Symbolic Elements in Death of a Salesman

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      Subtlety in the use of symbols. Great writers make use of symbols in their works in order to heighten the aesthetic pleasure of the readers or the audience as the case may be by means of implied meanings conveyed through certain objects or metaphors. Ibsen, the leading continental playwright, had been the guiding star for others in the use of symbols in plays. Following him, Miller has perfected that art and has used symbols in Death of a Salesman with remarkable subtlety and poignant effect. These recurring symbols do a lot in obviating the adverse, if any, effect of not conforming to the formalities of structure in conventional style.

      Automobile symbol. The automobile is an important symbol used in this play. In America a greater percentage of the inhabitants possess cars than in other countries. Hence it is more a symbol of individual free movement for business as well as pleasure purposes than one of any particular high social status. At the very outset, when Willy returns home after his sales tour rather very soon, Linda becomes worried and asks whether he had smashed the car or had any other trouble with it. Towards the end of the play, we find that Willy ultimately does the very thing in his suicide bid. Hence the automobile symbol in this play has a negative connotation; that just as the car goes out of his control and plunges him into a desperate mood so also his life, never a bed of roses for him, is hastening towards a final wreckage. A sort of predetermined deliberate gesture towards suicide is also implied through verbal hints and implications throughout the play.

      Rubber tube for suicidal purpose. That Willy has been considering the commission of suicide because of his life-long futility and utter despair is realized by Linda when she perceives the rubber tube behind the fuse box kept in the cellar and the information is conveyed to her sons.

      The attraction of the Western State. The Western States of America have been used as a symbol for wealth, active endeavor for exploring newer fields of adventure and progressive freedom. Willy’s father used to wander throughout the Western States for the sale of his flutes. Willy’s son Biff too had this wanderlust but he never succeeded in earning adequately. Thus the negative aspect of the symbol is projected by implication. The lure of the Western States has been significantly pointed out as deceptive and destructive.

      Seeds and gardening implements as symbols. Seeds are symbols of growth and prosperity. Willy used to say that no man can or should quit the world the way he enters it; everyone has got to add up to something. Here too the negative aspect is emphasized by implication. Future prosperity, as far as Willy is concerned, is merely a mirage, a sterile and empty dream. His endeavor for prosperity is fruitless. The symbol of tools implies some creative activity to leave the fruit to the benefit of one’s posterity. He wanted to build guest houses for each of the two sons so; that when they cared to visit him during holiday they could stay with him.

      Stockings as symbols or veiled references on a psychological basis. Willy had gifted a packet of Linda’s silk stockings to a woman with whom he had an illicit affair. Willy, therefore, has a guilty conscience and he is excited whenever he sees Linda darning her old stockings. At the outset the author reveals the fact that Willy is excited on seeing them. The explanation is offered only towards the end. Therefore stockings constitute a mystery making device as well as one of the various causes for the estrangement of Biff from his father. The stockings symbol has a great deal of psychological importance.

      The character Willy himself is a symbol of the typical American common man—‘Low-man’ as the surname implies. The author wants to bring into prominence certain general situations through the particular difficulties and dilemmas faced by Willy the protagonist in this play.

      Certain verbal symbols. Some words and phrases recur off and on when the different characters speak. These words have some symbolic value. ‘Liked’, ‘well-liked’ etc. are the words Willy uses. Dave Singleman, a salesman of outstanding success who even in his old age well past eighty could canvass sales orders over the phone, was Willy’s ideal. He is liked, well-liked, by everyone and Willy makes this type of reference in regard to his own son during his student days. He refers to his own brother Ben similarly. Negatively, when referring to Charley of whom he is slightly jealous, Willy says that he is liked but not well-liked. In the speech of other characters also similar phrases of symbolic value can be detected.

      Symbols of middle-class American materialism. If we psychologically interpret the play, we can find symbols in the refrigerator, mortgaged apartment houses, the insurance policy etc. They are possible symbols implying the trials and tribulations of an average middle class American of that period, groaning under the burden of a continuous struggle to gain adequate cash for the purposes of stabilizing the domestic economy.

      Sample cases as symbols. The sample cases are introduced in the beginning of the play. Towards the end of the play when Howard fires Willy, he tells him to drop off the sample cases behind within a week. These sample cases may symbolically represent the two sons that he had to provide for. He could not adequately make use of his sons as his support in his old age as suggested by Howard.

      Psychological conflicts. Willy has too many conflicting mental traits. He loves and hates his son Biff by turns. He sometimes praises him for his achievement and sometimes criticizes him for inefficiency. He depends upon Charley’s monthly monetary help but refuses to take up a job under him. He feels some sort of envious hatred towards Bernard for his success while Biff is a failure in life. He labors under many psychological conflicts. These conflicts are symbolic of the dilemma of all middleclass people.

      Symbolism of trees. Willy’s yard was originally flanked by two great elms but they were cut off later on. He is eager to plant seeds even during the night and uses a flashlight for the purpose. While watching the road scenery Willy’s car was involved in some accidents. Thus the author makes use of the symbolism of trees to portray how commercialism and construction of apartments stifle the rural way of living.

      Conclusion. The use of symbols in Death of a Salesman contributes to building up the atmosphere necessary to focus on Willy’s tragedy. Together they bring out the texture of the materialistic American society, the dreams born out of that society and their destruction, the conflicts aroused by being a part of that society.

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