revolves around flashbacks of Willy’s dreams and reality, which reveal a lot of symbolism about Willy’s failure to fulfill the American dream. In the “Death of a Salesman,” there are four symbols: seeds, diamonds, stockings of Linda and the Woman, and the Rubber House.
The seeds that Willy plants in his garden are a representation of his efforts. Usually, planted seeds grow into a plant, similar to how hard work results in success and financial security. However, Willy was not able to achieve success as a salesman, moreover, in some parts of the play, it is evident that he fears that he failed as a father as well. Him trying to plant seeds at night represents his anxiousness.
Diamonds, both in the play and in real life, are a symbol of wealth. In essence, these stones are worthless unless someone wants to pay for them. For Willy, Ben’s discovery of diamonds is another proof that the American dream is not achievable for him. Next, stockings in this play represent the act of cheating since Bill gave Linda’s stockings to the Woman. New stockings represent Willy’s financial capabilities and are a way of him trying to make amends. Finally, the rubber hose in the play is a recollection of Willy’s attempts to commit suicide with gas. Gas, in essence, is a basic necessity that would provide heat and warmth for his home and family while he tried to use it die. Overall, there are four main symbols in the “Death of a Salesman” play: rubber house, diamonds, stockings, and seeds.
Miller, Arthur. 2005. Death Of a Salesman. Penguin Books.
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Symbolism in Death of a Salesman
Table of Contents
The play “ Death of a Salesman ” by Miller shows how the main character, Willy, is living in modern America at a time when many technological advancements are taking place. However, the main character does not accept his current condition and focuses on living up to the modern world’s standards despite not doing well financially. His inability to accept change makes him lose his identity. This makes him live in despair and regret his past decisions, believing that if he had made a contrary decision, he would be living the life he desires in modern times. In the play, the author uses symbolism to express the main character’s feelings, thus giving a deeper meaning to his experiences while building the plot and illustrating the themes of failure and success. Therefore, the use of symbols to represent ideas is called symbolism. This means one thing can be represented by another thing to convey a deeper meaning. The symbols may include a person, object, or situation. Literary symbolism includes similes, myths, metaphors, and archetypes. Since the author uses several symbols within the book, a critical analysis will facilitate a better understanding of the storyline. Three symbols of interest used in the play “ Death of a Salesman ” include stockings, seeds, and diamonds.
Stockings are garments worn by women that fit closely over the legs and thighs. In this case, the author uses stockings to signify guilt and regret. The stockings belong to the main character’s wife, Linda. Miller (1949) states that while Linda was mending her stockings in the presence of Willy when he snatched her stockings from her hands and placed them inside the garbage can. This is because Linda’s stockings reminded him of his infidelity, bringing out feelings of guilt. Seemingly, when his son, Biff, sees stockings, he is reminded of his father’s affair in Boston; he states, “You- you gave her mama’s stockings” (Mambrol, 2020). In both instances, Linda’s stockings symbolize Willy’s infidelity and betrayal. This indicates that his conduct has affected his son, who has developed anger towards him. In addition, his son, Happy, has developed the character of sleeping around with all manner of women; he states, “I just keep knockin’ them over, and it doesn’t mean anything” (Miller, 1949). This indicates his failure as a husband and a father by being not faithful to his loyal and devoted wife and setting a bad example to his children.
Diamonds are one of the most precious stones available in the world: They are associated with wealth and prestige. According to Pei (2020), Willy believed that people become successful by being popular and good-looking; his older brother Ben is an embodiment of this illusion, whom he perceived as the idealistic American dream. This is because he looked up to him. To ascertain this, Mgamis (2017) suggests that Willy Loman’s failure was due to his pursuit of perfection and illusion. Therefore, his thoughts about achieving success were contrary to the true American dream advocating for hard work yielding success. In his narration, Miller (1949) states that Ben equated Africa to a diamond mine since he walked into the African jungle at seventeen and walked out at twenty-one rich. Here, the diamonds signify the success of his brother, Ben, compared to his salesman job, which has not given him any wealth. This is because he did not take up the opportunity to travel to Alaska with his brother; instead, he remained behind as a salesman. Furthermore, with Ben’s encouragement, Willy contemplates taking his life for his son Biff to earn some insurance money: Ben states, “It’s dark there, but full of diamonds” (Miller, 1949). This indicates that diamonds are the source of wealth, freedom, and success, which Willy would accord his family once he dies, and they will receive the insurance money following his death.
Another symbol used in the play is seeds; they are supposed to grow and bear fruits. The main character insists on looking for and buying seeds in the play. While conversing with Stanley, he asks him if there is a seed store within the neighborhood, even when Stanley tells him it is late and the hardware stores are located on the sixth avenue, willy states, “Oh, I’d better hurry. I’ve got to get some seeds. I’ve got to get some seeds’ right away. Nothing’s planted. I don’t have a thing in the ground” (Miller, 1949). In this case, seeds symbolize his efforts and the fruits he has cultivated for his family, especially his sons. He sees himself as a failure since he has nothing left for his sons and is hoping to redeem himself through planting and achieving success as a farmer, exposing his poor parenting abilities.
“ Death of a Salesman ,” by Miller, shows how the main character, Willy, is living in modern America during technological advancements. The author uses symbolism to explain the themes of success and failure in the play. The dominant symbols in the play include seeds, diamonds, and stockings. The symbols represent his perception of the American dream and how to achieve it. However, his view differs from the true American dream since his thinking is clouded by illusion, setting him up for failure. Therefore, the play illustrates how perception influences the outcome we receive.
- Mambrol, N. (2020). Analysis of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Literary Theory and Criticism. https://literariness.org/2020/07/30/analysis-of-arthur-millers-death-of-a-salesman/
- Mgamis, M. S. (2017). Death of a Salesman: Critique of the American Dream. International Journal of Language and Literature . 5(1), pp. 69-71. : https://doi.org/10.15640/ijll.v5n1a9
- Miller, A. (1949). Death of a Salesman. https://Death%20of%20a%20Salesman%20(Miller,%20Arthur)%20(z-lib.org).pdf
- Pei, G. (2020). Interpretation of Tragedy in Death of a Salesman from the Social Perspective. Journal of Education, Teaching and Social Studies . 2(4), p38-40. http://dx.doi.org/10.22158/jetss.v2n4p38
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“In psychology, a person has a threshold of how much stress they can uphold; an excessive amount of stress can lead to unsuccess, and a deficiency will lead to the same. Willy, a father of two adult kids with a wife, was exponentially spiraling into insanity due to the stress of his family and his future not coming together. He had unhealthy obsessions with his children and his car which lead to him ultimately ruining his life further. Throughout the play, there are numerous examples of foreshadowing, symbolism, pathos and imagery to display how happiness can quickly turn into madness if people have the wrong outlook on the future. Arthur Miller, an author of many famous book titles, portrays the complexities of mental health due to the constant comparison of the past, the present, and the future through foreshadowing, imagery, symbolism, and pathos, in his play, Death of a Salesman.
As the house was crumbling, Willy’s mental health is correlating with it as well. Willy talked about his Chevrolet on many accounts and could only hint to the reader that something detrimental will happen to it. After the initial scene layout, Willy came back home after being unsuccessful to make his way to his job, and Linda, his wife, immediately asked, “Why? What happened? Did something happen? You didn’t smash the car, did you?” (12). By introducing the car and her worry, Linda presents why the car will be a problem later in the play. Willy also talks about simonizing his car in small amounts, which makes it seem minute, but it is a monumental symbol throughout the book. He falls into nostalgia and mentions, “Oh, Ben, how do we get back to all the great times? Used to be so full of light, and comradeship… and simonizing that little red car,” while he is hitting absolute rock bottom in his mind. He wanted everything to be perfect and his way all the time, but could not do that for himself since he’s not able to make money at his job, his sons were not living up to his expectations, and he could not stop drifting into his memories. Ironically, Willy killed himself by crashing his car a short distance from his house and his family was unsurprised.
As the play’s plot thickens, Willy had has a mental breakdown at the climax of the book, and was rejected by his son. His sons, Biff and Happy, dismissed his mental health throughout the entirety of the play, and one even went as far as disowning him while Willy was having a mental breakdown, which causes the audience to feel great anger. In the bathroom, Willy was talking to his sons about topics ranging from flunking math to a stolen pen to a job all while having a mental breakdown with flooding memories of his older, more successful, brother, Ben. Since Happy had a girl he was with at that point in time, he disowned his own father in sake of his pride and love for women, causing the audience to feel immense frustration. His temporary girl says, “don’t you want to tell your father-,” but Happy interrupted and says, “No, that’s not my father. He’s just a guy. Come on,” as they both walked out, leaving Willy in the bathroom, delusional (115). More anger is shown to Happy when he said, “He had no right to do that. There was no necessity for it. We would’ve helped him,” which is ironic and exasperating (137). When his sons leave him in the bathroom, Willy is left alone with his thoughts and soon takes his anger out on himself, leaving the audience with resentment.
While his family seemed to have grown numb to his mental illnesses and craziness, Willy progressively got worse and eventually committed suicide. The magnificent story is demonstrated through simple rhetorical devices that make a monsterous climax and resolution about a father that suffered from an unhelped mental illnesses.”
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