Symbolism in the Play: Death of a Salesman

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      Art is based on life. Life is the key-stone on which the artifice of art is raised. Life is the essence of art. A good artist always has his base in reality and Arthur Miller is through and through a realist. Realism is the hall-mark of his works.

Miller—a realist

      Miller’s plays are alive with life like characters and situations. Flesh and blood characters scale the world of these plays; and these characters are caught up in completely human situations. Situations are such that can be visualized and characters win our sympathy. In an idiom used by the common man, these characters put across to us, very vividly their plight and predicament. We share their joys and are stung with sorrow, in their misery and misfortune. Miller’s realism is seeped with the reality of his own observations of life. Making the study of their environment his base, Miller penetrates the layers of consciousness of his characters. In the preface to his Collected Plays Miller says: “A writer of any worth creates out of his total perception, the vaster proportion of which is subjective and not within his intellectual control.... if it is art (that the playwright has created), it must by definition bend itself to his observation rather than to his opinions or even his hopes”.

1. So, the roots of Miller’s realism comprise of these major factors.

2. Conventionalism and traditionalism.
Observation of reality.

3. Observation of people’s mind.

      The realism permeating Miller’s plays comes from a minute observation of the social and psychological forces that keep influencing man and his behavior. Yet his plays are not only realistic; they are dipped in romantic coloring, too, creating a totally new and unknown hue. Miller does not divorce romanticism from realism; in fact he feels that romanticism is part and parcel of the mental makeup of a majority of people. Miller is a modern individual on one hand and a sensitive creator on the other and so he rightly feels the need of a synthesis of determinism and a paradox of will: “What is wanted is....not a poetry of escape from process of determinism, like that mood-play which stops where feeling ends or that invented romanticism which would mirror all the world in the sadomasochistic relationship. Nor will the heightening of the intensity yield the prize”.

      Miller’s plays are concerned with the problem of a search for identity, of the self, some of them bordering on the fringes of generativity also.

Miller—the zeal of a reformer

      In Death of a Salesman, Miller sets out to make a realistic critical appraisal of American values. But Miller is not a common realist. Most other realists are satisfied by pointing out the evil in the society. He goes a step further. He not only observed and depicts evil but he hits at it with the zeal and enthusiasm of a reformer. In this respect, Miller seems to have been influenced by Ibsen, the Ibsen of the middle phase, the great reformist enthusiast.

Influence of Ibsen—Reformism and “retrospective” structure

      Miller seems to have been influenced by Ibsen to a large extent. Miller’s attitude, the structure of the play, are both reminiscent of Ibsen and his techniques. Miller here seeks to employ the “retrospective” method of structure to explain and bring to a point of crisis, an explosive situation. This effect he achieves by the gradual relation of events that have occurred in the past. In Death of a Salesman, the crucial incident is Willy’s adultery and Biff's discovery of it. This alienates Willy from his son Biff, thus making him lose his greatest value. Willy now tries to stuff the empty structure of life by evoking a typically lower-middle class life: Miller shows to us that Willy is constantly whirling around and living in the world of aspirin, spectacles, arch-supporters, subways, payments, advertising, Chevrolets, faulty refrigerator, life insurance, mortgage and unlimited adulation of high school football heroes. The language too, is another evidence of the realism of Miller’s portrayal leaving aside a few moments, generally the half-articulate broken speech is indicative of a groping that is constantly going on in a mind that is living a turbulent existence in a tumultuous world.

Realism through symbolism—the symbol of physical fitness.

      Realism is not just padded on to the play Death of a Salesman. It is woven inextricably in the texture of the play and is projected through symbolism. In Death of a Salesman too, Miller has attempted and achieved it to a large extent. For instance, Willy and his sons attach a great value to manual work. Sports (which is just an extension of this), they feel is necessary and keeps one fit physically. They feel that a man who is not able to handle tools well and build things, is no man. Linda and Biff constantly recall Willy’s ability to put up things with his hands. Willy, we see, has taken great pains to teach his sons how to simonize a car efficiently. Willy is proud of physical skills and is contemptuous of his neighbor Charley and his son Bernard because they lack manual skills. Willy’s elder son Biff is more dexterous than his father—in high school he was a good football player and as a man he finds happiness only as a ranch hand. We recall that Willy’s father was one of those people who do not stick to one place. He used to travel in his wagon and earn his livelihood through ingenious inventions and making flutes. Willy’s craving for physical skill is indicative of the simpler, pioneer, natural life that he craves for—a symptom and symbol of his dislike and uneasiness amidst the constraints of the modern urbanized life.

An abstract yet realistic symbol—symbol of the trees

      Miller’s use of the trees to symbolize the natural, rural life which is being constantly wiped off and choked under the strangling hold of incasing commercialism is a bit more abstract symbol than the earlier one of physical fitness; yet it remains realistic. In the play, we see Willy recalling nostalgically, that when he had bought the house, the yard in the house was flanked by two great elms. Now the trees have been cut down and we see Willy yearning for them. Now the yard and perhaps Willy’s own existence is so overshadowed by the large loomings of apartment houses, cropping up anew every moment that there is no scope for fresh air; he cannot even plant seeds in this back garden. The choked, good for nothing sterile seed is a symbol that stands out very conspicuously, The inner self and the real Willy has been cramped, and its growth stultified by the environment which is overcrowded and polluted—an environment that can only work in hostile opposition to an individual’s effort of establishing something.

Ben and the symbol of the jungles

      Quite early in the play, we come to know that Willy gets enraptured when he is amidst nature. It is while dreaming about the countryside and enjoying in heavenly ecstacy, the beauty and freshness of nature (especially the trees) that Willy has had some of his car accidents. It is this that diverts his attention till he cannot concentrate any further. We also come to know that it is to look after timber that Willy’s brother Ben had tried to persuade him to go to Alaska. Ben repeatedly says that the ‘Jungle’ is the place for riches; and at moments of crisis, we hear Willy shouting out “the woods are burning”, a phrase which seems to be utterly strained of all meaning and significance if seen out of context. To Willy, Ben is the constant exemplification of the dream—‘success’. He is an excellent example of scaling from rags to riches. Whenever Willy is bewildered or confused, he looks up to Ben for advice and Ben’s constant advice is to walk straight into the jungle, plunge in its uncertain mysteries, if he wants to attain something. These words are constantly echoed in the play: “William, when I walked in the jungle, I was seventeen. When I walked out I was twenty-one and by God, I was rich?” Ben’s going into the jungle and coming out victorious is a symbol laden with meaning; that of facing the jungle laws and establishing one’s superiority where might is right.

From realism to expressionism

      The symbol of the trees including the phrase, “the woods are burning” already makes a movement from realism. It is not a phrase that is habitually used in American language—taken out of context it is sans any meaning. In the stage-directions we find Miller directing that whenever Willy remembers the past, the stage be drenched in a green, checkered pattern of leaves—moving in technique from realistic symbolism to pure-expressionism.

Symbolism and expressionism in setting

      Even in the setting, symbolism and expressionistic tendencies are obvious. There is an angry glow, of orange in the environment in which the apartment houses are bathed; when Willy is lost in the memories of the past, the house is draped in a mantle of the green or vanished trees; when Biff and Happy pick up the two women at the restaurant callously ignoring their father, the stage-directions demand a lurid red; and finally, when Willy appears to be at his wits’ end, trying to sow seeds, in an endless effort to grow something, the stage is flooded with “blues” simultaneously suggesting moonlight and his desperate mood.

Symbolic music

      Even the music in the play is loaded with symbolic implications. The music of the flute is aptly representative of the rural way of life, telling of grass and the horizon. It is interesting to note that it is audible only to Willy whenever he is brooding over his past, or dreaming of his dreams. Music is thus associated (a) with Willy’s pioneer father, the inventive flute-master, (b) the degenerated level of this world in which it is reduced only to Willy’s and Biff's habit of whistling in the elevators and (c) the mechanization of personal relationships as symbolized in the mechanized whistling of Howard and his children on the tape recorder.

Tape-recorder scene—similar to ‘mirror scenes’

      The tape-recorder scene can be aptly cited as an excellent example of compression of symbolism. It performs the same function as the well-known mirror-scenes in many of Shakespearean plays serve: it epitomizes the entire action of the play. First and foremost it dramatizes the withering away of emotion and mechanization of filial relationships. Secondly, it shows that Howard is as bad as Willy—at least he is no different. He idolizes and dotes on his sons, exactly in the same manner as Willy dotes on his sons. The employer and the employee are here stripped of their economic status and are shown as sharing same human frailties. Thirdly, Willy’s stumbling against the tape-recorder and his inability to control it is the cause as well as the manifestation of Willy’s mental breakdown. Here he gets one of his schizophrenic attacks and the mechanical voices in the tape-recorder can be equated to his own cacophonous subconscious over which he has no control.

The scene at the restaurant—mature and compact symbolism

      The scene at the restaurant can be read as a compound piece of symbolism, the components, or the elements of which are the small piece of symbolism otherwise scattered throughout the play. The scene of Biffs discovering his father is anticipated by a shrill trumpet blast and the device through which Willy hastens towards his ultimate disaster is also conveyed through music: his decision to commit suicide is accompanied by a prolonged, mad: denying note, collapsing into a discordant crash, representing the car crash. Finally when the Requiem scene opens, the music there has been modulated into dead march. Certain characters and situations also have left motifs. There is the flute music, a “boy's” music, raucous sex music for the crucial scene of Biff's discovery and the scene at the restaurant, and of course, a special music heralding the vision of Ben in Willy’s memories.

Miller using expressionism to present the finesse of symbolism

      Miller is using expressionistic techniques of the Germans not merely for its own sake. He is using expressionism to serve his purpose. Symbolism carried to an extreme is expressionism and Miller is presenting it as something very subtle and intricate. Miller presents expressionism as the ‘breath and finer spirit of symbolism - the essence and finesse of symbolism. He uses it like a skillful master and with this powerful tool, sees and shows to us the workings, the inside of Willy’s mind. Realism and expressionism reflect best the protagonist’s actual way of thinking, as Miller conceived it.

Conclusion: symbolism—in the form of expressionism — lends beauty, grace and harmony to the play

      Finally, expressionism makes the play rise from the level of trivial, ordinary, mundane reality to that of a poetry of the theatre. Symbolism or expressionism, the simultaneous presentation of past and present dream and reality lends the play a, metaphoric quality, a charm which is typically its own. Beauty, grace and harmony unite to make the play a unified and a beautiful work of art, which is aglow with the vivacity and fire of reality.

University Questions

Write an essay on the verbalism and symbolism in Death of a Salesman.

How do symbolism and dreams coalesce in Death of a Salesman?

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